The history of populism in America is one long tale of betrayal. For more than a hundred years, farmers and workers have tried to come together in the cause of economic democracy only to have their efforts destroyed by the unprincipled ambitions of demagogic leaders.
Now comes Pat Buchanan, the Mike Tyson of political discourse, trying to capture the Reform Party presidential nomination (and the $12 million in campaign funds that goes with it) under the banner of populist revival. Like Tyson, Buchanan is a bully, enraged at the world. Tyson, the boxer, uses his fists; there's little grace to his boxing skills. Buchanan, whose weapons are words, is equally crude. Though he is a master of knockout sound-bites, there is no mitigating humanity to validate his thoughts.
In his quest for power, Buchanan has reinvented himself as champion of the working man (in Buchanan's world, women would not be encouraged to leave the home). But his is a populism based not on respect for working people but on his loathing of non-Anglo foreigners.
Buchanan wants to place high tariffs on foreign imports in order, he says, to protect American jobs and American culture. Yes, there are reasons to oppose NAFTA and the priority that both major parties place on free trade and the global economy. We need a trade policy that protects the environment and the rights of third world farmers and workers. We also need a jobs and income policy for Americans at home, a policy to assure that wage-earners enjoy the fruits of prosperity.
Economic justice is not high on Buchanan's agenda. Never in his long-career as commentator and activist has he fought for domestic programs to advance the well-being of working people. One of his chief financial backers (and advisors) is Roger Milliken, a billionaire textile mogul notorious for his opposition to unions. Milliken knows why he's giving Buchanan money. As advisor to Presidents Nixon and Reagan, Buchanan fought against the right of working people to organize unions. He has always opposed OSHA protections, progressive taxation, family leave, and universal health insurance -- issues that are of vital everyday importance to the working Americans Buchanan feigns to lead.
Buchanan's populism is based on negativity and hate. His bigotry is well-documented. [See on the world wide web (www.realchange.org) or (www.fair.org). See also his campaign web site (www.gopatgo2000.com)].
Buchanan advised President Nixon against integration; called Martin Luther King "one of the most divisive men in contemporary history; supported the white supremacist politics of ex-Klansman David Duke (for, in Buchanan's words, his standing up against "discrimination against white folks."); and described multiculturalism as "an across-the-board assault on our Anglo-American heritage"
Buchanan stands widely accused (even by William F. Buckley and other conservatives) of anti-Semitism. The charge does not stem from his criticisms of Israel. (Many Jews are critical of Israeli policies). Nor does it rest entirely on his admiration of Hitler ("an individual of great courage...." he once wrote) and his belief that the U.S. should not have opposed Nazi Germany. Comments against Jews have been a staple of his public life. One example: his criticism of Harvard for accepting too many Jews. "Non-Jewish whites," he complained, get "the shaft" at Harvard.
A religious crusade against "secular humanism" is what motivates Buchanan's politics. Buchanan wants to make America into a fundamentalist, right-wing, Christian nation. "Our culture is superior because our religion is Christianity, he said in 1993. But not all Christians are welcome in Buchanan's church. An advocate of militant right-wing Catholicism, Buchanan hasn't much use for the ecumenical, "Pacem in Terris" Catholicism of Pope John XXIII. Nor does he have much love for the liberal Protestant followers of the social gospel.
Buchanan claims to be against sending American boys to die in foreign lands, but he was a cheerleader for Nixon's wars in Indochina and Reagan's wars in Central America. His foreign policy pronouncements have been consistently racist and anti-democratic. He supported apartheid in South Africa and admired Chilean dictator Pinochet and Spanish dictator Franco, both of whom overthrew democratically elected governments. Though he opposes our attempts at peacekeeping in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, he supported Croatia (a country known for its support of fascism in World War II) in its attacks on Bosnian Muslims. At least he's consistent. By his own testament, Buchanan is opposed to democracy, in his words, "the democratist temptation, the worship of democracy as a form of governance."
To win the Reform Party nomination, Buchanan will likely temper his attacks on immigrants, African-Americans, Hispanics, gays, Jews, feminists, and his other customary targets. There have always been people willing to betray others for a taste of power, and Buchanan has rounded up a few blacks and Jews to front for his movement. Unless the Reform Party finds a more credible candidate than Donald Trump to take on Buchanan, it will destroy itself as a legitimate third party.
Buchanan has the potential to take votes from both Democrats and Republicans. But make no mistake, his candidacy serves only as a measure of the staying power of hard-core racism. Working people need to build inclusive coalitions to affect public policy. Pat Buchanan stands in opposition to that kind of coalition. He is a phony populist -- a divisive, destructive, and dangerous figure in the politics of America.
Marty Jezer writes from Brattleboro Vermont and appreciates comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.