When the Soviet Union came into being in 1917, some American left-wing intellectuals hailed the establishment of the new “workers’ paradise” as the model for the United States (and indeed the rest of the world) to follow. Some even traveled to Russia to pay homage to the communist dictatorship – as for example journalist Lincoln Steffens, who upon returning from Moscow and Petrograd infamously declared: “I have seen the future, and it works.” In later years, some American leftists saw similar visions on their visits to left-wing authoritarian regimes such as Mao’s China and Castro’s Cuba. 

But this fascination with foreign autocrats also had its counterpart on the conservative side, as veteran journalist Jacob Heilbrunn explains in his fascinating new book America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators. Other commentators have noticed the contemporary American right’s embrace of figures such as Hungary’s Victor Orbán — the Conservative Political Action Conference held its third annual gathering in Budapest in May 2024 — and Vladimir Putin, whose “genius” and “savvy” Donald Trump praised after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. But Heilbrunn writes that such attitudes are merely the latest manifestation of a conservative tradition that traces back to the First World War, “when intellectuals on the Right displayed an unease with mass democracy that manifested itself in a hankering for authoritarian leaders abroad.” This tradition continued with right-wing praise for Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy during the interwar years, and for Franco’s Spain and Pinochet’s Chile during the Cold War.

In this podcast interview, Heilbrunn discusses the ways in which the Old Right’s preoccupations have returned to the modern American conservative movement as well as the ways in which the New Right’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr., used the hatreds unleashed by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist crusade as a political weapon. He explains why paleoconservatives such as Patrick Buchanan liked the neoconservative Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s distinction between right-wing authoritarians and totalitarians, and also why Buchanan is not so much an isolationist as an advocate for a kind of internationalism rooted in conservative values, whiteness, and cultural pessimism about liberal democracy.  


Jacob Heilbrunn: You can’t simply remain passive but have to examine what is it that people have said in the past, what has occurred and what could occur in the present, and why is it not acceptable for Trump to indulge in the kind of fascist rhetoric that he often wallows in.

Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m delighted to be joined today by Jacob Heilbrunn. He is the editor of The National Interest, a foreign policy magazine that was founded by Irving Kristol in 1985. He has also been a senior editor at The New Republic — that’s the old New Republic — and an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times.

He is the author of the 2008 history They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons. And he is also the author of the brand-new America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators. Welcome, Jacob!

Jacob Heilbrunn: Thank you, Geoff.

Geoff Kabaservice: And congratulations on America Last. As you know, I’m immeasurably impressed by the speed with which you wrote this book. I seem to remember meeting you for lunch in early 2023 when you talked about the book as a concept. And then a few months later you had a draft, and now here is the book. That’s an almost unheard-of celerity in the publishing world. So, first question for you, how did you come up with the concept for the book? And then how were you able to bring it into being on such an accelerated schedule?

Jacob Heilbrunn: Well, I had written an article for The Atlantic, a short essay for the online edition, and that served to inspire my publisher to ask me if I would be interested in writing a quick book on the topic. And I admit that I gulped a little bit when they gave me a June deadline, because I think they were calling me in March. So the book was written and researched in a couple months, and it was an intensive project. But it was working at The New Republic, which you mentioned earlier, that originally trained me to basically, as often as possible, make the first draft the last draft.

Geoff Kabaservice: That makes sense. I must say, though, since I had seen one of the early drafts, the eventual book was much expanded from what I saw. And I was deeply impressed by the depth of the research that you had done even at white heat.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Well, I enjoy burrowing into the past — much as you do, Geoff. And I shouldn’t take all the laurels here, because obviously your books have exemplified incredible scholarly tenacity — the book specifically Rule and Ruin — and my book is a sapling next to your oak. But once you get into a project like this, it’s fun. It builds on itself. I didn’t really have much difficulty in writing this book. It was pretty much self-explanatory. And in a way I hope that other people will jump off some of the chapters in the future and explore them more deeply than I was able to.

Geoff Kabaservice: One of the things that I liked about the book, among the many things I liked about the book, was that there actually were important elements of your own personal experiences in there as well. And in fact the book sort of begins and ends with your encounters with Hungary’s Balázs Orbán — who is not directly related to the country’s authoritarian leader, Viktor Orbán, but Balázs functions as his ideological advisor and kind of an ambassador to populist conservatives around the world. And you referenced his speaking appearance at the fiftieth anniversary conference and party for the Heritage Institution in the Washington, D.C. area here in April 2023. And then you spoke to Balázs Orbán a month later, after you were denied entry to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Budapest in May 2023.

So tell me something, then, about… Well, let me just quote from the book. You said you wondered why America Firsters at Heritage and elsewhere were looking to a Hungarian parliamentarian as a guide to navigating the culture wars. Why had Hungary emerged as a model for the American Right, those supposed believers in American exceptionalism? And “How,” you wrote, “in short, did Hungary become the future that works for this country’s conservatives?” So tell me when you started thinking about these things related to Hungary and the changing nature of the American Right.

