Pat Buchanan won after all. But now he thinks it might be too late for the nation he was trying to save.
His first date with his future wife was spent in aNew Hampshire motel room drinking Wild Turkey into the wee hours with Hunter S. Thompson. He stood several feet away from Martin Luther King Jr. during the “I Have a Dream” speech. He went to China with Richard M. Nixon and walked away from Watergate unscathed. He survived Iran-Contra, too, and sat alongside Ronald Reagan at the Reykjavík Summit. He invaded America’s living rooms and pioneered the rhetorical combat that would power the cable news age. He defied the establishment by challenging a sitting president of his own party. He captured the fear and frustration of the right by proclaiming a great “culture war” was at hand. And his third-party candidacy in 2000 almost certainly handed George W. Bush the presidency, thanks to thousands of Palm Beach, Florida, residents mistakenly voting for him on the “butterfly ballot” when they meant to back Al Gore.
If not for his outsize ambition, Pat Buchanan might be the closest thing the American right has to a real-life Forrest Gump, that patriot from ordinary stock whose life journey positioned him to witness, influence and narrate the pivotal moments that shaped our modern world and changed the course of this country’s history. He has known myriad roles—neighborhood brawler, college expellee, journalist, White House adviser, political commentator, presidential candidate three times over, author, provocateur—and his existence traces the arc of what feels to some Americans like a nation’s ascent and decline. He was 3 years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and 6 when Harry Truman dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now 78, with thick, black glasses and a thinning face, Buchanan looks back with nostalgia at a life and career that, for all its significance, was at risk of being forgotten—until Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States.
A quarter-century before Trump descended into the atrium of his Manhattan skyscraper to launch his unlikely bid for the White House, Buchanan, until then a columnist, political operative and TV commentator, stepped onto a stage in Concord, New Hampshire, to declare his own candidacy 10 weeks ahead of the state’s presidential primary. Associating the “globalist” President George H. W. Bush with “bureaucrats in Brussels” pursuing a “European superstate” that trampled on national identity, Buchanan warned his rowdy audience, “We must not trade in our sovereignty for a cushioned seat at the head table of anybody’s new world order!” His radically different prescription, which would underpin three consecutive runs for the presidency: a “new nationalism” that would focus on “forgotten Americans” left behind by bad trade deals, open-border immigration policies and foreign adventurism. His voice booming, Buchanan demanded: “Should the United States be required to carry indefinitely the full burden of defending rich and prosperous allies who take America’s generosity for granted as they invade our markets?”
This rhetoric—deployed again during his losing bid for the 1996 GOP nomination, and once more when he ran on the Reform Party ticket in 2000—not only provided a template for Trump’s campaign, but laid the foundation for its eventual success. Dismissed as a fringe character for rejecting Republican orthodoxy on trade and immigration and interventionism, Buchanan effectively weakened the party’s defenses, allowing a more forceful messenger with better timing to finish the insurrection he started back in 1991. All the ideas that seemed original to Trump’s campaign could, in fact, be attributed to Buchanan—from depicting the political class as bumbling stooges to singling out a rising superpower as an economic menace (though back then it was Japan, not China) to rallying the citizenry to “take back” a country whose destiny they no longer dictated. “Pitchfork Pat,” as he was nicknamed, even deployed a phrase that combined Trump’s two signature slogans: “Make America First Again.”
“Pat was the pioneer of the vision that Trump ran on and won on,” says Greg Mueller, who served as Buchanan’s communications director on the 1992 and 1996 campaigns and remains a close friend. Michael Kinsley, the liberal former New Republic editor who co-hosted CNN’s “Crossfire” with Buchanan, likewise credits his old sparring partner with laying the intellectual groundwork for Trumpism: “It’s unclear where this Trump thing goes, but Pat deserves some of the credit.” He pauses. “Or some of the blame.”
Buchanan, for his part, feels both validated and vindicated. Long ago resigned to the reality that his policy views made him a pariah in the Republican Party—and stained him irrevocably with the ensuing accusations of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia—he has lived to see the GOP come around to Buchananism and the country send its direct descendant to the White House.
