13 August 2015

A Buckleyan Moment?

You read and hear a lot about William F. Buckley lately. You read some of it here, where I invoked the late National Review mastermind in attempting to explain Fox News's seemingly shocking toughness toward Donald Trump. George Will invokes Buckley more forcefully in a column urging Republicans to read Trump out of their party. For Will, Trump's coarseness and his apparent inconsistency of principles make him unfit to be a Republican, let alone the party's presidential nominee. By invoking Buckley, Will dubs Trump and his most passionate supporters the moral (or maybe just the aesthetic) equivalent of the John Birch Society. Something everyone seems to know about Buckley, if they know him at all, is that he somehow marginalized the Birchers, discouraging Republicans from pandering to them, if not from seeking their support entirely, at a moment when they seemed to be a rising force in American life. To many Americans in his day Buckley himself was an irrational extremist, but while he was indisputably an ideologue he felt his ideology was founded in reason, not to mention faith, in a way the Birchers' conspiracy-mongering (e.g. President Eisenhower was a Commie agent) demonstrably wasn't. Now, Will lashes out at Trump's purported populism, warning the other Republican candidates that Trump's base is unworthy of their attention. The argument that Trump must be taken seriously, or handled with kid gloves, because he "taps into something" that other Republicans could exploit, Will dismisses with contempt. Third parties and fringe candidates are always "tapping into something," he admits, but it never amounts to much. He cites the 1948 election, which Harry Truman won despite his Democratic party being split in three by bolters left and right, to calm any worries that Trump might ruin Republicans' chances should he run as an independent. For Will, if Trump has a virtue it's that he makes Tea Partiers ("those earnest, issue-oriented, book-club organizing activists who are passionate about policy") look rational and serious. Just as religious homophobes condemned Fred Phelps' excesses in order to appear less excessive themselves, so Will condemns Trump on behalf of the Tea Party, telling us that one really is the yahoo we assume the others to be. I still agree that Trump will prove evanescent again, but I'm not as sure as Will seems to be that the appeal and impact of his scathing style won't survive him. Meanwhile, to prove that this is a Buckleyan moment, I will have more to say about the man once I've finished a fascinating book about his ambivalent relationship with Normal Mailer -- and by then I may have seen the new documentary about his feud with Gore Vidal. See what I mean?

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