Relativity Theory

by Jonathan Chait | November 21, 1999

Were he not a reactionary and a demagogue, I would feel sorry for Pat Buchanan. Not long ago he held a respected position within the Republican Party, wherein he gave keynote speeches at political conventions, represented the conservative viewpoint on TV talk shows, and was courted by party leaders. Now he has become a figure of almost universal disrepute. His former colleagues in the conservative punditocracy gleefully declare him unfit for the GOP, and his TV appearances, while still frequent, are typically interposed with grainy footage of goose-stepping members of the Wehrmacht--the kind of associative imagery that would make any former White House communications director (even one as right-wing as Buchanan) cringe. The ostensible basis for Buchanan's excommunication is his recent book, which has scandalized the conservative movement. It turns out Buchanan is a 1930s-style America Firster. Imagine! The curious thing is that there were previous signs of such thought in Buchanan, and they were not subtle: he has obsessively defended Nazi war criminals, waxed conspiratorial about the dual loyalties of American Jews, run for president under the campaign slogan "America First," and so on. Granted, it's possible to imagine one or two conservatives for whom Buchanan's book was the straw that broke the camel's back. But it seems as if all the camels' backs broke simultaneously at the precise moment when Buchanan became a threat to the electoral prospects of the Republican Party.

In the Washington lexicon, Buchanan has turned "radioactive," which means he has violated the norms of decency so flagrantly as to cross the line between man and kook. The procedure for assigning radioactivity typically begins with the discovery of an objectionable factoid, ideally an inflammatory quotation by the subject. In Buchanan's case, the factoid is that he wrote a book arguing that the United States should not have entered World War II. In reality, Buchanan's book is the logical extension of an isolationist worldview held by a large number of conservative Republicans and not a few left-wing Democrats. The real evidence of Buchanan's repugnance is a career of eclectic obsessions that, taken together, are almost impossible to understand except as the product of an animus against Jews and other minorities. But most journalists do not like to make such normative judgments, so they gauge the subject's radioactivity by his allies' willingness to denounce him publicly. Thus, the standard of radioactivity is entirely relativistic. When Jesse Jackson first ran for president in 1984, the gold standard in black militant anti-Semitism was Louis Farrakhan (sound bite: Judaism is "a gutter religion"), against whom Jackson's own views were gauged. Not long ago, a Farrakhan disciple named Khallid Abdul Muhammad delivered an even more poisonous sound bite (Jews are "the bloodsuckers of the black nation"), and then reporters began asking Farrakhan if he would denounce Muhammad--which he did, thereby deflecting attention from his own views. (Muhammad didn't think to get himself off the hook by counter-denouncing Farrakhan's anti-Semitism.) On a recent Sunday, Pat Robertson appeared as a panelist on "Face the Nation" not as an object of controversy but as an arbiter of it. Robertson, you might recall, once wrote a book asserting that world history was dictated by a plot of Freemasons, Bolsheviks, and "European bankers." By contrast, Buchanan's treatise looks positively Schlesingerian. Yet Robertson never attained anything close to Buchanan's level of radioactivity, perhaps because few conservative intellectuals had the temerity to invite him to take his 20 million followers out of the Republican Party. By now any stain on his reputation has faded, so Robertson can sagaciously hold forth as a Sunday panelist. On the topic of the Buchanan book, he scolded, "He's discredited himself tremendously." Oh. Has anyone solicited Lyndon LaRouche's thoughts on the matter?

Robertson is not the only one to benefit from Buchanan's radioactivity. It has also allowed Donald Trump to portray himself as a sane alternative. "It's just a wacko vote," he says of Buchanan's supporters, "and I just can't imagine that anybody can take him seriously." In one recent op-ed, Trump wrote that Buchanan "says stupid things" and then went on to threaten a preemptive bombing of North Korea. The basis for Trump's candidacy, aside from his opposition to Buchanan, is the tired conceit of the businessman-hero: "Having prevailed over a severe (and largely government-created) setback in my own industry, I know the tough decisions a chief executive has to make to return to prosperity." Of course, the life-metaphor argument also suggests another possibility: that, if we elected Trump, he would take the best years of our national life and then dump us to go be president of a younger, more beautiful country, such as Fiji.

Trump's candidacy is actually quite remarkable--it manages to embody all of populism's bombastic ignorance without including any of its reformist impulses. On the one issue about which he has a strong and well-formed view, Trump is aligned with the Beltway's lobbying elite. His core belief, which he brings up at every opportunity, is that all the world's evils stem from the Tax Reform Act of 1986. This is a strange bogeyman for a member of the Reform Party. The Tax Reform Act was a remarkable triumph of populism and reformism. It wiped out thousands of special loopholes and exemptions in the tax code and then used the proceeds to cut tax rates almost in half. Just about every economist, from right to left, approves of this measure; when there are too many loopholes in the tax code, businesses make decisions on the basis of tax law, which creates inefficient drag on the free market. This is what happened during the early '80s in real estate. The tax incentives for commercial real estate were so generous that they encouraged developers to construct buildings purely for tax purposes, even if nobody would lease them. It was a classic horror story of a centrally planned economy: the government was paying people such as Trump to build empty, useless office towers. The Tax Reform Act eliminated these subsidies and used the savings to lower tax rates across the board, resulting in a fairer, more efficient system--and forcing Trump off the federal teat. Trump is so bitter about this that last May he penned an op-ed attacking Bill Bradley for having championed tax reform 13 years earlier. Tax reform was "one of the worst ideas in recent history," wrote Trump. "When sweeping changes are abruptly enacted, as they were by Mr. Bradley, it puts those businesses in a bad spot." Cue the violin: "People who were banking their retirement on a condominium or a house saw their dreams destroyed. It was a hard time for developers like me." Yes, forcing people to create things that have actual economic value can be cruel. The Reform Party already has Buchanan to shelter factory workers from the ravages of capitalism. Somebody has to speak for the endangered real estate mogul.

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