Echoes Of Trump: Buckley and Vidal’s Showdown Reviewed

DURING THE 1968 DEMOCRATIC AND REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTIONS, ABC News brought Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley together to articulate opposing visions for the country’s future. While they were both white men of extreme material privilege, Vidal, a progressive writer and cultural critic, and Buckley, a conservative thinker and television host, were seen to embody a deep divide in American political and cultural life. In revisiting these debates in our shallow present, we might be tempted to wax nostalgic for the depth of this high-minded past. Buckley and Vidal were exquisite polemicists, slithering around the issues in unctuous, mid-Atlantic drawls, striking at the other’s slightest misstep. Their deft oratory, however, belies the vacuous rhetoric – meaningful issues are almost absent from the debates, taking a backseat to vicious character attacks that adumbrate today’s punditry.

Neither Buckley nor Vidal were members of the political establishment at this particular moment. Both were seen as fringe thinkers, offering divergent paths out of the crisis of liberalism that defined America during the Civil Rights era. While Buckley was deeply sceptical of a Republican Party that had failed to challenge the fundamental tenets of the New Deal, Vidal was suspicious of the increasingly rightward-leaning Democrats who were in the process of abandoning their working class electoral base. At first glance, the story of Buckley and Vidal seems to support the tale of the Left and the Right as twin parasites, symbiotically surging in opposition to one another. But although this story seems to capture the undulating tides of progressivism and conservatism in American political history, it fails to disclose the Left’s gradual disintegration; its convergence with an extreme neoliberal centre that has defined the last several decades.

For three days in August 1968, the Democratic National Convention occupied Chicago. While the political establishment rigged the contest in favour of Hubert Humphrey, a centre-left, pro-war candidate, thousands of Americans flooded the area surrounding the convention hall, declaring a powerful stance against the Vietnam War and a radical vision of racial equality. As tensions between a heavily militarised police force and protesters escalated, so too did the tenor of Buckley and Vidal’s performance. In the penultimate debate, Vidal spends the evening gradually baiting his opponent, interrogating his unwavering support for the brutal Chicago police force. The debate reaches its zenith when Vidal calls Buckley a ‘pro-war, crypto-Nazi’. Leaning forward in his chair, Buckley interjects, ‘Now listen you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.’

Two documentary films recently released in the UK, The Best of Enemies (2015) and the less interesting Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (2013), revisit this pivotal incident, both asserting that this explosive outburst resulted in Vidal’s decisive victory over Buckley. While both men ruminated over the incident for years, Buckley’s very public struggle in the event’s aftermath is, in retrospect, desperate and sad. Meanwhile, Vidal spent the rest of his life in Italy, voluntarily exiled from the place to which he would apply most of his critical scrutiny. However, in their focus on the incident’s implications for these two individual men’s psyches, the films miss out on the more interesting insights the archival footage of them reveals: the glimpses of a militant brand of neoconservative demagogue that, like the heads of Hydra, has re-spawned in Buckley’s absence, taking the form of Donald Trump. Vidal may have guillotined Buckley in the 1968 debates, but an entire political movement has grown in his place.

The films share a dangerous proclivity for explaining away Buckley’s outburst as a strange exception from his normally patrician manner. This view fails to situate Buckley’s attack within his specific brand of conservatism – one that quickly becomes untenable and lashes out violently when challenged in any substantive way. Buckley’s vitriolic attack is not an unfortunate rhetorical misstep fuelled by the hot lights of a television set, but a natural product of his ideology. That Buckley had failed to formulate a coherent political philosophy in his otherwise prolific career, his manifesto Revolt Against the Masses was left unfinished, suggests that he wrestled with the inconsistencies in his own ideas, the violence coded within his high rhetoric. Still, he managed to shift an entire generation of political leaders to the right: Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, and Samuel Alito cite Buckley as a major influence.

Buckley may not have cherished the nativist movement he spawned, but Trump’s racism and xenophobia bubble beneath Buckley’s surface, waiting to puncture the flimsy veneer of the learned intellectual at any available moment. They are hidden in Buckley’s unflinching support for American imperialism, the Chicago police department, and his brand of Christian capitalism. It is in this outburst with Vidal, one that is uncannily repeated a year later in a debate with Noam Chomsky, that the violence that undergirds Buckley’s conservatism is exposed. More than fifty years after Buckley and Vidal’s debate, the sleek guise that once packaged conservatism as a transcendent doctrine of philosopher kings has fractured, forcing us to reckon with what has been there all along: a reactionary and violent mode of thinking to which only a robust Left movement can provide an alternative.

—Kimberly Schreiber

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