“I was elated, delighted that Trump picked up on the exact issues on which I challenged Bush,” he tells me. “And then he goes and uses my slogan? It just doesn’t get any better than this.” Buchanan, who has published such books as The Death of the West, State of Emergency, Day of Reckoningand Suicide of a Superpower, admits that November’s election result “gave me hope” for the first time in recent memory.
But none of this means he’s suddenly bullish about America’s future. Buchanan says he has “always been a pessimist,” and despite Trump’s conquest, two things continue to color his dark forecast for the nation. First, Buchanan harbors deep concerns over whether Trump, with his off-topic tweeting and pointless fight-picking, has the requisite focus and discipline to execute his nationalist agenda—especially over the opposition of a media-establishment complex bent on his destruction. Second, even if Trump delivers on the loftiest of his promises, Buchanan fears it will be too little, too late. Sweeping change was needed 25 years ago, he says, before thousands of factories vanished due to the North American Free Trade Agreement, before millions of illegal immigrants entered the country, before trillions of dollars were squandered on regime change and nation-building.
He has lived to see the GOP come around to Buchananism and the country send its direct descendant to the White House.
He’s not unlike the countless Trump voters I met across the country in 2016, many of them older folks yearning for a return to the country of their youth, a place they remember as safer, whiter, more wholesome, more Christian, more confident and less polarized. The difference is that Buchanan refuses to indulge in the illusion that a return to this utopia of yesteryear is even possible. Economically and demographically and culturally, he believes, the damage is done.
“We rolled the dice with the future of this country,” he tells me. “And I think it’s going to come up snake eyes.”
The living room of Buchanan’s home in McLean, Virginia, a wealthy suburb of Washington, could be mistaken for a museum. Between this wood-paneled space and his red-carpeted basement there must be 3,000 books on the shelves, meticulously categorized by genre, author or time period, a classical backdrop to Buchanan’s extensive collection of historical guns (including a rare replica of Robert E. Lee’s revolver) and a lifetime’s accumulation of family photographs, newspaper clippings, campaign keepsakes and miscellaneous relics.
His house is a monument to failed uprisings against the political establishment. Above the mantel rests a spectacular painting of Buchanan gazing out a bus window during a ride through scenic Iowa. Across the room, encased in wood and glass and standing some 4 feet tall, is the gilded pitchfork he received from “the Buchanan Brigades,” a group of campaign supporters, symbolic of his populist insurgency (and, unintentionally, of his paradoxical existence as a Georgetown-educated tormentor of the Washington elite). Resting on the coffee table is the most delicate souvenir of all, a piece of pristine stained glass gifted to him by a New Hampshire voter. The size of a nightstand surface, its craftsmanship is immaculate, with a dove’s red-and-white tail weaving through blue scrawl in memory of the year, 1992, and the motto of his presidential campaign: “America First.”
It all feels like ancient history, and Buchanan himself these days looks, well, rather ancient; the wrinkles run deep across his brow, and untamed wisps of gray hair shoot divergently from the back of his head. This aging exterior should not fool anyone. He is as mentally agile and rhetorically sharp as he was during his heyday on CNN and PBS, before the star commentator turned into a presidential candidate. As we talk for hours, Buchanan recalls those three campaigns—and the rest of his half-century in public life, not to mention his childhood, adolescence and early career—with a vivid clarity and a command of detail.
Buchanan has had plenty of titles over the years, from spokesman to candidate, but his favorite is historian. He cherishes history not just for its drama but for the lessons bequeathed and the parallels he can extract: the seductive appeal of populism, the rising tide of nationalism, the similarities between the current president and the two he worked closely alongside. Above all, Buchanan loves history because, in his mind, it contains our civilizational apex; he treasures the past because he is convinced that his beloved country, these United States, will never again approach the particular kind of glory it held for a middle-class family in the postwar years.
Such assured pessimism is somewhat surprising, given that Buchanan’s boldest achievement—and perhaps the most lasting aspect of his legacy—was being Trump before Trump was Trump.
“The ideas made it,” Buchanan tells me, letting out a belly laugh. “But I didn’t.”
