…and why there’s no such thing (as proved by Pat Buchanan).
An American may well be a cultural or even a social conservative. Political conservatism, however, is problematic.
A conservative is defined by what he wishes to conserve. In the West, that can only be Christendom, whatever is left of it. Its political essence is adequately expressed by the triad ‘God, king and country’, establishing the descending order of loyalties.
Now the US was the first political embodiment of the Enlightenment, brought about by the urge to replace Christendom with a civilisation based on secular desiderata. Hence the conservative triad fell by the wayside directly the USA was first constituted.
God was shunted aside by the First Amendment, which, as Jefferson gleefully declared, erected “a wall of separation” between the church and the state. King vanished by definition. Only country remained, and it had to work overtime to fill the void left by the other two components.
As early as 1630 the Puritan lawyer John Winthrop alluded to Matthew 5:14 by describing the new community as a ‘city upon a hill’. Thus he implicitly likened it to the beacon that shone the word of God onto the rest of the world.
Since he did so in a secular context, the religion based on that premise could only be secular. Hence it was really an ideology pretending to be a religion: simulacrum gone sanctimonious, the transient pretending to be transcendent. Rather than worshipping God, the new nation chose to worship itself.
A secular religion was born, and it affects Americans’ politics more than any other creed. Real religion is relegated to a purely private matter, having little to do with quotidian life.
Imitating Christianity, the faithful exponents of the American religion have bifurcated into hermetic and crusading strains. Nowadays they call themselves, respectively, paleoconservatives and neoconservatives.
The paleocons believe that America should mostly practise her incomparable virtue at home, thereby illuminating the righteous path for the rest of mankind to tread. The neocons believe in America’s mission – and right – to force recalcitrant nations to see the light.
None so hostile as divergent exponents of the same creed, and the two confessions of the American religion are at daggers drawn. This brings us to Pat Buchanan, the paleos’ flag-bearer, now that William F. Buckley is no longer with us.
Buchanan detests the neocons (who are indeed detestable) partly because they’ve won the battle for plum jobs in the academy and media, fields traditionally dominated by liberals (aka socialists).
The liberals sense kindred souls in the neocons. Sharing global ambitions, the two groups are committed to the big, omnipotent state, without which such ambitions can’t be pursued.
The neocons are typologically close, and therefore acceptable, to the liberals and welcome to their media. The paleos, on the other hand, are off limits, and their writers are mostly confined to small journals, such as The American Conservative started by Buchanan.
Buchanan also has visceral reasons to dislike the neocons: many of them are Jewish, and even Pat’s friends can’t deny his virulent anti-Semitism. For example, he once argued that Treblinka, where 900,000 Jews were murdered, “was not a death camp but a transit camp used as a ‘pass-through point’ for prisoners”.
Buckley, who loyally sprang to the defence of every fellow paleo, was unable to do so in Pat’s case. He wrote: “I find it impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge that what he did and said… amounted to anti-Semitism.”
I don’t think Buchanan should be dismissed simply because he’s an anti-Semite. If we begin to ignore a man’s entire output for that reason, we’d have to shun such brilliant writers as Dostoyevsky, Chesterton, Belloc, Celine, Waugh et al.
However, when a man’s viscera defeats his reason so decisively, one suspects that the latter is flawed in other areas too, such as politics. Indeed, all the writers I’ve mentioned were often unsound in matters political. Buchanan is no exception, as his article on what he calls ‘the Trump Doctrine’ proves.
Buchanan takes this opportunity, as he always does, to lacerate the neocons. Now I dislike neoconservatism as much as he does (see my book Democracy As a Neocon Trick), but being wrong in general doesn’t mean being wrong in every particular.
True enough, the 2003 neocon-inspired invasion of Iraq was criminal and, which is worse, criminally stupid. An attempt to enforce heaven on earth can only create hell on earth, and so that foray has proved.
The neocons got intoxicated on the quasi-religious dogma of democracy and set out to shove it down the throat of every tribal society on earth. The Middle East didn’t swallow, and we’re all suffering from the resulting reflux (and influx).
