The Phony Populism of Pat Buchanan
Patrick Buchanan’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination presented the establishment media with a dilemma: How do you present someone as an extremist when you’ve employed him as an opinion-shaper for many years?
The need for most media to label Buchanan as out of the mainstream may not stem from his well-documented record of bigotry and intolerance. After all, Buchanan had much the same record in 1992, when he contested George Bush’s presidential bid, but there were fewer descriptions of Buchanan as an “extremist” then. It wasn’t until 1996 when Buchanan made opposition to NAFTA a centerpiece of his campaign, that Newsweek was moved to feature Buchanan on its cover (3/4/96) lit to resemble Dracula, with the headline “Preaching Fear.”
And if the mainstream media rejection of Buchanan’s candidacy really had to do with ties to hate groups, then journalists would have made more out of the fact that a high-level advisor to Steve Forbes, Thomas Ellis, is a former director of the Pioneer Fund, a foundation that exists to support research into the genetic inferiority of blacks (Bob Herbert, New York Times, 2/12/96).
It seems that the main reason Buchanan makes elite media nervous is that he rejects one of the central tenets of mainstream orthodoxy: the belief that virtually unrestrained trade will produce the best of all possible worlds. Buchanan’s trade policies make establishment media outlets queasy–because they realize that the free-trade-at-any-cost policies they promote are much more popular with the multinational corporations that own and bankroll the media than they are with the public at large.
Despite the pretense that news outlets report on elections rather than attempting to manage them, most mainstream media were clearly distressed when it seemed possible that Buchanan might get the nomination–especially during the first primaries, when the media- favored candidate, the pro-NAFTA Bob Dole, was seen as floundering.
Some pundits went farther out on a limb than others: “Let me be bold,” syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher declared on Feb. 16. “I think [Buchanan] not only can but probably will win the GOP nomination…. Let me be bolder still: If he wins the nomination, Buchanan is likely to unseat Bill Clinton.” The L.A. Times‘ Doyle McManus predicted on CNN‘s Inside Washington (3/19/96) that “Buchanan is going to go into the convention with more delegates than anyone else.”
In general, the media were less concerned about a President Buchanan than about a Republican Party infected with economic Buchananism. The San Diego Union-Tribune expressed the media anxiety in a Feb. 14 editorial: “Frighteningly, Buchanan has been spouting protectionism…. More frighteningly, mainstream Republicans, including front-runner Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, are starting to weasel-word on free trade.”
How to pre-empt this creeping heresy? There were many attacks on the message of economic nationalism. USA Today (2/15/96) captured the general media spin when it reported: “Buchanan is tapping into worker worries over their jobs, saying they are being shipped to Mexico and overseas. But one of the few things economists agree on almost unanimously is that free trade creates jobs.”
Trade, in fact, is not the major factor affecting employment levels (although it can exert downward pressure on wages). In the current U.S. economy, government policy is aimed at eliminating jobs (see Extra!, 9-10/94)–so any hiring that might result from trade would be offset by the Federal Reserve raising interest rates to keep the economy from “overheating.”
If not for Federal Reserve action, the traditional economic theory holds that trade surpluses create jobs, whereas deficits destroy them. In this context, Buchanan’s call for tariffs against Japan and China, countries with whom the U.S. runs a combined annual trade deficit of more than $90 billion, is hardly that radical a proposal.
Mainstream reports tried hard to make Buchanan’s trade positions sound wacky–e.g., talking about plans to “seal off the borders,” as if Buchanan was opposed to all international trade. But news managers realized that talk about unfair trade does resonate with workers, who believe, perhaps more sensibly than most economists, that they will lose out if they are forced to compete with overseas workers whose wages are many times lower.
The “Extremist” Solution
In addition to being the direct focus of attack, Buchanan’s trade message led to more scrutiny of his record of intolerance than he received in ’92. But here the mainstream media faced the problem of its long association with Buchanan: If his feelings toward blacks and Jews put him on the fringes of society, why was he one of the most visible media commentators throughout the ’80s and ’90s?
