On the Road to Weimar: Pat Buchanan’s New Book

Pat Buchanan thinks America’s headed for Weimar-era levels of inflation. At least, this is what Jeffrey Kuhner claims in a favorable review of Buchanan’s new book, Suicide of a Superpower (2011), for the Washington Times:

Mr. Buchanan states that the exploding debt threatens our economic future. It will force America into default or to devalue our currency, leading to Weimar Germany-style inflation. Cherished programs – Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, defense spending – must be slashed, capped and reformed or America is doomed.

I don’t disagree that the United States has a debt problem, but isn’t it curious that Pat Buchanan, of all people, would worry about the consequences of Weimar-style inflation?

Wouldn’t such a historic debacle in monetary policy lead to precisely the reactionary-style authoritarian politics that Buchanan endorses?

According to Kuhner, after all, here’s Buchanan’s agenda:

Mr. Buchanan is a Burkean traditionalist who champions the organic society and America’s distinct cultural identity. For Mr. Buchanan, like most conservative traditionalists, nation-states, faith, family and community are not abstract concepts, as secular progressives claim. Rather, they are real, historic and eternal institutions necessary to a viable, just and free social order. This has been Mr. Buchanan’s central insight. It is why he is despised by many liberals and neoconservatives. His Christian nationalism stands in stark contrast to the rootless globalism and MTV morality of our age. He staunchly opposes abortion, pornography, homosexual marriage, drugs, euthanasia and the West’s hedonism. He understands that a nation is held together by a common culture, language, civilization, heroes, history and myths. Multiculturalism combined with open immigration is a recipe for national suicide.

In other words, Buchanan is a Herderian (as Mussolini and Hitler were Herderians). What’s a Herderian?

Cultural historian, Zeev Sternhell, in his book, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition  (Yale 2010, p. 274), explains:

The antirationalist form of modernity, as we have seen throughout this book, stressed all that divides and isolates people, all that is specific to them and unique about them, and opposed all that could unite them. This second modernity also marked the birth of nationalist ideology, and the true founding father of this ideology was [German philosopher and theologian Johann Gottfried] Herder. His direct influence continued to be felt even in the mid-twentieth century. A reading of Herder also raises the great question posed by the two centuries since the French Revolution, which still in our own day remains one of extreme actuality: Is a liberal nationalism conceivable? Can it now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, become a historical reality? We shall see that the idea of a nation of citizens conceived as a political and not as an ethnic body did not survive the first years of the French Revolution. This political and judicial view of the nation was nipped in the bud by the Herderian revolt against the Enlightenment. It was the Herderian vision of a cultural, ethnic, and linguistic community that was to become the ideal of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, not that of a community of individuals united by reason, their interests, and the defense of their rights.

Now, why do I highlight this paragraph from Sternhell’s book? Because it strikingly outlines Pat Buchanan-style conservatism today: Buchananites are Herderians and Barack Obama is an Enlightenment liberal. Conservatives in sympathy with Pat Buchanan see America as a “cultural, ethnic, and linguistic community” (that is, Christian, white, and English-speaking), and Barack Obama represents those who see America as a political—not a religious or blood and soil—body, and this body is united by:

  • common security and economic interests; and
  • a commitment to universal human reason and rights.

Thus, when you think about it, the Enlightenment v. the Anti-Enlightenment is exactly where contemporary American politics most spectacularly and emotionally divides itself.

Here’s some more from Zeev Sternhell:

The Enlightenment wished to liberate the individual from the constraints of history, from the yoke of traditional unproven beliefs. This was the motivation of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Kant’s Reply to the Question: What is Enlightenment?  and Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality : three extraordinary pamphlets that proclaimed the liberation of man. It was against the liberation of the individual by reason that the Anti-Enlightenment . . . launched its attack . . . It was not a countermodernity but a different modernity that came into being and that revolted against rationalism, the autonomy of the individual, and all that unites people: their condition as rational beings with natural rights. That second modernity was based on all that differentiates and divides people—history, culture, language—a political culture that denied reason either the capacity or the right to mold people’s lives, saw religion as an essential foundation of society, and did not hesitate to call on the state to regulate social relationships or to intervene in the economy. According to its theorists, the splintering, fragmentation, and atomization of human existence arising from the destruction of the medieval world was the cause of the modern decadence. They deplored the disappearance of the spiritual harmony that was the very fabric of medieval life, and that was destroyed by the Renaissance according to some and by the Reformation according to others. They regretted the passing of the time in which the individual, guided by religion to his last breath, a laborer or artisan living solely for his trade, hedged in by society at every moment, was merely a cog in an infinitely complex machine of whose destiny he was ignorant. Bending over the soil and asking no questions, he fulfilled his function in the march of civilization. On the day when, from being simply a part in a sophisticated mechanism, man became an individual, the modern sickness was born. From Burke to Friedrich Meinecke, the aim remained the restoration of the lost unity. Thus, the outlook of the individual was confined within the straightjacket of the community to which he belonged. The idea of the primacy of tradition, custom, and membership of a cultural, historical, and linguistic community was first put forward by Vico [a professor of rhetoric at the University of Naples, 1699-1741]. Man, said Vico in criticism of the theoreticians of natural rights—Hobbes, Locke, Hugo Grotius, and Samuel Pufendorf—did not create society all of a piece; he is what society made him, his values are social values and are therefore relative. The relativity of values is a fundamental aspect of the critique of the Enlightenment, and the damage it has caused is tremendous. It was this other modernity that brought about the twentieth-century European catastrophe.

In other words, the European catastrophe of the 20th century was a Herderian catastophe, a catastrophe of the kinds of politics that Pat Buchanan espouses today.

My recommendation: if you want to get a sense of where America might be heading, read Sternhell, not just Buchanan.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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