Whether a full-scale nuclear war between modern superpowers would last quite as long as the three-week blitzkrieg among this year’s candidates for the Republican presidential nomination is an intriguing question that neither military nor political scientists seem to have asked, but whatever the answer, a duel with nuclear weapons might well be less bloodthirsty than the GOP’s recent shoot-out at the OK Corral of American democracy. The philosopher Rousseau remarked that the English people were really free only once every seven years when they were allowed to vote for a new Parliament, and to judge from the foolishness, lies, and chicanery in which most of the leading Republican contenders engaged, Americans might be better off if we gave up the pretense of freedom entirely and contented ourselves with the benign and pacific oriental despotism of Suleiman the Magnificent.
The fraudulence of the Republican primaries was transparent from the first, with the most insipid of the candidates, Lamar Alexander, running around the country banging on a piano in his now-forgotten and increasingly malodorous plaid shirt. If the Republican rank-and-filers who had to endure his clowning had any self-respect, they would have pelted him from the podium with rotten fruit and dead cats for coming before them with his insults to their intelligence. But few of the other ne’er-do-wells who presented themselves for the mandate of the people’s will were any better.
Yet the star of the Republican primaries, and most likely of the whole election, was Pat Buchanan, whose early victories seemed to promise a political revolution that would elevate American politics above the level of mind-numbing piano-playing and the triumph of high-rolling backstairs intrigue. Buchanan was by far the most interesting and the most substantive candidate the Republicans or the country had to offer, and for those Americans who have glimpsed the full depths of the depravity to which our political culture has sunk, it was no surprise that his early successes were greeted by the concerted onslaught of mendacity and character assassination that played a major role in turning his success into failure.
Buchanan’s victory in New Hampshire elicited much the same mentality inside Washington, on both the Right and the Left, that must have prevailed in Paris when the Germans swung around the Maginot Line, and one can easily imagine such spokesdogs of the old order as Sam Donaldson and George Will hoofing it to Casablanca to wheedle for letters of transit to some safer climate.
The old order did not crumble, of course, but stood and fought with the only weapons it has left, and for the last two weeks of February and well into March, the court media raked up and rehearsed every conceivable flaw, foible, and florid passage remotely associated with Buchanan, from provocative sentences in his columns a decade earlier to confidential memoranda he had written for Richard Nixon in the early ’70s to the schoolboy tricks he and his brothers may or may not have played on the neighbors of their parents in the 1950s to the friends with whom he occasionally has dinner today to the way he pronounced supposed “codewords” like “Goldman Sachs.” If the latter was part of a code, it’s one that none but the Ruling Class itself understands, since most Americans probably thought Goldman Sachs was simply the name of a Manhattan department store.
Undoubtedly the smear-krieg was one of the principal reasons for Buchanan’s subsequent loss; even if Republican voters didn’t believe it, they knew it was only a foretaste of what would be unleashed if Buchanan won the nomination, and they also figured (perhaps inaccurately) that a nominee subjected to such a mendacious Niagara could not win the election. Since winning the election is the only principle the Stupid Party cares about any more, it seemed to follow that the harmless and decrepit Bob Dole rather than Buchanan should be the party’s choice.
But there is another reason for Buchanan’s failure besides the smear-krieg by Left and Right, and that has to do with a fundamental flaw of his campaign. That flaw was probably not the fault of the candidate himself, at least not in any sense larger than that the man in charge is always at fault for whatever goes wrong, and it may be a flaw that is inherent in the nature of any populist crusade of the Right in contemporary American politics. But it remains a flaw, and it needs to be made clear to anyone who seeks to pick up the Buchanan mantle in the future.
Precisely because Buchanan chose to challenge the plutocratic power structure of American politics, he was never able to attract the high-dollar contributions from the plutocrats that constantly fed the campaigns of his rivals. As of the time of the Arizona primary, the turning point of the campaign, Buchanan had spent a total of about $10 million, compared to the $25 million spent by Mr. Dole and Malcolm S. “Steve” Forbes, Jr. Mr. Forbes, of course, spent his own money in order to avoid federal spending limits, and by doing so he was able simply to buy the Arizona primary, one of his few victories. Dole, Alexander, and even Phil Gramm, precisely because they mounted campaigns intended to serve the plutocracy, were able to pull far more money into their coffers and to deck out their campaigns with all the bells and whistles needed to make good Republicans believe that the candidates before them and the choices offered them are real.
Because of the financial limitations of the Buchanan campaign, Buchanan was unable to build the kind of organization he needed. His strategy from the first was to concentrate his whole effort on early states like Louisiana, Iowa, and New Hampshire, and in those states his organization was sound and his efforts were victorious. The problems arose immediately afterwards, when the lack of preparation in Arizona, South Carolina, and Georgia during the year before the primaries began to cause the campaign’s bottom to fall out.
Not only was the campaign unprepared in those and other states but also Buchanan failed to make use of the issues that could have brought him grassroots votes there. He failed to make affirmative action a major theme in the South and continued to dwell on his opposition to free trade and abortion, issues that appealed only to special and limited constituencies. Perhaps most important, in South Carolina, he or his campaign or both managed to flub the Confederate Flag issue, one that could have brought him a clear victory on the eve of a bank of Southern primaries. The story behind the boondoggle exposes what was a further flaw in the psychology of the campaign.
