February 24, 2012 | Columbia Journalism Review
Pat Buchanan and His Enablers
Last week, MSNBC fired Pat Buchanan following a four-month suspension. The proximate cause of his dismissal was the publishing of his latest book, Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025? That tome, which included chapters like “The End of White America” and “The Death of Christian America,” crystallized the central themes of Buchanan’s four-decade oeuvre as a political commentator, namely, lamentation over the fact that America is becoming less white and less Christian.
“The ideas he put forth aren’t really appropriate for national dialogue, much less the dialogue on MSNBC,” network president Phil Griffin said last October. And indeed, the ideas espoused by the former Richard Nixon speechwriter and two-time independent presidential candidate—which, at their most extreme, have drifted into nostalgia and outright support for fascism—have no place at an ostensibly mainstream television network, never mind one which recently adopted the slogan “Lean Forward.” In a blog post for The American Conservative, the paleo-conservative magazine he helped found in 2002, Buchanan blamed his firing on an array of American minority groups—racial, religious, and sexual—the very people he has long demonized in his writing.
The best that can be said about Buchanan is that he was consistent in his extremism; he never wavered in his belief that America’s racial stock was being diluted by non-whites, that gays were “immoral,” or that Jews were exercising a pernicious grip on American politics. Nor did he ever try to obfuscate these views. Which is why the real scandal here is not that Pat Buchanan wrote a book replete with racist, anti-Semitic drivel. What else would he write? The scandal is that a major cable news channel—indeed, the go-to source of news and information for progressives—ever hired him in the first place.
Buchanan claims that it was “an incessant clamor from the left” which led to his firing from MSNBC. While it’s true that the website which led the charge against Buchanan—colorofchange.com—is on the left, it is only recently that any appreciable effort was made by liberals to question Buchanan’s place at the network. That’s because the very same “left” which Buchanan decries today as unwilling to hear his voice was more than happy to lap up his commentary in one crucial realm: foreign policy.
While Buchanan was a hardened Cold Warrior willing to support any Third-world leader, no matter how repugnant, claiming anti-communist bona fides, he reverted to isolationism immediately after the twilight struggle came to an end. This predilection manifested itself immediately with the first international conflict to emerge after the break-up of the Soviet Union: the Gulf War. But Buchanan didn’t merely oppose American efforts to repel Saddam Hussein’s absorption of Kuwait; he implied that those calling for it were doing so at the behest of a foreign power.
“There are only two groups that are beating the drums … for war in the Middle East,” Buchanan said at the time on the McLaughlin Group, “the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States.” Buchanan was playing on the trope—deployed by anti-Semites around the world from the Crusaders to Mel Gibson—that Jews are the cause of the world’s problems. Lest there be any doubt about to whom he was referring, days later he wrote a column naming four people from that “amen corner,” then-New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal; former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle; columnist Charles Krauthammer; and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. All, needless to say, Jews. And then, in case the point still wasn’t clear, he followed up with a column specifying just who would be doing the fighting and dying in the amen corner’s war: “Kids with names like McAllister, Murphy, Gonzales, and Leroy Brown.” Buchanan was unfazed by the outcry. “I don’t retract a single word,” he told Time. “The reaction was simply hysterical and is localized to New York.” Not Washington or Los Angeles or Peoria. New York.
The following year, in a long essay that later became a book entitled In Search of Anti-Semitism, National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. concluded that it was “impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge that what he did and said during the period under examination amounted to anti-Semitism.” Buckley essentially wrote his old friend and fellow staunch Catholic out of the conservative movement, just as he had done with the extreme nativist John Birch Society some three decades earlier.
It isn’t just Israel and its relationship with the United States that bothers Buchanan; the man clearly has a problem with Jews. In his vigorous defense of accused Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk (a dubious case for anyone, never mind a man with a reputation for Jew-baiting, to take up), he bordered on Holocaust denial, alleging in 1990 that diesel engines, whose exhaust was used to murder people in the Treblinka gas chambers, “do not emit enough carbon monoxide to kill anybody.” A full “half of the 20,000 survivor testimonies in Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem,” he wrote in 1990, “are considered ‘unreliable,’ not to be used in trials.”
While it was Buchanan’s latest book that did in his career as an MSNBC talking head, his 2008 tome, Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War, was even more disturbing. As the title implies, Buchanan believes that the war to defeat Nazism was not only “unnecessary,” but also provoked by the Allies—not the racism and bloodlust of Adolf Hitler. As for the extermination of European Jewry, it was “not a cause of the war but an awful consequence of the war”—in other words, the Allies’ fault.
This is more than just shoddy history; it is the intellectual capstone to a career devoted to portraying Jews as a perfidious force in history. And in light of his views on World War II, Buchanan’s latter-day opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and American intervention abroad more generally—and his placing the blame for these wars on shadowy “neocons” or Israel’s “amen corner”—seems less principled. Yet none of this seemed to bother MSNBC or its fans. The man deemed anti-Semitic by the founder of the American conservative movement in 1992 was considered kosher by MSNBC ten years later.
Presumably, if enough of the station’s viewers had a problem with Buchanan, they would have voiced their concerns long ago and the network would have done something about it. But Buchanan’s decade-long presence on MSNBC served two paradoxical purposes for the network’s liberal viewers. Buchanan was the perfect foil for a cable news outlet devoted to characterizing the American right as old, white, and out of touch. He reassured liberals of their own cosmopolitanism and tolerance.
Yet, as the Bush administration wore on and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan became increasingly unpopular, Buchanan’s foreign policy worldviews were echoed by the left. The war that most Democrats had supported was now a “lie” foisted on the country by duplicitous “neocons.” The recent controversy over the term “Israel-firster,” a noxious attempt to impute dual loyalties to American Jews, used by employees of the Center for American Progress and Media Matters, is the culmination of right-wing rhetoric finding a home on the mainstream left.
Excoriating those who agitated for his termination from MSNBC, Buchanan couldn’t help but dog-whistle to his anti-Semitic fan-base. “They operate behind closed doors, with phone calls, mailed threats, and off-the-record meetings,” Buchanan wrote, in a sentence that could have been ripped from the pages of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. “They work in the dark because, as Al Smith said, nothing un-American can live in the sunlight.” Of course, the drive to end Buchanan’s career at MSNBC was anything but secretive: An Internet campaign designed to encourage viewers to flood network executives with e-mails and phone calls isn’t the stuff of cloak and dagger. That such an effort was required to persuade a network with the slogan “lean forward” to yank back its microphone from America’s most prominent reactionary, however, is a distressing commentary about the state of the contemporary left.