The Limits of Politics

During my short lifetime as a political observer/junkie, the two politicians and candidates I have most supported are Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul.

Buchanan was the Cold and Culture Warrior who stood for economic nationalism, immigration restrictionism, and an America First foreign policy. (His opponents would say he stood for protectionism, nativism, and isolationism.) He was a major presidential adviser in the Nixon and Reagan administrations, and ran for president himself three times, putting a real scare into the Republican Establishment in 1992 and 1996. He unsuccessfully attempted to inject concerns about Middle America into a staid Republican brand best exemplified by country clubs and the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Ron Paul was the ardent libertarian who railed against any type of government intervention into the economy and proved to be one of the fiercest major critics of the Iraq War. Nicknamed Dr. No for his propensity for voting no on any legislation he considered unconstitutional, Paul represented a lonely libertarian voice in Congress and in his two runs for the Republican nomination for president.

And I adored them both.

I cast my first vote in 2008 for Ron Paul, writing him in rather than voting for John McCain and his “Bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran” approach to foreign policy or Barack Obama as the great liberal hope. And I always lamented not having the opportunity to vote for Buchanan himself.

I also agreed with their politics. I thought the Iraq War was a mistake and that all of America’s interventions into the Middle East to be unwise. (I still do.) I thought the Federal Reserve was a major cause of many of the economic downturns the American economy has experienced. (I don’t have a strong opinion on this anymore.) I agreed with their pro-life and pro-traditional marriage politics. (I still do, even if I do think much of the right-wing’s political language against homosexuals was at times much too harsh.) I thought that the American worker was being unfairly hurt by the global economy, and that American economic policy encourage American manufacturing. (I am still broadly sympathetic to this view, but I tend toward a more free-trade approach now.) And I was against illegal immigration and thought that even legal immigration should be curtailed, not for any racial reasons, but so that incoming immigrants would have time to assimilate into American culture rather than separating into ethnic enclaves. (I still think this way to a great extent; this post by Ross Douthat is a pretty good encapsulation of my views.)

In other words, I appeared to be a prime candidate to support Donald Trump for president. And yet, I will never vote for Donald Trump.

I’ve written about this before, but in short order: Trump is a conservative apostate on a host of issues, has a distasteful temperament, lacks any sort of intellectual curiosity, and, based on the way he has treated people during his business career and in his presidential campaign, seems like a truly awful person. (This article by Peter Wehner, this by Kevin Williamson, and this article by Jonah Goldberg sum up a lot of my feelings.)

Not only will I never support Donald Trump, this campaign season is even causing me to question some of my support for the only two politicians I have truly cared about in my lifetime: Buchanan and Paul.

Many critics have disparaged Buchanan and Paul as nationalists, fascists, and racists, pointing both to some of Buchanan’s ardent anti-immigrant statements and to Paul’s infamous newsletters featuring frankly disgusting remarks about black people and homosexuals, among other things. They were, in the minds of many, unpatriotic conservatives.

I heard and understood these critiques, but I pushed them to the side. Buchanan struck me as a fundamentally decent man, a devout Catholic, and a man with deep conservative bonafides. I rationalized his more controversial statements (mostly coming from his syndicated column) as the fault of the format — he did not have the room to adequately explain himself, and he was misunderstood by those who heard what they wanted to hear. Paul struck me also as a decent man, and a deeply principled libertarian — how could libertarians, who believe in a minimal state, support the use of the state to subjugate and discriminate against an entire race? I bought his reasoning that he did not write the newsletters, that it was written by an associate of his. I always thought that their sizable support in several elections was due to the American people supporting their ideas — the same ideas that inspired me — and not because of their more odious statements and populist nods to more repugnant segments of the American electorate.

That has proven not to be the case. The support that was supposed to shift from Paul the Elder to Paul the Younger has vanished, apparently moving to Donald Trump, despite Ron calling Trump an authoritarian. And Buchanan himself has reveled in the Age of Trump. If he is not explicitly supporting or endorsing Trump, he is clearly enjoying his total success thus far in the campaign — much to my deep chagrin.*

In fact, it appears to me as if much of the support for Buchanan and Paul came not from a movement of libertarians and traditional conservatives at all. It appears to have come from a so-called “alternative” right, which is, in effect, a collection of racists, cranks, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists. Though the majority of Trump’s support comes from other sources — specifically, from a group of voters that has best been described as “Middle American Radicals” whose intellectual was the writer Samuel Francis — the alt-right now belongs to Trump.

As Trump has upended the political world, he has also upended my political mind. Can I in good conscience call myself a conservative when roughly half of very-conservative, somewhat-conservative, and Tea Party voters have consistently claimed to support Trump? How do I reconcile my past support for certain candidates and certain political positions with the ways they have been used, abused, and manipulated by repulsive people? In my more rational moments, I can brush aside these doubts. But if I’m being honest with myself, this crazy political season has driven me to ask questions of my own political beliefs and commitments that I never thought I would ask.

If anything else, the Year of Trump has caused me to lose all faith in politics as a source of salvation. Too often, we look to our candidates and politicians to right our wrongs, to cure our ills — to make us great again. Too often we speak of taking our country back to a mythical golden age, pining for an Eden that, quite frankly, never existed in the United States. Instinctively, we know something is wrong with our world — Adam’s fall in the Garden remains with us. Politics, as important as it is, will not solve our most abiding and ultimate problems. We strive not for a kingdom here on earth. We cannot immanentize the eschaton. We await a heavenly kingdom, where everything sad will come untrue.

* To be clear: I still greatly admire Buchanan and Paul.

 

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