When the first issue of The American Conservative, the new weekly edited by Patrick J. Buchanan, recently hit the newsstand, readers might have been excused for wondering if they had accidentally picked up The Nation. Buchanan’s magazine, which he co-edits with the journalist Taki Theodoracopulos, resembles its left-liberal counterpart in appearance and is printed on the same cheap newsprint. Even more remarkably, much of The American Conservative‘s contents could just as easily have appeared in the flagship publication of America’s Left.
In their October 7 debut, the editors bitterly lament the victory of the ‘‘neoconservatives’’ in our country’s cultural and political wars; the neoconservatives, in their view, stand for unfettered interventionism, free trade, and unlimited immigration. By contrast, The American Conservative promises to champion a number of causes that also find support on the political left: protectionism to keep workers’ wages high in America; opposition to globalism (‘‘we will point to the pitfalls of the global free trade economy’’); and the struggle against ‘‘global hegemony.’’ Noam Chomsky probably would not put it differently.
Above all, The American Conservative is antiwar. In his own signed contribution, Buchanan complains about ‘‘a new triumphalist America’’ that is leading us into ‘‘an imperial war on Iraq.’’ As one might expect, he believes that the ‘‘ war party’’ is being manipulated by the Israeli government, which hopes that war with Iraq will provide an excuse to return to Lebanon ‘‘and settle scores with Hezbollah.’’ Buchanan goes on to claim that the Israelis are ‘‘tugging at our sleeve, reminding us not to forget Libya.’’ Meanwhile, Eric S. Margolis writes that the United States ‘‘has been buttressing autocracy and despotism’’ in the Middle East for years. As for Iraq, it ‘‘has not committed any act of war against America,’’ and to invade would be ‘‘an act of brazen aggression.’’ Writing from Britain, Stuart Reid cites the acerbically conservative writer Auberon Waugh to ask how a country of 15 million impoverished ‘‘desert dwellers’’ can conceivably be viewed as a ‘‘threat to world peace.’’ America, Reid writes, should not ‘‘make a burnt offering of innocent Arabs.’’ These are, to be certain, blame-America-first conservatives.
On domestic affairs, the magazine is aggressively populist and critical of corporate elites. The maverick journalist Kevin Phillips, whose 1969 classic The Emerging Republican Majority championed a ‘‘Southern strategy’’ that would give Republicans control over the electoral map, condemns ‘‘extreme levels of wealth concentration and polarization’’ as well as the ‘‘ideological corruption’’ of conservative ideology that stems from the ‘‘worship of markets,’’ ‘‘triumphalist Pentagon saber-rattling,’’ and ‘‘Axis of Evil foreign policy theology.’’ His proposal: a campaign for Democratic retention of the Senate or an independent presidential bid by Arizona Senator John McCain.
The magazine’s second issue is more substantive, though it continues to sound the same notes. In it, Buchanan goes so far as to praise Al Gore for the antiwar speech he recently gave in San Francisco. Gore, he enthuses, offers ‘‘Democrats a choice, not an echo.’’ Indeed, Gore shows the same ‘‘savvy’’ that Richard M. Nixon, Buchanan’s former employer, did in engineering his comeback from defeat in 1960. Gore, says Buchanan, is ‘‘Albert M. Nixon.’’ The issue also includes a heartfelt tribute by executive editor Scott McConnell to the late Jim Chapin, a brilliant historian and lifelong social democrat. And its centerpiece is a 10,000-word essay opposing the newly-minted Bush doctrine of ‘‘preemptive war,’’ written with considerable intellectual sophistication by the European historian Paul W. Schroeder. The article, which echoes recent arguments by liberal historians, would be a typical realist critique of U.S. policy, were it not for the author’s claim that if the United States invades Iraq, the result ‘‘would be an imperialist war.’’
How did Buchanan come to this particular pass? The most obvious antecedents of his magazine lie in the old right of the 1930s and ‘40s—the pre-World War II isolationists, or ‘‘noninterventionists,’’ as they preferred to call themselves. Buchanan’s ruminations over Israeli influence call to mind Charles Lindbergh’s 1941 accusation that the drive to enter the war against Hitler was emanating from ‘‘the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration.’’ These Jewish interventionists—neoconservatives, Buchanan might say now—were influential, Lindbergh said, because of their ‘‘large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.’’