There is some sad irony in the fact that Buchanan, whose vision is finally penetrating and driving the uppermost echelons of government, has seen his public profile diminished to an all-time low. This is somewhat intentional: Since being fired from MSNBC in 2012, he has hunkered down, content to make occasional Fox News appearances, write two columns a week for Creators Syndicate and spend more time at home with his wife, Shelley, binge-watching television shows such as “24” and “Homeland.” (“I dated a girl who reminded me of Claire Danes,” Buchanan grins. “She was crazy as a hoot owl.”) The couple doesn’t get out too often. They attend 9 a.m. Sunday Mass at Saint Mary Mother of God Church near Capitol Hill, then shop at their local Safeway and settle in for the coming week. They have an occasional dinner out at J. Gilbert’s steakhouse in McLean but mostly have simple meals at home; when it’s not Lent, Buchanan has two glasses of Grgich Hills Chardonnay each night. The slower pace suits a man who has battled heart problems and had several hospital stays in recent years.
His intellectual metabolism, however, remains turbocharged. After he walks a half-mile each morning around his neighborhood, Buchanan and his wife—Nixon’s former secretary, whom he calls “junior” and “kiddo” despite the fact that she is slightly older than he is—brew eight cups of coffee in a pot that is often finished by noon. In those intervening hours, Buchanan reads and annotates copious amounts of news; he begins with Drudge Report and AntiWar.com—two aggregators of reporting and opinion, one from the right and one from the libertarian-leaning left—before weaving his way, red markup pen at the ready, through the print editions of his five preferred newspapers: the New York Times, Washington Post, Washington Times, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times. (He used to read USA Today, too, but recently canceled the subscription.) This daily intake informs Buchanan’s well-considered stances on every current event we discuss during our conversation and provides fodder for his columns, which, however distasteful they may be to many on the left (and some on the right), cannot possibly be mistaken for material poorly researched.
Buchanan loves to write; he spends more time on his columns today than ever before, he says, about five hours on each one. The rest of his time, in recent years, has been consumed by books. He offered an ode to his former boss Richard Nixon in 2014 with The Greatest Comeback, an unappreciated tale of Tricky Dick’s political resurrection, and this May will release his 13th book, Nixon’s White House Wars, which is something of a sequel, offering a thorough and mouthwatering insider’s account of one of history’s most bellicose presidencies. “The first one had a happy ending,” Buchanan says. He shrugs his shoulders. “The second one, not so much.”
The path Buchanan took to becoming one of Nixon’s key loyalists was unusual, to say the least. Raised in a middle-class Roman Catholic family of nine children in Washington—back when the District of Columbia was “a sleepy and segregated Southern city,” he once wrote—Buchanan excelled in his parochial-school education and, despite an appetite for troublemaking and partying while he was a student at Gonzaga High School, he earned a scholarship to attend Georgetown University a few miles away. When Buchanan was expelled from Georgetown in his senior year for hospitalizing two D.C. cops during a traffic altercation that degenerated into fisticuffs, he and his father successfully petitioned the university to reduce his expulsion to a one-year withdrawal. Buchanan went to work in his father’s accounting firm during the suspension, began rethinking his life ambitions and, upon returning to finish college, decided to pursue a career as a columnist. (He had developed an interest in journalism as an 11-year-old boy, when he wound up in a full-body cast thanks to a football injury and spent four months doing nothing but reading newspaper and magazine coverage of the Korean War.) After Georgetown, Buchanan won acceptance to Columbia University’s journalism school, where he was surrounded by brilliant liberals who would go on to populate the nation’s most prominent newsrooms—an experience that shaped Buchanan’s distrust of the media’s objectivity. Upon earning his master’s, he sent out 17 job applications and fielded offers from three other newspapers—the New York Daily News, Charlotte Observer and Albuquerque Journal—before packing his bags for the Globe-Democrat, a conservative newspaper in St. Louis.
His break arrived quickly. After five weeks of reporting for the business section, an editorial writer position opened, and Buchanan never looked back. Three-and-a-half years later, in 1965, when Nixon came to town for a local party function, Buchanan cornered him in a kitchen and offered his services ahead of Nixon’s imminent 1968 campaign. “The Old Man,” as Buchanan still calls Nixon—“He was like a father to me at times”—hired him, and they became conjoined: Buchanan was a speechwriter, political adviser and special assistant in the White House. He gave famously defiant testimony in front of the Senate Watergate Committee and remained loyal to Nixon until the end, yet somehow emerged with his reputation enhanced even as, in his own recollection, “All those friends of mine went to the penitentiary.”