Actually, the pundit class faced a dilemma that was quite similar to Dole’s: While Dole knew that large activist sectors of his party, which he couldn’t afford to alienate, shared Buchanan’s views on race and gender, leaders of the media establishment are reluctant to admit that important members of their own profession have politics that are grounded in prejudice and scapegoating.
The solution for both politician and press corps seemed to be to pussyfoot around the specifics of Buchanan’s racial rhetoric: Journalists, following Dole’s lead, referred to Buchanan as an “extremist” but seldom detailed exactly what that meant. It’s a handy word for the press, which always treats the center as the site of all virtue; labeling Buchanan as extreme turned Dole–who gets a 100 percent approval rating from the Christian Coalition–into a “moderate.”
Attempts by media to define what they meant by “extreme” were often murky: “It’s not that Pat Buchanan today is associated with overtly anti-Semitic or racist acts or statements, but rather that he has created an image of someone who might be sympathetic to such acts, or statements, by others,” Ted Koppel explained on Nightline (2/23/96).
In fact, Buchanan has declared his racial and religious chauvinism in remarkably plain language (Extra!, 3/92). “The central objection to the present flood of illegals is that they are not English- speaking white people from Western Europe, they are Spanish- speaking brown and black people from Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean,” he wrote in a 1984 column (6/15/84).
In his autobiography, Right from the Beginning, he expressed a nostalgia for the segregation of the early ’50s: “There were no politics to polarize us then, to magnify every slight. The ‘negroes’ of Washington had their public schools, restaurants, bars, movie houses, playgrounds and churches; and we had ours.”
As for anti-Semitism, Buchanan proclaimed in a 1993 speech to the Christian Coalition (New York Times, 9/12/93): “Our culture is superior because our religion is Christianity.” If that doesn’t mean that Jewish and other cultures are inferior, what does it mean?
In a 1977 column (cited in New Republic, 10/22/90), Buchanan said that despite Hitler’s anti-Semitic and genocidal tendencies, he was “an individual of great courage.” His praise for the dictator hints at more than a little self-identification: “Hitler’s success was not based on his extraordinary gifts alone. His genius was an intuitive sense of the mushiness, the character flaws, the weakness masquerading as morality that was in the hearts of the statesmen who stood in his path.”
Buchanan’s homophobia is even more explicit: “A visceral recoil from homosexuality is the natural reaction of a healthy society wishing to preserve itself,” Buchanan wrote in a March 1991 column (cited in San Diego Union-Tribune, 1/12/96). “A prejudice against males who engage in sodomy with one another represents a normal and healthy bias in favor of sound morality. ” He’s often declared that AIDS is “nature’s retribution for violating the laws of nature.” (Seattle Times, 7/31/93)
Despite these sentiments, expressed openly in the past and communicated in the 1996 campaign through perfectly obvious symbols (his Confederate flag-waving, his singling out of Goldman Sachs and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in his speeches, etc.), the emphasis in primary coverage was more on his associations–or the associations of his associates–than on Buchanan’s own opinions. “Most people who know Buchanan insist he is not a racist,” Steve Roberts wrote in U.S. News & World Report (3/4/96). “But as one friend puts it, ‘He has racists around him, I think he attracts them.'”
Given his attacks on scapegoated minorities, his sympathy for fascist heroes like Francisco Franco and his striking distaste for democracy as a system of government–he once described “democratism” as an idolatry that “substitutes a false god for the real, a love of process for a love of country” (Patrick J. Buchanan: From the Right newsletter, Spring/90)–Buchanan could justifiably be seen as a descendant of the political tradition of fascism. But that’s not a term that was often applied to Buchanan: While supporters frequently complained about people labeling Buchanan a “fascist,” no prominent commentator seems to have actually done so.
Instead, the political philosophy that Buchanan was most often associated with was “populism”–a designation that uncritically accepts Buchanan’s self-portrayal as the friend of the working class. “Don’t be distracted by the oppressive political baggage that Pat Buchanan brings to the presidential campaign,” the St. Petersburg Times advised in an editorial (2/15/96). “Much of his message of economic populism is an extremely potent and valid one.” The McLaughlin Group‘s Eleanor Clift worried (2/25/96) that extremism might mar Buchanan’s “brilliant message.”
