Buckley’s American Greatness Narrative: A Look Under the Hood

F.H. Buckley is among the more eccentric figures on the Right today. A self-proclaimed “Right-wing Marxist” and admirer of the Frankfurt School, he is also a scholar of contract law, an advocate of the parliamentary system, a defender of pop multiculturalism, and a passionate opponent of bicycle lanes. For good measure, Buckley is a naturalized citizen who argues that Canada, the country of his birth, has become a better guardian of American ideals than the United States itself.

It is not surprising that so contrarian a mind emerged as a leading intellectual supporter of Donald Trump’s campaign for President. Among signatories of the “Scholars and Writers For America,” an open letter in support of the Trump campaign, Buckley was one of a handful who have followed a mainstream academic career (he teaches at George Mason University’s law school). By the time the letter was published in late September 2016, Buckley had been working for several months as a speechwriter and strategist for the Trump campaign. His activities began to receive public attention when Donald Trump, Jr. was accused of plagiarizing Buckley in an address to the Republican National Convention—an accusation Buckley waved off the grounds that he helped write the speech in the first place.

In The Republican Workers Party, his most recent book, Buckley combines vignettes from the campaign with extracts from journalism published in the two years since the election. The result is somewhat episodic and baggy, like many books intended to be timely, but it is far from a partisan defense of the President in the style of Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie’s recent Trump’s Enemies (2018). Rather than praising Trump per se, Buckley contends that disruption of the GOP in particular, and the political system in general, was a precondition of changes that might make America great again.

How to define great? Although it includes some concessions to the mores of the present, Buckley’s vision of a better future resembles nothing so much as the idealized America of about 60 years ago. That is at the same time its greatest strength and its fatal weakness.

Nostalgia is a soft target for criticism. Unless the experience was quite unbearable, we are tempted to recall the period in which we grew up as what Stefan Zweig described in The World of Yesterday (1941) as a “golden age of security.” This is partly a result of selective memory. Without consciously choosing to, we tend to retain what was good and forget the bad. “Golden age” thinking is also based on knowledge available to us only in hindsight. If we feel the world was more secure in the old days—even in its less pleasant aspects—that is partly because we now know how things turned out. Aware of the results, we discern or imagine stable relations of cause and effect that were concealed at the time.

As Yuval Levin has argued in Fractured Republic (2016), perhaps the best recent study, these suppositions rarely survive scrutiny. Upon investigation, it almost invariably turns out that the reality of the past was not only worse than but also less certain than we recall. For this reason, people who pride themselves on mental clarity regard nostalgia as a crutch for more sentimental and muddled minds. Consider Ezra Klein’s recent challenge to Andrew Sullivan’s “relentlessly ahistorical” yearning for social and political consensus.

Buckley’s American Toryism

There are several points that can be cited in favor of political nostalgia, however. One is that, while the future is the realm of possibility, we can be certain that the past really happened. If the openness of the future tempts us to new experiments, the actuality of the past makes it a more reliable guide for action. The yearning for security and familiarity can impose unjustified constraints on imagination and aspiration, but nostalgia is allied with the virtue of prudence. Although historical patterns are not without exceptions, what worked in the past might continue to work; what failed is likely to fail again.

Among those patterns is a tendency to raise moral claims on the present through a creative reimagining of the past. Especially for the unlearned, it has seemed more natural to conceive of how things ought to be on the model of how they used to be than to propose detailed plans for improvement. Challenging the disdain for nostalgia that is typical of intellectuals, the Marxist historian E.P. Thompson showed how the English working class constituted itself as a political movement by calling on myths of a preindustrial golden age. Not coincidentally, the Tory democrats whom Buckley admires—Benjamin Disraeli, Randolph Churchill—called on those same myths in their quest to “dish the Whigs”—that is, to undermine the political hegemony of British liberalism.

Since nostalgia is neither practically reckless nor morally blind, we should not dismiss the tributes to midcentury America with which Buckley begins and ends his plea for a kind of American Toryism. The America to which he emigrated, Buckley explains, “was the country of John Ford’s westerns . . . a country whose troops provided the margin of victory in two world wars . . . a country of unrivaled prosperity . . . the country that, as [Winston] Churchill once said, always did the right thing in the end, though only after it had tried everything else.” It was this country that sent a man to the moon, turned automobiles into proud chariots, and defeated the Soviet Union while disseminating a new kind of culture, socially demotic but morally elevated, around the world.

Buckley does not deny that this America not only committed new injustices but also perpetuated old ones—most shamefully, racial segregation. But he observes that these injustices pale in comparison to those common in the era of the Founders. Among the most appealing features of Buckley’s idiosyncratic conservatism is his acknowledgement that few us—perhaps not even Ted Cruz—would actually want to live in the old republic.

He is also correct when he suggests that many of the voters who were thrilled by Trump had this period in mind when they thought about making America great again. “If we wanted to make America great again,” Buckley writes, “we’d want to feel about it today as we did then. That was what Trump promised. That was what the MAGA slogan meant.” Conservative politicians have appealed ad nauseam and without much national success to the Founders, the Constitution, or other political fetishes. Trump did nothing of the kind. Instead, he ignored the 18th century and appealed to the “golden age of security” that many Americans in middle age and older remembered from their youths.

