In 1965, acclaimed author James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr., editor of the National Review and considered by some as the father of the American right, were invited to England’s Cambridge University to engage in a debate. What transpired in that exchange is excruciatingly relevant in 2019, as the U.S. continues to grapple with racism that has spread from its foundations to seemingly every corner of American life.
Linfield College professor Nicholas Buccola, whose book, “The Fire Is Upon Us,” delves into the Feb. 18, 1965, debate between Baldwin and Buckley, joins Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer on the most recent episode of the “Scheer Intelligence” podcast. Buccola explains that what began as an essay evolved into a 500-plus-page tome about two highly influential U.S. public intellectuals and the legendary moment they came face to face.
“The debate itself became kind of an obsession of mine,” the scholar tells Scheer. “They’re both so central to the rise of their respective movements. And so the idea that I had was to do this kind of joint intellectual biography, set against the backdrop of the rise of the civil rights and conservative movements.”
One of the more remarkable aspects of that historical moment is that Baldwin and Buckley could not be more different in terms of their backgrounds, as both Scheer and Buccola point out. Baldwin, a gay, black author from Harlem, experienced poverty and racism throughout much of his life, while Buckley came from extreme privilege and a meticulously conservative Catholic upbringing in New York. Buckley ultimately helped shape the Republican Party as we know it today, altering the GOP’s approach to race in ways that still affect U.S. politics.
“It’s a debate, obviously, that is of the moment,” Scheer says. “And it’s really not just about race. It’s about scapegoating. It’s about the other. It’s about the dominance of one ethno-racial group and the scapegoating of the others. That’s what the Donald Trump moment is all about.”
The Republicans’ shift toward white supremacy, led largely by Buckley, is one that Buccola believes is essential to understanding current politics.
“If we want to try to understand where we are now, with the rise of Donald Trump and this sort of resurgent white nationalist authoritarianism, we have to understand stories like this one,” he tells Scheer. “Because this is a story about, intellectually and politically, how the right came to make this deal with the devil of white supremacy. And that’s very much where we are today.
“Trump’s got a different style from Buckley, and Buckley didn’t like Trump personally,” Buccola continues. “But it’s hard to really differentiate that sort of populist politics that Buckley was promoting on questions of race from what Donald Trump has done so successfully today.”
In the media player above, listen to the full discussion between Buccola and Scheer about this critical meeting between two figures who represent starkly different versions of America’s past, present and future. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the credits.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, it’s Nicholas Buccola–I think I’ve pronounced that right. And he is a professor at Linfield College in Oregon, and got his degree here at USC, his doctorate degree in political science. And I’m really thrilled, because we produce really fine scholars here, in addition to all our scandals and everything.
So, and it is a pleasure, because he’s written a very important book called The Fire Is Upon Us. Got a good review in the New York Times, you’re probably happy about that. And it traces an event that most of the people listening to this will not know about, and maybe even not know about the two people that are principally involved. William Buckley–William F. Buckley, Jr., not to be confused with William Buckley, Sr., who made his money from pirating oil. And I shouldn’t say that, not in an illegal sense, but grabbing oil and land and so forth. Lot of money, and had a big mansion, and raised his–and was married to a Southern belle of some sort, and raised their children–nine of them, I think, was there, in a mansion in upstate New York. And then had a southern, South Carolina residence. And a man torn between his Catholicism and–but he left out any of the progressive part of Catholicism. Ironically, in this period we’re talking about, in the mid-sixties, there was a Catholic pope, Pope John, who was quite enlightened on matters of peace and justice, social justice, and so forth. But he was of the old school, and he was a product of affluence. And instead of rebelling against it, or using it as Franklin Roosevelt did, to say “I have to give something back,” he used it as a justification of privilege. He went on, he wrote very important books from the conservative side. Some people feel he was the intellectual father of conservatism.
And at a critical moment, he appeared in one of those famous Oxford debates, and with probably the most important writer coming out of the Civil Rights Movement, or even preceding it–James Baldwin, the author of major, major novels and fiction and journalism, nonfiction and journalism. And they had a debate and it, you know, sort of galvanized attention to the racial crisis and how extreme the different views are–were, and still are. And interestingly enough, this all-but-forgotten incident is the subject of a 500-page book, which believe it or not, I enjoyed. I enjoyed reading it because of the texture, the introduction to the life of the last 40 years, before the active Civil Rights Movement that we know about, and then after. And so tell us how you came to be involved with this project, and you know, take it from there.
NB: All right. Thanks, Bob. It’s such a pleasure to be here with you, and back at USC. So the book, I–the book started with Baldwin. I was invited to write an essay about Baldwin back in about 2012, 2013. And in those days, I didn’t know much about Baldwin. But the editor of this volume, Sue McWilliams, who’s a political scientist at Pomona College, she said it’s–the essay won’t be due for two years, so why don’t you take a year and read James Baldwin, and then write something. And soon thereafter I discovered the debate with Buckley, and became transfixed. It was just such a dramatic moment. These two individuals with such radically different backgrounds you just described, squaring off on this international stage, and they had such radically different worldviews.
RS: You should describe Baldwin’s background, because it was, as you said in a talk here today, as if they were from two different planets, even though they were both from the same state, New York, but Baldwin grew up in Harlem. So give us the different castes here.