For all the comparisons of Trump to his own campaigns, Buchanan argues the more relevant parallels are between the 45th and 37th presidents. “They both confronted bureaucracy and a hostile media that hated Nixon and hates Trump,” he says. “The ‘deep state’ wants to break Trump’s presidency, just like it tried to break Nixon’s.” One difference between the two men is restraint: Whereas Trump appears consumed by “irrelevant things and peripheral attacks,” Buchanan says, “Nixon told me, ‘Don’t ever shoot down. Always shoot up.’” He lets out a sigh. “I feel for the guys that are in there,” Buchanan says of Trump’s team. “The problem is the president is distracted—and his adversaries know it. If I were them, I’d keep egging him on.”
Certainly, though, Nixon—and nearly every other former president—benefited from the absence of social media and the insatiable, 24-hour news cycle. Buchanan remembers his old boss occasionally calling him late at night, raving about some perceived slight and asking him to write and distribute something in response. By the next morning, Nixon had cooled off. “You didn’t do that, did you?” the president would ask him. (Buchanan recalls a former colleague once joking, “Watergate happened when some damn fool came out of the Oval Office and did exactly what Nixon told him to do.”)
Buchanan says Trump has “tremendous potential,” but adds, “This is my great apprehension, that the larger issues—the taxes, the Obamacare thing, the border security agenda, the trade agenda—could be imperiled by unnecessary fights.” He thinks for a moment. “It’s not a bad instinct to be a fighter. But sometimes you have to hold back.”
When it comes to Trump’s fight with the news media, however, Buchanan wants the president to keep swinging. Not only is it justified, he says, based on recent coverage, but Buchanan—a journalist by training—believes undermining the media’s legitimacy is essential to winning popular support for the president’s agenda. Here again, he speaks from firsthand experience in yet another American political war, the Nixon administration’s assault on the Fourth Estate. After the president’s November 1969 speech responding to nationwide protests against the Vietnam War was panned by all three major television networks, Nixon asked Buchanan to craft a memo detailing the president’s successes in his first year; instead, the young speechwriter advised the White House to wage “an all-out attack on the media.” Nixon liked the idea, but he didn’t want to be the messenger. Buchanan drafted the speech, and 10 days after Nixon’s nationally televised address, Vice President Spiro Agnew, an imposing figure who was then one of the most popular Republicans in America, delivered his now famous speech in Des Moines slamming “a small and unelected elite” who possess a “profound influence over public opinion” without any checks on their “vast power.”
It’s not a bad instinct to be a fighter,” Buchanan says of Trump. “But sometimes you have to hold back.”
Conservatives loved it, especially on the heels of Nixon calling them “the great silent majority,” a phrase Buchanan had coined. The entire sequence remains one of Buchanan’s career highlights—“it was a sensation,” he says of Agnew’s speech—and he says it holds important lessons for Trump. For starters, the president needs a strong and reliable surrogate. “Nixon would give Agnew all the lines he wanted to say, but couldn’t say because he was the president. Trump needs somebody like that—he’s doing it all by himself,” Buchanan says. He smirks. “Is Mike Pence going to do that?”
Moreover, Buchanan argues, calling out media bias has consistently worked in the 48 years since Agnew’s speech—and still does. “What we did was call into question their motives and their veracity. We said they are vessels flying flags of neutrality while carrying contraband,” Buchanan tells me. “And that’s a message that is still well received today, because people know it’s true.”
The architect of Nixon’s “all-out attack on the media” never strayed far from the media himself. He went on to became one of the best-known television personalities of the modern political era, a celebrity pundit who parlayed his popularity and visibility into a presidential bid two-and-a-half decades before Trump did the same.
