Donald Trump has been compared to Pat Buchanan often enough, by many commentators. He shares Buchanan’s views on a host of topics, at least conditionally – on immigration, foreign policy, and trade, he gives lip service to Buchananite ideas, and his support from blue collar Americans seems similar to Buchanan’s.
Those who make the comparison also tend to be cautioning against reading too much into Trump’s early success, because Buchanan won 4 of the first 6 contests in 1996. But there are a couple of key ways Trump is different than Buchanan, and those differences indicate why he is a much greater candidate in terms of his potential to win the nomination and the presidency.
Buchanan and Trump share a view of economic nationalism that appeals to the working class and offends elites – but Trump does so from a position of great accomplishment within the American economy. This gives working and middle class voters a lot more faith in his ability to turn things around compared to someone who had worked as a commentator and a political aide for the bulk of his career.
The possibility of a recession approaching on the horizon tends to push voters toward Trump, who can tout his personal wealth and his record of job creation within his companies as a stand-in for economic policy chops. This success also gives him the capacity to self-fund his campaign, which has a unique appeal for an electorate hungering for the leader who will not be bought.
Trump is a truly national figure with much broader personal appeal and awareness than Buchanan – who was certainly a prominent political commentator, but only really known within that space. The gap between American devotion to reality TV and American devotion to The McLaughlin Group is wide indeed. The Trump brand is immediately recognizable to the low-information voter in a powerful way, and it speaks to a certain American combination of in-your-face accomplishment and brash decadence. The Buchanan brand was insurrectionist, as is Trump’s, but it was much more ideological, and far more narrow in appeal.
The most important distinction between the two, however, may have to do with faith, and Trump’s well-evident lack thereof. Right From The Beginning, Buchanan’s 1988 memoir of growing up from a rabble rousing Georgetown juvenile delinquent to Dick Nixon’s hatchet man – an entertaining book which everyone should read – is knit together by his Catholic faith and his devotion to the church, a far cry from the New York billionaire who a few weeks ago tried to put money in an Iowa communion plate. Buchanan’s culture war speech to the 1992 convention is one of the greatest American statements of fiercely populist social conservatism, warning of the apocalyptic decay to come.
Trump exists in a post-apocalyptic world for social conservatives, and he exists in it as an avowed secularist who gives off enough signals that he seems like an ally. So the culture war he fights in place of Buchanan’s is about political correctness, not abortion and gays. His secularism makes him difficult to balance against. The usual frame for greedy Republicans is that their faith makes them a hypocrite, but unlike other Bible thumpers, no one believes Trump has actually read the Bible.
In the wasteland, the strongman bully seems more tempting as a warrior against the foe than the soft optimist who speaks to our better angels. So instead of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God or the Prosperity Gospel and Why God Wants You To Be Rich, Trump promises he will “make them say Merry Christmas” – and that is enough for the shell-shocked evangelicals of South Carolina, who have in the past two decades seen “them” do everything Pitchfork Pat predicted and worse.