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Can the GOP Reverse the Ascendance of the Cranks?

Condemning Steve King is a good first step. But it's also only a first step.
January 16, 2019
Can the GOP Reverse the Ascendance of the Cranks?
Pat Buchanan. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images for SiriusXM)

The last time the conservative movement was due for a purge on this scale, William F. Buckley used the force of persuasion alone to expel racists, conspiracy theorists, and anti-Semites. This time, it’ll be harder: Some of them hold public office.

Here’s a fun game: Guess which of the following statements was made by Donald Trump, president of the United States of America, and which by Patrick Buchanan, president of the World Society of Cranks:

  • “To its neocon architects, Iraq was always about empire, hegemony, Pax Americana, global democracy – about getting hold of America’s power to make the Middle East safe for [Israeli prime minister] Sharon and themselves glorious and famous.”
  • “The only kind of people I want counting my money are little short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.”
  • “If Americans are the most efficient workers on earth and work longer hours than almost any other advanced nation, why are we getting our clocks cleaned? Answer: While American workers are world-class, our elites are mentally challenged.”
  • “My entire life, I’ve watched politicians bragging about how poor they are, how they came from nothing, how poor their parents and grandparents were. And I said to myself, if they can stay so poor for so many generations, maybe this isn’t the kind of person we want to be electing to higher office. How smart can they be? They’re morons.”
  • “Mexico is moving north. Ethnically, linguistically and culturally… Will this Mexican nation within a nation advance the goals of the Constitution — to ‘insure domestic tranquility’ and ‘make us a more perfect union?’ Or have we imperiled our union?”
  • “[Democrats] don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our country…”
  • “Look, [Buchanan]’s a Hitler-lover. I guess he’s an anti-Semite. He doesn’t like the blacks. He doesn’t like the gays. It’s just incredible that anybody could embrace this guy.”

No points for guessing the last one is Trump. As for the rest, the syntax usually gives it away. Buchanan has a writer’s command of English while Trump has a real-estate developer’s. (In case you’re wondering, here’s the answer key: Buchanan, Trump, Buchanan, Trump, Buchanan, Trump, Buchanan, Trump, Trump.)

Buchanan has been around a long time. He was an adviser to Nixon and became a staffer in the Reagan White House. But he was never really comfortable with the transition from “irritable mental gestures” to the Party of Ideas.

It’s no wonder, reading his description of Hitler written in 1977:

Though Hitler was indeed racist and anti-Semitic to the core, a man who without compunction could commit murder and genocide, he was also an individual of great courage, a soldier’s soldier in the Great War, a political organizer of the first rank, a leader steeped in the history of Europe, who possessed oratorical powers that could awe even those who despised him… Hitler’s success was not based on his extraordinary gifts alone. His genius was an intuitive sense of the mushiness, the character flaws, the weakness masquerading as morality that was in the hearts of the statesmen who stood in his path.

Some of that is certainly true, but the important thing about Hitler, the reason everyone knows and reviles his name, wasn’t because he was stronger-willed than his mushy contemporaries, was it? That’s like saying Stalin should be commended for growing the greatest mustache of the 20th century.

Buchanan has even dabbled in Holocaust denial, though he’s been careful to quibble with specifics only, rather than to dispute the whole massacre outright. He claimed that 850,000 innocents could not have been murdered at the Treblinka death camp by diesel exhaust because “Diesel engines do not emit enough carbon monoxide to kill anybody.” They do. They did. How Buchanan became an expert on poison gasses is anyone’s guess.

According to one account, Buchanan insisted that Treblinka was never an extermination camp at all – merely a transit camp. Nearly a million souls perished at Treblinka.

Usually, Buchanan’s defenses of the Holocaust revolve around the Soviet Red Army and the KGB, which uncovered most of the extermination camps and mass graves. Beginning from the astute observation that the KGB was not to be trusted, he somehow arrived at the conclusion that the whole thing was exaggerated.

Perhaps the best that can be said of Buchanan is that he’s an ecumenical villain. At the height of the AIDS crisis in 1983, just as the Reagan administration was fast-tracking research for AIDS treatments, the noblest sentiment Buchanan could muster was insincere pity: “The poor homosexuals – they have declared war on nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.”

Even though he won 20 percent of the primary vote in 1996, hardly anyone wanted to associate with Buchanan. (Hardly surprising.) In 2000, he abandoned the Republicans to run for the Reform Party nomination, at which point Trump challenged him, and issued the “Hitler-lover” indictment upon dropping out.

His 2000 campaign was a failure, but not enough to keep him out of the spotlight. He continued to publish books  and was featured regularly on MSNBC until 2012. He used those platforms to suggest we needed a wall to keep the U.S. a majority-white country and complained that our national test-score averages were brought down by Hispanic and black students.  He likes Islam about as much as he likes Judaism, and he has been outspoken in his disdain for gay rights, complaining that “all the great religions have condemned homosexuality and all the great nations have proscribed or punished it.” He really does check all the boxes in discrimination bingo.

And yet cranks like him are ascendant. Trump knows it. He recently quoted a Buchanan column in a series of tweets. The column was approving of him, and he of it. Some enterprising White House correspondent should ask if the president still considers Buchanan a Hitler-lover. Buchanan hasn’t changed his views. Has the president?

It’s important to ask these questions while Republicans are already on the hot seat for tolerating Iowa Rep. Steve King for so long. He’s been just as outspoken as Buchanan, but his gestures have been more vocal and less mental. In 2005, he called illegal immigration a “slow-motion Holocaust” and suggested that immigration policies could be modeled after methods of controlling livestock. Tough call, whether that’s better or worse than Trump’s “infestation” comment.

At this point, King decided that being a bad candidate wasn’t enough, and began a habit of endorsing bad candidates abroad. On behalf of the Dutch alt-right politician Geert Wilders, he shrieked, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” He endorsed a Neo-Nazi-friendly Toronto mayoral candidate.

Most recently, he compared immigrants  to dirt. He told the New York Times, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive? Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?” He clearly didn’t absorb the point of those classes any more than Buchanan did. The concept of human rights is the central tenet and greatest achievement of Western Civilization.

Finally, Republicans are trying to wash their hands of King. Finally, more than 13 years and six re-elections after his Holocaust comment, the GOP this week removed him from all committees and the full house censured him. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell implied King should resign. House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney and Senator Mitt Romney said so explicitly.

But if King, why not Buchanan, the man who has said terrible things but is now favored by our president? The King condemnations can be one of two things: a one-off concession to basic decency, or a shot across the bow of the quasi-fascist fringe. Let us hope it’s the latter.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.