The American Conservative
February 8, 2012
1992 was a polarizing year in American politics—the year of the Rodney King riots, of the lingering crack epidemic and burgeoning AIDS crisis, of an economy mired in steep unemployment and a sense of defeat by an unstoppable Japan. Incumbent President George H.W. Bush had betrayed his “no new taxes” pledge, and the war he won against Iraq failed to pay dividends for Americans at home.
It was the year that Patrick J. Buchanan first challenged the Republican establishment in the electoral arena. He had finished a strong second in New Hampshire that January; in August he would give what became known as the “culture war” speech at the Republican convention in Houston—rousing the right and horrifying the nation’s press corps.
Between New Hampshire in January and Houston in August, the strengths and weaknesses of Buchanan’s campaign stood out in clear relief. Who was this renegade Republican, and what did the movement he led portend for the country?
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Some commentators called Pat the white man’s Jesse Jackson. It was said in jest but had a ring of truth. Buchanan was now a spokesman for conservative white males everywhere—Republican, independent, even Democrat. Pat looked at the returns from the polling stations and dreamed of building a new coalition of cultural traditionalists and economic populists, an alliance of nostalgiacs. The brigaders wanted to go back to the world before Toshiba, Jane Fonda, and Lee Harvey Oswald. They wanted to bathe in the warmth of a perpetual summer of ’63.
Pat’s friends said that he didn’t represent a point of view so much as a social force. This force had been around for a long time; railing against immigration at the hair salon or throwing empty beer cans at the TV every time Ted Kennedy tried to socialize something. But it was Pat who brought these people to the polls, and it was a small body of intellectuals that tried to define what they felt and thought about the great crapshoot of American politics. Pat started to refer to this marriage of anger and ideas as the Middle American Revolution.
Of all Pat’s buddies, the one most excited by his campaigns was columnist Samuel Francis, who had worked for North Carolina senator John East before landing a job with the Washington Times . Physically, he was a fearsome toad. The journalist John Judis observed that “he was so fat he had trouble getting through doors.” He ate and drank the wrong things and the only sport he indulged in was chess. The mercurial, funny, curious Francis was an unlikely populist. But he was ahead of the curve when it came to Pat’s insurgency.
Back in the 1980s, Francis had predicted an uprising against the liberal elite that governed America. The only people who would break their stranglehold were the ordinary folks who made up the ranks of the “Middle American Radicals,” or MARs. Mr. MARs was Mr. Average. He was either from the South or a European ethnic family in the Midwest, earned an unsatisfactory salary doing skilled or semi-skilled blue-collar work, and probably hadn’t been to college. He was neither wealthy nor poor, living on the thin line between comfort and poverty. All it took to ruin him was a broken limb or an IRS audit.
But Francis argued that the Middle American Radicals were defined less by income than by attitude. They saw “the government as favoring both the rich and the poor simultaneously… MARs are distinct in the depth of their feeling that the middle class has been seriously neglected. If there is one single summation of the MAR perspective, it is reflected in a statement … The rich give in to the demands of the poor, and the middle income people have to pay the bill.”
Preferring self-reliance to welfare feudalism, the MARs felt that the U.S. government had been taken captive by a band of rich liberals who used their taxes to bankroll the indolent poor and finance the cultural revolution of the 1960s. The MARs were a social force rather than an ideological movement, an attitude shaped by the joys and humiliations of middle-class life in postwar America. Any politician that could appeal to that social force could remake politics.
Two things made the MARs different from mainstream conservatives (and libertarians). First, not being rich, they were skeptical of wealthy lobbies. They hated big business as much as they hated big government. They opposed bailing out firms like Chrysler, or letting multinational companies export jobs overseas. They were especially critical of businesses that profited from smut, gambling, and alcohol. Although free market in instinct, they did appreciate government intervention on their behalf. They would never turn down benefits like Social Security or Medicare.