Jacob Heilbrunn: When I was a College Republican at Oberlin in the mid-1980s, I’d hosted Paul Hollander, who is the author of a book called Political Pilgrims. It focused on left-wing receptivity and idealization of various communist regimes: Stalin’s Russia at the time of the purges, Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution. So I’d always been fascinated by the left-wing version of this, and it never really occurred to me that the Right would fall prey to the same delusions and romantic illusions. I had always assumed, “Well, the Right is happy with the United States, so they enjoy a kind of immunity to this virus.” 

But lo and behold, I started reading all these rapturous accounts of not only Hungary but also Putin’s Russia. Christopher Caldwell, in particular, delivered a speech at Hillsdale that I read — it came into my office, an offprint of his address, and my jaw dropped — in which he hailed Vladimir Putin as perhaps the greatest leader of our time, which he meant in a neutral way the way Time magazine does. But nevertheless, despite the disclaimers, it was clear that he admired Putin’s culture war.

And so I started to realize that conservatives were in fact susceptible to this. And as you know, I was also working with Dimitri Simes at the time, who knew many of the people in the Putin regime. And I had encountered Maria Butina, who had sent me an article when I was editor of The National Interest. I thought it was sort of a lark to publish it. She was a student at American University. I had no idea of the whole background that she exemplified. And she pitched, in the article, the idea of a union between the Republican Party and Russia, and said that they had far more in common than you might think. I was incredulous and thought, “This is sort of laughable.” But it was well-written and intriguing enough that I just ran it.

It never occurred to me that this would in fact become the raison d’être of the Republican Party today, where you end up in a situation where 112 House Republicans vote to deny Ukraine desperately needed military aid and only 110 support it. So we have seen a massive inversion of reality. And in a way, Maria Butina was a prophet.

Geoff Kabaservice: Maria Butina, just for listeners who may not remember her, was kind of a Mata Hari-like Russian spy who made it her mission to convert the conservative movement to the cause of Putin’s Russia one seductee at a time. But maybe you could explain a little more about what she was doing in this country?

Jacob Heilbrunn: Well, she ended up being jailed, and she’s now back in Russia, and I think a member of the Parliament. But she was a spy on American territory and was a student at AU, and cut a wide swath through the Republican Party. And in a way she prefigured the ties that the Trump campaign had with a variety of Russians, many of which were funneled, of course, through Paul Manafort. And it is a story that I’m not sure has been fully told yet. There is still a book for someone to write about how the Republican Party, and specifically the Trump campaign, reached out to Russia and saw a union of interests between the two sides.

Geoff Kabaservice: So you mentioned Dimitri Simes, who was the head of the Center for the National Interest where you worked. As it turns out, you said, you eventually discovered that he was probably the American with the deepest and most personal connections to the Kremlin anywhere to be found in the country. And it was largely through his initiative that Donald Trump gave his one and only foreign policy speech during the 2016 presidential campaign under the auspices of The National Interest at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. Can you tell me something about that?

Jacob Heilbrunn: Well, we need to be careful. It wasn’t really at Dimitri’s initiative that the speech was given. It was the Trump campaign that approached the Center. I believe they also approached the Atlantic Council, and I think the Senate Council on Foreign Relations was eager to host the speech. So it’s not quite as outlandish as it may appear.

I wrote about it in Politico at the time. This is where Trump gave his America First speech and kept thundering “America First!” And frankly, I was both aghast and bemused by the speech. I wrote a critical article about it in Politico that evening, which incensed the Trump campaign. I think that that speech, in retrospect, it’s worth reading again. It really does suggest that Trump has a more coherent foreign policy vision than he’s often credited with. You keep hearing this phrase that “Trump needs adults in the room, he needs adult supervision,” and that he is liable to run off in any capricious direction. But my own views on this are somewhat different. I think that Trump — perhaps he assimilated these views from his father — is a pretty consistent America Firster in the most odious sense of the word.

If he were granted a second term by the electorate, I don’t think it’s just a matter that he wouldn’t have adult supervision. I think it’s that he would prosecute this vision that he enunciated quite early in his 1990 Playboy interview, where he talked about how he admired the Chinese for their brutality at Tiananmen Square and he scorned Mikhail Gorbachev because he was letting the Soviet Union collapse. Trump’s verdict was that you needed to move brutally and swiftly to crush dissent. And I think these things are all quite ominous, but I don’t think Trump is capricious. I think he does, in foreign policy perhaps more than anywhere else, have firm, consistent, and dangerous views.

Geoff Kabaservice: In late 1987, I was stuck at an Armenia airport in what was then still the Soviet Union, in Yerevan. And I encountered a group from New York of American peaceniks and leftists who were there to tour the Soviet Union and see all the wonders that socialism had to offer. And I got into a bit of a debate with one of them about how, in fact, most things didn’t seem to be working terribly well at that point in the late Soviet Union, at which point he dragged out the classic line, “Well, the problem with communism is that it’s never really been tried.”

So I was used to knowing something about this tradition of left-wing pilgrims to the Soviet Union, to Cuba, to some other locations around the world that seemed like an alternative and better paradise than anything that could be envisioned in the United States. But I wasn’t so aware that there, in fact, was this longer right-wing tradition of that as well. And this is something that you get into in your book.

