When Pat Buchanan first proposed building a fence on the Mexican border, the Republican establishment was shocked, shocked! The candidate’s sister and campaign manager, Bay Buchanan, pushed for language in the 1992 GOP platform calling for “structures” on the border. Surely you don’t mean a fence, she was told. “We’re not talking about lighthouses,” she replied.
Buchanan was talking about the evils of immigration long before Donald Trump rode the issue to the Republican nomination.
In 1992 and 1996, the former Nixon speechwriter and conservative firebrand ran for president as a Republican, his signature anti-trade and immigration diatribes inflaming party divisions and contributing to the GOP’s loss of the White House.
Unlike Trump, Buchanan was cast out of the party and treated as a fringe candidate with ideas unfit for polite company.
“I was relatively astonished when he came out against trade and immigration—and to Make America First—that’s on my (campaign) hats!” Buchanan exclaimed in an interview with The Daily Beast.
Buchanan and I have been sparring partners on The McLaughlin Group for many years, and I wanted to give him a chance to take a victory lap. For good or for ill, Trump has mainstreamed and normalized what shocked the political class a quarter century ago, taking Buchanan’s ideas and transforming them into a potentially winning hand in November.
“It’s not like he said Pat’s campaign worked, let’s do it—it’s the evidence of the eyes, and the response of workers,” Buchanan says. He credits Trump with coming to the same understanding he did to abandon the free trade, pro-immigration policies of the party elites. “All you have to do is come to Ohio and say I think NAFTA is a lousy deal and everybody cheers.”
In 2000, when the two men competed for the Reform Party nomination, Trump called Buchanan Attila the Hun. Buchanan hasn’t changed his views and explains that Trump has more “acclimation to Manhattan,” which Buchanan describes as a majority minority city. “Trump is familiar with that, but he senses what is going on and what’s out there in the country. He’s not an ideologue; he doesn’t read it in a book. After the San Bernardino (terrorist attack), when he says no more Muslims, more than half the country is with him.”
In Buchanan’s 2001 book, Death of the West, he had a chapter title, “White Party.”
“It shocked the living hell out of people, now everybody’s writing about it,” he says. “The Republican Party is in danger of demographic suicide” if it doesn’t get more African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. White Americans were over 90 percent of the electorate under Reagan. “Put together two thirds of 90 percent and that’s how you win 49 states,” he says, which was Reagan’s ’84 landslide. Now the white population is 73 percent of the electorate and falling to 70 percent. White Americans are 63 percent of the country and will be a minority by 2041 or 2042, he says.
“If you think America was a good country you grew up in and you prefer it to now, a lot of people think you’re racist, homophobic, and bigoted. By now we’ve been called lots of names. These are the cuss words of a dying establishment,” he says, a statement of defiance made possible by Trump celebrating the politically incorrect policies and positions that party elites can no longer ignore or contain.
“The people who like the Donald remember America as it was and don’t really like what it’s become,” he says.
White supremacist groups that backed Buchanan when he was a fringe or third-party candidate now have a major party nominee they can openly back. Buchanan calls them “white separatists who prefer to live with their own,” a human impulse that he believes policies, however well meaning, cannot override. Europe’s struggles to cope with an influx of refugees are part of the ethno-nationalism that he says is fueling Trump and Trump-like figures around the world. “People want to be with their own and want to be separated from others,” he says.
It’s not only the numbers, he says, recalling with a chuckle what a crowd pleaser it was when he said in his ’92 campaign that if he had to assimilate immigrants that were British and Zulus, the British would be assimilated more quickly. Nothing personal, he said. “(Zulu) Chief Buthelezi is a friend of mine, but (to succeed) you bring in people who share your culture and faith and ethnic background.”
The numbers tell the story: $12 trillion in trade deals in 25 years; $4 trillion with China in trade deficits since Bush One, “and Shanghai is this gleaming city—compare Shanghai to Detroit—or Hiroshima in 1945 to Detroit in 1945.” An atom bomb leveled Hiroshima; U.S. trade policies destroyed the once thriving Detroit.