NB: Right. So Baldwin is born in Harlem in 1924, and he’s the oldest of nine children. He grew up in extraordinarily difficult economic circumstances. As he said later on, you know, the defining fact of his childhood was that his parents had a hard time feeding their children. And Baldwin describes in his writings, his nonfiction writings, what it was like to sort of grow up in those circumstances, and the sense of domination that he felt on a day-to-day basis, both from obvious threats–you know, police officers and others with power who were there to inhibit his freedom–but also just this sense of vast, bottomlessly cruel structures of power that dominated his life and the life of his siblings and folks like him. So Baldwin grows up in Harlem, and he ends up, his father was a lay Pentecostal preacher and a laborer. And he ends up following his father into the church, and becomes a young minister in the Harlem storefront churches. So Baldwin is somebody who’s really taken with the power of words, the power of language, to sort of communicate with other human beings. And also to sort of–he’s really kind of obsessed with the power of language to help make sense of his experience and to try to change the circumstances around him.
So Baldwin is somebody who’s self-taught; he does not go to college. He’s able to go to DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and get a good education there. But Baldwin is largely this sort of independent thinker in so many ways. So, yeah, as you described, the Baldwin-Buckley debate, February 18th, 1965, the Cambridge Union–the oldest and one of the most prestigious debating societies in the world, they’re–here are these two guys, leading public intellectuals, and very different their styles and totally different in their worldviews. But they’re on this international stage to square off in this intellectual battle. And so the debate itself became kind of an obsession of mine. And then I thought about writing a shorter book about, you know, there have been a couple books about Malcolm X visiting Oxford in 1964. So I thought maybe I’ll write a short book about Baldwin going to Cambridge in ‘65. And then as I dug into the research for the project, I sort of reconstructed how they got there that night, who invited them, and all that. And then I thought, you know, they were born about a year apart from each other, Buckley born in November 1925. They’re both so central to the rise of their respective movements. And so the idea that I had was to do this kind of joint intellectual biography, set against the backdrop of the rise of the civil rights and conservative movements.
And once I had the idea, it wasn’t an easy book to write–it was a lot of research–but there’s so much material. I mean, you have–Baldwin and Buckley are both such prolific writers, both public writings and private, letters and that sort of thing, that you really get a glimpse–you know, as a writer, I could see into their minds almost every day of the week, as all these really important events are happening around them. So the book tells the story–this, you know, the intellectual story of these two individuals, but I try to situate that story in the larger intellectual and political trends. So that’s kind of how it evolved from the beginning.
RS: Yeah, but you know, I want to cut to the chase here. Because what you really uncovered is an ugly, stark truth about America. And that Baldwin was–yes, he was in the North, and he was in Harlem, and there was even–I went to City College in Harlem, and there was the history of the Harlem Renaissance. And you know, it was at least, it was an intact black community and so forth. But you know, your research on the life of Baldwin, who lived through the Great Depression, and the horrors of black life in the North. You know, we’re not talking about Alabama, Mississippi. And there’s that reality.
And then there’s this other New Yorker, of wealth, William Buckley. And no matter what outrageous positions he ends up taking in life, and the distortions of his own ideology, somehow Baldwin is seen as the firebrand, the radical; you know, one of America’s great authors–nonetheless a radical, troubling and all that sort of thing. And yet his positions are really, when you examine them, quite reasonable in almost any decent context. They’re thoughtful, they’re measured. He doesn’t play the violence card or the race card in any, you know, demagogic way. He resists ideological definitions, and you know, simplistic conclusions.
That comes through–which is one of the good things about having a 500-page book of research. No, I mean you were able to document, basically, this autodidact, this self-educated person who ends up being one of America’s great writers. On the other hand, you have a man who was born to the manor, and really doesn’t produce anything of major significance. Even though he’s considered the author of the conservative movement, he’s at odds with some of its most robust instincts. He’s associated with McCarthyism, which you know, principled conservatives ended up denouncing in no uncertain terms. He doesn’t like Eisenhower. He has really racist views. I was going to–I picked one, I don’t know, it just jumped out at me for some reason. I’m going to have you–I’m going to have you read it, and then give us the context.
But we’re talking about William Buckley, somebody that NPR–we’re being carried on NPR–chose to make a national figure. You know, his Firing Line, right, the show–full disclosure, I–well, I was on one, and we had a pretty acrimonious debate. But the fact of the matter is, this guy was made as American as apple pie, as respectable–and his views were outrageous. They were racist. And I must say, until I read your book, I wasn’t fully cognizant of that. I bought the idea–well, he was charming. You know, in my encounters with him, he was very reasonable and funny, even though what he was saying was absurd and stupid and beside the point. Nonetheless, you know, he had the manners. And you know, we’re impressed by manners. Right?
And this quote–and it’s just one of many in your book–shows the real, not just the real Buckley, but remember the segregated society. The South was, by the way, represented by the Democratic Party, largely; it was ignored by most of the big establishment institutions for its horrible violence and, you know, what it was all about. Segregation in America was accepted even in major league baseball and everything, in the armed forces. And yet here, this prophet of segregation–I mean, this passionate defender of it–is someone that, in polite circles, he was more accepted than, say, Donald Trump would be right now. He of the poor manners.