Jacob Heilbrunn: To be honest, I wasn’t either until I started looking back. The first thing that tipped me off was H. L. Mencken, who venerated Wilhelmine Germany before, during… During World War I, he actually wrote an article for The Atlantic saying that the United States would be better off if it was ruled by Prussian autocracy. He supported the Kaiser during World War I. He scorned American democracy.

I talk about him and George Sylvester Viereck, who was a paid propagandist for the German government both in World War I and World War II. And Mencken, too, was an opponent of intervention in World War II and was, I think, in many ways sympathetic to Nazism. He found it too crude, but he did admire fascism. And Sylvester Viereck was known as George “Swastika” Viereck. Both of them are sort of precursors for what erupts in the 1930s, which is the full-fledged America First movement.

In my book, I also talk about other figures such as Lothrop Stoddard, who was a prominent eugenicist and a graduate both of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. Lothrop Stoddard wrote a book that became a bestseller in 1920 called The Rising Tide of Color, which suggested that the finest flower of white men had died during World War I, and that Africa and Asia were poised to swamp the West with immigrants, and that they would destroy our Anglo-Saxon stock.

In the book, I try to tease out all of these precursors for the ‘30s and for today. The basic argument of my book is that Donald Trump has not invented anything. To use a fancy word, this is just a recrudescence of the worst possible right-wing thinking that we experienced in the 1920s, ‘30s, and that then developed into what we call the Old Right or paleoconservatives.

And in my book, I then trace not only the rise of the America First movement in 1940, but also the fact that the Right did not concede, after World War II, that FDR had made the right decision. Instead, they heaped scorn and abuse on him and argued that there had been a plot at Pearl Harbor to inveigle the United States into the war. In fact, Colonel McCormick’s Chicago Tribune in 1944 ran a long article by John T. Flynn making this argument. 

And then immediately after World War II, the Right sets the ground for what became Holocaust denial. I look at the Regnery Press, which published books arguing that America had perpetrated war crimes during World War II that were as bad or worse than anything that the Nazis had committed. I also look at Senator Joseph McCarthy, who attacked War Department Jewish lawyers as “‘39ers,” emigrés to the United States who had interrogated those SS officers after World War II who had supervised the murder of American GIs at Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge; I believe almost one hundred were murdered. McCarthy took the side of the Nazis.

So there are these strange currents percolating on the Right already, after World War II. They don’t go away. And I look at this through the evolution of Patrick Buchanan and Joseph Sobran. Sobran, in particular, became a Holocaust denier. And then I trace how all this continues down to today.

Geoff Kabaservice: There’s enormous value in looking back at the precursors to the Old Right, as you do. I have to admit that I read a lot of H. L. Mencken as a teenager. I always liked him as just a prose stylist. He often was very funny, too. He’s a bit hard to categorize in terms of our conventional division of conservative and liberal. He was something of an equal-opportunity hater. It is kind of unusual to think of the Right, used as we are now to the populist conservatism of the Trump age, as having been the province of very well-educated people, often very upper-class people, and then someone who was probably one of the most gifted prose stylists that the country had seen, certainly in the early twentieth century. But why did it seem to you that in particular Mencken was somebody who had a big influence on what would become the Old Right that would even carry on into the present day?

Jacob Heilbrunn: Well, one reason was just his own writings and his deprecation of the worth of democracy. I mean, his assaults on democracy are funny until you start to take them seriously. He wasn’t actually joking. He really did view the mob as imbecilic. The other thing was that in his American Mercury, I looked at people that he published, such as Albert Jay Nock, who was a mentor to William F. Buckley. And Nock too was one of the first revisionists about World War I. Nock was skeptical of democracy. He believed in the idea of an aristocratic Remnant on the right, as you know. And Mencken published people like Frederick Bausman, another prominent skeptic of American intervention in World War I.

A lot of these people were anti-globalist. They were anti-Semitic. They shared many of the views that Mencken did. Mencken and Nock were obviously very close. And if anyone is seen as the formative father of the Old Right, it would be Nock.

Geoff Kabaservice: Yes, that’s right. Also it must be said that Mencken was looking to the example of Wilhelmine Germany as the path the United States could follow. At the risk of being something of devil’s advocate, it seems ridiculous nowadays that American conservatives are saying that this country should follow the example of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, because that’s a small, relatively impoverished country kept alive by EU subsidies, with an economy no bigger than that of North Carolina.

On the other hand, Wilhelmine Germany was on its way to becoming the world leader not just in industrial production but also, one might say, in intellectual production. The whole model of the American graduate university comes from Germany. And up until a few decades ago, you couldn’t even get a Ph.D. unless you studied German, so important was the whole tradition of Germanic scholarship. So could one say that maybe it was not in and of itself proof that one had incipient fascist tendencies if you looked to the model of Wilhelmine Germany?

Jacob Heilbrunn: I think the issue was Mencken. And there were things to admire about Wilhelmine Germany. Controversy still swirls around the degree to which Wilhelmine Germany was a consistent autocracy. The various ruling groups in the society… It was not a totalitarian society. There was a parliament. There was a fairly free press.

