William F. Buckley, I suppose, would have wanted to be remembered as a powerful and charismatic public intellectual for conservatism and one of the foundational thinkers in the late 20th-/early 21st-century formation of conservative thought and the current Republican Party.
While Buckley failed as a political candidate and may in many ways be lost to history, his goals have been mostly accomplished—creating a Republican movement that succeeded in significant ways from Ronald Reagan’s rise through the election of Donald Trump, with only minor detours for centerists such as Bill Clinton (anti-welfare and “tough on crime” advocate) and Barack Obama.
What did Buckley envision?
His was a political ideology that shifted the 1950s Republican moderates and liberals to a reactionary party grounded in (when convenient) libertarian principles and Christian values that stood firm against the rising tide of Brown v. Board (school integration) and the Civil Rights Act of the mid-1960s as well as the violent civil rights movement swelling from the 1950s into the 1970s.
Buckley repeatedly argued that Black people killed during the Civil Rights Era had provoked the violence, for example. He was a “know your place” sort of racist.
Buckley held firm throughout his public career that Southern whites had the right to their beliefs, even if those beliefs were racist, and that the federal government must not impede on those rights (Constitutionally wrong, was his thin argument), even if those efforts sought to gain the full rights of Black people.
Yes, Buckley was a racist, the sort of racist who admitted racism was a plight on humanity and the U.S., but he argued, it was a plight that must be allowed to play out somewhat organically and not spurred by the influence of government mandate (whether through the courts or legislation). Buckley was also the sort of racist who claimed whites were superior to Black people at the moment, even as he wasn’t going to argue directly there were genetic differences (although he was fine with letting such claims linger).
Buckley rarely even flinched and sometimes eagerly trafficked with those who did make much more gross and hateful claims—George Wallace, James Jackson Kilpatrick, etc.
In Nicholas Buccola’s The Fire Is Upon Us, using the James Baldwin/Buckley debate as the crux of his examination, Buccola draws a powerful conclusion about Buckley’s impact on U.S. politics: “For the American Right, the price of power has been a deal with the devil of white supremacy” (p. 365).
The line from Buckley to the Reagan Revolution and then to the current Trump administration is straight and direct. For those who want to claim that Trump is an aberration, a distortion of modern/contemporary Republicanism, Buccola’s book is a harsh slap in the face.
Trump and the current Republican Party is at least a logical conclusion to what Buckley and other conservatives started in the 1940s-1950s.
Buckley mastered what we now see as typical Trumpisms: claiming belief trumps evidence, cozying up to blatant racists for partisan political expediency, making sweeping ideological claims about “the individual” while refusing to recognize the inequities that weigh on real individuals (especially if those individuals are not white), resorting to American exceptionalism and framing any enemy as being “anti-American,” promoting boot-strapping over government intervention, and refusing to acknowledge one’s own enormous privilege while also claiming great accomplishment from hard work and intellectual superiority.
In short, Buckley wrote Trump’s playbook, although Trump is a slightly more buffoonish version of Buckley, himself a stylized character, more theater than substance despite Buckley’s penchant for arcane vocabulary.
However, I must stress here that despite my initial focus on Buckley, Buccola’s outstanding scholarship and compelling writing has one star: James Baldwin.
Just as Baldwin was often the complicated and complicating moral compass while he was alive, Baldwin provides not only context, but the moral counterbalance to Buckley’s inexcusable dispassionate dogmatism.
As someone who has often written about and teaches from Baldwin, I recognize in Buccola an essential primer on Baldwin’s evolving thought throughout the key decades surrounding the Buckley debate in 1965.
Readers witness Baldwin being smeared as a communist (and his explanations to the contrary), labeled “anti-American” (although he repeatedly argues that to criticize the U.S. is to love it), provoked to pick sides between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X (Baldwin resisted, praising both men but cautioning against the dangers of any strict obligations to organized religion), and characterized as a leading cause of racial violence (maybe the central target of Buckley’s “blame the victims” campaign).
While Baldwin sought always to live the life of an artist, he was drawn time and again into his role as public intellectual, journalist, practitioner of the jeremiad, public speaker, and debater.
Even Malcolm X was apt to warn others that Baldwin was always his own man—so what he said and when he said it remained Baldwin’s.
Guiding Baldwin was his own conception of love:
In order to achieve freedom of this sort, Baldwin contended, we must love one another. His understanding of love was deep and complex, and the love he prescribed was difficult and often unsettling. To love someone, he explained, is to deny them “spiritual and social ease,” which “hard as if may sound,” is “the most important thing that one human being can do for another.” Love requires us to force each other to confront the delusions that we rely on to avoid taking responsibility for our lives. “Love takes off the masks,” Baldwin declared, “that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” (From The Fire Is Upon Us, Nicholas Buccola, p. 163, quoting from Baldwin’s “Down at the Cross,” pp. 335, 341)
And that commitment rested against Baldwin’s consternation about white America:
“There are days—this is one of them—when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it … [and] how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here.” … “I am terrified,” [Baldwin] said, “by the moral apathy, the death of the heart that is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I am human …. And this means that they have become … moral monsters.” (p. 186)
Ultimately, Baldwin had the irrefutable last word on race in the U.S.:
Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,’ but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie. (On Language, Race and the Black Writer, James Baldwin, Los Angeles Times, 1979)
And as Buccola quotes Baldwin talking to “students at Cambridge”:
What is happening in the poor woman, the poor man’s mind. They have been raised to believe, and by now they helplessly believe, that no matter how terrible their lives may be, and their lives have been quite terrible, and no matter how far they fall, no matter what disaster overtakes them, they have one enormous knowledge and consolation which is like a heavenly revelation: at least they are not black. (p. 259)
Yet, Buccola paraphrases Baldwin arguing “most white Americans live in a state of denial” (p. 347).
Buccola makes a deeply compelling choice by framing the racial/racist history of the U.S., and how that drives and intermingles with U.S. partisan politics as well as media, with one moment in U.S. history—when Buckley and Baldwin directly debate “the motion of the American dream is at the expense of the American Negro” (p. 376; note that this volume includes the most intact transcript existing of the debate, another gem of this book).
These two men, born within a year of each other although Baldwin was in Harlem and Buckley, in extreme wealth and privilege, are not mere tokens of history, but valid voices of the current tensions in a country that wants to call itself free and equitable but often, like Buckley, refuses to acknowledge our sins (as Baldwin did) or do anything about them.
Reading Buccola’s extended exegesis of the debate, I am reminded of comedian George Carlin: “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
And, of course, more Baldwin: “The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something we do not understand and do not want to admit” (“Lockridge: ‘The American Myth,’” 1948).
In the Epilogue, Buccola shares Baldwin’s recollection of Buckley avoiding an elevator packed with Baldwin and his Black friends:
“He will say, of course, if challenged, that the elevator was crowded, but I remember the split second—the twinkling of an eye—in which he looked at me and he saw me looking at him. Okay. But I [emphasis in original] would have gotten on the elevator.”
Racist. Liar. Coward. These are the words that came into Baldwin’s mind when he thought of Buckley. (p. 361)
Apt words, chilling words, that serve us, sadly, now.