As I’ve watched and listened to Donald Trump’s campaign pitch over the past few months, I am regularly reminded of the Republican presidential primary campaigns that Pat Buchanan ran in the 1990s.
Buchanan ran as a “pitchfork populist” in those elections, an outsider fed up with the way both parties did their business in Washington. He also championed slowing immigration into the United States and voiced skepticism about international trade deals. Sound familiar? I reached out to Buchanan to talk about Trump’s similarities and differences with him and the broader state of the Republican Party. Our conversation, conducted via email and edited only for grammar, is below.
FIX: Is Donald Trump the logical heir, issues-wise and tonally, to your presidential campaigns? Why or why not?
Buchanan: Trump is sui generis, unlike any candidate of recent times. And his success is attributable not only to his stance on issues, but to his persona, his defiance of political correctness, his relish of political combat with all comers, his “damn the torpedos” charging in frontally where others refuse to tread, as in that full retaliatory response to Hillary Clinton’s stab at him for having a “penchant for sexism.” Trump shut her down. These clashes have elated a party base that is sick unto death of politicians who never fight.
On building a fence to secure the border with Mexico, an end to trade deals like NAFTA, GATT, and [most favored nation status] for China, and staying out of unwise and unnecessary wars, these are the issues I ran on in 1992 and 1996 in the Republican primaries and as Reform Party candidate in 2000.
What Trump has today is conclusive evidence to prove that what some of us warned about in the 1990s has come to pass. From 2000 to 2010, the U.S. lost 55,000 factories and 6 million manufacturing jobs.
What Trump has in hand now to prosecute his case against the Bush Republicans and Clinton Democrats is hard proof these trade deals have de-industrialized America. If the GOP wants to know why it lost the Reagan Democrats, it is because the GOP exported their jobs to Mexico and China. The returns are in. And testifying to that truth is not only Trump’s attacks on those trade deals but the lack of a vigorous defense of them by Clinton Democrats or the GOP establishment. Who today celebrates NAFTA, as John McCain went to Canada to do in 2008?
FIX: What’s different about today’s political environment from the ones you ran for president in? Are people angrier now?
Buchanan: When I campaigned in North Carolina in 1992, I recall a fellow coming up to me at the airport, saying, “What are you doing in North Carolina, Pat? This is the State of Satisfaction.” Undeniably, there was a true depression in New Hampshire in 1992, and a real sense on the part of conservatives that President Bush had abandoned us and the Reagan legacy and Reagan agenda to cut deals with Congress to raise taxes, spend more on “kinder, gentler” programs, impose quotas, and declare America’s goal to become the creator of a “New World Order.”
What’s different today is that the returns are in, the results are known. Everyone sees clearly now the de-industrialization of America, the cost in blood and treasure from decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the pervasive presence of illegal immigrants. What I saw at the San Diego border 25 years ago, everyone sees now on cable TV. And not just a few communities but almost every community is experiencing the social impact.
The anger and alienation that were building then have reached critical mass now, when you see Bernie Sanders running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire and Trump and Ted Cruz with a majority of Republican voters. Not to put too fine a point on it, the revolution is at hand.
FIX: You told the New York Times over the weekend that “the party is going to shift against trade and interventionism, and become more nationalist and tribal and more about protecting the border.” Do you think the party establishment will be part of that shift? And, if so, do they embrace the language and rhetoric of Trump?
Buchanan: There is a reason why President Obama and a Republican Congress are not taking up the Trans-Pacific Partnership this session. Trump and Sanders would lead the fight to kill it. And they would succeed, though, in the 1990s, we — Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, the AFL-CIO — failed to stop NAFTA. Then, not enough Americans saw the link between those trade deals, America’s surging trade deficits and the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S.
In both parties, people are coming to recognize that the interests of transnational corporations collide and conflict with U.S. national interest and the interests of working Americans. What is good for General Motors is not good for America if General Motors is moving production out of the United States. As history shows, free trade is an ideology that is embraced by the intelligentsia of declining nations. Rising nations — Great Britain before 1850, America from 1860 to 1912, Bismarck’s Germany, postwar Japan, China today — practice economic nationalism.
The past is prologue here. While the country was divided both on Desert Storm to put the emir of Kuwait back on his throne and on invading Iraq and converting it into a model democracy for the Middle East, both Bush 41 and Bush 43, when the wars first began, rose to near 90 percent approval.
However, his victory in 1991 did not save President Bush in 1992, when he got only 37 percent. And when the fruits of America’s victory in Operation Iraqi Freedom turned sour, Republicans lost both houses of Congress in 2006 and the presidency in 2008 — to an anti-war Democrat.
If there is a horrific attack on this country like 9/11, the American people will demand we go to war and settle accounts with those who did it. But America’s appetite for intervention, for nation building, for democracy crusades, is fully sated. Goodbye to all that.
Americans did not want to get involved in Georgia, Crimea or Ukraine. They do not want to send an army back to Iraq or into Syria. And Trump, in his emphasis on building up America, and letting these folks solve their problems, is in line with national thinking. The hour of the liberal interventionists like Hillary Clinton in Libya, like the neocons’ hour of power in the GOP, is over.
Yet Trump recognizes the inner hawk in Republicans, dating to the Cold War, when he says, about ISIS: “I will bomb the [expletive] out of them.”
Politically, he has this about right.
Will the Republican establishment walk on a Trump nomination, should he win? If it does, let it walk, as it did in 1964. What the Trump phenomenon represents, whether the Washington establishment is appalled or not, is the future. Take a look at Europe. Ethno-nationalism from Scotland to Catalonia to Flanders, and nationalism in the form of parties like the UKIP [U.K. Independence Party] in Britain and FN [National Front] in France, new governments in Warsaw and Budapest — this looks more like the future than Angela Merkel or the E.U.
A party will not survive that yields to an establishment ultimatum that — either you accept our choice, or we walk. The answer to that is: Go ahead and walk!
FIX: You are Kelly Ayotte, a Republican senator running for reelection in the swing state of New Hampshire in November. How do you deal with Trump as your party’s nominee? Run from him? To him? Ignore him?
Buchanan: If Trump wins the New Hampshire primary, Kelly Ayotte should congratulate him. And, if Trump wins the nomination, Ayotte should endorse him. If she does not, she will have no future in the national party.
Governors Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney and Bill Scranton, who refused to endorse [Barry] Goldwater in 1964, were ever after dead as national nominees. When Ronald Reagan rose to challenge Gerald Ford, President Ford had to put his appointed Vice President Rockefeller over the side to survive. The party base does not forgive or forget desertions under fire.
How closely should Ayotte campaign with Trump? She should wait until after the nomination to decide, if Trump were nominated. But if she has national ambitions, Ayotte will endorse the nominee.