I didn’t shed many tears for Pat Buchanan in the wake of his firing from MSNBC. The sales for his book—a pedestrian work that merely recycles 20 years worth of his diatribes—are about to surge, and he is mildly more familiar and relevant to Americans today than he was 72 hours ago. If he desires it, it’s a certainty that he is headed to Fox News Channel, and probably with a prominent platform.
The lack of sympathy shouldn’t be confused with an affinity for censorship. It should have been no wonder to MSNBC’s hierarchy that Buchanan’s demographic theories are overheated, and that he sounds alarm bells that are alarms primarily if you have a certain crabbed view of the country or a trace of zenophobia. To penalize those views now, when they have been the Buchanan brand for over two decades, has an arbitrary, unfair quality.
The problem with each side of this saga is that I always suspected that MSNBC was using Buchanan in a distasteful kind of way, and that he played along to the detriment of the conservatives whom he supposedly embraces. Buchanan’s on-air role had the feel of a caricature; it was the elevation of a conservatism that is exactly what many liberals imagine conservatives to be—smugly intolerant of the left, cantankerous, narrow-minded. Every time Buchanan chided modern conservatives for waywardness, it was exactly the kind of claim that the left expects the hard right to make—one that seemed unacquainted with the new hues in our culture, and one that yearned to reconstitute America along pre-sixties lines.
Every time Buchanan weighed in to describe post 2000 Republicans as woolly headed “compassionate conservatives”, it meant that MSNBC’s audience never had to hear the much more substantial conservative case, that a Mitch Daniels makes, that Republicans need another dose of engagement with poverty and the working class. Whenever Buchanan urged Republicans to hold fast against the “far left” on a cultural hot button like gay marriage, it meant that a federalist argument that communities have a right to choose their own cultures through popular vote—the kind of argument Chris Christie is effectively making in New Jersey—was swept aside in favor of a retrograde, intolerant sounding defense of tradition.
Whenever Buchanan invoked the specter of illegal immigration from the point of view of a wealthy white man feeling marginalized, it crowded out a skepticism based on the threat from low-wage undocumented labor, and the fact that the threat falls hardest on poor unskilled blacks and downscale whites. By blurring the line between legal and illegal immigration, he aided and abetted liberals who suspect Republicans are troubled more by the browning of America than by lost jobs.
Buchanan was equal time for the variant of conservatism that is precisely the one that liberals want to run against. Somewhere along the way, the game got stale for enough of MSNBC’s audience that the old Nixon warrior overstayed his welcome. Ironically, they were the last ones in on the inside play: all they heard was the hard-edge of a right-winger who seemed to be choking at the “lean forward” mantra that is MSNBC’s way of conveying its progressive tendencies. The viewers missed the strategy, and simply wanted him gone.
I’ve heard Pat Buchanan lament that political discourse now is the opposite of the clubhouse of the early sixties, where disagreements during the day were soothed over bourbon and cigarettes at night; where equally powerful men, all of them white, were too tied to each other to take the rancor seriously. That sanguine world of non-serious disagreements, where everyone knew what the game was, is what Buchanan tried to replicate on, say, Morning Joe. Last week, the shtick ran out. It’s no real loss.