After a brief stint as a holdover in President Gerald R. Ford’s administration, Buchanan returned to writing, pouring himself into a syndicated column that quickly became an acerbic must-read on the right. Radio opportunities weren’t far behind, and after five years of co-hosting a D.C.-based program alongside liberal journalist Tom Braden, the two took their act to CNN for an experiment called “Crossfire.” It was a hit, and so was “The McLaughlin Group,” an argumentative public affairs panel show that also began airing in 1982. Buchanan, suddenly the star conservative on two of political television’s premier programs, had emerged as one of the most influential media voices in the country. There was a vacuum of compelling content in those early days of always-on news—and Buchanan eagerly filled it with forceful opinions that were encouraged by producers who discouraged compromise and common ground. It’s the one element of his legacy to which he attaches some regret, repeatedly citing the poisonous tone of cable news discourse as a culprit in our societal and cultural disunion.
A decade after Buchanan left, the White House again came calling. This time, Ronald Reagan wanted him to serve as communications director. Buchanan had no choice but to accept—“the Gipper himself!” he recalls of receiving the offer—and spent two years, starting in the winter of 1985, steering the 40th president’s press operation. Buchanan sees fewer parallels between Reagan and Trump, though he offers two cautionary notes from his experience in that administration. First, he says, Trump must be “conscious of the coalition that brought him here” the way Reagan was responsive to the concerns of working-class cultural conservatives; Buchanan is particularly concerned that Trump, in addition to not following through on border security and protectionism, could hurt his own older and blue-collar voters with any type of dramatic health care overhaul. Second, Buchanan, in a nod to Trump’s testy public demeanor, remembers that Reagan’s famously sunny disposition wasn’t always on display—he just made it seem that way. “I saw Reagan explode a number of times in private. He was an Irishman, and you could see that temper go off,” Buchanan tells me. “But he never let the anger show in public.”
Eleanor Clift, the liberal longtime Newsweek journalist, first met Buchanan while covering the Reagan White House. “Everybody knew where he was ideologically,” Clift recalls, “and he was far to the right of President Reagan, and you could get him to tell stories about Reagan making fun of him and tasking him with selling things to conservatives.” She says Buchanan wasn’t much of a source for mainstream reporters because most of his energy was spent wooing the right. It was several years later, when the two began sharing the set on “The McLaughlin Group,” that Clift realized Buchanan’s gift for framing a political argument. “When he puts his analyst hat on, there’s nobody better,” she says. (Clift and Buchanan are in talks with television executives to bring “The McLaughlin Group” back on air, they tell me, but decline to elaborate.)
Buchanan was such a lucid communicator, in fact, that some conservatives wanted him to run for president. Having remarked shortly before leaving the White House in 1987 that “the greatest vacuum in American politics is to the right of Ronald Reagan,” Buchanan re-entered the media realm—resuming his roles on “Crossfire” and “The McLaughlin Group”—only to face mounting pressure from the right to enter the race for the Republican nomination in 1988. He ultimately declined, but published a page-turning autobiography in that presidential year, Right From the Beginning, that seemed a preliminary step toward a potential run for something, someday. The book is fascinating for its glimpse at Buchanan’s idyllic America, the earnest age of sprawling middle-class families and booming church attendance and fistfights at the local hangout after one six-pack too many. What it barely mentions, in making the case for a return to this safer and gentler society, are the dangers of trade and immigration—two issues that would animate Buchanan’s campaign against George H.W. Bush four years later.
“Between the years on ‘Crossfire’ and the years he ran for president, he was conservative but became very protectionist and nationalist, and that was of course a surprise,” Kinsley tells me. “The Republican Party stood for free markets completely and the Democratic Party stood for protectionism, and the idea that Pat Buchanan, who had worked in the Nixon and Reagan White Houses, would become an ardent protectionist was shocking.”
When I ask about the transformation, Buchanan tells me the story of his uncle, a Republican activist who hailed from industrial Pennsylvania, confronting him at the 1976 GOP convention. “Free trade is killing us, Pat,” he told him. Buchanan says the incident “planted a seed in my mind,” but that a decade later he was still an avowed free-trader working in the Reagan White House. It was the winding down of the Cold War in the twilight of Reagan’s presidency that Buchanan says refocused his attention away from international dilemmas and toward those at home. Free trade had never seemed problematic; nor had Reagan’s 1986 amnesty that legalized some 3 million undocumented immigrants. The more he studied domestic policy problems, though, the more convinced Buchanan became that the country needed a drastic course correction. “We had carried the load for the West all throughout the Cold War. All of these allies had been essentially freeloading off the United States,” he recalls thinking. “And I said, ‘If the Russians are going home, it’s time for us to come home and look out for our own country first.’”
