Patrick Buchanan, pioneer of Trump-style populism, wonders if it can succeed in today’s America

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tags: election 2016, Trump, Patrick Buchanan



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Before Donald Trump, there was Patrick Buchanan. More than two decades before Mr Trump kicked over the Republican tea table, Mr Buchanan, a former speechwriter and White House aide to Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, launched his own revolt against Republican grandees. He made bids for the Republican presidential nomination in 1992 and 1996, the first of which challenged a sitting president, George H.W. Bush. Like his billionaire successor, Mr Buchanan ran against free trade and called for restrictions on immigration. As early as 1991 he called for a fence on the border with Mexico (talk of a “great, great” wall would have to wait for Mr Trump).

On foreign policy, the end of the cold war turned him into a non-interventionist. Mr Buchanan—who in 1972 accompanied Nixon on his trip to Maoist China—now concluded that America should shun foreign entanglements and defend only vital national interests. In January 1991 Mr Buchanan found himself speaking in New Hampshire during the American-led operation to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait, which he opposed. Stepping from the podium, he was given a message: America had just started bombing Baghdad. There goes my non-interventionist line, he recalls telling the watching governor of New Hampshire, Judd Gregg: it is “all over once the bombs begin to drop”. Mr Bush’s approval ratings rose to 90%. Yet by the time of the 1992 election the president was not saved by victory in the Gulf.

Timing matters—a political lesson that Mr Buchanan learned early. He was one of the first aides to describe a new voter coalition that Nixon might assemble. This would unite business bosses with doctrinaire conservatives, southern whites, socially conservative Roman Catholics and middle Americans who liked such government safety nets as pensions for the old, but despised Democrats for seeming to condone social unrest—whether race riots, campus radicals or flag-burning protesters opposed to the war in Vietnam. In a memo of 1968 Mr Buchanan spoke of a “silent majority” to be won. Nixon made the phrase his own.




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