I recently picked up William F. Buckley, Jr.’s 1951 polemic God and Man at Yale, the book that launched the author’s career and revived postwar American conservatism within the Republican Party. Though it today seems impossible to recall, yes, in fact the GOP at one time saw conservatism as a marginal, borderline-crank agenda that had been rendered into seemingly-permanent ignominy first by Herbert Hoover’s ham-handed efforts in the early days of the Great Depression and then Franklin Roosevelt’s twelve years in the White House.
Reading Buckley now is a strange project. At the outset I’ll be honest, I hold a major resentment against him that I look forward to kicking him in the shins over when I see him in Hell. While my politics are as scarlet as the locks of my head, the maternal Irish grandmother I inherited that head of hair from was a Buckley-subscribing Republican for all of her adult life. And those political allegiances, combined with several other personality quirks, made her absolutely impossible to live with throughout my teen-aged years, several of which we resided under the same roof. Whether it was the invasion of Iraq, same sex marriage, Black civil rights, or any other number of issues, you could not find two polar opposites. (The amount of substance abuse I engaged with because of that angst would make Kierkegaard and John Belushi go skipping through a meadow picking daffodils…)
Nevertheless, Buckley always struck me as an enemy I loved to hate. I must have spent a few hours the other night laughing hysterically to myself about how Buckley always talked like he had something shoved up his ass.
One of the greatest ironies, of course, is how absolutely wrong Buckley was about everything he forecast in G&M@Y. His predictions, which were a clarion call for a revolt against a New Deal liberalism that was being conflated with Stalinism, claimed that Democrats planned to:
- Abolish Jesus; and
- Turn the country into a centrally-planned economy
As such, Christian alumni should withhold their donations until Yale changed their curriculum that proliferated “secular collectivist” ideology. Most notably, he absurdly claimed that the debate over state intervention in the economy was a different formulation of the question of secular versus religious government, a childish tautology, disguised as piety, that in practical terms translates as “All God-fearing men must oppose Social Security, Food Stamps, and other welfare state programs.” (Even mainstream Catholic clerics of the day weren’t willing to go along with that whopper.)
Thus began over fifty years of whining about the poor having the audacity to breathe in his presence, catalyzing a series of events that have brought us our current political geography via the actions of the neoconservative clique.
The thesis of that group for decades (and still today) was that the Democrats would lead us towards a United Soviet States of America.
Yet here we are now in this political moment. The Democrats are positioned to win both chambers of Congress in 2020 and the Oval Office if they decide to allow the insurgent socialist caucus of their party, led by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, take the reins of leadership…
And instead they would prefer to lose under the leadership of Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi! Hell, if by some miracle Bernie Sanders were to win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination (HINT: not going to happen), he’d need to make sure the Secret Service were keeping vigilant watch on Pelosi, who would be eager to shank Bernie during his first State of the Union where he’d try to enunciate his Scandinavian-inspired welfare state policies.
Meanwhile, in the other wing of the Reichstag…
The past four years have shown that, contra Buckley, in fact it is the Republicans who will gladly allow the lunatic fringe political actors within their voter base to not just taste a dab of power but let them run the show off a cliff. The political spectrum within the GOP has shifted so far to the extreme that now Mitt Romney, who I always thought of as being a perfect illustration of Marx’s Mr. Moneybags in Das Kapital, an incarnate Scrooge McDuck walking amongst us, seems like Michael Harrington! Donald Trump took over the GOP and overnight turned it into a blatantly white nationalist outfit (the entry of the war-mongering neocons into Hillary Clinton’s ‘big tent’ coalition is noteworthy still). Jeffrey St. Clair hit the nail on the head in his extremely funny memoir of the 2016 election: “Trump for President is the Greatest Spectacle on Earth-or at least on Fox News. Who else has shredded Roger Ailes on his own network? What other Republican has defended single-payer health care? Derided Citizens’ United? Inveighed against global trade pacts? Denounced the Iraq War as an act of unparalleled stupidity? Aggressively pushed a progressive taxation model? It’s as if Trump has stepped right off the pages of Ralph Nader’s Dickensian romp of a novel, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!”
I don’t know whether to laugh at the fact that Buckley has been proven wrong or cry because his failure is so deeply disturbing to witness. Despite this, the failure is complete. One major element of his biography was claiming he made conservatism a respectable statesman’s philosophy again by thoroughly purging from the ranks anti-Semites, the John Birch Society, and other kooks that invited disrepute. Now it seems those are the major personalities within the Trump base.
Another further irony is that Buckley’s tome, which launched a career spent assaulting affirmative action and related principles, was essentially a plea for…affirmative action! The entire thesis of G&M@Y was that the university was promoting secular philosophical and cultural hegemony that was deeply prejudiced against orthodox Christianity and particularly Buckley’s own reactionary variation of Roman Catholicism. Phrased alternatively, one could say that the entire Conservative political project was born of a plea for a certain type of (white) Catholic identity politics. His 1977 retrospective introduction to the volume seems to go on for pages without end about how nasty anti-Catholic bigots in the mainstream WASP press were hellbent on destroying his fledgling career as a scribe. (What a shame they failed…)
Meanwhile, Yale continues to be the hypocritical ivory tower of New Haven, featured in the headlines regularly for incidents of anti-Black racism and promoting liberal white supremacy. Instead of being a New England Comintern bureau, it aligns more than ever with Buckley’s ideals, begging the final query:
Is this yet another notch against Buckley’s forecast or instead the ultimate arbiter of his ideological success?