The GOP Needs More William F. Buckley, Less Trump

By: DJ Bettencourt – March. 2016

D.J. Bettencourt
D.J. Bettencourt

At the time of this writing, it marks the eighth anniversary of the passing of the father of modern American conservatism, William F. Buckley. As the Republican Party seems ready to imperil its chances of winning the 2016 election by nominating Donald Trump, this edited tribute to Buckley at the time of his passing that I co-authored with my friend and current Cato policy analysis, Jason Bedrick, is eerily prophetic in articulating the concerns and disgust that many of us conservatives have for Mr. Trump. Particularly when contrasted to the legacy of “WFB.”
The New Hampshire Primary has ended and Mr. Trump won. Massachusetts voters will soon head to the polls; I hope you will choose more wisely than my fellow Granite Staters. So would William F. Buckley.

“When a giant among men passes from this world, as William F. Buckley did this week at the age of 82, it is incumbent upon those whose lives he affected to pay tribute. As two young conservative legislators whose political convictions have been greatly influenced by Buckley, it is out of a profound sense of gratitude that we feel obligated to attempt such a tribute.

Perhaps the most tangible legacy Buckley leaves is the magazine he fathered in 1955, National Review, which to this day is widely regarded as the flagship journal of conservative thought. In its pages, Buckley created space for the development of the modern American conservative movement, declaring that the purpose of the magazine was to “stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’” By this, Buckley meant to obliterate the prevailing assumption of the times that “History” was an inevitable march toward bigger government and the disintegration of traditional values.
To this end, Buckley created a “fusion” of anti-Communist hawks, individualists, social conservatives, and free market capitalists – a coalition which today seems almost natural but at the time was strained. Buckley and his cohorts at National Review provided the intellectual foundations that gave the movement coherence and a sense of purpose.

Just as important, Buckley “read out of the conservative movement” the racists, anti-Semites, and conspiracy-mongers with his devastating critiques. In drawing clear distinctions between mainstream conservative opinion and the fever swamps, Buckley elevated conservative thought and made it respectable.

It is this foundation upon which we young conservatives stand, dwarves on the shoulders of a giant. Though neither of us first came to the conservative movement directly through Buckley, his intellectual fingerprints are unmistakable. As George Will wrote in the pages of Buckley’s magazine, “before there was Ronald Reagan there was Barry Goldwater, before there was Goldwater there was National Review, and before there was National Review there was William F. Buckley.”

Modern college campuses are not known as bastions of conservative thought. In a 2003 study of the faculty at 32 elite colleges and universities, the Center for the Study of Popular Culture revealed that registered Democrats outnumbered registered Republicans by a ratio of more than 10-1.

This lack of ideological diversity has the unfortunate tendency of manifesting itself in the classroom. Similarly frustrated by his university experience, Buckley at age 25 wrote God and Man at Yale in 1951, his first of over 50 books. Buckley argued that members of the Yale faculty, under the guise of “academic freedom,” were using the classroom to promote socialism and moral relativism.

While the book didn’t achieve the education reforms he desired, it launched a movement and inspired countless college conservatives, including ourselves, over the successive generations to stand athwart the liberal establishment. Moreover, Buckley provided the intellectual firepower to do so, arming conservatives not just with facts and figures, but also with cogent and forceful arguments delivered with charm and wit.

Aside from his regular columns and numerous books, Buckley hosted the aptly named Firing Line, the longest running television show in history. Unlike today’s talking heads, Buckley didn’t resort to shouting down his guests, who represented all shades of the political spectrum. He gave them the respect and the time to make their points, and countered with thoughtful questions or a witty riposte. 

Perhaps most important was Buckley’s passion for ideas and his pursuit of truth. “William F. Buckley understood that conservatism can only be a partial philosophy of life, because any calling which claims to be a whole philosophy of life is not one at all,” wrote Buckley protégé Jonah Goldberg on the occasion of Buckley’s 80th birthday, “It is a religion, and in all likelihood a false one.”

Buckley smashed many false idols in his career. He stood above the sound bites and campaign slogans that dominate our current political climate, concerning himself instead with the practical application of first principles. Erudite and eloquent, he elevated the quality of thought and debate. It is fitting that he died at his desk in his home, still devoted to the world of ideas.
On the day of his passing, the editors of National Review wrote that Buckley “inspired and incited three generations of conservatives, and counting.” Presumably, these are the conservatives of his Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomers, and Generation X, yet we stand as living proof that Buckley has inspired yet a fourth generation. We have no doubt his legacy will continue to inspire many more.”

D.J. Bettencourt served as a State Representative in the New Hampshire House of Representatives from 2005 to 2012 and was the House Majority Leader for the 2011-2012 legislative term. He currently works as the Director of Development and Community Relations at the Salem Animal Rescue League and serves on the Economic Development Action Committee in Salem, NH.