Donald Trump and the Vital Center

This nostalgia for a more confident, more culturally uniform, more economically egalitarian America is not only legitimate, then, but also instructive. As Buckley argues, it suggests that the heart of American politics is “economically liberal, socially conservative.” In other words, they enthusiastically support Social Security and other ostensibly earned benefits, but regard idleness and challenges to conventional morality with disfavor. During the 1960s, it was Democrats—“the party of John F. Kennedy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Lionel Trilling”—who were most likely to occupy this space. As Democrats have increasingly embraced various forms of marginality and transgression while Republicans have become more consistently libertarian, Buckley sees in Donald Trump a new kind of Republican who can recover the vital center.  

I admit to finding this hope for our 45th President to be rather far-fetched. Whatever he says when reading speeches prepared by Buckley or his erstwhile colleagues, his inclination to falsehood, taste for name-calling, and reliance on niche media make him an unlikely creator of a governing coalition. This is not a prediction that he will fail to win reelection, for incumbents have a built-in advantage, and this incumbent has shown that he can put together a majority in the Electoral College while remaining historically unpopular in populous blue states. Barring some truly unforeseen event, however, the kind of victory that consolidating Presidents like FDR or Reagan won seems to be beyond Trump’s grasp.

But the President’s dubious character and rhetoric are not the most important reasons to be skeptical of Buckley’s call for a revival of midcentury greatness. Although he notes the enormous economic advantage that America enjoyed in 1945 over bankrupt allies and defeated enemies, he does not really grapple with the exceptional character of the decades that followed World War II. In areas ranging from family formation to religious observance, demographic trends, and political polarization, the period between 1945 and about 1965 stands out as an oasis of prosperous stability in comparison to the half-centuries that preceded and followed it.  

It is partly because of, not despite, the exceptionality of that the midcentury interlude that it is the lodestar of today’s nostalgia. Any attempt to recover some of the features that made it appealing has to take account of the reasons it proved so brittle in the first place. Again, Buckley acknowledges the unavoidably temporary character of America’s economic advantage. Germany and Japan were not going to remain in ashes forever. He does not, however, explain how relative economic decline could have been better managed—especially in view of the necessity of demonstrating to the world that capitalism provided greater and more general prosperity than communism.

Nor does he discuss the cultural challenges to conformity, mediocrity, and inequality that began to emerge almost as soon as the war was over. While we like to recall the 1950s as the age of Ozzie and Harriet, these were also the years of the Beats, second wave feminism, the civil rights movement, and even the beginnings of modern conservatism. The discontents that burst out so violently in the 1960s were already present in the ostensible golden age.

It is true that these began as minority movements and remained more or less distant from the vital center Buckley admires. Even Martin Luther King, who has been retrospectively adopted as a kind of secular saint, was extremely controversial. The center held partly because the mainstream media of the time were able to exercise more effective gatekeeping authority than is possible today, legitimizing certain figures and causes while excluding others.

If more conventional types had found nothing appealing at the margins, however, these marginal movements would not have been able to undermine an apparently solid national consensus within a matter of years. In his few allusions to this process, Buckley depicts the social deconsolidation that became impossible to ignore during the Johnson administration as something done to ordinary Americans by a selfish and exclusive “New Class.” The truth is, ordinary Americans were willing participants in the dissolution of the family, the decline of religious observance, and other phenomena that make the United States of just 50 years ago seem like another country.

So Buckley has an incomplete account of why America was great at the edge of living memory, and almost no explanation of what happened to that greatness. He also gives us little reason to think that his preferred policies would take us back. In the more policy-oriented sections of the book, Buckley focuses on three areas: immigration, schools, and regulation. Invoking the example of Canada, he proposes an immigration system that rewards education or valuable skills, more support for school choice, and significant cuts in both the red tape that inhibits growth and the tax advantages that siphon capital out of the productive economy.

There is much to like in these proposals. I am especially intrigued by his suggestion of a campaign to “break up the monasteries”—that is, the universities and private foundations that receive enormous tax subsidies to promote an overwhelmingly if not universally left-wing agenda. If the author had his way—and I wish he did—public resources would be shifted away from elite higher education and toward regional state universities, community colleges, and vocational training programs. Buckley is probably too optimistic about the benefits of school choice at the primary and secondary levels and too credulous about international comparisons of educational achievement. (The relatively low average performance of American public school students obscures the fact that students in several states do about as well as competitors anywhere in the world.) But these are essentially quibbles within a broader agreement.

It is striking, though, how uncontroversial Buckley’s proposals would be in most precincts of the conservative world. With the possible exception of his position on immigration, there is little here that would disconcert the staunchest of Never Trumpers. Indeed, these proposals seem closer to the agenda of the conservative mandarins at AEI than to anything we’ve heard from the Trump administration. Perhaps Buckley bet on the wrong horse.

These proposals are also rather modest. Buckley’s American Toryism, even if it were to succeed in every respect, would no more bring back the halcyon days of the Kennedy administration than economizing on cappuccinos will make me a millionaire. And it would do almost nothing to help the middle-aged and elderly voters in economically decaying areas whose hearts were won by Trump’s promises. We can’t get back to the future fast enough to save them.

The Republicans Workers Party, in short, does not deliver its promised blueprint for making America great again. That’s because greatness, in the sense Buckley and perhaps Trump defines it, is never coming back. Nostalgia can be valuable because it not only comforts but also inspires—perhaps more effectively than appeals to an uncertain future. We have to acknowledge such appeals’ limits, however, in order to appreciate their utility.