Back in the 1990s, conservative commentator and former White House aide Pat Buchanan took the Republican Party by storm as a “pitchfork populist,” running for president on a platform of economic nationalism, sealing the border, and isolationism. Mr. Buchanan’s high point came in 1996, when he won the New Hampshire primary. Today, the rise of Donald Trump carries distinct echoes of Buchanan. He is, in a way, the godfather of “Trumpism.” We spoke with Buchanan about Mr. Trump, Bernie Sanders, and the future of the Republican Party. The following are excerpts, lightly edited for clarity:
Q: Twenty-four years after your first presidential bid, are you feeling vindicated?
Everything we predicted has come to pass. I said, “Look, you’re going to lose your manufacturing base and all these manufacturing jobs, and these wars are going to lead us into a quagmire, and we’ve got to get control of the border.”
Trump does represent the new reality in his awareness of what’s happened to American industry and manufacturing because of these trade deals and companies leaving the country, taking their factories with them, and leaving their workers behind, unemployed.
Trump has really touched a nerve in the country that feels that we’re being invaded from the Southern border, with folks coming through Mexico. And he will stop it. And Americans look at all these wars in the Middle East, and they say, what has it all availed us?... So in that sense, the issues are what propelled him, as well as his persona.
Q: Republicans are embroiled in a civil war. Can the party pull together by November?
Every coalition has stresses and strains, but I think that the Republicans have a potential majority coalition. You’ve got the Trump folks, who are populist and nationalist; the [Ted] Cruz voters, who are tea party and hard-right Republicans; and the establishment, who are moderates and moderate-conservatives. If you can get those all together – and that’s a big if – I think you’ve got a fighting chance. Lots of people have gone into races further behind than this.
Q: How does the GOP survive, given America’s changing demographics?
Ultimately, it doesn’t, unless we can get a handle on immigration.... You know, we had that huge immigration [surge] from 1890 to 1920, and the Republicans, in the Harding-Coolidge era, basically closed the door on immigration. That huge cohort of people that came in from Eastern and Southern Europe, they went Democratic during the New Deal, because they were working people.
But the very fact that the door had been shut, that allowed their children to move up. They bought homes; they had a stake in their community and became taxpayers. That was [Richard] Nixon’s new majority, and from 1968, we won the presidency for 20 of the next 24 years.
In 1992, I said, “OK we’ve had another 25 years of high immigration, now we need a time out to assimilate, Americanize these folks, and bring them into the culture – start them on the road to the middle class. And when they get to the middle class, we can win them.”
Q: Do you feel a kinship with the populist Bernie Sanders?
I opposed NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] and GATT [the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] and all these deals when they were first announced. It was Bernie Sanders and Buchanan – all the great conservatives! I used to have Bernie Sanders on my radio show when we were fighting NAFTA.... If I needed a guest, I would say, “Call Bernie Sanders, he’s always good on this stuff.”
Q: There’s a feeling, which Trump has perpetuated, that there’s a strain of racism in the Republican Party.
I wouldn’t use that term, but there’s no doubt that there’s a sense that on the part of a lot of folks, the language used is problematic.
Q: How do you feel about Trump’s proposed temporary ban on non-American Muslims entering the United States?
Let me defend it this way: [After the San Bernardino, Calif., shootings], the sense I got was we’re going to have to vet people a lot more closely before they come into the country.
Q: Isn’t it un-American to single out one religious group?
I don’t know if you call it un-American, but you call it simple common sense.... If you’ve got folks coming out of places where ISIS [Islamic State] has a real presence, places where there’s a real war going on, you’ve got to take a good hard look at those folks.