NB: [Laughs] Yeah, well–yeah, so I’ll read this, this passage you picked out, and then we can talk about a number of those things you just mentioned. So this is Buckley, writing to a friend after his book–so Buckley published Up From Liberalism in 1959. And Buckley was corresponding with a friend in South Carolina about some of the racial ideas that he had written about in the book. So here’s Buckley: “I pray every Negro will not be given the vote in South Carolina tomorrow, because such a development would cause him to lose that repose, through which slowly, but one hopes surely, some of the decent instincts of the white man to go to work fuse with his own myths and habits of mind, and hence, a man more likely to know God.” End quote. So there’s a lot there. I mean, sometimes it’s a little bit–Buckley’s language is a little bit, ah, dense–
RS: He’s talking about a dog.
NB: [Laughs] Right.
RS: He’s not talking about a human being. He’s talking about how you train a dog to be acceptable in the house.
NB: Right. And Buckley, I mean–so to, yeah, to sort of bring that into context–I mean, I think that the book really examines–Buckley’s record on race has been discussed quite a bit over the years. But I think the book probably does the most thorough going–you know, provides the most thorough going explanation of really all the things Buckley wrote about race. And as you said, I mean, Baldwin–putting them together is, part of the idea is that Baldwin provides us with such a powerful lens through which to understand somebody like Buckley and the larger trends that Buckley represents. And so Buckley, I mean, this quotation from this private letter that Buckley wrote sometime in the late fifties, is really representative of a body of work going back to his earliest days writing about race. Most infamously he wrote Why the South Must Prevail in 1957, in which he argued–he had, you know, allusions to the Constitution and to the Southern way of life and so on. But the heart of his case was always that white people are, he would say, for the time being the superior race, and so they have not only the right but the duty to dominate black people–culturally, politically, and so on, economically.
And Buckley, you know, he believed that to his core. He was deeply elitist, for a lot of reasons you described before. He believed in a natural hierarchy among human beings, that some were fit to rule and some were fit to be ruled, and that belief in hierarchy was thoroughly racialized. So Buckley was an unabashed elitist to his, you know, to his dying day. And he recognized that the conservative movement needed to find ways to use the political energy of racial resentment in order to fuel its rise to power. And so that is really, you know, I think the central theme in looking at Buckley’s story, is he figures out ways to take advantage of racism, racial resentment, in order to advance his agenda. Which really is not, really, an agenda that is at all populist. He recognized the utility of populism in order to advance elite goals. And so that’s a kind of central theme in the book.
And as you said before, I mean, one of the fascinating things is that Buckley dismisses Baldwin as this dangerous–he calls him an “eloquent menace.” And that might be a more apt description for Buckley himself. He calls Baldwin an eloquent menace who’s basically, clearly has this mastery of the English language, but Buckley argues that Baldwin’s intention is to overthrow Western civilization. To overthrow the Constitution, to overthrow the Bill of Rights. These are the sorts of things he says in the debate at Cambridge. When in fact, you know, if you actually–as you said earlier, Baldwin had this very interesting, thoughtful, critical engagement with the Western tradition. He was, I think, far more interested in thinking about the Western tradition than Buckley ever was.
So Baldwin is, you know, he recognizes that white–the doctrine of white supremacy is at the center of Western civilization in a lot of ways. But he wants to think about ways in which we can possibly, you know, think critically about the Western tradition. Find ways to come up with a new language, new standards by which to live. Rethink what we mean by freedom, justice, and responsibility. Think about ways in which those concepts throughout Western history have often excluded people of color–how can we possibly rethink them in order to be more inclusive. And so Baldwin says to Buckley and to his colleagues–colleagues like James Jackson Kilpatrick, the leading salesman of segregation–he says, I accuse you of betraying Western civilization. If you really cared about the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence–if you cared about these things, then you’d actually take the ideas that are at the core of those traditions, and you’d apply them to all people.
And so Baldwin says, late in life, he has this really interesting conversation with the anthropologist Margaret Mead, in the seventies. And Baldwin says, you know, in some ways you might think of me as a conservative. He says, I was a revolutionary once, but in terms of the things I care about and the things I want to see honored, I have a kind of conservatism. So there’s–my original title for the book was The Radical and the Conservative. And of course, the natural way we think about that is Baldwin as radical, Buckley as conservative. But part of the idea I had was to twist at the end, and say there’s a sense in which in terms of what Baldwin is trying to preserve, he can be thought of as this–I mean, a radical kind of conservative. Whereas Buckley, time and again, is willing to disregard these things that he claims to care about most, right. He says that the core of his political creed is a belief in the inviolability of the individual. Well, if that’s true, then why are you taking these positions on all these civil rights questions, and issues abroad as well, having to do with race? If you claim to care about the Constitution, why are you so willing to disregard it when the rights in question happen to be those of African Americans? So Buckley, time and again, reveals himself to–if he is a conservative, he’s interested, as far as Baldwin is concerned, in conserving all the wrong things. He’s interested in conserving his own power and the power of people like him. That seems to be his primary agenda.
RS: Yeah, I misspoke when I said it was the Oxford debating union in the introduction, but it’s the same–
NB: That happens all the time. [Laughs]
RS: Yeah, it’s the Cambridge debating union. And they actually, the audience votes for Baldwin; they take some kind of vote at the end. They’ve had a student debate, and then they have these two. And there’s no question, I think the vote was like 550 to 140 or something–
NB: Yeah, 544 to 164. Yeah.