His only regret is that he didn’t take up the fight sooner, when he could have had a greater impact, and maybe could have headed off some of the decline he sees when he gazes across the modern American landscape. “Look at Detroit in 1945 and Hiroshima in 1945. And look at the two of them today,” Buchanan says. “Something went wrong.”
By 1992, the evolution was complete—“I was a full-fledged economic nationalist,” Buchanan says—and his crusade against the embodiment of globalism, President George H. W. Bush, became a surprise 10-week proxy war for the future of the Republican Party. Buchanan’s allies held out hope he could pull a historic upset in New Hampshire that would throw the entire nominating process into turmoil. But they knew it was terribly unlikely, and were thrilled when Buchanan captured 37 percent of the vote, even though it was still a double-digit defeat. He wound up winning nearly 3 million votes nationwide against Bush, and though he carried no states, was invited to speak at the party convention. When he delivered his fire-breathing “culture war” speech, urging Republicans to “take back” the country from the alien forces of militant secularism and liberal multiculturalism, Democrats said it was proof of a GOP tacking hard and fast to the right. That was the whole idea: Buchanan, unlike Trump 25 years later, was a committed social conservative who saw crusades against gay rights and abortion as part of the campaign to restore his ideal America. But they also limited his appeal, and some in the party establishment hold a grudge to this day, convinced Buchanan scared off independents and jump-started the Clinton dynasty. Buchanan dismisses this notion, but long ago made peace with the fact that he would need to damage Bush in order to shape the future of Republicanism. “He wasn’t going to remove the sitting president from winning the party’s nomination,” says Terry Jeffrey, Buchanan’s research and policy director that year. “But the question was: Which direction is the party going to go?”
It was an open question in 1996, when Buchanan mounted a second and more viable campaign, this time against establishment favorite Bob Dole, as well as Southern son Phil Gramm and publisher Steve Forbes, among others. Doubling down on the nationalist rhetoric—which, unlike Trump, Buchanan continued to combine with heaping doses of social conservatism—he carved out his role at the far right of the field. Things looked good when he won a nonbinding contest in Alaska and even better when he upset Gramm in the first official contest in Louisiana. Dole edged him by 3 percentage points in the much-anticipated Iowa caucuses, but eight days later, Buchanan’s political career climaxed with a 1-point win in the New Hampshire primary. “We’re going to recapture the lost sovereignty of our country,” Buchanan cried in a victory speech, “and we’re going to bring it home!”
It was the closest he would ever come to the presidency. Buchanan won just one of the remaining contests as Dole coasted to the nomination. Four years later, Buchanan broke from the GOP after years of tension with its establishment wing and sought the Reform Party nomination. He won it, over the objections of some activists, but bombed in November, winning fewer than 500,000 votes nationwide. (Ralph Nader’s Green Party tallied roughly 2.5 million votes more.) Buchanan, however, once again put his imprint on history: He won 3,407 votes in Palm Beach County, Florida—a liberal, heavily Jewish community—thanks to the “butterfly ballot” famously confusing many voters. George W. Bush won Florida by 537 votes, and Buchanan makes no bones about what happened. “The Lord intervened,” he says, grinning. “We sunk Al Gore and won the election for Bush.”
Less memorably, the 2000 campaign also brought Buchanan into contact for the first time with Trump. The New York real estate tycoon and tabloid favorite was also mulling a run for the Reform Party’s nomination at the urging of Jesse Ventura, the former professional wrestler who had won Minnesota’s governorship on the third-party ticket in 1998. Trump never followed through, but true to the form he would display 16 years later, the future president took pleasure in brutalizing his potential competition. Trump devoted portions of a book to highlighting Buchanan’s alleged “intolerance” toward black and gay people, accused him of being “in love with Adolf Hitler” and denounced Buchanan while visiting a Holocaust museum, telling reporters, “We must recognize bigotry and prejudice and defeat it wherever it appears.”
