Using this book as a bludgeon against some of the more vivid Republican Party populist figures does not do the book, or such figures, justice. Felzenberg, especially in writing about Buckley’s 1965 mayoral race, makes it very clear that WFB appealed to many of the same kind of of blue collar voters who elected Trump. Felzenberg trenchantly quotes James Q. Wilson’s distinction between Democrats who championed the cause of workers, especially ethnic blue collars, and those who he called “amateurs,” the progressives who had, and have, hijacked my father’s (and, long ago, my very own) Democratic Party.
Buckley’s erudition, Ivy League pedigree, and personal wealth did not estrange working class voters. Workers sensed his respect for their values and dignity. They sensed the same in Trump, despite his foibles. This is no small thing.
There have long been tensions and rivalries, some more friendly than others, within the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy to which I belong. Damon Linker:
Well, no. We paleocons do expect to be caricatured as very deplorable indeed. The picture drawn of us represents a rather grotesque caricature, relying on the amplification of tiny, immaterial, factions of a school of thought that is firmly rooted in classical liberal republican thought. Mischievous, sometimes malicious, journalists can always find, and exaggerate, an outlier. Few, virtually none, of us “dabble in ethnic demonization.” Those are opportunistic hangers-on.
But yes, By George! Many of us outer borough bridge-and-tunnel Morlocks are vulgarians. Perhaps we, made irate that our jobs and economic security have been so eviscerated by the ruling elites, our values mocked, might at times justly be called “scowling primitives.” That said, the vast majority of us are not tools of plutocratic libertarians, nor conspiracy theorists, nor race-baiters, nor ethnic demonizers. Few of us are “extremists, bigots, kooks, anti-Semites and racists” and those few unwelcome in our midst.
It’s sad that the Pretty People do not like us. But in a way that works to our political advantage. As the New York Times’s own Frank Bruni -- an honest and rigorous liberal -- wrote recently in Can Democrats Save Themselves:
Somewhere in a dresser drawer I may still have my “Eat An Eloi” t-shirt. Time to take it out of mothballs.
Buckley considered Eisenhower a miserable president and had ticklish relations with nominally conservative Republican leaders throughout most of his career. The signal exception, of course, was the truly conservative Ronald Reagan, with whom Buckley was on close terms and served, somewhat, as a mentor. The Buckley political rule, as recorded by Barry Popik, was “I’d be for the most right, viable candidate who could win.”
It’s not quite Kristol Clear to this reader what William F. Buckley would have made of Donald J. Trump. He is not around to say. But in his day, Buckley served as a provocateur who aligned more with populists and with "radical conservatives" than with Establishment Republicans or "the well-fed Right, whose ignorance and amorality have never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity."
It is highly likely that Buckley, at very least, would have been in full sympathy with Kellyanne Conway's observation that “I thank God every day. I click my heels three times and say ‘[Hillary Clinton] is not the president, she is not the president, she is not the president.” Those who present WFB's life and work as an indictment of contemporary conservatism clearly have misread this book.
WFB, may he rest in peace, is no longer with us to tell us what he thinks in his invariably witty, erudite, way. That said, thanks be to Alvin Felzenberg for bringing to life the epic story -- the political odyssey -- of a radical conservative overflowing with wit and elan. Felzenberg distills the essence of Buckley's life and thought in ways thoroughly enjoyable and magnificently helpful for understanding the architecture of contemporary conservatism and national politics. It's an indispensable work.