America first, human beings last

by Paul Mero

As I listened to Donald Trump’s inaugural address my mind’s eye drifted back to the presidential campaigns of Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996. Full of spit and vinegar at the time, I was a big supporter of Buchanan. He was the Donald Trump of the 1990’s except that he had manners, he was gracious, he was intelligent and a real conservative.

Pat Buchanan was a newspaperman turned political operative who went from writing editorials for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat to writing speeches for Richard Nixon and then on to the Reagan White House. He was a conservative’s conservative – a no-nonsense voice in a sea of Establishment nonsense. He was not afraid to recall the conservatism of the past and condemn the neo-conservatism that began to assume power under the presidency of George H.W. Bush.

I liked the man. I liked his style and his philosophical tenacity. I admired his courage. His speech at the 1992 Republican convention was a remarkable attack on the Republican establishment – if you liked what Ted Cruz said at the 2016 Republican convention, you would have loved what Pat Buchanan said in 1992. His remarks were labeled by the media as the “culture war” speech. Buchanan said, “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America…The agenda Clinton & Clinton would impose on America—abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat units—that’s change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America needs. It is not the kind of change America wants. And it is not the kind of change we can abide in a nation we still call God’s country.” And to understand the extent of Buchanan’s disdain for Democrats, progressives and the Clintons, he added this insult for good measure, “Like many of you last month, I watched that giant masquerade ball at Madison Square Garden—where 20,000 radicals and liberals came dressed up as moderates and centrists—in the greatest single exhibition of cross-dressing in American political history.” My gosh, I loved that guy.

This is all to say that the Trump experience is not new. His populist appeal is not new. Buchanan resurrected the theme of America First. As Trump claims today, Buchanan really did speak for the forgotten man. It’s no surprise today that Pat Buchanan has been a huge cheerleader for Donald Trump. And it is no surprise that the conservative movement has been split open. It happened in the 1990’s and it happened again with Trump’s candidacy. The only thing that has changed between then and now is me. If I loved Pat Buchanan, why would I not love Donald Trump?

In the 1990’s I volunteered for Pat Buchanan. I was fortunate to attend a few behind-the-scenes gatherings of the “paleo-cons” who despised the neo-cons. The paleo-cons of yesteryear are the alt-right of today. Throughout the 1996 presidential campaign I worked for Congressman Bob Dornan, who also ran for president that cycle. If you read his announcement speech he delivered on the floor of the House of Representatives, you will hear all of the populist appeals familiar today. I wrote that speech.

In a copyrighted, but unpublished essay, I wrote of Pat Buchanan, “His candidacy for the Republican nomination in 1992 brought paleo-cons out of the closet in droves with the lure of substantive debate on America First foreign policy, illegal immigration, crime, education, the culture war, abortion and homosexuality.” With my LDS flavor, and displaying my disdain for the Republican Establishment, that paper was titled “The Telestial Kingdom must be Full of Neo-Conservatives” and concluded with this sentence, “This is why a ‘good’ Mormon cannot only NOT be a political liberal, but he or she cannot even justify being a neo-conservative.”

I am so glad I never published that paper. For some blessed reason, even the foolishness of my youth could not overwhelm some common sense. In fact, it is a matured common sense that has guided my politics for the past two decades. Once an ideologue, now a true conservative. The difference is time, experience and knowledge. It explains why I could passionately support Pat Buchanan and equally so despise Donald Trump. It would be easy for me to justify my disdain of Trump for reasons of personality – as I mentioned, Buchanan was a gentleman in every respect; Trump is a cretin. But the real differences are substantive. Buchanan was thoughtful. Trump is reactive. Buchanan, though tough, was measured. Trump’s toughness comes across as mean and spiteful.

I can see why Pat Buchanan supports Donald Trump today. I know why I used to support Pat Buchanan and now know why I oppose Trump. Populism is not conservatism and passionate ideology is no replacement for reasoned ideals. The America First of John Flynn in the 1940’s was not the same as Buchanan’s America First in the 1990’s. Likewise, Buchanan’s America First is not Trump’s. Trump has no idea what it even means. A handler gave him that line. It sounds true and patriotic but, in Trump’s hands, it is an extension of his spiteful and narcissistic personality. I love America too. But I love human beings even more.

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