Where the Right Went Wrong: Jon Luker Reviews Buchanan’s Latest Book
It is no longer descriptive to call Patrick J. Buchanan a conservative. The term has been rendered meaningless by liberal impersonators who claim the mantle while defying its principles.
Men in the company of Buchanan have been shown the backs of these faux conservatives, but Frum’s pronouncement was merely a formality. They pirouetted and walked off the plantation long ago. These “movement conservatives” are moving leftward and conserving by creative destruction, while Buchanan and his “ilk” are called unpatriotic, anti-Semitic, isolationist, even perhaps “national socialist” for refusing to recite the free trade mantra.
Many call Buchanan a paleoconservative, a clunky term borne of necessity for the purpose of differentiation from their conversely prefixed foes. My guess is that Buchanan would eschew the paleo- prefix in his quest to keep his patient (conservatism) on life-support. I expected a sustained critique and exposé of the Bush Administration’s neocon takeover. Though the present situation is certainly nailed down and diagnosed, much of the book is a broader pathology of modern conservatism.
Buchanan’s prognosis is grim, and though he does a fine job of detailing the symptoms, I fear he leaves the disease untreated. Still, this is a book worth reading.
Buchanan pins the beginning of the “conservative crack-up” on the end of the Cold War. With no “mighty and ideological empire arrayed against us”, we had an opportunity to recede back into normality, but it wasn’t long before the itch for a Wilsonian global democracy was scratched. About a year. With the words, “this will not stand!” George H. W. Bush pressed forward toward a dream of what he literally called a “New World Order”. Then he lost miserably against Clinton and Perot.
Buchanan posits what I’ll call an inflection point on the trajectory toward American empire. His term “crack-up” describes what has happened to the Right in the past fifteen years, but fissures were visible in the foundation 144 years ago when the Republicans’ first president took the helm; fissures that formed upon the shifting soil of the Enlightenment, but that’s another topic for another day. The subtitle of this book reads: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency.
Though Reagan had much in the way of positive impact, this sentiment invests too much in what he built. Yet, his role in standing down our formidable opponent in the Cold War did provide an opportunity to head the other direction. Instead, the Right took the road to empire and September 11 provided an opportunity step on the accelerator. The first two chapters are a description of that rapid progression, its impetus, and its advocates. Familiar territory for Polemics readers. Islam is explored in the third chapter, with a succinct history of a militant religion since its inception, advancing and retreating relative to Christendom. As the chapter title asks, “Is Islam the Enemy?” we would like to think we are again witnessing a clash of civilizations, but how formidable is Christendom in this round?
Why do they hate us? If we are to believe Jack Kemp, the attacks on September 11 were motivated by hatred of “our democracy, our liberal markets, and our abundance and economic opportunity”. Buchanan retorts:
Did the Japanese attack us at Pearl Harbor because we were free, rich, good, and had low marginal tax rates? What is it about Americans that we so often lack for what the poet Robert Burns said was the greatest gifts the gods can give us, “to see ourselves as others see us.” We are not hated for who we are. We are hated for what we do. It is not our principles that have spawned pandemic hatred of America in the Islamic world. It is our policies (p. 80).
How effective, historically speaking, is full-frontal attack on terrorism? Chapter four answers that question handily, bringing to this reader’s mind a metaphorical reply, “It’s about as effective as taking a baseball bat to a wasp’s nest.” The War on Terror was a declaration of “Unwinnable War.” Expecting to “root out the evildoers” is a messianic endeavor that guarantees perpetual war. Terror has been with us since “before the Romans put Carthage to the sword” and we cannot expect it to be eliminated. In our times, terrorism falls into four categories: state, revolutionary, war, and anarchic. These categories are treated separately and examples are given of each. Suffice it to say, the noble Westerner doesn’t come away from the analysis unscathed, especially in the war terror category. And what of the birth of the modern state of Israel? In this and numerous other examples, Buchanan bolsters a notion that in the past I tended to dismiss: One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.
It is clear, through numerous examples, that terrorism succeeds and that our present tactic in the War on Terror is playing into the hands of our foes.