But it doesn’t follow that everything the neocons support is nonsense, as Buchanan evidently believes: “They want to trash the Iran nuclear deal,” he writes, “though… U.S. intelligence agencies told us, with high confidence, in 2007 and 2011, Iran did not even have a nuclear weapons program.”
Buchanan’s faith in such agencies is touching. However, he ought to remember that they told us in 2003, with equally high confidence, that Iraq had WMDs, which precipitated the criminal folly of the invasion.
‘The Iran nuclear deal’ must be trashed, even though the neocons think so – the country isn’t developing long-range missiles to deliver Christmas cards, and Islam isn’t really a religion of peace.
Then Buchanan bewails the neocons’ desire “to confront Vladimir Putin, somewhere, anywhere. They want to send U.S. troops to the eastern Baltic…”
That’s the kernel of the ‘Trump Doctrine”. Buchanan believes that “America’s vital interests” can be served only internally. Whatever happens outside the country doesn’t matter. This is dangerous folly quite on the par with neocon belligerence.
“Mr. Trump,” continues Buchanan, “has the opportunity to be the president who, like Harry Truman, redirected U.S. foreign policy for a generation.”
God help us, the man is mad. For in the same paragraph (!) Buchanan then writes that Truman “adopted a George Kennan policy of containment of the world Communist empire, the Truman Doctrine, and sent an army to prevent South Korea from being overrun”.
This strikes me as rather the opposite of Buchanan’s isolationism. Unlike him, Truman realised that the “Communist empire” threatened the world, including America. Hence America had both a practical and moral duty to contain it by force.
If Buchanan doesn’t know that Putin’s KGB Russia is a continuation of ‘the Communist empire’, and what has changed isn’t the objectives but only the slogans, he’s ignorant. If he thinks that America no longer has a practical and moral duty to contain this empire, he’s mad.
His madcap ‘Trump Doctrine’ echoes in every detail the most nauseating propaganda emanating from Putin’s mouthpieces. (This came two days ago from Soloviov, one of Putin’s favourite TV shills: “Russia sits on a tectonic plate that stretches over the entire Eurasian continent. That’s why we simply can’t be a regional power. The Russians are an imperial people by their very nature.”)
NATO, he writes, should stop its eastward expansion, meaning it should let Putin reclaim all the former Soviet satellites. But there’s no such thing as NATO’s expansion. There’s only a welcome the West extends to the victims of Soviet monstrosity who wish to distance themselves from a KGB Russia – the memory of what the KGB did to them is still fresh.
Neither coercion nor propaganda is involved. Eastern Europeans join the West freely and of their own accord. Obviously Buchanan doesn’t realise that the West has a moral obligation to support their desire to be free. Real politik reigns.
As it did in Munich and Yalta, two exercises in real politik that emboldened two diabolical regimes. Opposing them then cost America hundreds of thousands of lives (never mind the millions of other lives; Buchanan never does), and trillions of dollars.
Considering the technological advances of which modernity is so proud, opposing Putin’s diabolical regime given a free rein would cost infinitely more in both categories. Is that real politik enough for Buchanan? Are we talking vital interests now?
Then he says we should ditch the “obsolete” Article 5 of NATO, which is tantamount to abandoning the concept of collective security and all “war guarantees that have no connection to U.S. vital interests.”
If Buchanan doesn’t see that NATO serves US vital interests, he’s displaying the same myopia as Chamberlain did at Munich and Roosevelt at Yalta. Actually, it’s more like glaucoma, characterised by a reduced field of vision.
Buchanan interprets American interests in terms that aren’t just cynical and amoral, but also practically ruinous. He thinks that betraying all America’s allies is the right thing to do, for at the moment America only needs trade partners, not allies. Such abandonment of morality and honour is incompatible with conservatism, in the real sense of the word.
But practically speaking, what if the need for allies arises, as it certainly will, when the rise of Putin’s empire begins to threaten US interests even as defined in Buchanan’s narrow terms? What then?
The man has served all Republican presidents from Nixon on. I pray that President Trump can find better advisors – and listen to them. Judging by his pronouncements so far, I fear he won’t.