But what Mencken admired… I mean, he actually traveled there during World War I. He admired people like General Erich Ludendorff, who marched with Hitler in 1923. He admired this. This militaristic, autocratic caste in Germany was the subject of his veneration. And in that sense, he does come across as similar to the fellow travelers on the Left who were beguiled by authoritarianism. It wasn’t simply that Mencken admired the poetry of Germany. There was more to it than that. There was, to be blunt, a kind of thuggish element to it.

Geoff Kabaservice: As you know, I often ask people who come on this podcast to tell me something about themselves. And I was intrigued, for starters, by what you wrote in the acknowledgments, which is that both of your parents were born in the Third Reich. Can you tell me more about that?

Jacob Heilbrunn: It’s interesting to me none of the reviewers really picked up on this. The book does deal heavily with Germany, not only with the Kaiserreich but also with the Nazi era. I would ascribe my own interest in these issues of authoritarianism and totalitarianism to the fact that my father came here in 1940, as a six-year-old, by himself. And much of his family perished in the death camps. So this in a sense is not abstract history to me. It is in fact living history.

And that is the reason that Trump’s rhetoric hits a nerve, because it’s too close for comfort, having seen the consequences of what this kind of vile rhetoric can produce and has produced in the past. That’s why I wanted to write the book: as a warning that you can’t simply remain passive but have to examine what is it that people have said in the past, what has occurred and what could occur in the present, and why is it not acceptable for Trump to indulge in the kind of fascist rhetoric that he often wallows in, referring to his opponents as “vermin.” And for me it really began when he called for the complete and total ban of Muslims entering into the United States. That for me really was like something out of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America.

Geoff Kabaservice: Yes, there’s definitely a sense in which Trump is opening a Pandora’s box that had long been thought to be shut. Where did you grow up in this country?

Jacob Heilbrunn: Well, I grew up in Pittsburgh, but I did spend quite a bit of time… I still do have some relatives in Germany. So I grew up speaking German, and I spent quite a bit of time as a child in Germany and then studied for a year in Munich. I’ve always had an interest in German history, so that really does form a strong background to this book.

Geoff Kabaservice: And then in 1994 you were an Arthur Burns Fellow in Berlin as well.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Correct. I worked at a former East German publication. I should also say that I actually lived in East Germany for a couple of weeks, so I never had any illusions about communism or about dictatorships.

Geoff Kabaservice: You dropped an oxymoron at the start of our talk which I think would set many listeners aback, which is to say that you were a College Republican at Oberlin College. You have to explain that one.

Jacob Heilbrunn: I was keenly interested in politics in high school and even earlier; I had spent a good amount of time reading Commentary. So I was sort of loaded for bear for intellectual combat. The College Republicans — a number of them were Democrats, including myself. But it was the only organization where we could safely espouse anti-communist views. I think that was the nub of it. So in a sense, I was the pure distillation of neoconservatism at that point.

Geoff Kabaservice: Indeed you were. And why else had you chosen to go to Oberlin in the first place?

Jacob Heilbrunn: I entered the Conservatory. I was a trumpeter as well.

Geoff Kabaservice: I also feel like this is a good point to mention that you have a second (somewhat secret) career as a reviewer of very, very, very high-end hi-fi audio equipment. Can you tell us how that developed?

Jacob Heilbrunn: Well, I don’t know if it interests listeners, but I have always been keen on classical and jazz music and played in orchestras and big bands in college. And I ended up establishing an affiliation with a magazine called The Absolute Sound, which was founded by a guru named Harry Pearson, a former journalist at Newsday. It is one of the leading high-end magazines in the United States, and it’s keenly read in Asia as well. I do periodically review exotic hi-fi equipment.

Geoff Kabaservice: You’re often swapping out the various components of this equipment, but some of the speakers that I have witnessed at your house could be heard on Mars, I think, if turned up to the high end of the volume dial.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Well, in your inimitable phrase, Geoffrey, “It looks like a NORAD center.”

Geoff Kabaservice: Yes. What did you major in at Oberlin?

Jacob Heilbrunn: History and German literature.

Geoff Kabaservice: And where did you go from there?

Jacob Heilbrunn: I went to Georgetown University. I was an assistant editor at The National Interest, then I started writing for The New Republic, and that was where my journalistic career really began to take off.

Geoff Kabaservice: So tell me more about the magazine that you currently helm, and also The Center for the National Interest of which it is part. That is not what it was originally called when it was founded?

Jacob Heilbrunn: Well, it was called the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom when it was originally founded. It has morphed into a new incarnation as The Center for the National Interest. The National Interest magazine became part of the Center several decades ago when Irving Kristol sold it. And in a way, I think it does embody Irving’s vision. Irving was more of a foreign policy realist than a crusading neoconservative in foreign policy. In some ways, he was a much harder-line realist than I am. For example, he dismissed the currency and value of human rights in foreign policy; that was his first article for the magazine. I think Irving envisioned it explicitly as a counterweight to Commentary. That’s something that Jonathan Bronitsky wrote a long essay about for us a few years ago.