RS: Yeah. And there’s no question, Baldwin is heads and shoulders over Buckley, even though as I say, Baldwin was self-educated, but he was alert. And he was passionate, and he had a big brain. And I dare say Buckley, even though he had a reputation as being erudite and everything, was kind of stupid. You know, I know some people will take offense. And I’m not saying that because he’s a conservative. You know, I’ve interviewed plenty of conservatives of one kind or another. I wouldn’t say they weren’t smart. But here was a guy–and your book goes in incredible detail, valuable detail about the education of a certain kind of ruling-class person. It was homeschooling, he had tutors for everything, the proper way to hold a tennis racket, the proper way to speak a foreign language of one kind or another. And you know, they were just at his beck and call. I forget, how many servants were there in this mansion?
NB: A lot. I’ve learned to not, you know, name the number of servants, you know. But yeah, a lot of servants. There were at least two live-in tutors, and then all these part-time tutors who came in to fill out this education.
RS: Yeah, and for basically nine children who were told that, you know, you’re going to run the world, in every respect. And so really what your study is, is that it’s a study of race as a subtext of privilege and power. And that is really what is fascinating in this book. You know, the reason you keep one group down is because that’s where you keep your own privilege intact. And that’s the way you con the vast majority of white people who you claim are part of this wonderful high level. But you don’t really mean white people; you mean rich, privileged white people, right? That’s really what comes out in this thing. Because Buckley isn’t really in favor of any kind of popular mandate. He’s in favor of protecting privilege. And the question I want to put to you is, why did the so-called liberal establishment, or more enlightened establishment, indulge a guy like William Buckley?
NB: [Laughs] Yeah.
RS: When you think about it, Buckley, I think his second major book or third major book was an unmitigated defense of Joe McCarthy, as crude and ugly and stupid as they come. And he continued that, but he did it in the language that ruling-class or upper-crust people found charming, and their minions in the mass media indulged.
NB: Right, yeah.
RS: I mean, what did NPR find so appealing? I mean, was it good theater, the way NBC and others found Trump to be good theater? Was it good for their ratings? Or did they feel this was showing balance? I mean, the guy was an out-and-out racist in every respect. I mean, in foreign policy, again, I did debate him on his show. And I pointed out he supported the segregationist, racist governments of Rhodesia and South Africa, even at a point when much of the world was turning against him. He called Ian Smith of South Africa the George Washington of Rhodesia–the George Washington of Rhodesia.
So I mean, I want you to answer the question that your book kind of moves up against. Why–I understand why Baldwin was important, and I understand why the Cambridge Union would have him. You know, one of the–I’ve said this about three times already–probably one of the best writers we’ve ever had. And clearly, you know, a man of universal insight. You mentioned he loved Dickens and others, and came up from that kind of tradition. And then you have Buckley, who was–you know, I don’t want to be too extreme here. I mean, but really there was no there there, other than a celebration of privilege.
NB: Yeah. So that’s–I mean, that’s a really–
RS: I don’t want to put words in your mouth.
NB: No, no, no. No, that’s a good question.
RS: You may have a different view.
NB: No, no. And, so, yeah, just to unpack that a little bit. I think that as you’re saying, I mean, Buckley’s education really was–I mean, one of the questions to ask about this elaborate homeschooling education that he received is, what is the purpose of what they’re, what he’s been taught? And although, you know, they studied everything under the sun, they were not taught to think about multiple perspectives, right. It was very clear–
RS: They weren’t into critical thinking.
NB: They weren’t into critical thinking. And so I mean, he and his siblings described sitting around the dining room table with William F. Buckley, Sr., and kind of him, you know, having these debates about all sorts of things. But they weren’t debating religion and politics; they were all in agreement about religion and politics. They were debating everything else under the sun, you know. But Buckley–so part of what the education is, is it’s really instrumentalizing all these skills, right, to serve a particular purpose. And that purpose is to preserve their privilege. And of course, the way they would frame that is not to preserve privilege for privilege’s own sake, right, but rather William F. Buckley, Sr., is teaching them that we live in this system that has allowed us to amass all this great wealth. And that your job, my children, is to defend this system, and to defend it from those who would criticize it. And so Buckley, he takes that to heart. And in so many ways, I mean, he sees as his life’s purpose to please his father–you don’t want to get too Freudian here, but he sees this–his purpose is to go out there–
RS: Well, his father also finances the National Review, along with the John Birch Society.
NB: [Laughs] Right, right. And so Buckley, yeah, Buckley, he–from a very young age, that’s what he takes his responsibility to be. He goes off to Millbrook prep school, and he will, you know, invade faculty meetings and get in these arguments with fellow students, defending his father’s America-first foreign policy positions and the dignity of the Catholic Church and so on. So Buckley, really, he sees his role as defending this system. And he takes that with him to Yale, and he ends up delivering, when he’s about to graduate, an oration to his fellow graduates, basically called “Our”–you know, it’s about “Our responsibility as educated men.” And our responsibility as educated men, Buckley tells his fellow elite Yale students, is to preserve the framework that has made this country an oasis of freedom, is how Buckley puts it. And so Buckley, I think that this is something that he devotes his life, right–he’s writing, he’s speaking and he’s constantly out there on the lecture circuit. And so, but he’s constantly engaged in this process of defending the system against the ideas, institutions, groups that he views as threats to that system. So he’s not, he’s never good at defending his own views. His debate coach at Yale would give him a hard time–
RS: Because they’re indefensible.
