A pugnacious, television-savvy, anti-trade, anti-illegal-immigration candidate comes out of nowhere, attracts intense enthusiasm from an angry Republican grassroots, gets denounced by a disgusted media, and suddenly endangers the hopes of a presidential frontrunner named Bush.
That was Pat Buchanan early in the 1992 presidential election; that is Donald Trump today.
Today, that may have changed. The similarities between the Buchanan and Trump agendas are pretty clear: Both are harsh critics of free trade, both staunchly oppose illegal immigration, both spoke out against the Iraq War and find themselves at odds with the party’s hawks. They each wear accusations of racism, xenophobia, and hatred as a badge of honor for bravery against the forces of political correctness. And they share a certain style: blunt talk, raised voices, jabbed fingers, and pounded podiums.
There are slight stylistic differences between the two. A martial tone runs through Buchanan’s rhetoric; he famously declared a “cultural war” in his 1992 Republican National Convention speech and closed his victory speech after the 1996 New Hampshire victory by commanding his supporters, “Do not wait for orders from headquarters; mount up, everybody, and ride to the sound of the guns!”
Trump is more like a court jester, mocking his opponents. He gave out Senator Lindsey Graham’s cellphone number to the public, and later sarcastically congratulated Graham for reaching 4 percent support in a poll of his home state: “You’re only 26 points behind me!” He jabbed at Rand Paul’s height, saying “Rand, I’ve had you up to here” and holding his hand halfway up his chest.
But more important than their contrasting public personae is at least one glaring difference in their political platforms, which may explain why Trump appears to be rising beyond Buchanan’s heights.
“Pat was too tied up in cultural issues, which limited his appeal, whereas Trump is making a broader-based economic case, which broadens his appeal,” says Craig Shirley, a Reagan biographer who recently wrote a column titled, “Pat Buchanan Was Right.”
Buchanan sees Trump’s rise as sweet revenge on a Republican establishment that wrote him off as a political liability and a hatemonger.
Social conservatism was a core component of Buchanan’s philosophy. He was, and is, a staunch opponent of abortion and the “amoral idea that gay and lesbian couples should have the same standing in law as married men and women.” He aimed to “control the raw sewage of pornography that pollutes our popular culture” and decried the new “de-Christianized America,” pointing the finger at Supreme Court decisions, anti-Christian cultural elites, and the counterculture of the 1960s.
Donald Trump says he is pro-life, but he’s never seemed like a man to wear his faith on his sleeve. He referred to Holy Communion as “my little cracker.” Asked if he was “an Old Testament guy or a New Testament guy,” Trump responded, “probably equal.” Asked for his favorite Bible verse, he responded, “I wouldn’t want to get into it because to me that’s very personal.”
Nevertheless, Buchanan, who declined to comment for this article, is pretty enthusiastic about Trump. He’s written about the current GOP frontrunner five times in his syndicated column since the beginning of July. He approvingly compared Trump to another famous populist, former Louisiana governor Huey Long, describing a style that sounds a lot like his own: “boastful, brash, defiant, unapologetic, loves campaigning, and is putting on a great show.”
Occasionally, Buchanan seems to wish Trump were a bit more wonkish, although he applauds the basic thrust of the real-estate mogul’s ideas. “One never hears Trump discuss the architecture of our rules-based global economy,” Buchanan wrote. “Rather, he speaks of Mexico, China, and Japan as tough rivals, not ‘trade partners,’ smart antagonists who need to face tough American negotiators who will kick their butts.”
As much as he really likes Trump, Buchanan loves Trump’s supporters, describing them as needed revolutionaries.
“People are agitating for the overthrow of the old order and a new deal for America,” Buchanan writes. “For there is a palpable sense that the game is rigged against Middle America and for the benefit of insiders who grow rich and fat not by making things or building things, but by manipulating money.”Buchanan became politically radioactive in some circles in the 1990s, largely because of the perceived anti-Semitism of his occasional qualified praise for Hitler, his flirtations with Holocaust denial, and his ceaseless criticism of Israel and its supporters. While he remained a constant presence on cable news and in print, he never really regained his ability to influence the GOP’s ideological direction. By the presidency of George W. Bush — with its pro-free-trade stances, dramatic expansion of U.S. military action abroad, dismissal of mass deportation, and support for guest-worker programs — Buchananism seemed all but dead.
It’s not surprising, then, that Buchanan sees Trump’s rise as sweet revenge on a Republican establishment that wrote him off as a political liability and a hatemonger.
“Whatever becomes of Trump the candidate, Trumpism, i.e., economic and foreign policy nationalism, appears ascendant,” Buchanan wrote. Considering how much Trumpism sounds like the old Buchananism, that assessment must have brought a smile to his face.
— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.