In the matter of Patrick J. Buchanan, the point is being missed.

The Beltway pundits have worked themselves into a tizzy over whether some of Buchanan's TV colleagues -- "Crossfire" co-host Michael Kinsley in particular -- have been too soft on Buchanan's antisemitism. Washington is a city where turning policy into gossip is an art form. But even by Washington standards, this is ridiculous -- a sideshow.

The issue is not Kinsley. Nor is it principally Buchanan's antisemitism. Abe Rosenthal deserves praise for courageously raising the charge and William Buckley for confirming it. But now that Buchanan's media-inflated New Hampshire "victory" has made him a national political figure, the antisemitism debate is beside the point, or more accurately, obscuring the far larger point. The real problem with Buchanan (as Jacob Weisberg suggested two years ago in the New Republic) is not that his instincts are antisemitic but that they are, in various and distinct ways, fascistic.

First, there is Buchanan's nativism. "What happened to make America so vulgar and coarse, so uncivil and angry?" he asks. After serving up the usual suspects ("a morally cancerous welfare state" etc.), he finds "another reason": "Since 1965, a flood tide of immigration has rolled in from the Third World, legal and illegal, as our institutions of assimilation ... disintegrated." The next paragraph advises us that since 1950 America has gone from 90 percent to less than 77 percent European. "If present trends hold," he warns, "white Americans will be a minority by 2050."

"Who speaks for the Euro-Americans?" (read: white Americans) asks Buchanan. Guess. "Is it not time to take America back?" Guess for whom and from whom. This naked appeal to racial and ethnic exclusivity puts Buchanan firmly in the tradition of Jean-Marie Le Pen and Europe's other neo-fascists whose platform is anti-immigrant resentment, fear and loathing of the unassimilated Other.

Then there is Buchanan's open admiration for authoritarian politics. Press profiles of Buchanan recall colorfully his father's worship of Franco and (Joe) McCarthy. But this is more than mere family lore. Buchanan fils has quite cheerfully expressed his own esteem for Franco and Pinochet (both "soldier-patriots") and for the "Boer Republic," Buchanan's quaint and sympathetic euphemism for white racist South Africa.

As for the man who gave fascism a bad name, Buchanan offers this: "Though Hitler was indeed racist and anti-Semitic to the core, a man who without compunction could commit murder and genocide, he was also an individual of great courage, a soldier's soldier in the Great War, a political organizer of the first rank, a leader steeped in the history of Europe ... " etc. Another soldier-patriot?

As for democracy, Buchanan disdains the principle of "one man, one vote" as "democratist ideology," a locution as contemptuous as it is peculiar. In particular, he scorns the idea of spreading democracy abroad, the cornerstone of Reagan's foreign policy, as "democracy worship" and "liberal idolatry."

Then there is the Buchanan style: the anti-intellectualism, the ersatz populism (his defense against the charge that he owns a Mercedes is that the Merc is the wife's car, he drives the Caddy), the paranoia (see his May 1991 column furiously attacking neo-conservatives -- "fleas" and "ideological vagrants" -- for hijacking and betraying American conservatism).

Nativism, authoritarianism, ethnic and class resentment. A good start. But Buchanan was long missing an essential feature of the fascist world view: its economics. He had contempt for "democracy worship," but he was still a parishioner at the church of capitalism, free trade and limited government.

No longer. Buchanan has converted to protectionism, i.e., government shutting markets in the name of the nation. And now the pretender to the throne of Ronald Reagan has gone beyond mere autarky to public denunciations of "vulture capitalism."

This is Reaganism? Sounds more like Peronism. After a lifetime denouncing the left for letting government regulate the economy, Buchanan is a born-again economic populist, championing the shirtless ones against rapacious capitalism.

Where does all this come from? The answer is simple. With the end of the Cold War emergency, Pat Buchanan has returned to his roots. With communism defeated, Buchanan emerges, like a woolly mammoth frozen in Siberian ice, as a perfectly preserved specimen of 1930s isolationism and nativism. He makes no attempt to disguise it. In fact, he announces it with his campaign slogan, "America First," the name of his revered father's long-discredited pre-war cause.

Indeed, the younger Buchanan might just as well have emerged from the America First rally held eight weeks before Pearl Harbor in which Charles Lindbergh declared famously that "the three most important groups which have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration." Fifty years later, Buchanan issued an eerie echo: "There are only two groups that are beating the drums ... for war in the Middle East: the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner" -- i.e., Jews -- "in the United States."

One can now begin to understand Buchanan's most bizarre preoccupation, the one that leaves even his most sympathetic colleagues utterly baffled: his, shall we say, eccentric views on the Holocaust.

Not so hard to understand. In the 1930s, before World War II, before the genocide, fascism had some appeal even among Western intellectuals. Even FDR said that he was "deeply impressed by what {Mussolini} has accomplished and by his evidenced honest purpose of restoring Italy" (letter to his ambassador to Italy, June 1933).

What ultimately and irrevocably discredited fascism was the Holocaust, the fact that the denouement of the fascist idea produced the supreme act of human barbarism. Patrick Buchanan, child of the pre-war right, confronts this unpleasant fact in a simple way: He wishes the Holocaust would go away. Which is why he finds himself, perhaps even despite himself, moved to debunk Treblinka, demean survivors (as given to "group fantasies of martyrdom and heroics"), and defend those who were part of the genocide machine.

Why the need? Because take away the blot of the Holocaust, and we are back to the 1930s, when the fascist idea had appeal and promise -- back to a time when Buchanan's brand of dark and intolerant politics had a future.

The man is a menace, but no great mystery.