William F. Buckley Would Love Donald Trump
George F. Will is manifestly irritated by Donald Trump. Today, in a column in the Washington Post, Will amplifies upon his disdain for Trump and his supporters by declaring that the solution to conservatism’s woes is to produce another William F. Buckley, Jr.
According to Will, Buckley’s great accomplishment was to infuse “conservatism with brio, bringing elegance to its advocacy and altering the nation’s trajectory while having a grand time.” Not so grand a time, by contrast, is being furnished by today’s conservatism, which is “soiled by primitives whose irritable gestures lack mental ingredients.” But just how much of a distinction is there between the conservative age Will cherishes and Trumpism?
The notion that ruffians have suddenly invaded the sanctum sanctorum of conservatism is wholly unpersuasive. Buckley made his name in the 1950s by defending Sen. Joseph McCarthy and denouncing liberal elites. Together with his brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell, Buckley wrote a tawdry little book called McCarthy and His Enemies. The New York Times described this exercise in anti-anti-McCarthyism in 1954 as follows: “We have a bald, dedicated apologia for ‘McCarthyism’ made far more adroitly than Senator McCarthy himself could make it, that may well serve to clarify this issue. For the authors, enemies of the enemies of Mr. McCarthy, may have, ironically, done the Senator a disservice. McCarthyism is now on the record for all to see. They have ‘frozen’ McCarthyism on their pages, which is an event that the instinctively fast-moving Senator may one day regret.”
Buckley’s enthusiasm for McCarthy was no brief flirtation. If anything, it amounted to an embarrassing lifelong obsession. Thus, in 1997, Buckley, in reviewing in First Things Sam Tanenhaus’s definitive biography of Chambers, harrumphed that “I am obliged to record that Tanenhaus’ dislike and distrust of Senator McCarthy take him to what I deem unnecessary lengths. Professor Owen Lattimore’s name was first mentioned, in context of the exploration of pro-Communist influences, by McCarthy. But it was Senator McCarran’s committee that effectively exposed him as the influential and perjurious pro-Communist he clearly was.” But who exactly “obliged” Buckley to record this? His housekeeper?
Nor was Buckley the only cheerleader for McCarthy. At the time, a chorus of Republicans, including William E. Jenner and William F. Knowland, supported McCarthy. In 1954, Richard M. Nixon was deputed by Dwight D. Eisenhower to attack McCarthy publicly, which he did somewhat elliptically on national television by talking about shooting rats directly rather than firing wildly. Since then, various outré efforts have been made at rehabilitating the old boy, including Arthur Herman’s meretricious biography in 1999, not to mention Ann Coulter’s paeans to his red-hunting skills.
Yet for Will, it is, of all people, Whittaker Chambers who is the culprit for everything that he believes has gone wrong with conservatism. Will asserts that Chambers, who outed Alger Hiss in 1948 as a Soviet agent, at considerable personal emotional cost, “injected conservatism with a sour, whiney, complaining, crybaby populism” in the form of his lengthy testimonial Witness. If so, this would have come as a considerable surprise to one of Will’s own heroes, Ronald Reagan. Chambers’s account of his dramatic break with Soviet communism and the ostracism that he incurred made it a formative text for many conservatives. According to Reagan biographer Paul Kengor, “Whittaker Chambers’s Witness was, to Reagan, a mesmerizing source of information and affirmation. All of those interviewed for my book talk of how Reagan could recite passages from Witness verbatim. This is evident in speeches throughout his public life. There are copies of Reagan speeches in which he crossed out lines and inserted whole sections from Witness. These verbatim insertions were made from his outstanding memory.”