NB: [Laughs] Right, right.
RS: No, really. This is what hit me reading your book. Because you make that argument in the book quite cogently. Yes, he was great at ripping apart other people, or at least in the eyes of some, not actually for the Cambridge Union; they voted for, you know, against him. But the fact is, yes, he was clever that way. The reason he couldn’t really explain and defend his own views is they would have been loathsome to his own base.
RS: You know, this is the thing. Even when he ran for mayor, something you point out in your book, he got 13% of the vote or something, but he got it from what he considered–what his son, Chris Buckley, has referred to as the outer boroughs. You know, the lumpen outside, and attacking Trump, and saying Trump is not his father. But the fact of the matter is that the whole racism of the Republican Party–which was not normal to the party; after all, this was supposed to be the party of Lincoln. And it was President Eisenhower who sent federal troops in on desegregation, and it was the Southern Democrats as a bloc who were opposed to integration. The South was controlled by this important wing of the Democratic Party, and therefore the Democratic Party was really on the side of segregation, no matter how they reinvent the history.
So you had somebody like Buckley come along, and I will not deny his impact–which is, after all, a serious justification for your book, you know, [The Fire Is Upon Us]. And I do want to urge people to read it, because history matters. You know, and this gets you into the nitty gritty of the history: Where did Donald Trump come from? You know, why is the Republican Party the party now of nuttiness and meanness and divisiveness and anti-immigrant and so forth? It wasn’t that way. It was actually the party of a more enlightened capitalism, of open borders, of welcoming the stranger, and more supportive of integration than the Democratic Party, up to a critical point. Along comes an intellectual like Buckley–but he was representing people like his father and that social class. And they said, you know what? And they didn’t use these words, but they could have. They said, we need a new chapter of false consciousness. That’s what we need. And it came to be known as the Southern strategy in Richard Nixon’s administration. How do we get the South, for basically reactionary–you know, what’s the right word–ruling-class power–the plutocrats to defend the super-rich, like his father? How do we get people to vote for that? We, unfortunately, are in this republic, where people have the vote, particularly white people. How do we get these white people, who are really suffering under this system–after all, when Buckley was growing up, the same as James Baldwin, we had the Great Depression. Well, white people got hurt very badly in the Great Depression. Well, how do you go to these poor Southern whites–remember, this is the South before air conditioning, this is the South before [unclear] going down there. You know, when he was in South Carolina, where they spent their winters, I guess. You know, he’s experiencing the Old South. Well, how do we get these poor Southern whites, right–which is the majority of them–to back the plutocrats?
RS: That’s the great challenge for the Republican Party, and Buckley comes along with the formula, you know. Accept racism, or endorse it, which he does in as polite a way as you can do it. How do you politely endorse–support the South in its battle to hold on to segregation? Well, you do it with the foreign enemy: McCarthy’s anti-communism, the Cold War, super patriotism, right? You do it that way, you do it with demonizing the freedom movement among blacks, the Civil Rights Movement. And Buckley is the intellectual architect of this move of the Republican Party to the right, how they capture the South and end up with a Donald Trump as president.
NB: Yeah, and I want to be careful not to give Buckley too much credit. I think one of the things he does very skillfully–
RS: You know who gives him credit? Ronald Reagan gave him credit.
RS: Ronald Reagan said without Buckley, he wouldn’t have been president.
NB: Right. Well, yeah, then there’s–George Well has that famous line where, you know, without William F. Buckley we wouldn’t have Barry Goldwater, without Barry Goldwater we wouldn’t have Ronald Reagan, without Ronald Reagan we wouldn’t have victory in the Cold War. So Buckley does get a lot of credit. But I think that one of the things that’s important about Buckley is that he, you know–and this is going back to your original question. I mean he’s, of course, I’m not trying in the book to say that Buckley is an intellectual heavyweight in the same sense Baldwin is, right. His importance is of a different type. And his importance is, as you’re saying, as a popularizer, as an organizer of ideas. So he’s not an originator of ideas, but he does recognize early on the strategic value of racial resentment, as you were just describing. And he leans into that, and ends up really utilizing that as a central idea that he thinks will advance the conservative cause into the future. And so one of the questions, going back to something you asked earlier, is why is Buckley allowed in by the liberal establishment, right, in the context of this? He’s making these arguments in the fifties, in the sixties, really through to the end of his life, where he’s defending this idea of white supremacy–in, as you said, a kind of genteel way, but white supremacy nonetheless.
RS: And much more so than Donald Trump.
NB: Right, right. And so, but, and part of the reason why is that, I mean, I think you hit the nail on the head earlier. Buckley was a master at performing, right? He was a performer. He was somebody who knew the entertainment value of ideas, right. And so Trump is entertaining to some people in a very different way. But people–and this is something I’ve discovered in working on the book over the last few years–I talked to a lot of people on the left who loathe Buckley’s politics, but kind of love him in a way. Loved watching him, enjoyed watching him on television, they might enjoy reading his columns. There’s something about Buckley, and in a way he’s sort of part of this–a symptom of us entertaining ourselves to death, right, to use Postman’s famous phrase. I mean, he was a master at performing conservatism; he was so, you know, he sort of embodied this kind of elitism, the way he spoke, the way he–the words he used, all these things.