The American Conservative proudly roots itself in this past by publishing Justin Raimondo’s ode to ‘‘the Old Right [who] knew something about the temptations of Empire.’’ Raimondo is a gay conservative activist from San Francisco whose chief claim to fame is his single appearance on Politically Incorrect, when Bill Maher made fun of him for being one of the few openly gay supporters of Buchanan. Now Raimondo runs a website called antiwar.com, in which he extols the good old days of the America First Movement. For a short time, he points out, that movement included not only conservatives, but socialists like Norman Thomas and, in the period before the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, the Communist leader Earl Browder.
Indeed, it seems that Raimondo is now attempting to forge his own Red-Brown alliance, as Europeans refer to the coming together in post Soviet Russia of right-wing nationalists and unreconstructed Communists. In August 2001, he even published an article in Pravda (yes, that Pravda) in which he dismissed the idea that ‘‘America is a civilized country,’’ and, referring to World War II, maintained that ‘‘the wrong side won the war in the Pacific.’’ As for Israel, last week Raimondo continued to proclaim the myth that ‘‘Israel had foreknowledge of 9/11,’’ a claim that puts his website in league with the most extreme anti-Semitic canards coming from the Arab world, not to mention the poetry of Amiri Baraka.
Buchanan, too, has sought allies on the far left before. For a short time in 1996, the announced vice-presidential candidate on his Reform Party ticket was none other than the fringe radical Lenora Fulani—a New York City activist whose politics combine radical psychotherapy, anti-Semitism, and black nationalism. As a ‘‘classic socialist,’’ Fulani said, she backed Buchanan because he, too, realizes that ‘‘the great goal of social justice is not being served in America’’ by the capitalist economic system.
Buchanan may continue to dislike the Left for many reasons, but one of the chief influences on his current thinking is William Appleman Williams, the radical historian who did the most to develop the New Left approach to American history in the 1960s and '70s. In his most famous book, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, Williams argued that the United States insisted on free trade, or an ‘‘open door’’ for its products around the world, as a means of acquiring an empire without shouldering the burden of old-style European colonialism.
Williams was my mentor in graduate school. Reading Buchanan’s 1999 book, A Republic, Not An Empire: Reclaiming America’s Destiny, I had the strange feeling of deja vu, as if I were reading a rewrite of Tragedy and Williams’s other works. It was Williams who acquainted scores of students with John Quincy Adams’s Fourth of July oration of 1821, in which Adams warned that America ‘‘goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. . . . She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue . . . which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. . . . She might become the dictatress of the world; she would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit.’’
In A Republic, Not an Empire, Buchanan echoes Williams’s enthusiasm for the Fourth of July oration. Williams would no doubt agree with Buchanan that not since Adams’s speech ‘‘had U.S. foreign policy been stated with such clarity, force, and eloquence.’’ At other points in his book, Buchanan cites Williams’s work directly, though without telling his readers that Williams was a self-proclaimed radical and admirer of Karl Marx.
Williams himself well understood the connections between his own aspirations and certain aspects of the conservative movement in America. Writing in 1959, he saw little hope for the kind of radical upheaval that would lead America to stop intervening abroad. Thus, he argued, ‘‘the well-being of the United States depends—in the short run but only in the short run—upon the extent to which calm and confident enlightened conservatives can see and bring themselves to act upon the validity of a radical analysis.’’ A few years later, he bemoaned the fact that they had not done so—as the United States found itself seeking empire in Vietnam. If Williams was still alive, I have no doubt that he would find Buchanan and his new journal to be the kind of ‘‘enlightened conservative’’ voice he had hoped for. With the divisive issue of the Soviet Union gone, both men could join together and try to resurrect the old-style isolationism once so favored by both Left and Right.
Williams’s admirers on the left will undoubtedly chafe at my comparison of the historian to Buchanan. Where Williams admired the socialist leader Eugene V. Debs, Buchanan looks back fondly on the likes of Joe McCarthy and General Francisco Franco. But their world views have much in common, echoing as they do mid-century critics of American internationalism from Herbert Hoover to the historian Charles A. Beard.
Early in the Cold War, Joseph M. Jones, a key Truman adviser, wrote perceptively that ‘‘most of the outright opposition’’ to Truman’s foreign policy came from ‘‘the extreme Left and the extreme Right . . . from a certain group of `liberals’ who had been long strongly critical of the administration’s stiffening policy toward the Soviet Union, and from the `isolationists,’ who had been consistent opponents of all foreign-policy measures that projected the United States actively into World Affairs.’’ Some 50 years later, with new threats to American interests, the opposition to centrist policies remains the same, with Left and Right standing once again on common ground.
This article appeared in the Boston Globe on October 13, 2002, under the title “The red and the brown,” and is reprinted with permission.