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Feehery: Trump knows opportunity may be knocking

Before there was Donald Trump, there was Pat Buchanan.

When I was growing up on the South Side of Chicago, my dad, my brothers, and I would watch Buchanan, on CNN and PBS of all places, battle it out with the likes of Tom Braden, Michael Kinsley, and Eleanor Clift, on television shows like “Crossfire” and the “McLaughlin Group.”

Buchanan was witty and sharp, with a keen sense of history and an appreciation for how conservative voters really felt. He wasn’t a company man, per se. He would be more than happy to lament the failures of the Republican Party as he would to point out the flaws in liberal orthodoxy. 

Buchanan was also able to disagree without being completely disagreeable. He could laugh at himself and take a punch.

This was back in the era when Republican and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, could have stout disagreements and have a Guinness stout afterwards (well, probably more like a scotch than a beer). 

The beauty of those shows (and that era) was that all viewpoints could be stated and then challenged directly. Nobody was cancelled for expressing an unpopular view but nobody was given a free pass either. 

Pat, who worked first in the Nixon administration and later in the Reagan administration, represented the views of blue-collar conservatives and the white working class. He was skeptical of war, he didn’t like affirmative action, he promoted traditional Catholic values, thought that worshiping at the altar of free trade was idolatry, and generally disliked high taxes and wasteful government spending.

At the end of the day, he would usually close ranks with whoever the Republican Party nominated, because he at heart was a pragmatist who believed that the Democrats were going to be worse for the country, no matter who the Republicans nominated.

Buchanan was the first major pundit/politician to be cancelled by the media. It was shocking to see it happen, and many of his Democratic co-stars, including Chris Matthews, Mark Shields and Tom Braden, defended Pat to no avail. 

As often happens in these types of executions, it was not the left who ultimately did Pat in. It was a concerted effort from the right, especially the neo-conservative wing of the party. They made old accusations, calling him homophobic, racist and an anti-Semite. It just so happened that right around that same time, America was preparing to launch an invasion of Iraq after attacking Afghanistan. Having a prominent critic of foreign entanglements allowed to speak out was not useful for the Republican Party or many of the architects of endless war there that cost trillions of dollars and thousands of lives. And so, he was cancelled.

Pat Buchanan had a coherent worldview, based on a deep understanding of history and culture. He understood that America couldn’t long afford to be world’s policeman, that it couldn’t continue trade policies that exported American jobs and imported cheap Chinese products, that it couldn’t continue to open our borders to every drug and human trafficker in the world, that it couldn’t continue to spend money we don’t have on government we don’t need.

Pat gleefully called his supporters the Buchanan brigades when he mobilized his supporters in the 1992 and 1996 primary campaigns. The Republican Party was different then, more evenly divided between the ascendant upper middle class country club set and the white working class, many of whom still voted for the Democrats. 

But those working-class voters are now dominating the GOP and many of the country club set now prefer to identify as progressive. 

Pat won’t run for president again, but Donald Trump, who understood the power of the Buchanan brigades more than any other Republican in 2016, surely might. Trump doesn’t understand history as well as Pat Buchanan, but he is smart enough to know opportunity when he sees it. There is an old saying in business that to eat with the classes, you should sell to the masses. Selling to the masses pretty much sums up the Buchanan view of politics.

Feehery is a partner at EFB Advocacy and blogs at He served as spokesman to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), as communications director to former House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), and as a speechwriter to former House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.).

Tags Donald Trump Pat Buchanan

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