Book review: Where the Right Went Wrong

In the relatively easy eighties and nineties, Pat Buchanan, like the prophet Jeremiah, earned a reputation for speaking harsh words in smooth season. Although the times have changed for the worse, Buchanan has stayed his course. His latest, Where the Right Went Wrong, is a tough-minded, eminently readable and deeply disturbing book that anyone concerned with the future of this country ignores at his peril.

Things are pretty grim for the world’s lone superpower these days, as Buchanan’s overview of the situation makes clear. America’s military is stretched thin occupying Iraq and chasing shadows across Central Asia. Our standing in the eyes of the world is greatly diminished. Potentially ruinous flashpoints abound: Iran versus Israel; North Korea versus South Korea; China versus Taiwan. Our national security is compromised further by misguided domestic policies, such as free trade agreements which have cost us our manufacturing industry, and virtually unguarded borders that must seem positively inviting to terrorists.

What brought us to this state of affairs? Buchanan contends that the American Right and the Republican Party have abrogated their roles as standard bearers for limited, constitutional, non-interventionist government. “There is no conservative party in Washington,” laments Buchanan as he chronicles the unfettered growth of federal spending overseen by George W. Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress. A “neoconservative” doppelganger has taken its place.

A formidable coterie of intellectuals, including Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol and Jeanne Kirkpatrick, neoconservatives (“neocons” for short) count among their ranks a number of, in Buchanan’s words, “ex-Trotskyites, socialists, leftists, and liberals who backed FDR, Truman, JFK, and LBJ.” Strongly opposed to communism, they made common cause with traditional conservatives during the Cold War. With victory achieved, it did not take long for fissures to appear in the alliance. The neocons proved unreliable allies in the struggles against mass immigration, affirmative action, and abortion on the home front. Furthermore, while traditional American conservatives favored tariffs over income taxes as a source of federal revenue, the neocons rigidly adhered to a free trade ideology. But what really separated them from the rest of the conservative herd was their uncritical devotion to Israel and their willingness to use American military might overseas.

Over time, the neocons were able to recast the Right and the Republican Party in their image. Without a traditional conservative presence in Washington to put the brake on federal expansionism, the state has ballooned. With no one willing to stand up to the special interests of organized labor and the Hispanic community, millions of immigrants enter the country, many of them illegally. And in the absence of a truly conservative foreign policy that advises against interfering in the affairs of other countries unless American security or vital national interests are at stake we got the imbroglio in Iraq.

Buchanan is typically blunt in his assessment of the matter:

In 2003, the United States invaded a country that did not threaten us, did not attack us, and did not want war with us, to disarm it of weapons we have since discovered it did not have. His war cabinet assured President Bush that weapons of mass destruction would be found, that U.S. forces would be welcomed with garlands of flowers, that democracy would flourish in Iraq and spread across the Middle East . . . None of this happened.

Of course, Buchanan had been preaching that message to anyone who would listen prior to the attack, even going so far as to start a new magazine, The American Conservative, in 2002 to provide a platform for conservative opposition to the war. And all he received in return for his prescience was opprobrium from the neoconservative establishment.

On March 19, 2003, David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter and prominent neoconservative, penned a diatribe against Buchanan and other antiwar right wingers in National Review. The piece, which labeled Buchanan and Company “unpatriotic conservatives” and anti-Semites, closed with a call to literally shun those right wingers who had doubts about the March on Baghdad. It probably came as a shock to a man who worked for Presidents Nixon and Reagan, and ran for president himself three times, to have his patriotism and conservative credentials questioned by a pro-choice Canadian. But now, over a year later, with events “on the ground” in Iraq proving him right, Buchanan is having his revenge.

For a relatively small book, Where the Right Went Wrong makes a convincing, wide-ranging case that all is not well, and we have no one to blame for that but ourselves. Libertarians and conservatives dissatisfied with the free-spending, open-border, interventionist Bush administration will find much to agree with in Buchanan’s work. Some of his arguments are stronger than others, however. Buchanan believes that with some tariff protections, the manufacturing jobs that have been lost over the past decade can return. That is doubtful given the seismic structural shift in the economy. Buchanan is not ready to admit that the United States, for better or for worse, is now a postindustrial country. There is also a frustrating lack of footnotes and a few glaring typos (it is poor form to misspell the name of your magazine’s co-founder, even if it is “Theodoracopulos”), but these minor defects fail to seriously tarnish Buchanan’s accomplishment.

Despite the pessimistic tone that pervades the majority of the book, Buchanan by no means feels all hope is lost. In his closing, he invokes the memory of the man to whom he dedicated the book, urging his readers to win one more for the Gipper. For admirers of the recently departed president, it is a poignant reminder–not only of what we’ve lost–but also that times have been hard before, and America has endured.

Peter J. Lynch writes from Alexandria, Virginia.

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