Today the magazine features a welter of views. I think it is actually more faithful to the original incarnation of the magazine, which is that it has centrist Democrats and Republicans writing for it. That was the original: there were both neoconservatives and realists and Cold War Democrats writing for it. And the diversity of views that we have today, I think, comes closer to the original vision.

Geoff Kabaservice: Certainly centrists such as myself have been known to appear in your pages from time to time. But what I’m curious about is to what extent the magazine does now, or did, reflect Richard Nixon’s vision of foreign policy as well as Henry Kissinger’s?

Jacob Heilbrunn: It’s always difficult to take these presidencies and then just slap them onto contemporary policies. But I think Nixon and Kissinger believed in an equilibrium of power between states, which is why Kissinger actually at the end of his life supported Ukraine’s admission into NATO. I think it was a flexible rather than dogmatic realism; I think it was a more classical version. The realism that often gets bandied about today, and with which I myself take firm exception, veers in an isolationist direction.

And this is the reason that The American Conservative magazine recently ran an article denouncing yours truly as having reverted to, of all things, neoconservativism. So these labels can only take you so far. But I think that Kissinger in particular had a more measured view of realism than many of its current disciples.

Geoff Kabaservice: You had mentioned Mencken and the influence that he had on the Old Right, maybe as well as into the current era. And I picked up some of his writings recently, and I was a little surprised to find that although they’re still funny, there’s a harsh edge to the criticism that I hadn’t quite remembered. This is, so to speak, in a way a beginning of “owning the libs,” except in this case, one of his major subjects of criticism were fundamentalist Christians as well as other kinds of Babbitts and booboisie conservatives. But that harshness, I think, was something that really did carry over into journalists like Westbrook Pegler, for example, and then into the real combative nature of conservatism that we associate with the movement.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Definitely. Mencken attended a Gridiron Dinner with Franklin Roosevelt — this is a famous dinner, I think it was in 1934 — and Roosevelt quoted works that Mencken had written denouncing the press. And after a while, Mencken caught on. And he said to his friend, Governor Ritchie of Maryland, “I’m going to get that son of a bitch.”

This harsh mockery… Yes. I think Mencken went after Woodrow Wilson as a professor-president, castigated him as “a boneheaded fool.” The rhetoric that you heard about Roosevelt in the 1930s — it wasn’t just Mencken, it was pervasive on the Right — was extremely caustic and often antisemitic, talking about “the Jew Deal.” The more I look at the Right, I just don’t think it has changed all that much over the decades.

Geoff Kabaservice: So let’s fast-forward a bit to the early-to mid-1950s. William F. Buckley appears at the center of your book, and of course Buckley is important to all of us who study conservatism because he founded the New Right as we think of it. He founded National Review magazine in 1955, which in some ways laid down the law as to what the conservative movement should be, what it should include and what it should not include.

There was just recently an American Masters series that appeared on PBS, an episode on Buckley. I had almost forgotten this, but about five years ago I had been interviewed for this series, and so there’s my disembodied voice floating over a lot of the photos and video footage of Buckley at different points in his career.

And I am heard, toward the end, where… I’m not connecting Buckley to Trump and January 6th, but nonetheless there are images of the attack on the Capitol that happened on January 6th, 2021 while I talk about how conservatism was in some sense made up of dangerous elements, and while you can’t directly blame Buckley for January 6th there are some elements of continuity that you can find. Do you think I was being unfair or would you go further?

Jacob Heilbrunn: I think Buckley’s brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozell, epitomized more of what happened on January 6th than Buckley himself. It was Bozell, of course, as you know, who led the first violent protest against an abortion clinic, here at George Washington University in 1970. It’s the extremism of Bozell — I guess his grandson was also involved in January 6th — that seems to me less suave than what Buckley was proposing.

Now, you could argue the younger Buckley seems closer to January 6th, the one from the 1950s. The book that he co-wrote with Bozell defending Joseph McCarthy and saying that “We’re going to deal with the liberals when the time comes” — that is to me the concerning aspect of the Right. And for Buckley, there was always this fixation, not simply with arguing with liberals but with crushing them as an internal enemy, as a subversive force. So yes, you could draw it out of Buckley.

When I last saw him, my sense was that he had sort of waved a white flag on all of these political fights and was fairly uninterested in them, and that the Iraq war had prompted him to revert, to move away from the more combative aspects of conservatism and to become actually more isolationist again. But ultimately, in the book, I draw a distinction between Buckley and Bozell. I just think Bozell was far more radical than Buckley.

Geoff Kabaservice: Yes. Actually, when I used to see Buckley toward the end of his life, politics was about the last thing he wanted to talk about. He was far more interested in the arcana of Yale history and whatever pop music I was listening to at the moment. But nonetheless, the fact is that Buckley, in the early part of his career, was involved with Confederate sympathizers and Jim Crow segregationists. He idolized Joseph McCarthy and his crusade against the foreign policy establishment as well as elites of other kinds. He actually contributed a speech to McCarthy. Brent Bozell worked for McCarthy.