The irony today is unmistakable. “What Trump said about Pat at the time is precisely what Trump’s opponents are saying about him now,” says Justin Raimondo, editorial director of AntiWar.com, who gave a nominating speech for Buchanan at the Reform Party convention.
His only regret is that he didn’t take up the fight sooner, when he could have had a greater impact.
Trump’s attacks stemmed from Buchanan’s suggestion in a book that year that World War II had been avoidable and that Hitler did not want conflict with the United States or its Western allies. Buchanan, who loathes international aggression—he vigorously opposed George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, further distancing himself from the GOP—has written and repeated similar sentiments about World War II over several decades, which, on top of his criticisms of Israeli influence over U.S. foreign policy, have led to charges of anti-Semitism. (Most damaging was William F. Buckley writing in National Review, shortly before Buchanan joined the 1992 race, that he could not defend his fellow conservative against such accusations. That said, some Jews in the media who are critical of Buchanan’s politics, including Kinsley, have defended him on this front.)
Buchanan has faced his share of critiques, but no one has hit him harder than Trump. In retrospect, it’s astounding that the man who used Buchanan’s playbook to win the White House had previously bashed him in the most ruthlessly ad hominem terms imaginable—yet Buchanan used his columns to cheerlead Trump’s 2016 candidacy from Day One. The explanation for this became clear once I accepted that Trump had done something entirely out of character: According to multiple sources, Trump called Buchanan out of the blue some five years ago, when the former candidate was a regular guest on “Morning Joe,” and apologized for all of the hurtful things he had said. “He made amends,” Bay Buchanan, Pat’s sister and former campaign manager, says of Trump. “Long before he got into the presidential [race], he reached out to Pat and apologized for what he’d done, realizing it had been wrong. … My brother is a very forgiving guy, and if someone asks for forgiveness, he’s going to deliver it.”
Buchanan himself refuses to comment on private conversations with Trump but does tell me the president would call occasionally during the 2016 primary to thank him for kind words during a TV appearance or make small talk about the campaign. Buchanan also says Trump mailed three “Make America Great Again” hats to his home—two of which he gifted to childhood friends, while keeping the other one for his extensive collection of presidential memorabilia.
“Did you ever offer him any advice?” I ask.
Buchanan begins to shake his head no, then stops himself. “I gave him some advice once,” he says, a smile spreading across his face. “I think he took it.”
Controversy has been a constant in Buchanan’s life, and will surely be part of his legacy. Buchanan, his friends say, suspected that powerful people at MSNBC were looking for a reason to fire him from the day he started there in 2002, reuniting with liberal commentator and former “Crossfire” co-host Bill Press for a similarly formatted program, “Buchanan & Press.” Ultimately Buchanan lasted a full decade at the left-wing cable news outlet before he published the book that would, finally, end his national broadcast career. In early 2012, months after Buchanan published Suicide of a Superpower, MSNBC fired him over provocative passages in the book relating to demographic change in America. Officials at 30 Rock were exceptionally disgusted with one chapter, “The End of White America,” in which Buchanan warned of the dire consequences brought on by what he had often called the “mass invasion” of immigrants from poor countries.
“Can Western civilization survive the passing of the European peoples whose ancestors created it and their replacement by Third World immigrants?” Buchanan wrote in his column the day of the book’s release, pre-emptively defending what he knew would be a polarizing thesis. “Probably not, for the new arrivals seem uninterested in preserving the old culture they have found.”
Of course, Buchanan’s views were well known by that point; he had presented identical arguments in several previous books, which explains why some of his highest-profile colleagues were furious with MSNBC’s decision. “Morning Joe” co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski issued a statement saying that they “strongly disagree” with Buchanan’s firing, and that his statements “should have been debated in public.” Chris Matthews dedicated a segment of “Hardball” to Buchanan in the wake of his dismissal, saying, “I miss him already,” and adding: “To Pat, the world can never be better than the one he grew up in as a young boy. … No country will ever be better than the United States of America of the early 1950s.”