Even left commentators often accepted Buchanan’s “populism” at face value. Alexander Cockburn (Phoenix Gazette, 2/17/96) described him as “the only candidate for presidential nomination raising basic issues of economic justice,” a “populist outsider” in the tradition of Jesse Jackson or Jerry Brown. (In one clause, he did allow that Buchanan’s bigotry was “distressing.”)
“We all owe him a debt of gratitude,” In These Times editorialized (3/4/96), thanking Buchanan for “speaking to the all-too-real pain of most Americans” and crediting him with “the intelligence and the courage to address meaningful public policy questions.” The editorial’s one nod to the racism thing was this qualifier: “…albeit mixed with his neanderthal views on social issues.”
Some commentators seemed to be hearing for the first time the idea that corporations sometimes mistreat workers. “Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan was the first to raise the issue of corporate accountability to workers and he’s been followed by many others,” said Crossfire Sunday co-host “on the left” Bob Beckel (3/18/96). But Buchanan is certainly not the first person, or the first presidential candidate, to talk about stagnant wages and corporate elites.
If Buchanan is putting issues on the table, one has to ask why they weren’t there already. Why has Patrick Buchanan been selected as the media’s spokesperson for the working class? Part of the answer lies in his stands on issues crucial to workers–a subject that most reporters who used the “populist” label virtually ignored.
Investing in Execution
On examination, Buchanan’s “populist” agenda doesn’t go much beyond “It’s the Mexicans, stupid.” Asked about issues like the minimum wage or health care, Buchanan manages to bring the conversation back around to NAFTA. (See, for example, Buchanan’s debate with Labor Secretary Robert Reich on CNN‘s Inside Politics–9/4/95– where Buchanan answered a question on the minimum wage by talking about the minimum wage in Mexico.)
Buchanan has indeed delivered lines that sound populist, as when he said, “When AT&T lops off 40,000 jobs, the executioner that does it, he’s a big hero on the cover of one of these magazines, and AT&T stock soars.” But how many reporters pointed out, as did Newsweek‘s Jonathan Alter and Michael Isikoff (3/4/96), that Buchanan “doesn’t feel strongly enough about it to unload the tens of thousands of dollars in AT&T stock he still owns, or his shares in General Motors, which he has lambasted for moving jobs abroad.”
Alter and Isikoff also noted Buchanan’s close ties to South Carolina textile magnate and labor foe Roger Milliken, who “secretly pumped $1.7 million into The American Cause, the protectionist group run by Buchanan, and an affiliated lobbying arm.” A Buchanan aide told Newsweek that “Buchanan’s anti-GATT ads in 1994–which made no mention of Milliken–were ’99 percent’ financed by the anti-union and anti-free-trade industrialist.”
It wouldn’t require much digging to reveal that Buchanan is not, as U.S. News‘ Michael Barone described him (3/4/96), the “champion of the working man.” While his economic nationalism and ties to trade- threatened industrialists like Milliken may lead him to oppose trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT, Buchanan has done little to demonstrate any real concern for workers themselves. In fact, back when he was a regular host of CNN‘s Crossfire, Buchanan used to argue that it was high union wages, not trade pacts, that were weakening U.S. industry (Crossfire, 7/3/91).
As Crossfire co-host (7/3/91), Buchanan vehemently opposed workers’ right to strike. “Listen, the job does not belong to the guy who walks out of it,” he argued. On the same show he celebrated the 1981 firing of the striking air traffic control workers, gloating that “Ronald Reagan’s approval rating soared.”
Of course, even if Buchanan did support a broad economic program that would benefit workers, his bigotry would disqualify him as a true representative of all the people. But many of the same elite media who were utterly distressed at the idea that someone like Buchanan might lead a major party seemed quite happy to let him play the role of the leading workers’ spokesperson. In many ways, Patrick Buchanan is the perfect “populist” for the corporate press: a charismatic reactionary who channels workers’ grievances into the dead end of xenophobia and scapegoating.