And so I think that part of it is that, and I think the other thing is that, you know, Buckley, he really was able to popularize. One of his biographers, Lee Edwards, calls him the Saint Paul of the American conservative movement. He was an evangelist for these ideas. He wasn’t good at, you know, defending them in great detail. But he was, you know, he had this thrice-weekly newspaper column, he had National Review, he was on the lecture circuit; every week of the year, he was out there giving lectures and debating folks. And so he was, you know, besides Barry Goldwater in the sixties, he was the face associated with American conservatism. And really through to the end of his life, played a really outsized role in shaping the conservative movement.
But he made a number of strategic–and this is also where his importance comes in. He made a number of strategic choices as this kind of editor of conservatism, as this gatekeeper of the conservative movement. And one of the most important and one of the most central ones is how are conservatives going to react on questions of civil rights and race. And he says that his goal was to make sure the conservative movement was extremely articulate on questions of race; non-racist, in sort of, in a sort of way of revealing racial animus; but not racially egalitarian. Buckley says this 10 years after the founding of National Review, he says that was his goal, is to try to keep the people who were far–you know, far, far right on race, out of the magazine, but work with them behind the scenes. So one of the things I talk about in the book is Buckley cozying up to the White Citizens’ Councils, which had different tactics from the Klan, but they were known. You know, Bayard Rustin called them the Uptown Klan for a reason, right. They had the same goals as the Klan, and they went about intimidating people and creating a climate of distrust, just like the Klan did. They just did it with economic means and other means, as opposed to, you know, white hoods and burning crosses.
And so Buckley cozies up to those folks. He recognizes that they are with him in this cause, in the sense that he sees that they can be part of the conservative coalition. And he and Goldwater–Goldwater as early as, you know, in the early 1950s Goldwater’s writing in his journal that he senses a realignment. That Southern conservatives in the Democratic Party might end up allying themselves with conservatives like him from the west and the Midwest. And so Buckley and Goldwater recognize that; they don’t necessarily have it fully worked out, but we see Buckley throughout the fifties and sixties in the areas that I’m, the time period I’m really focused on in the book, trying to figure out a way, as you said, to articulate a politics that will tap into the white backlash. He celebrates the white backlash. When George Wallace runs against Lyndon Johnson in 1964 in three democratic primaries and does quite well–he gets over 30% in all three of those primaries–Buckley, although he had some criticisms of Wallace as a politician, he writes these editorials celebrating in, you know, explicitly this idea of white backlash. White people are feeling marginalized by the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, and they should be, Buckley says.
And so Buckley, as you said, he wants to figure out a way for conservatives to tap into this populism. One of the great ironies, right, is William F. Buckley, one of the most elitist political figures in, you know, 20th century American politics, ends up as the populist candidate, you know, when he runs for mayor of New York City. And ends up really embracing this populist politics. And now, as you said earlier, in terms of the focus of the book being in this period, in the late forties to the late sixties, if we want to try to understand where we are now, with the rise of Donald Trump and this sort of resurgent white nationalist authoritarianism, we have to understand stories like this one. Because this is a story about, intellectually and politically, how the right came to make this deal with the devil of white supremacy. And that’s very much where we are today. Trump’s got a different style from Buckley, and Buckley didn’t like Trump personally. But it’s hard to really differentiate that sort of populist politics that Buckley was promoting on questions of race, from what Donald Trump has done so successfully today.
RS: Yeah, divide and conquer. And I want to end this, though, with one issue that your book–I don’t know what the right word for it is–I think struggles with. In addition to everything else, Baldwin is a gay man.
RS: And interestingly, that’s one of the reasons, maybe, he wasn’t prominent at the Great March on Washington. Although the convener of the Great March on Washington, Bayard Rustin, was openly gay. But Baldwin was, and his second novel had a gay theme. And it’s interesting, because you discuss the publisher, his publisher of his first book–ah, help me here–
NB: Knopf, Alfred Knopf.
RS: –Knopf, rejecting the second book. And I heard you say that in the lecture today. And I thought–and you said, well, they rejected it because it was supposedly about two white guys. But you know, after all, Baldwin was living in Paris, and in the gay scene there, racism wasn’t as big a factor as might be elsewhere. And the fact of the matter is, the revolution that at that moment seemed the most forlorn–which was for a gay man to be accepted as normal–has actually had the most rapid progress of any such movement, in maybe world history, but certainly in America. You know, where, wow, in a matter of a few generations, you know, gay is normal, or at least in large parts of America. However, the black revolution has stalled, has regressed–and I’m not saying the revolution has; it’s because of white supremacy and hostility. And the irony here is that in the sixties, where–it was ‘65, this debate at Cambridge–the big issue was black-white on the surface. But for Baldwin personally, being a gay man maybe was an even more intractable issue, the one he didn’t push heavily. And it’s interesting, his nemesis here, Buckley, is also the man who denounced Gore Vidal, another gay man who, extremely well known and brilliant as a writer, but didn’t write that much about gay themes; occasionally did. He called him a fag on national television. So in addition to everything else, Buckley clearly was homophobic. And I wonder, after writing this book, The Fire Is Upon Us, I wonder whether homophobia was another one of Buckley’s failings?