Buchanan will go to his grave believing exactly that. He swears he has no personal animus toward people who don’t look like him; in fact, he says, the immigrant groups he interacts with in northern Virginia are “always smiling” and seem like wonderful members of the community. “Obviously they love America,” Buchanan tells me. “The question is, what is it that holds us together? The neocons say we’re an ideological people bound together by what Lincoln said at Gettysburg and what Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, and that’s what makes us one nation. But my tradition of conservatism says it’s not; it’s the idea of culture and faith and belief and history and heroes and holidays.”
He takes a long pause. “Can you have a nation that consists of all the people in the world—and be one people?”
Buchanan has spent decades researching and thinking and writing about the threat he believes recent immigrants pose to America’s identity, and he comes to the subject armed with reams of statistics and arguments grounded in his reading of history. There are three main problems with the latest immigration trends, he says. First, whereas the Europeans were “never going back” and therefore put down permanent roots, millions of recent immigrants in the United States hail from Mexico and Central America and have easy access to their original home. Second, the vast numbers of new arrivals are stifling opportunity and mobility for the waves of immigrants who came before. And third, that stifling of opportunity and mobility causes prolonged concentration in closed-off communities, which robs those immigrants, Buchanan argues, of the chance to work their way out of ghettos and assimilate into American culture.
“This is why we argued in 1990 for a moratorium on immigration—those folks coming in poor could have been like the ethnic Irish and Italians and German,” Buchanan says. Instead, “they keep coming, and now you’ve got 60 million Hispanics living here, many of them in enclaves that can sustain themselves culturally and economically and socially. And it’s like they’re at home. A little piece of Mexico has been moved over here. … You look at the 24 counties from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas: Are they part of the United States or part of Mexico?”
A minute later, Buchanan adds, “You think you can go to Tucson, to what they call ‘Little Mexico,’ and ask them what the Constitution says? You think they know what the Constitution says?”
Can you have a nation that consists of all the people in the world,” Buchanan asks, “and be one people?”
It’s this type of talk that has earned Buchanan the ugliest of labels—racist, bigot, xenophobe. He says it used to bother him but doesn’t anymore. “Everybody’s a racist. The curse words of the left [are] losing their toxicity from overuse,” Buchanan says. “Those accusations used to be cause for a fight. Now they’re just tossed out.” What’s interesting is that his many friends on the left have grown similarly numb to the hullabaloo. At this point, they are resigned to rejecting Buchanan’s views while remaining convinced of his inherent respectability as a person.
“I’ve learned to live with the fact that Pat has some very abhorrent views, which I strongly, strongly object to, while at the same time I know him to be a very good, very solid, decent man, who is loyal to his friends and loves his country,” Press, his former MSNBC co-host, tells me. “I know that may be an impossible distinction, but I really don’t think Pat has a racist bone in his body. I think he just gets carried away with his view about threats to Western civilization.”
Kinsley recalls his old colleague renting a vacation home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that had an extra bedroom, where Buchanan could store boxes of books he would read while there. “Pat might be a nut, but he’s not a con man. Trump is both a nut and a con man,” Kinsley tells me. “You have to give Pat a certain amount of credit for intellect. He really thought through policy problems, and that’s where he’s not like Trump at all.”
Trump or no Trump, Buchanan has only become more alarmed about America’s political trajectory. The Republican Party is “running out of white folks,” he says, and historically immigrant groups have voted overwhelmingly Democratic. “If you bring in 100 million people and they vote 60 percent Democratic and 40 percent Republican, you’re buried,” Buchanan tells me. “What I’m saying is the America we knew and grew up with, it’s gone. And it’s not coming back. Demographically, culturally, socially, in every way, it’s a different country. And I think it’s come to resemble more of an empire than a nation and a people.”
Buchanan’s friends say that deep down he wants to be wrong about these predictions. And he admits that sometimes his pessimism gets the better of him: He never believed Trump would win in November. On Election Day, in fact, he bumped into Virginia Congresswoman Barbara Comstock’s mother at the polling station and suggested that her daughter would soon be running for higher office—to replace Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential nominee, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine. Instead, he found himself up at 3 in the morning celebrating, basking in congratulatory emails, and convincing himself that maybe, just maybe, America isn’t doomed yet.
“But this,” Buchanan tells me, “is the last chance for these ideas.”