You wrote that Buckley saw McCarthy representing something new: the rise of a revanchist Right that could topple the liberal order. “More than anyone else,” you say, “Buckley forged the hatreds unleashed by McCarthyism into a lasting political weapon. Trolling the libs, denouncing political correctness, and overthrowing the deep state — all had their sources in Buckley’s early effort.”

Jacob Heilbrunn: Yes. It was bad stuff. And a lot of that, of course, came from Wilmoore Kendall, who had been his preceptor at Yale — and Kendall was out to smash the liberals. And Buckley in those years, as I point out, also venerated Augusto Pinochet in Chile as a manly leader, and he defended South African apartheid. There are very dark aspects to his record. There’s a whole wave of historians now… David Austin Walsh, whom you may know, has a new book that’s just come out from Yale that also argues that the distinction between the radical right and the mainstream Right has been overdone, that there is more consanguinity between these two sides.

For example, another person that Buckley was in close contact with, and who I talk about extensively in the book, was Merwin K. Hart, the New York attorney and businessman who funded far-right activities in the ‘30s, ‘40, and ‘50s, and ended up as the head of the John Birch Society chapter in New York. And Buckley, I think, felt an instinctive kinship with these people. He may have — “severed ties” is too strong, but he always had to in some way push them away. For example, Hart berated Buckley for his stance against the Birchers. Then Buckley ends up in the same mess with both Patrick Buchanan and Joe Sobran. He writes that long book on Buchanan, with Sobran as a side figure, called In Search of Anti-Semitism. Well, how much searching did he have to do? It was right there in front of his nose.

So there are very ugly and dark aspects to this. My beef is that the Right has never really acknowledged this fully, and that historians today are only starting to come to terms with this. And it will be interesting to see what our friend Sam Tanenhaus makes of all this in what should be his monumental biography of William F. Buckley — forthcoming, I think, in January.

Geoff Kabaservice: It’s now listed on Amazon.

Jacob Heilbrunn: I think we’re starting to have a much fuller picture of what was taking place on the Right. In a way, yes, we did have a sanitized history. You always have to ask yourself questions when you’re embarking upon books like this, which is not to just accept the vision of itself that the Right has portrayed over decades — quite successfully.

Geoff Kabaservice: I have mixed feelings about Bill Buckley because on the one hand, I was personally very fond of him, and he was a charming man who was just a wonderful person in many ways. On the other hand, I always felt that there was this problem with the conservative movement, that it was built on the wrong premises. It essentially took shape in opposition to Dwight D. Eisenhower and criticized him both on domestic grounds for not rolling back the New Deal and Social Security and the other forms of social welfare, and then it also criticized him on foreign policy grounds for not rolling back communism. And I think Eisenhower certainly saw that both of those were radical and dangerous.

And I always kind of felt, though, that Buckley was someone, even in his younger years, who had a little bit of the bad angel on one shoulder and the good angel on the other. I do associate that bad angel with Wilmoore Kendall. I mean, Kendall was somebody who, sincerely or not, came to the belief that the Founding Fathers did not actually intend the Bill of Rights to have any effect, that there should be what you call this “absolute majoritarianism” that would prevail to stamp out anything resembling any kind of dissidence from social orthodoxy. He did not believe that minorities had any rights that deserved to be respected. And that’s part of what draws Buckley to McCarthy. He sees him as the kind of instrument of that form of conformity as well as revenge against the elites who got the United States into both World War I and World War II, and therefore took away the lost conservative utopia.

On the other hand, on the other shoulder, the good angel, I guess, was the subject of Sam’s other book. Whitaker Chambers actually was, as you write in your book, counseling Buckley away from depending on McCarthy. He thought that there were dangers in associating too closely with that kind of populism. And he was much more a pragmatist in the Eisenhower style.

And as long as I’m sort of going on about this, if you’re looking for an alternative conservative tradition that’s skew to the conservative movement, you can include not just Eisenhower there but also the son of George Viereck, who was Peter Viereck. George Viereck, yes, was this Nazi propagandist who was jailed during World War II for his activities on behalf of the Nazi regime, but his son actually was one of the first persons to identify a conservative trend and call it such with his Atlantic article “But — I’m a Conservative!” He then went on to a stellar career as both a European historian and a poet. He actually won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry alongside his writings on conservatism. 

So there’s an alternative tradition there, which like I said is somewhat intersecting with but somewhat at odds with Buckley’s own tradition. And he drew to some extent on that, but then also on these other darker impulses. So I think that’s why he’s a hard character to come up with a definitive verdict on.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Well, Geoff, if I may use one of WFB’s favorite words, I would say the Viereck tradition is pretty etiolated. 

Geoff Kabaservice: Yes, that’s a fair assessment. 

Jacob Heilbrunn: They’re not conservatives, they’re radicals. But it all does go back to Kendall. And Kendall fused elite conservatism with populism. And it has proved a winning formula for the GOP, during the Reagan years and now again with Trump.

So this is the conundrum that the Republican Party is grappling with today — or not grappling with, depending on how Trump does. If he wins, then it’s not a problem. But otherwise, they’re stuck with a shrinking, radicalized base that they don’t know how to jettison and don’t know how to move forward.

