In his run for the Republican presidential nomination, Pat Buchanan has applied several labels to himself: conservative, populist, traditionalist. In a recent radio interview, he coined one that nobody would dispute.
“I’m a controversialist,” Buchanan said.
Buchanan revels in controversy. But as he assails illegal immigration as an “invasion” and refers to Mexicans en masse as “Jose,” his critics are accusing him of taking controversy a step too far.
They say Buchanan is speaking in code, using xenophobic images like those, or anti-Semitic references to excite bigots without alienating mainstream voters.
In some cases, it is a matter of inflection. Saturday, as he so often does, he lingered with great relish on each of the syllables in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s three names, attacking Sen. Bob Dole for voting for the “ultraliberal Ruth Ba-der Gins-burg.”
In other cases, Buchanan invokes the language of the far right, in which he is so clearly fluent. “When I raise my hand to take that oath of office your New World Order comes crashing down,” he said at a rally in Denver on Wednesday night, using a favorite line.
The New World Order, along with the United Nations and the Trilateral Commission, which is a policy group made up of Japanese, European and American leaders, are bete noires of the far right, which uses them to evoke images of black helicopters strafing the heartland to establish a world government.
Last year, the magazine “Soldier of Fortune” reported that paramilitary groups were passing around reports that flat-bed cars carrying U.N. tanks had been spotted near Salt Lake City and that a fleet of helicopters was “ready for use by a mysterious Multi Jurisdictional Task Force (MJFT) to hunt down good patriots bearing arms.”
Criticism of Buchanan’s language has swirled around him for years, and it is a testament either to his innocence or to his oratorical nimbleness that the debate still rages.
His critics acknowledge that their charges can be hard to prove, arising as they sometimes do from inferences drawn from inflection, context, and juxtaposition of ideas in his speeches, rather than flat-out assertions. Buchanan has said repeatedly that he rejects the support of hate groups.
But every day on the campaign trail with Buchanan, the comments pop out and the questions arise again.
Trying to shout down a heckler in Gila Bend on Friday, for example, Buchanan said of illegal immigrants: “They’ve got no right just because you have a lousy government down there to walk across the borders of the United States of America, because this is my country.”
But Marciano Murillo, 18, a native-born American whose father was a naturalized illegal immigrant, replied: “They help your economy as well as any American here helps it.”
Buchanan shot back: “They’ve got no right to break our laws and break into our country and go on welfare, and some of them commit crimes.”
But Murillo would not back down. “Why do you only see the Hispanic or the Mexican who is on welfare when you have millions of Caucasians and African-Americans who are on welfare?” he asked.
After Murillo had subsided, Buchanan was undaunted, as ever. “There isn’t any name in American politics Pat Buchanan hasn’t been called,” he told the crowd. “Not one. But let me tell you something. I’m not intimidated. I won’t back down. I’ll stand my ground, you’ve got my word. No matter what they say about me, I will defend the borders of the United States. I will stop this massive illegal immigration cold. Period, paragraph.”
In an interview on Friday night, Buchanan rejected the idea that he rhetorically winks and nods to bigots.
“It’s silly,” he said. “There are people out there with anxieties and concerns about their future and their children’s future. What I’m saying is, ‘Don’t turn your back on politics. Don’t despair.’ I’m offering them something besides the back of my hand.”
He is also frequently offering them direct and sometimes harsh mockery of foreigners, using his derision to cultivate support for his immigration and trade policies.
“I’ll build that security fence, and we’ll close it, and we’ll say, ‘Listen Jose, you’re not coming in this time!’ ” he shouted to applause from an almost entirely white audience at a rally in Waterloo, Iowa three weeks ago.