For the last couple of years, the Confederate Flag that flies over the state Capitol in Columbia has been the center of a major state-wide controversy, with the NAACP, white liberals, and mainstream conservatives in the state demanding or condoning its removal. The flag has not been removed, in large part because one man, a local chiropractor named Bill Carter, successfully mobilized a grassroots crusade to keep the flag flying. Carter in 1992 was state chairman for David Duke’s presidential campaign, a fact well known in the state and to the local Buchanan campaign when it appointed Carter to its steering committee this year.
But when the Larry Pratt affair broke just before the New Hampshire primary, the South Carolina Buchanan campaign told Carter he had to be dropped from the committee because of his ties to Duke. Indeed, despite Buchanan’s own magnificently principled and courageous public expressions of support for Pratt, who had spoken before some rather bizarre groups on the Right, the campaign immediately seems to have started an internal purge of former Duke supporters and other workers who had even the slightest “links” to the out-of-the-mainstream Right.
But in South Carolina, the Buchanan campaign managed to alienate Carter and his followers, who consist of some 45,000 names. Carter had already started mobilizing this following for Buchanan and preparing mass mailings to get his people into the voting booths when the Buchanan campaign chucked him out. Buchanan himself, in Arizona at the time, was quoted in the South Carolina press as saying his campaign “had no room for racists or those connected to racist organziations.” Whether this remark was consciously aimed at Carter or whether the local press merely played it that way remains unclear.
But what is clear is that by alienating Carter, Buchanan muffed the Confederate Flag issue in the state. Carter did send out some 9,000 pieces of mail urging voters in the state’s third congressional district to vote for Buchanan, and two of the five counties in the district were the only ones Buchanan carried in the state. But had Carter sent out the full mailing, which he could not do without help from the campaign, Buchanan might have won similar results across South Carolina. As Carter himself wrote in a subsequent op-ed, “Without ever having met me or knowing anything about me, Buchanan was polishing his own image in the press at my expense. . . . What chance does a little guy like me have to be heard or have his say?”
It’s doubtful that either Buchanan or his national campaign was trying to harm Carter, but that may have been the result. It’s more likely that the smear-krieg mounted by the national press in the week before was affecting the campaign, certainly at the local and perhaps at the national levels. The campaign’s immediate response to the charges of “racism” and “racist” associates and workers was one of denial, escape, and evasion and a noticeable muting of themes that might be interpreted as catering to “racism.”
But the blunt truth is that there can be no serious national campaign of the Populist Right without former Duke supporters, militia members, and other inhabitants of the margins of national politics, and it is not possible to organize a real campaign without them. Those who lead and run a populist campaign of the Right have to face that truth and to figure out how to deal with it when confronted with their “links” to such “extremists.” They can do what the Buchanan campaign did, which was to purge the marginal elements and curl up in denial, or they can go on the offense, exposing how the Ruling Class and its pet media use charges of “racism” and “extremism” to delegitimize and suppress any challenge to their power from the Right. If they do the former, they will merely reconfirm the legitimacy of the imposed political boundaries; if they do the latter, they will retain their own support intact and use the occasion for a further challenge to the powers they claim to be opposing.
The Buchanan failure was a failure to follow through on the radicalism his campaign had originally promised, and it suggests that the radical implications of the campaign remain unclear in the minds of those who designed and managed the campaign, that the campaign sought to keep at least one foot firmly in the camp of conservative Republicanism and was unable or unwilling to step outside the camp into the new identity it promised to create.
Yet these were tactical failures of execution, and it would be a serious error to dwell on them too much at the expense of the larger strategic victory the Buchanan campaign won, despite its failure to capture the Republican nomination. The strategic victory of the Buchanan campaign lies in the fact that Buchanan pretty clearly destroyed the political pretenses of both neo-conservatism and the mainstream Right and replaced them with his own nationalist, populist, and Middle American paradigm. The important fact about the Buchanan campaign of 1996 is that Buchanan steadily won second place throughout the early contests, when he faced several better-funded and better-organized campaigns with far more establishment support. It was to those other banners that neo-conservatives and the Beltway Right flocked. Their first choices — Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, Bill Bennett, Dick Cheney — could not even mount campaigns. Their second-level choice, Phil Gramm, could not make it to the first primary. Bennett then signed on with Alexander and was shot out of the skies a few weeks later. Kemp then went with Forbes and followed Bennett into oblivion.
The clear lesson is that neither neo-conservatism nor the Beltway Right (in so far as they are at all distinguishable) can any longer command a significant political following at the grassroots level; only Buchanan or a movement espousing his ideas can do so, and the hatred and fury with which his early success was greeted shows that the Ruling Class knows this. It also must know that its age of dominance is coming to an end and that in its last days it has no better defense than to rely on the kind of repression that it visited upon the man who has shaken its foundations more than any other in the last quarter century. For all the flaws and uncertainties of the Buchanan campaign, it would be a mistake for either the friends or the foes of the movement Buchanan has created and mobilized to imagine that the king’s men can ever put the Ruling Class and its old order back together again. What its friends must do now is understand how to build on their real victories and to avoid the tactical errors that helped thwart the completion of its victory.
This article was originally published in Chronicles Magazine in June 1996.