Paleoconservatives and American Identity

Even those who reject Patrick Buchanan’s “paleoconservative” politics would do well to familiarize themselves with the paleoconservative perspective, as it will help them understand some of the forces at work in 2016 and since.

Are there no inconveniences to be thrown into the scale against the advantage expected by a multiplication of numbers by the importation of foreigners?
—Thomas Jefferson

Although the former Nixon White House staffer has long since been ostracized by the conservative establishment, it is worth remembering that Pat Buchanan was once a major player on the American scene. In 1992, this contender for the Republican presidential nomination won the CPAC straw poll and garnered 38 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. Today it seems incredible, but that year National Review even featured a cover story entitled “The Case for Buchanan.” 

While his name is no longer a household word, his legacy is not going away. For a case can be made that much of Trump’s rhetoric about immigration is merely a vulgarization of Buchanan’s. So even those who reject Buchanan’s “paleoconservative” politics would do well to familiarize themselves with the paleoconservative perspective, as it will help them understand some of the forces at work in 2016 and since.

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According to Buchanan, it is sheer romanticism to compare the waves of migrants now continually streaming across the southern border to, say, the Italians who came here by ship in the Ellis Island era. Back then, he argues in State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America,

Only 5 million Italian immigrants came, but four times as many Mexicans are already here, with potentially tens of millions more coming. Where the Italians came legally, half of the Mexicans are illegal aliens. Where the Italians came to stay or returned home, Mexicans come and go. Where the Italians wanted to be part of our family, millions of Mexicans are determined to retain their language and loyalty to Mexico.  

In other words, the Ellis Island trope fails partly because of the unprecedented numbers currently entering the country, partly because so many of today’s immigrants got off on the wrong start by entering illegally, and partly because so many migrants are able to maintain powerful ties to their mother country in lieu of forming new ones here. Moreover, adds Buchanan, America has lost much of its own sense of history, its self-confidence, such that new arrivals have less and less with which to meaningfully connect or assimilate. For immigrants, as well as for far too many natives, “America” means little more than fast food, Disney, and a welfare state.  

Yet history matters. In particular, Buchanan emphasizes the fact that what we call “the United States” did not simply drop out of the sky. Rather, it was the result of a historical process—British settlement. During the Founding, the population of the newly-independent states was approximately 80 percent British—not European, mind you, or Western, but specifically British—and Federalists such as John Jay explicitly identified that fact as being important for the operation of the U.S. Constitution. 

In a passage of The Federalist Papers that many would just as soon gloss over, Jay explained that part of the rationale for the new, stronger federal government he and his colleagues were proposing lay in the fact that “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs….”  

From Jay’s remarks, Buchanan concludes that healthy political unity requires some measure of cultural unity, and that those who think the former can be maintained without the latter are kidding themselves. What must be admitted, sooner or later, is the reality of human nature:

Human beings are not blank slates. Nor can they be easily separated from the abiding attachments of the tribe, race, nation, culture, community whence they came. Any man or any woman, of any color or creed, can be a good American.  We know that from our history. But when it comes to the ability to assimilate into a nation like the United States, all nationalities, creeds, and cultures are not equal. To say that they are is ideology speaking, not judgment born of experience.

In short, there is an Anglo core to American identity, and some immigrants can more easily connect to this core than others.

Needless to say, the point here is not to question the inherent worth of Mexican, or Salvadoran, or Guatemalan heritage. (Indeed, its religious errors notwithstanding, even the Islamic inheritance of the Middle East is not bereft of redeeming qualities!) Within limits, diversity really can enrich a society, and throughout history nationality has often proven a very complex thing.  

Undeniably, American society has shown “an enormous capacity for transforming immigrants from somewhat differing cultures,” as Thomas Fleming—another paleoconservative icon—has observed. No, the point, as Fleming goes on to warn, is that the capacity to assimilate immigrants “is not infinite” and that “a United States dominated by Third World immigrants will be a very different nation in its cultural and its economic life.”  

Yes, it is true enough that many of those complaining about mass immigration want to have their cake and eat it too, insofar as they want the exotic luxuries of globalization without having to compete with foreigners for jobs. Yet Buchanan and Fleming and many others concerned about the border crisis see it not merely in financial terms but in the context of an extraordinary cultural and spiritual crisis, a movement to level all national, regional, and ethnic identities throughout the world—global homogenization, or “globohomo” as it is sometimes known.  

Idealistic proponents of globohomo want everyone to feel equally at home everywhere, to ensure no one will ever feel excluded; Silicon Valley believes that a standardized, homogenous world will be more conducive to mass consumerism. Against this, paleoconservatives like Buchanan and Fleming argue that as he loses his sense of roots, man becomes not more human but much less so. Should he ever entirely lose his sense of where he came from, he will in fact be alienated from all actual humans who have ever lived. He will be utterly unlike them insofar as he lacks any sense of heritage, culture, or history. A case can even be made that the frantic pursuit of identity through radical self-experimentation—e.g., transgenderism—is related to the void left by the widespread loss of inherited identity, particularly national, regional, and family identity. 

Of course, it is possible that instead of a high-tech, Babylonian future marked by surreal dehumanization, the chaos and ethnic tensions caused through whisking in assorted masses of people from the four corners of the Earth will lead to catastrophic collapse, a la the late Roman Empire. Whatever the future holds—Brave New World, or the fissioning of Yugoslavia—it would have been nice to have had a candid public debate about the issue before caravan after caravan came rolling up to the southern border in a soft invasion.

On that note, let the last word on immigration go to Dr. Fleming:

The situation is quite as serious as even the most frightened alarmists have suggested, but we cannot begin even to speak seriously about changes in law until we are willing to violate the code of silence that the left has imposed upon the topic. There is a pressing need for plain speech and open discussion in which those who happen to agree with the overwhelming majority of Americans throughout our history are not stigmatized as xenophobes and racists. If the notion of aliens’ rights really takes hold, we are in danger of losing the entire concept of American citizenship.

If it is startling to reflect that these prescient words were written by an obscure Catholic classical scholar back in 1989—over thirty years ago—it is disillusioning to realize how little interest in Fleming’s reflections is shown today, either by “respectable” conservatives or Trumpians. At this point, it may no longer be a matter of speaking “seriously about changes in the law” but of figuring out how to cope with an imminent and inevitable dystopia, with what could be called “post-America.” Either way, perhaps we should henceforth pay more heed to those who forewarned us of disaster and less to those who brought us to it.

[Photo Credit: Kris Connor/Getty Images for SiriusXM]


  • Jerry D. Salyer

    Jerry D. Salyer holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautics from Miami University and a Master of Arts from the Great Books Program of St. John’s College, Annapolis. A veteran of the US Navy, Mr. Salyer now works as an educator and as a freelance writer.

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