Pat Buchanan's political trail is worth watching.
He is not a conservative. He has staked out a territory where edges of the left wing and the right wing meet. But a young American priest, Father Charles Coughlin — to whom Buchanan bears some resemblance — pioneered that turf.
Those of you not yet on social security might not know that in the 1930s, Coughlin led the largest anti-Semitic movement in American history. Of course the 1990s is not the 1930s, and Buchanan is not Coughlin. But it is worthwhile to compare the two men's trails as Buchanan's presidential forays continue and after he's won two minor GOP primaries.
As a professed working-class champion, Coughlin denounced rich Easterners who embodied, in his words, "the luxury of Park Avenue, Wall Street attorneys, the erudition of Harvard, of Yale." This philosophy was in the classic populist tradition, which Buchanan upholds with his attacks on big business, high finance, the elite and the intellectual class, purportedly on the workers' behalf.
Coughlin was an isolationist, attacking the League of Nations and our entry in World War Two. Since the end of the Cold War, Buchanan has also been an isolationist, attacking the United Nations and our involvement overseas. He says President Franklin Roosevelt acted "unconstitutionally" by supporting England and "plotting" to get us into the war against Hitler before Pearl Harbor.
In his early years, Coughlin's anti-Semitism was of the indirect, vaguely obscure, name-dropping variety. He snidely referred to Alexander Hamilton, "whose original name was Alexander Levine." Attacking the "international bankers," he cited "the Rothschilds and Lazards Freres, the Morgans, the Kuhns and the Loebs." Later, he attacked the Jews directly, stating that "Jews as Oriental Freemasons are the powers behind the throne of darkness."
Buchanan remarked in 1990 that "there are only two groups beating the drums for war in the Middle East: the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States." This is exactly the kind of covertly anti-Semitic comment the younger Coughlin was likely to make. It was not the kind of explicit attack on the Jews that the priest made in his later years, and on which an anti-Semitic movement such as Coughlin's is built.
Whether Buchanan moves into a later stage of explicit and unapologetic public anti-Semitism remains a question, and we should beware. But it is instructive to note the difference between our era and Coughlin's, and to watch how Buchanan's Coughlinesque tendencies are curbed in modern America.
On the face of it, there is a pervasive mainstream sensitivity and opposition even to hooded anti-Semitism in the 1990s; such resistance did not exist 60 years ago. The godfather of American conservative thought, William F. Buckley, wrote, "I find it impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge" of anti-Semitism.
When Buchanan, as an aide to President Ronald Reagan, wrote a memo that the president was "succumbing to the pressure of the Jews," he was roundly attacked in the media, and soon was eased out of the administration. By no means was anti-Semitism such a bugaboo in the 1930s — a time when American anti-Jewish sentiments were at high tide.
However, research showed that most of Coughlin's millions of followers were not particularly anti-Semitic in their attitudes. The majority were attracted to Coughlin because of his political views on this country's economic and social breakdown — and they went along with him on his anti-Semitism.
The "underclass" represented a different sector of the population in the 1930s than it does in the 1990s. But if a large proportion of today's white Americans were to grow frustrated enough to adopt Buchanan's extreme views, they could also conceivably "go along" with a more upfront brand of bigotry, which is what happened in Coughlin's time.
We are scarcely at such a danger point right now. But if we keep Coughlin in mind, then Buchanan's trail is worth watching.