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The Great Betrayal
By Patrick J. Buchanan
Little, Brown. 384 pp. $22.95

Readers of a certain age will recall when the tariff seemed the very stuff of American history. So at least we were led to believe. Once the standard textbook narrative got past 1865, arcane controversies over trade policy supplanted freedom as the dominant theme of American history. For generations of perplexed schoolchildren, distinguishing between the Dingley Tariff (1897) and the Payne-Aldrich Tariff (1909) or between the Underwood Tariff (1913) and the Fordney-McCumber Tariff (1922) numbered among the fundamentals of civic literacy, not to mention the prerequisites for advancing to the next higher grade.

This quirky, deeply flawed, but important book revives that perspective. In it, Patrick Buchanan ascribes the ills afflicting contemporary America to the abandonment of the traditionally high tariffs that, in his recounting, made the United States a great nation. In the decades since World War II, this embrace of free trade has resulted in “the industrial disarmament of the United States.” Other nations have grown wealthy at America’s expense, pouring goods into the lucrative U.S. market while unfairly excluding American exports. As a result, the manufacturing sector that as late as the 1940s and 1950s still provided high-paying jobs to the working class has collapsed. The subsequent rise of a high-tech service economy has created a spectacularly wealthy new class of “Third Wave Americans” who, abetted by agents in both political parties, peddle the elixir of globalization. But these bankers, lawyers, lobbyists, entrepreneurs, journalists, and academics are enriching themselves at the expense of the mass of average Americans: that is Buchanan’s “great betrayal.”

In his view, the consequences of that betrayal go far beyond mere wealth and poverty. Free trade nullifies national sovereignty, aggravates class conflict, and undermines traditional morality. By keeping the world at arm’s length, the protective tariff had permitted Americans to erect their City Upon a Hill. By fostering a robust manufacturing sector at home, it had created an immense middle class composed largely of traditional, God-fearing families in which Dad was the sole breadwinner and Mom stayed home to raise the kids. In this sense, writes Buchanan, protectionism “was about justice and patriotism.” Reestablishing the just economic order to which the tariff gave birth “is a precondition of the restoration of the moral order.”

Free trade, according to Buchanan, is alien to American ideals. The very idea is itself “a foreign import.” Early advocates of free trade tended to be “pacifists and atheists,” alienated intellectuals “possessed of a deep animus toward church, state, and empire.” For Buchanan, free trade is a “first cousin to Marxism.” (He finds it significant that during the pivotal decade of the 1940s, the executive chairman of the Citizens Committee for Reciprocal World Trade was none other than Alger Hiss.) Today’s advocates of economic globalization are similarly suspect, offering a Faustian bargain in which “a nation sells its soul for a cornucopia of foreign goods.” Honoring only the bottom line, Third Wave Americans are willing to “betray everything the Founding Fathers stood for, fought for, died for.”

Buchanan’s strategy for restoring the economic and moral order of the Founders is nothing if not provocative. First, he would institute an across-the-board 15 percent tariff on imports, Canada alone excepted. Next he would abandon the World Trade Organization, abrogate the North American Free Trade Agreement, and withdraw from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He would terminate foreign aid and cancel plans to expand NATO. He would bring the troops home from Europe and deploy them along our borders to put an end to illegal immigration. Finally, for good measure, he would introduce a national sales tax in lieu of the income tax, thereby eliminating the IRS.

Early reviews have taken Buchanan to task for faulty economic analysis. Indeed, as history or as a handbook for economic policy, the book’s defects are legion. Yet to dismiss it on those terms is to overlook its significance as a polemic. However imperfectly, The Great Betrayal peels back the polished veneer of establishment politics and offers a glimpse of what lies beneath: a democracy in an advanced state of disrepair.

A long-time Nixon loyalist, archconservative commentator, and Republican presidential candidate, Buchanan now identifies himself as a populist. Indeed, his insistence that a protective tariff will pave the way for moral and political revitalization is analogous to the fervor of populists a century ago who believed that the coinage of Free Silver would correct the inequalities produced as a byproduct of industrialization.

The populists of the 1890s were wrong about the money supply. The populists of the 1990s are wrong about trade. Yet to say that populists of whatever era tend to make lousy economists is not to say that their complaints are without foundation. The infatuation of the original populists with Free Silver did not invalidate their critique of modern industrial capitalism. The tendency of latter-day populists to see the WTO and NAFTA as part of a shadowy conspiracy of arrogant elites should not dissuade us from attending carefully to their discontent.

The fact is that the much-celebrated process of creating a global economic order is leaving by the wayside a considerable number of American citizens. These are the castoffs for whom successive waves of consolidation, downsizing, and restructuring have meant the loss of jobs, status, and self-respect. Less visible than these unfortunates is a much larger number: those who seemingly manage to keep up, but who view the ongoing change in our everyday life with a deep and growing sense of unease.

In a profound insight, Buchanan identifies the anguished and the left behind as “the rooted people”—rooted, like the populists of old, in place and time, adhering to received truths, clinging to traditional folkways. The rooted people identify with what is familiar and close at hand. They value continuity over change. They are instinctively patriotic and nationalistic. They view with suspicion the outsider and the cosmopolitan. When it comes to translating grievances into political platforms, they are not articulate and may too easily fall prey to appeals to a utopian past.

These are Buchanan’s constituents, the millions he would mobilize under the banner of a New Populism and with whose support he proposes to mount a counterrevolution. It is a stirring, even inspirational summons that points unerringly to a dead end. Buchanan’s New Populism will fail not because he misapprehends the phoniness of what currently passes for “good times”—the potential for grassroots upheaval is real enough—but because in attacking free trade he has set off in pursuit of the wrong culprit.

Buchanan would have his readers believe that, at root, the problems of the world’s most affluent nation are economic—that a redistribution of wealth will cure what ails America. It is up to the federal government, in his view, to put paid to the Great Barbecue of the 1990s, to impose restrictive new rules governing economic activity, and to abandon our hegemonic pretensions. Surprisingly, for an old conservative stalwart, he ascribes to Washington a capacity for enlightened governance that outstrips by several orders of magnitude what we have come to expect.

No less significantly, he underestimates the impact of the economic transformation underway for the past several decades. That transformation is irreversible: a policy of national autarky is neither feasible nor desirable. (Buchanan tacitly acknowledges as much, calibrating his 15 percent tariff so as to be “high enough to generate a powerful stream of revenue, but low enough not to destroy trade.”) Above all, however, Buchanan’s analysis falls short of the mark in his unthinking deference to the market, artificially confined to North America above the Rio Grande, as a mechanism to correct growing political, social, and moral problems. The real populists at least understood that the market—industrial capitalism—was itself part of the problem.

Thus, for all of its trappings of radicalism, Buchanan’s is a limp, derivative critique that shrinks from reaching genuinely sweeping implications. Buchanan places the inflammatory rhetoric of 1890s populism at the service of economic policies out of fashion since the 1930s in hopes of restoring his Golden Age of the 1950s. What purports to be a bold political pronouncement is actually a sterile exercise in nostalgia. The times may in fact demand a populist critique, but The Great Betrayal falls well short of the mark.

Andrew J. Bacevich is Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.