Second, the MARs were more revolutionary than previous generations of conservatives. Conservatives ordinarily try to defend power that they already control. But the MARs were out of power, so they had to seize it back. This was why conservatives like Buchanan behaved like Bolsheviks. “We must understand,” wrote Francis,
The populist counter-revolution that Francis proposed was not explicitly racial. In theory, Hispanic or black industrial workers were just as threatened by economic change and high taxes as their white co-workers. And the cultural values of Hispanic Catholics and black Pentecostals were just as challenged by liberalism as those of their white brethren. But in Francis’s view, these ethnic groups had become clients of the liberal state. Only political correctness—argued Francis_prevented whites from admitting this and organizing themselves into their own ethnic interest group. In this worldview, the Democrats gave handouts to African-Americans in exchange for votes. Hispanics were brought in from Mexico to lower wages and break unions, providing cheap domestic labor for the ruling class and maximizing corporate profits. The only people without friends in high places were the middle-class white majority.
Buchanan and Francis disagreed over this point. Pat was concerned about the decline of Western civilization. But he never saw Western society in explicitly racial terms. He opposed both welfare and mass immigration, but he thought they hurt blacks and Hispanics as much as whites. Francis believed that human characteristics—including intelligence—were shaped by race.
Sam Francis said that Pat’s candidacy had awoken the Middle American Radicals’ revolutionary spirit. But what was odd about this populist campaign was the amount of legwork that was done by intellectuals. One volunteer in the March 17 Michigan primary was the philosopher Russell Kirk.
Kirk lived in his ancestral home of Piety Hill in Mecosta, Michigan—a tiny village that his industrious family built and owned. He wrote books in an old toy factory that had been converted into a mammoth library. Kirk was a genius. The author of 32 monographs and hundreds of essays and short stories, he was the intellectual godfather of the conservative movement. Russell Kirk married New Yorker Annette Yvonne Cecile Courtemanche in 1963. He was 42 and she was 17. Together they had four daughters, Monica, Cecilia, Felicia, and Andrea, and became exquisite hosts at Piety Hill.
They welcomed East European refugees, African kings, Republican statesmen, wandering philosophers, and vagabonds. Summer afternoons were spent playing croquet with Malcolm Muggeridge, Robert Graves, or Richard Weaver. Kirk greeted them all in his trademark three-piece suit and fob watch; coffee and cake in the garden, Schubert in the drawing room, tea and honey in the kitchens. At dusk, Russell told ghost stories.
One day in 1992, Russell Kirk came home and told his wife that he had decided to become the Michigan state chair for the Buchanan for President campaign. Annette wasn’t overjoyed: “I knew it meant I would do all the work.” Because Russell lived independently of a university, he had to supplement his income with tours and speeches. Much of the week, he wasn’t at home. So Russell became the state chair in name and Annette in person.
A brilliant, fast talking New Yorker, Annette loved the role. The kitchen at Piety Hill became campaign headquarters and “half my time was spent trying to keep weirdoes out.” Like everywhere else, they had no money and no organization. But unlike in New Hampshire and Georgia, they had no Pat Buchanan either. In Michigan, the campaign took on a life of its own.
Annette shared her workload with another academic—economist Harry Veryser. Donnish, monkish, and fiercely right-wing, Veryser knew and loved the Middle American Radicals like they were family. The Michigan GOP was split between the industrialized East and the suburban West. The two worlds hated each other and Veryser, a traditional Catholic, was king of the East. Many of the GOP activists out East were members of the United Auto-Workers union. These were ethnic Catholics who worked with their hands. George H.W. Bush represented the socially decadent world of the West—big money people who voted Republican for the tax breaks, but who wouldn’t turn down a toke at a pool party.
Pat Buchanan’s Michigan campaign was run out of a philosopher’s kitchen by an economist with an army of Catholic trade-unionists. It was an extraordinary alliance between scholars and workers, but it reflected the spirit of Buchanan’s paradoxical campaign. Pat thought he might win Michigan. Sam Francis fed his ambition. It looked like MARs territory, Francis said.
The state was poor and getting poorer. Once an industrial metropolis, Detroit was a ghost town. Overregulation, bad management, and foreign competition were killing the motor industry. Across the state, unemployment was high—at 9 percent, well above the national average. Cars became the theme of the contest. Bush offered to veto fuel efficiency and environmental legislation that affected the cost of producing new automobiles. Buchanan accused Germany and Japan of “stealing America’s markets.” They were both “dinky little countries.” Japan was just a “pile of rocks.”