Geoff Kabaservice: There’s this interesting tension in that early concern in the movement, too, between an elitist — which I think Buckley still thought himself to be — versus the kind of populism which was where both the isolationist movement and McCarthyism had shown was conservatism’s bread and butter. But at the same time, there was enough of that influence of the Old Right and even the tradition before that of the likes of Lothrop Stoddard, who were Harvard-educated, who were very worldly and cosmopolitan, who were often very rich, who had longstanding American ancestry. And in some sense, Buckley was sort of torn between those two approaches to conservatism before populism eventually won out. But he was always a little ambivalent about it.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Jen Szalai has a good piece in the New York Times today where she calls it “a pincer movement.” I think that’s a pretty good description of what’s going on with the elite and the populist base.

Geoff Kabaservice: You move into a criticism of Jeane Kirkpatrick and a number of the neoconservatives for drawing this distinction made in Kirkpatrick’s November 1979 essay in Commentary called “Dictatorships and Double Standards.” Can you tell more about that and why you think this is another sort of wrong turning point for the Right?

Jacob Heilbrunn: Well, it’s interesting… Some people have said to me, “You really shouldn’t have included Jeane Kirkpatrick, because she was obviously not an antisemite.” By the same token, Pat Buchanan wrote a piece about her called “The Good Neocon.” So she was closer to this movement in many ways than might appear on the surface. In The National Interest, for example, she wrote an essay calling for America to retreat from the rest of the world after the Cold War ended. She said it was time to “Come home, America” to deal with our own problems. And I don’t think she was enthusiastic about the Iraq war that the George W. Bush administration prosecuted, the second one. 

I looked at her record both in Commentary where she said… She really got it backwards. She said that right-wing authoritarians were fine because they were mutable, but the totalitarian regimes were immutable. So you could deal on a practical, pragmatic level with right-wing regimes. But she didn’t just deal with them, she actually, in the case of the Argentine junta, embraced it. And for example, I showed how her fervor for the junta led her to support its invasion of the Falkland Islands against Great Britain. She was an outlier in the Reagan administration, and this caused an uproar. I also looked at her record in El Salvador, and her praise for Jonas Savimbi as a mixture of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. So I tried to show how the Right was enamored not just of Adolf Hitler but also of a series of other less-than-savory characters, both during and after the Cold War. So that’s why I put in Kirkpatrick.

Geoff Kabaservice: Yes. Kirkpatrick would have had to overlook the fact that Savimbi, for example, the leader of the UNITA movement in Angola, also had a sort of army of captured sex slaves to service his armies.

Jacob Heilbrunn: And he assassinated his political rivals inside UNITA. He refused to accept free election results. This was not a good guy. Yet she championed him as a philosopher and a poet and a great politician at CPAC right here in Washington, with George H. W. Bush, who was then Vice President, sitting to her right.

Geoff Kabaservice: Let me play devil’s advocate again. We’re talking about Kirkpatrick drawing this false distinction, you say, between authoritarians and totalitarians. On the other hand, Henry Kissinger, another thinker in the realist tradition and somebody who you had a lot of contact with over the years, also would have seemed to have drawn some kind of distinction in this way.

His last book that was published while he was still alive was entitled Leadership, which was about six world leaders that he had known well during his time. And one of them was Lee Kuan Yew, who was the authoritarian leader of Singapore. And Kissinger writes, without necessarily criticizing this view, that “Lee rejected the belief — held in the liberal democracies of the West as well as in the Soviet-led communist bloc — that political ideologies were paramount in defining the evolution of a society and that all societies would modernize in the same way. To the contrary, said Lee: ‘The West believes the world must follow [its] historical development. [But] democracy and individual rights are alien to the rest of the world.’” So how would you distinguish between the Kissinger form of realism that draws this distinction versus the Kirkpatrick form?

Jacob Heilbrunn: This is something that I wrestled with, and perhaps not entirely successfully. I don’t think that Kissinger fit this mold that I was looking at of the Old Right. In fact, when he attended the Cow Palace in 1964, where Barry Goldwater was given the Republican nomination, he wrote in his diaries that it reminded him of the Nuremberg rallies. So he always had some apprehensions about the Right in America that he expressed at least privately.

Kissinger was a refugee from Nazi Germany. Obviously he took away this hardcore realpolitik lesson in power from his experiences. I don’t think that Kissinger had quite the same degree of enthusiasm for these right-wing dictators that many had such as Buckley, effusing about the manliness of Pinochet, or Elizabeth Dilling going into raptures about Mussolini and Hitler. To me, Kissinger seems more pragmatic. He didn’t go over the top the way Kirkpatrick did for these Central American dictators. He might’ve said that you would deal with them. But I don’t think that he saw them as role models.

So that’s how I tried to draw the distinction. You could also look at George F. Kennan, who’s another difficult figure — who also harbored anti-Semitic tendencies, certainly, and was not an enormous fan of American democracy. But I was looking primarily at a slice of the pretty hard Right. And remember, Kissinger was seen as an enemy of the hard Right and of the neocons. He was seen as an appeaser who was too willing to deal with communist leaders.