Trump’s emphasis on how China is ripping off America is straight from Buchanan’s playbook, and his books, The Great Betrayal and Death of the West. He doesn’t claim Trump has followed his lead or read his books, only that “he’s seen the damage,” and it’s hard to miss: 55,000 jobs lost in the first 10 years of this century; one in three jobs, and the bill has come due for the elites.
Traveling around the country and seeing the devastation first hand transformed Buchanan from a pro-immigration free trader in the Reagan White House to calling for a fence in the ’92 campaign, defying the GOP establishment. “What astonished me is not that I was called names by the Bush folks, but that they didn’t pick up on it,” he says, recalling how President George H.W. Bush would fly into Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire and get driven to the family estate at Kennebunkport without even stopping to notice the shuttered factories and the economic ruin.
Buchanan got 38 percent of the vote against George H.W. Bush in the ’92 New Hampshire primary; in ’96, he won New Hampshire, dealing a blow to frontrunner Bob Dole.
The undercurrent of racist appeals that Buchanan attributes to “ethno-nationalism” is out in the open with Trump, who flaunts his disdain for political correctness as a pillar of his campaign. The demographic change that Buchanan warned about has come to fruition in the age of Obama, adding urgency to Trump’s appeal to working class white America.
In 1965, when Buchanan was in his twenties, he supported legislation diversifying immigration through a lessened focus on Europe. Democrat Ted Kennedy said the new policies wouldn’t change the character of the country. President Johnson in his memoirs doesn’t even mention immigration, Buchanan marvels. It wasn’t seen as that big a deal.
When President Reagan signed the Simpson Mazzoli Immigration and Control Act of 1986 granting amnesty to some three million illegal immigrants, “I didn’t think that much of it,” says Buchanan. “It was not a great issue in the ’80s for me.” He recalls with a laugh hearing satirist Mark Russell perform at the Shoreham Hotel and joke that Simpson could stay but Mazzoli has got to go back.
When textile heir Roger Milliken came to see him in the Reagan White House wanting his backing for a bill supporting tariffs on textiles, Buchanan told him, “I’m the biggest free trader in this White House besides the guy down the hall—and that was the president,” he says.
By the early ’90s, the politics had shifted and so had Buchanan. He was running against “King George,” the patrician Bush vying for a term of his own after eight years as Reagan’s vice president. From the San Diego border where he claims 5,000 people were walking in every weekend, Buchanan called for a fence. “Folks called me a lot of names, but two years later (Republican) Pete Wilson beat Kathleen Brown (Democrat) for (California) governor by proposing to put the National Guard on the border.” (Wilson thought he had found the magic formula, but his hard line on immigration led to the early collapse of his ’96 presidential campaign, and helped turn California with its growing Hispanic population into a Democratic stronghold.)
Milliken put a million dollars into ads that featured Buchanan with the American flag, and NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Act) posed an early challenge to President Clinton, a New Democrat free trader. The night Al Gore debated Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who ran against NAFTA, Buchanan was on CNN debating Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich. Gore trounced Perot; Reich has since deemed his support of NAFTA a mistake.
Buchanan was doing radio three hours a day then, and he used the time to do battle against NAFTA. “I would tell folks when we couldn’t get a new hot guest, call up Bernie Sanders, he was good on the issue.”
The free traders carried the day, a victory for the establishment. “The only way Clinton won, he had Jim Baker in the East Room, and the Bushes were for it, it was the Republican and Democratic establishment together,” says Buchanan.
NAFTA over-promised and under-performed, setting a time bomb that’s imploding both political parties. The elites are most out of touch with the people on immigration and trade. In ’96 and 2000 these were cutting issues for Buchanan; in 2016 the beneficiaries are Trump big time and Sanders too.