Commentary Magazine

The Great Betrayal by Patrick J. Buchanan

Since his first campaign for the presidency in 1992, Patrick J. Buchanan has emerged as this country’s most forceful and unapologetic advocate of isolationism. This stance has gained him a small but enthusiastic following that transcends traditional party lines, with supporters ranging from blue-collar Democrats in the rust belt to partisans of the nativist Right.

So far, Buchanan’s political agenda has not proved a winner at the polls. Undaunted by past failure, however, he appears, Harold Stassen-like, to be preparing for yet another presidential bid. If this book is his campaign manifesto, we can expect a hard-edged and often strident crusade.

The Great Betrayal sounds many of the same themes that Buchanan has emphasized over the years in his newspaper columns and television appearances, as well as on the stump: the need to curtail immigration and to reduce foreign aid, and the perils of U.S. overextension abroad. At its heart, however, is the issue of international trade—in Buchanan’s conception, a form of warfare in which one side, and one side only, can emerge victorious, while all others lose. Over the past several decades, in his judgment, the U.S., having failed to engage in commercial combat, has been the loser.

In leveling this charge, Buchanan denounces just about every trade measure adopted by the U.S. in the postwar era, reserving his most concentrated fire for recent accords like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). America, in his view, has played by the rules while our major trading partners, most notably Japan, have not, keeping out American goods even while they underhandedly destroy export-oriented industries in the U.S.

The result, Buchanan asserts, has been an accelerating flight of jobs abroad, a decline in the living standards of those industrial workers fortunate enough to remain employed, the impoverishment of blue-collar America, and the enrichment of a new class of lawyers, consultants, bankers, journalists, and other do-nothings.

Ultimately, Buchanan sees U.S. trade policy as the culprit behind the decline of the family, an upsurge in male idleness, and rising crime rates. Free trade, he writes acidly, has reduced America from a great nation to a “colony of the world.”

Buchanan’s cure for the terrible sickness he diagnoses is plain enough. In The Great Betrayal he repeats his call for strict curbs on legal and illegal immigration, and, under the slogan “no more Vietnams, no more Koreas,” he calls for terminating foreign aid, bringing our troops home from Europe, and withdrawing from almost all our diplomatic and military commitments overseas.

When it comes to trade, Buchanan makes a sustained argument for protectionism. American economic greatness, he insists, has always rested on protectionist walls. Therefore, only a system of stiff tariffs, aimed at keeping products made by low-wage workers out of the country, can usher us into a better future. But that future, he assures his readers, can be very bright indeed: nothing less than a new industrial age, complete with full employment, steadily increasing wages, and a more equal distribution of wealth.



That Buchanan’s ideas are problematic is putting things mildly. There is, for one thing, the unmistakable whiff of conspiracy-mongering in his analyses. His account of the global economic order is stocked with pointed references to such nemeses of the hard Right as “one-worlders,” the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Trilateral Commission. Today’s system of world trade, Buchanan darkly reminds us, was shaped by postwar international negotiations that featured the participation of two American diplomats who betrayed their country, Harry Dexter White and Alger Hiss. Similar hints and winks to the initiated abound.

Even where Buchanan appears more reasoned, his arguments never quite ascend to reasonableness. Deeply resentful of the economic achievements of Germany and Japan in the decades following World War II, he refuses to acknowledge that both the American economy and the American worker benefited from German and Japanese success, as they did from European and Asian prosperity. In explaining the decline of blue-collar jobs in the U.S., he gives no consideration to factors other than trade—technological progress, for example—nor does he credit the many new jobs created by such developments.

Finally, Buchanan seems blind to the fact that countries (including most notably Japan) that have followed the course he advocates for the U.S., resisting participation in the liberalized global marketplace, have recently been suffering stagflation, high unemployment, and slow economic growth, while the U.S., blandly indifferent to his advice, has prospered. All in all, Buchanan’s promise that tariffs are the key to a golden economic age is tantamount to consumer fraud.



If the proposals advanced in The Great Betrayal are worthless as economic strategy, how are they likely to fare in the realm of politics?

At first blush, one might be tempted to dismiss their clout. In the years since his last electoral setback, Buchanan’s emphasis on naked class warfare and his ever more strenuous populism have increasingly alienated him from the Republican-party mainstream. Nor would there seem to be much support for his position in the country at large, if only because the American economy is in so much healthier a state than it was in either 1992 or 1996, years when Buchanan failed to garner even 20 percent of the Republican primary vote.

Yet Buchanan’s brand of isolationism and protectionism could still come to exert an appeal. Many Americans are legitimately disturbed when asked to spend billions to stabilize the tattered economies of Asian countries whose leaders openly sneer at Western-style democracy. They may also wonder about the wisdom of free-trade agreements with Latin American countries whose level of economic development is much lower than our own. And they may with reason be unsettled by America’s partial surrender of economic sovereignty to global entities like the World Trade Organization.

These sentiments are well understood not only by Buchanan but by politicians who stand distant from him on the political spectrum—Richard Gephardt, the liberal Democratic House minority leader, being the most salient example. In the absence of a strong political leadership capable of making a clear and convincing case for international engagement, the simplistic and illogical arguments advanced in The Great Betrayal may yet make some headway for the isolationist cause.


About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

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