Geoff Kabaservice: I read one criticism of your book from the right which says that you do spend too much time on figures like Merwin, K. Hart, let’s say, who is not really all that well known nowadays. And then, let’s see, what is his name — is it Lawrence Dennis?

Jacob Heilbrunn: Dennis.

Geoff Kabaservice: Yes, a curious figure who was Black but passed for white and became a kind of pro-fascist evangelist — which prefigures the plot of BlackkKlansman, and a number of other things I could mention, by several decades. You mentioned this point on the Know Your Enemy podcast, which was that although we think of Buckley as somebody who was able to distance the conservative movement from the kind of Nazi taint that had discredited it in many ways in the post-World War II era, that some of those old isolationists and the Old Right people represented a kind of authenticity to him that made him a little wary of distancing himself entirely from them, and sometimes made him want to seek their favor. And I wonder if that might be what’s going on now when, in some weird way, Donald Trump, although never having been a consistent Republican, seems to be connecting to a deeper and more authentic tradition of populist conservatism in a way that just defeats his more traditional, Reaganite kind of conservative rivals.

Jacob Heilbrunn: I think there is something to that. I mean, to me, Trump does represent a more venerable Republican tradition — without saying that it’s venerable in the sense of old and not in the sense of something that I would revere. But it does get back more to the roots of the party. 

There are two responses to the contention. I figured that someone would say that I was just picking obscure figures with which to smear the Right, who were of no substantial consequence.

First, many of these figures were members of the Old Right, so it is curious, as Jeet Heer pointed out, that The American Conservative would trash its own heritage. Second, Lawrence Dennis and Merwin K. Hart were not only frequently in the pages of the New York Times and other publications, but they were sometimes on the front page. In addition, Harold Ickes and Robert Jackson (who was Attorney General) both singled out these figures between 1939 to ‘41 as representing dangerous fascist currents in America. I don’t think they were seeing ghosts. So just because these figures are not familiar to us today does not mean that they were not consequential at the time. I would reverse it and say the strange thing is that they’ve been written out of these histories. I think they deserve more space and were consequential figures at the time.

Now we see the same phenomenon with Trump today. A future historian, in forty years, could argue, “Well, who cares about Steve Bannon or Kash Patel or Colonel Doug Macgregor? These are just marginal figures.” Well, they’re not marginal in terms of our politics, and they may ascend to high office under a Trump presidency. You could have done the same thing with Hitler. I mean, if Hitler had not come to power, then a lot of the figures around him would just look like strange freaks. I mean, they are freaks anyway, but they wouldn’t command the importance that we’ve accorded them now in history books.

Geoff Kabaservice: As sort of a closing observation here, I have had my own mind changed on certain subjects by your book. And one of them is what I mean by the term “isolationism.” You point out, in the figure of someone like Pat Buchanan, that he’s conventionally defined as an isolationist, but that’s not really what he was about. You wrote: “Buchanan never could conceal his admiration for a certain kind of right-wing autocrat abroad. What he really longed for was a kind of internationalism rooted in the small towns and conservative values” — that he himself had grown up with — “and in whiteness, whether in the US or in Serbia or Russia or South Africa or elsewhere. The Right had its own internationalist agenda even if it was loath to use that term.”

Jacob Heilbrunn: Correct. There are genuine isolationists out there, and it is not ipso facto a term of opprobrium. There is a tradition of isolationism on the left and right in World War I. It’s perfectly respectable. And you can argue today that the United States should tend to its own knitting. My complaint is that many of these conservatives are flying under a false flag. They claim to be restraint-oriented. We use the term “isolationist” to describe the ones in the 1930s. They weren’t isolationist. They weren’t neutral. They were pro-Hitler and pro-Mussolini, and that has to be acknowledged. Today, is Tucker Carlson an isolationist, is he neutral? Or is he actually pro-Orbán and pro-Putin? I think it’s the latter.

Geoff Kabaservice: One could not even necessarily have to go there and say that something that does seem to characterize an awful lot of today’s conservatives is that despite the America First label they’re deeply disappointed in America as it actually exists. They don’t like its liberalism, its tolerance, its diverse population. In many ways, they’re at odds with some of its deepest principles and traditions. And one might therefore hope that a conservative movement of some kind could get beyond that cultural pessimism and move toward a more optimistic view of the country that might be the kind of counterpart to the Left that we really need right now.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Yes. This is what Fritz Stern — the great German historian, also an emigré from Germany, who taught at Columbia University — in his early book called The Politics of Cultural Despair. We’ve seen all this before. There’s a lachrymose, self-pitying quality to it. And as I indicated earlier, it had never occurred to me, having experienced conservatism in its Reagan-era ebullience, that conservatives would turn on America and blame it first because they were discontented with the political direction that it was taking. I think they have grossly exaggerated the flaws of America and are wallowing in self-pity, which is leading them to intellectual extremism.

Geoff Kabaservice: Well, Jacob Heilbrunn, it is as always a pleasure to talk to you. And congratulations again on your new book, America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Thanks, Geoff.

Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at contact@niskanencenter.org. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingenieri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.