NB: Yeah. So as you mentioned, this is an issue that in writing about Baldwin, I think it’s one of the challenges that scholars confront, and it’s certainly one that I confronted. Is that Baldwin, he loathed categorization; he didn’t want to be categorized, he didn’t want to be labeled. And so when that came to ideology, when it came to his sexuality–
RS: By the way, I think Bayard Rustin might have been an inspiration for that. Because before one of these McCarthy committees, when Bayard Rustin was accused of being a communist, he says: Sir, I am a homosexual, a pacifist, and a Negro. I don’t care to join any other minorities. Or condemned minorities. But the fact is–so, yes, you might not want to make it the big issue, but there was no question.
NB: Oh, there was no–yeah, and Baldwin–I mean, Baldwin–and he was not closeted. But he would often say when people would sort of try to, you know, ask him to define his sexual orientation he would say, “Love is where you find it,” is kind of the line that he liked to use. But yeah, Baldwin, there’s no question that his sexuality was–it’s a subtext in many ways for the conversation that he’s having with Buckley; it’s a subtext in many ways, I think, in my book. Buckley says later that the reason, one of the reasons that the Cambridge students were so–they celebrated Baldwin so much, was because of his homosexuality. He said he was black, he was gay, he was anti-American, so they loved him; you know, that’s why they loved him. He didn’t win the debate, Buckley argues, because of what he argued; he won the debate because the students were there to affirm his identity. And so Buckley–
RS: His ruling-class British students. [Laughter]
NB: Right, right. Well, yeah, and it was quite a conservative place at the time. And so Baldwin–so I think part of it is, in terms of the question of Baldwin’s sexuality, I think Baldwin thought–and at least my sense of this, later in his life, the period that I really cover in the book kind of wraps up in 1968, and I talk a little bit about the legacies of each of them. But of course Baldwin, later in his life, as the gay liberation movement is becoming, coming to the forefront, he is forced to come to grips with this question of how he’s going to participate, and the sort of responsibilities he had. And he was never shy about writing about these issues, in as early as the fifties. But he certainly, you know, later in life has to confront some questions about to what extent is he going to be involved. And there’s a lot of fascinating work being done by other scholars that are dealing with that aspect of Baldwin’s politics.
But yeah, Buckley, there’s many people who argue, Buckley’s defenders, that this incident on national television at the ‘68 Democratic Convention when he used that anti-gay slur against Gore Vidal, was a one-off and he just lost his temper because Vidal had called him a crypto-fascist, and it’s really not how he feels, et cetera, et cetera. Well, the truth is–and this is one of the things I talk about in the book–one of the, Buckley has this vast correspondence that is available at Yale University. And I read a lot of letters, a lot of Buckley’s mail. And early in the 1960s, he and Vidal have this exchange in the newspaper about the nature of conservatism, and Buckley defends conservatism and Vidal critiques it. And in his correspondence with, Buckley’s correspondence with a friend, he–his friend criticizes Vidal, and Buckley writes back to him, and he uses an anti-gay slur way back in the early sixties. So it was clearly not something that was–it was not a one-off for William F. Buckley, by any means. And he kind of sees–I think Baldwin’s sexuality, for Buckley, is kind of part of the nature of his threat to Western civilization, this vague idea that Buckley has when he’s using that terminology in the debate, and his writings about Baldwin, but he doesn’t really mention it explicitly until later.
RS: I am still dumbfounded reading your book. The idea that this overt–I mean, now people say, use a word or something, their careers are over. The idea that Buckley could get away with really, I mean, serious racism, and contempt for all people who were of lesser wealth, or this–I mean just, it’s really mind-boggling. The thing that–there’s two things I got from your book. One is that for many people, manners trumps everything. And Buckley was a master of manners. And with manners–and Trump is not, or he deliberately has manners that the elite finds offensive, and works with mass crowds. But Buckley was a master at basically conning the New York Times, if you like. You know, he was so civilized, but he wasn’t at all civilized. He was, you know, really quite evil. So when evil presents as civilized, it’s acceptable. The other takeaway I had from your book is that, yes, on some issues, and gay rights is certainly one of them, we’ve made a lot of progress. On the basic issue that your book addresses, The Fire Is Upon Us–race–I would say, you know, from 1963 to now, how much progress has there been? You know, that is a real, serious question. And there, Baldwin was really quite pessimistic in his forecast. He thought race, racial division, the exploitation of black people, was something white America would be very reluctant to lose.
NB: Yeah. Well, I think those are two really great points to wrap up our conversation. Because on the one hand–I think that this is something that you’ve identified a really important thing about–Buckley was able to get away with as much as he was able to get away with, in part because of this personality that he had, and this way that he could–he could, you know, present his ideas in a way that was sort of more, seemed more intellectually sophisticated than a sort of coarse racism. But I think that’s precisely–and this is one thing, another thing–Buckley was personally charming. People say who interacted with him that he could be extraordinarily charming and generous before the lights went up, and then his talents would come out.