Buchanan next sets his sights on China, painting a picture of their perception of the West in general and the United States in particular given historical events. Buchanan sets out a policy of “reciprocity” which maintains that we should mind our own business relative to Taiwan, but make it clear that an attack on that island would mean a “rupture in trade ties and risk a naval clash”. It means we should pull out militarily from Asia. We should make it clear that China’s “economic and military power and influence in Asia” is no threat to us. Without cooperation from China in disarming North Korea, we should cease placing restrictions on South Korea and Japan in seeking their own deterrents. Further failure of China’s restricting of ballistic missile and nuclear technology to nations hostile to us should be taken as a sign of their indifference to our interests. The South China Sea should be treated as international waters, but with regard to territorial disputes in that region “we are not the title office or the sheriff.” And we must renegotiate a one-sided trade relationship.
As critics of Buchanan would expect, a chapter defending protectionist economics was forthcoming. I was taken aback by his bold approval of protectionist policies such as Clay and Lincoln’s economic nationalism, dubbed the American System. This is one area in which I’ve always toed the line of free trade good and protective tariffs evil, but that was back when it was blue-collar steelworkers being priced out of jobs. Now, even in the high technology world of semiconductor manufacturing, the forces of “cheap labor” overseas presents the high likelihood that the career I’ve built over twenty years will amount to nothing as manufacturing moves offshore to places like China, Costa Rica, and Indonesia. It’s got my attention, and the following assertion makes sense to me:
But tariffs are taxes, comes the retort of Libertarians. Tariffs raise the prices of goods. True. But all taxes – tariffs, income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes – are factored into the final price of the goods we buy. When a nation puts a tariff on foreign goods coming into the country, it is able to cut taxes on goods produced inside the country. This is the way to give U.S. manufacturers and workers a “home-field advantage” (p. 172).
I still have a lot of thinking and reconsideration to do on this particular topic, but I can’t say I’m not somewhat swayed by much of what Buchanan has to say on the subject. The free trade mantra ignores national distinctions and perpetuates one-worldism in my mind. What of loyalty to our own land and people? Is raw consumerism right for America?
In the next two chapters, Buchanan hits on familiar themes of Big Government “conservatism” and deleterious fiscal, monetary, and trade policies. But in the ninth chapter, he hits hard on “The Abdication of Congress and the Rise of Judicial Dictatorship.”
The discussion on the imperial judiciary takes the reader through a progression of seized power on the part of the judiciary, which commenced with a “great leap forward” in John Marshall’s asserting a “right of review” in Marbury v. Madison , saw its first major application in the Dred Scott decision, and a full flowering in FDR’s court packing. Later, in Brown v. the Board of Education, according to Robert Bartley of the Wall Street Journal, “the Warren Court spit out the bit of judicial restraint.” The horse runs wild even today. And it is here that Buchanan tips his hand toward a vote for the lesser of two evils:
Trouble is, as Buchanan admits just prior to this statement, Republicans have “proven to be diffident warriors” in this regard.
Buchanan believes G. W. Bush has “shown the way” with his strong judicial appointments thus far, calling them “equal in quality or even superior to those of Ronald Reagan.” But given the Republican track record outlined above, and an evenly divided Senate, I have little confidence that another strong conservative will run the gauntlet successfully. Still, this question appears to be the deciding factor in Buchanan’s mind. Bush is his best hope to restore judicial restraint in the Supreme Court in his lifetime.
This represents quite a departure for a man that ran as a third party (Reform) candidate in 2000, but I can respect his change of heart. Buchanan’s tack with this book is to take a figurative two-by-four to the head of the GOP elephant and to wake it from its socialist slumber. Perhaps that was Ron Paul’s motivation for making the same move away from the Libertarian Party, serving as a Republican representative from Texas. It’s certainly given me pause.
Amidst the grim critique, Buchanan still apparently holds out hope for the Republican Party. I can’t quite bring myself to share his optimism. I may just write Ron Paul and ask him for his take on things. Maybe he’ll write an article entitled, “Why I’m Still Sticking It Out As a Republican.”
October 14, 2004
Jon Luker lives in a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona with his lovely wife of twenty years, two teenaged children, and various four-legged creatures. The Lukers are members of Emmanuel Covenant Church and believe in explicitly Christian education for their children. Jon is an engineering manager in a high technology corporation. In his spare time, he runs Polemics as an outlet for discussion of political, theological, and cultural issues. He may be reached for comment here.