COLUMN: Past is Prologue

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On the northeast corner of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. is the inscription “What’s past is prologue,” a quote from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, meaning that history often sets the content for the present. One piece of history that very well could explain conservative opposition to Donald Trump occurred mid-January, 1962.

National Review founder, Bill Buckley, received an urgent phone call from William Baroody, then president of the American Enterprise Institute. Baroody urged Buckley to come to the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, to meet with Barry Goldwater, Russell Kirk and a public relations man named Jay Hall, who worked for General Motors. They were meeting ostensibly to discuss the policies of President John F. Kennedy and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. But the topic soon turned to The John Birch Society and, as it turned out, the real reason for the meeting. Goldwater needed counsel.

Candy manufacturer Robert Welch founded The John Birch Society in 1958. It was one of the first right-wing grassroots organizations in the country. And, in the early 1960s, it had relative influence inside the Republican Party. If Goldwater were thinking about running against Kennedy in the 1964 presidential election, he certainly would have to address the problem of The John Birch Society. And what was that problem? Well, Robert Welch basically was a kook. He wrote a book titled The Politician, in which he called President Dwight Eisenhower a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” Welch also said that the United States government was up to 70 percent controlled by communists. Yeah, that little problem.

As Buckley told the story in the Wall Street Journal years later, “Kirk, unimpeded by his little professorial stutter, greeted the subject with fervor. It was his opinion, he said emphatically, that Robert Welch was a man disconnected from reality. How could anyone reason, as Welch had done in The Politician, that President Eisenhower had been a secret agent of the Communists? This mischievous unreality was a great weight on the back of responsible conservative political thinking. The John Birch Society should be renounced by Goldwater and by everyone else–Kirk turned his eyes on me–with any influence on the conservative movement.”

Buckley said Goldwater balked. Goldwater said that’s the problem. “Every other person in Phoenix is a member of the John Birch Society. Russell, I’m not talking about Commie-haunted apple pickers or cactus drunks, I’m talking about the highest cast of men of affairs.” Kirk stuck to his guns and suggested that The John Birch Society be excommunicated from the conservative movement. To which Goldwater replied, “You just can’t do that kind of thing in Arizona.” And, I might add a historical note, neither could it have been done in Utah where The John Birch Society had a major following in the 1960s.

Buckley’s narrative of that meeting concludes with everyone agreeing to do what they could to neutralize the influence of The John Birch Society. For his part, Buckley wrote a 5,000-word essay for his magazine, National Review, that he referred to as an “excoriation” of Robert Welch. To Goldwater at the Breakers Hotel, Buckley laid the foundation of his eventual argument, what Buckley called Welch’s “operational fallacy.” To wit, “…the assumption that you can infer subjective intention from objective consequence: we lost China to the Communists, therefore the President of the United States and the Secretary of State wished China to go to the Communists.”

In his essay, Buckley wrote, “How can the John Birch Society be an effective political instrument while it is led by a man whose views on current affairs are, at so many critical points . . . so far removed from common sense?”

I don’t think it is any coincidence, though not a communist conspiracy, that conservative intellectuals at both National Review and the American Enterprise Institute (now including the writers at The Weekly Standard) are among the most vocal opponents of Donald Trump today just as they were over 50 years ago opposing The John Birch Society. Back then, Robert Welch was the kook endangering the future of conservatism. Today, it’s Donald Trump endangering the future of the Republican Party and the legacy of conservative policies it has represented for nearly 40 years.

The godfathers of modern conservatism opposed Robert Welch in the early 1960s. Their intellectual offspring oppose Donald Trump on virtually the same grounds today. If I described a “man whose views on current affairs are, at so many critical points…so far removed from common sense,” and a “man disconnected from reality,” wouldn’t you assume I was talking about Trump? Well, no need to assume.

I realize that many Americans are rightly angered and frustrated with government. It’s now almost cliché to mention that fact. But that fact is hardly justification to make Donald Trump the solution. To make Trump your objective consequence is to infer subjective delusion. Authentic conservatives, in the tradition of Barry Goldwater (circa 1962), Bill Buckley, William Baroody and Russell Kirk, would never vote for Donald Trump. I know labels are meaningless for some people, but conservative means something to me and Donald Trump is not that something.

I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.