But the thing about that is–and this is part of why I think Baldwin provides us with such a powerful lens through which to view Buckley–is that Baldwin said, you know, it’s for these reasons, Buckley’s manners, Buckley’s sophisticated arguments–it’s for these reasons that Buckley is in some ways, Baldwin says, far more dangerous than sort of somebody who displays racial animus and is kind of a racist demagogue sort of figure. Because Buckley was able to kind of craft a racism that was more socially acceptable, that was the kind of racism that he was not going to get disinvited, you know, from campuses; he was not going to, he was going to be invited to be part of the mainstream press. And so Baldwin really provides us, I think, with a really powerful way to look at somebody like Buckley and say, this person is not–they’re in the business, they’re doing the same thing that a lot of these racist folks are doing, but they’re doing it in this more clever way. That, you know, the racism is insidious. And so, in so many ways, Baldwin says it’s more sinister for that reason.
And on the second point, in terms of the lack of progress on questions of race, and the ways in which the episodes that I’m describing the book from, you know, 50 plus years ago are still so with us today. That’s one of the things that was, you know, it was really depressing about working on this project. In the sense that you look at what Baldwin is describing, and the world he’s describing, and the grip that white supremacy has on American political culture. And he is, he’s clearly describing a world that’s very, very familiar to us, right? He’s describing a world in which we have so many people in the population who are clinging to the delusion of white supremacy, because it’s the thing that gives them a sense of worth. It’s the thing that gives them a sense of status. So whether–you know, Baldwin, of course, talked a lot about the quote unquote, Negro problem. But I think one of the really powerful things about Baldwin’s way of thinking about the world is we’re trying to understand something like the Negro problem–Baldwin would always say, there’s not a Negro problem in this country, right? There’s a white problem, if anything. And the question is, he would ask white people is, why did you feel it was necessary to invent the Negro in the first place? Right? Why did this–why is this idea necessary for your sense of self-worth?
And so he says part of the story is a kind of economic story, about we need to rationalize economic exploitation. But it’s also a story about psychology. It’s a story about moral identity. It’s a story about people feeling a sense of worth. And that part of what Baldwin thinks is happening, whether we’re talking about the quote unquote Negro in his day, or we’re talking about the immigrant, or any sort of other–any othering that we do–Baldwin said, really what’s happening there is that we’re trying–most, he says most white supremacists are not evil. They’re scared, right? They’re doing evil things. But he said there are people like Buckley, people like a lot of the folks in his National Review circle, people like George Wallace, that they are–you know, Baldwin was willing to say these folks are evil. They’re weaving the web of white supremacy in order to advance an agenda that has nothing to do with the white people that they say they are supporting. But he says that a lot of the people who are caught up in that web of white supremacy, they’re caught up in that web because they’re scared. They don’t know what their identity would be without this crutch of white supremacy.
So I think Baldwin, the relevance there, right, the fact that we’re still struggling with these issues, in some ways Baldwin would not be surprised, right? Because there’s something so powerful about this kind of, this politics of racial resentment. It has proved to be extraordinarily useful. And it’s such an easy way to get people to do what you want politically. Fear is a very powerful political tool, and Baldwin recognized that. So while it is, I mean, it’s very depressing to think about the fact that we don’t seem to have made much progress since Baldwin’s time, I think that’s–it’s also, in some ways we can feel, you know, it really is a motivation, a call to action, right? Baldwin reminds us that we have a duty each and every day. Baldwin says to love another human being is to confront that human being, and to try to liberate that human being from the delusions that keep them in thrall.
And so Baldwin, I think, calls on all of us, in all of our everyday conversations with our neighbors, and also in all the political actions that we take, to really engage in those actions with that goal of trying to liberate people from the delusions that dominate their lives. And so I think that the relevance of the book, like I said, it’s disappointing, and it’s depressing to think that we haven’t made that much progress, but hopefully the book will help us think through these issues in the present time, and take the appropriate actions to bring about justice.
RS: Well, that’s it. The book is called The Fire Is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America. A debate that came to a really high point of intensity, obviously, in 1965 after the Civil Rights Act. And this book centers around a debate between two people who were principally involved. But it’s a debate, obviously, that is of the moment. And it’s really not just about race. It’s about scapegoating. It’s about the other. It’s about the dominance of one ethnoracial group and the scapegoating of the others. That’s what the Donald Trump moment is all about. And what this book does, it rips apart the genteel aura, the facade of a civilized supremacy. Which after all, when people talk about can it happen here, have to remind people, in Germany fascism came to the most civilized, advanced, genteel, law-and-order society. And you know, there are parallels in this book. The willingness to hold yourself up by demeaning others; not only the willingness, the eagerness to do that, that’s what your book is about. I want to thank you–
NB: Thank you, Bob.
RS: –Nicholas Buccola. It’s a Princeton Press book, Princeton University. It has great scholarly credentials. But despite its heft–and the heft is provided by really important and interesting detail–I highly recommend it. That’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Sebastian Grubaugh here has helped us get involved with the USC Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication. I got that wrong, it’s Communication and Journalism. I should know better, I teach here. And I want to have a shout out to Christopher Ho at KCRW, which houses our program. And Joshua Scheer, our producer of Scheer Intelligence. See you next week with another edition.