This post has been updated.
I was there for the “peasants with pitchforks” speech. Pat Buchanan was holding forth in a crowded room at the Sheraton Hotel in Nashua, N.H., a couple of days before the 1996 GOP primary. The Republican Establishment’s favorite for the nomination was Bob Dole, but Dole, for all his solid credentials and admirable history as a war hero and congressional leader, was never someone to incite a political fever, never one to tap the more visceral emotions of the rowdy electorate.
So here came Buchanan, the TV pundit and unapologetic nativist, and in the icy environs of the New Hampshire primary he was a glowing coal of anti-Establishment fury. But he was also having a ball, relishing every moment, improvising the whole thing — a guy with nothing to lose. Toward the end of his stump speech, he uttered what became his most famous line:
“We shocked them in Alaska. And stunned them in Louisiana. And then stunned them again in Iowa. And they are in a terminal panic in Washington. They are frightened. They hear — ha ha — they hear the shouts of the peasants from over the hill. You watch the Establishment, all the knights and barons will be riding into the castle, pulling up the drawbridge in a minute. And they’re comin’! All the peasants are comin’ with pitchforks after them! So we’re going to take this — we’re going to take this over the top.”
[This is quoted imprecisely on Buchanan’s Wikipedia page. I have transcribed it from the C-SPAN coverage; see minute 34.]
Buchanan’s candidacy is the perfect example of how a campaign is like an insurrection. His raucous rally today in Nashua wasn’t a slick campaign event by any means: It was just energy.
The room was too small to contain the event. Rage became condensed. Buchanan looked as if he might squirt through the ceiling. The Buchanan takeover, if it happens, will not happen gently.
Buchanan ran late, too. A hotel sound system played the same “Go, Pat, go” jingle again and again. The warm-up speaker, Buchanan’s brother Tom, couldn’t figure out how to work the microphone. “Volume!” people screamed, futilely. “Twenty microphones here. Musta come in from Mexico,” the younger Buchanan said cryptically.
But then Pat Buchanan himself came on, and he was red-hot. The stage was too low, and people were screaming at the camera crews to get out of the way. Buchanan charged ahead.
“The establishment in Washington is quaking in its boots!” he said. The “knights” and “barons” of Washington are going to retreat into their castles, he said. “They are in a terminal panic. They hear the shouts of the peasants from over the hill!”
Other candidates stick almost pathologically to their scripted message; Buchanan comes up with new riffs every day. He announced that bureaucrats would be racing out of Washington in “covered wagons” when he becomes president.
“Like immigrants! So I can have more room for my limousine!”
He laughed in that characteristic pinched expression where his eyebrows shoot up at the corners and he bares his teeth as though he’s going to bite someone.
“This is too much fun!” he said.
Buchanan edged Dole in New Hampshire, but Dole’s superior financial and organizational strength put him on top on Super Tuesday. But even if these peasants-with-pitchforks insurrections eventually sputter out, they signal changes taking place in the electorate. The Republican Party is far more conservative than it was just two decades ago. This isn’t Bob Dole’s GOP anymore.
Four years ago, when Establishment favorite Mitt Romney was struggling to polish off a right-flank challenge from Rick Santorum, E.J. Dionne explained a simple truth about primary-season politics — and you could substitute “Clinton” or “Bush” or “Dole” in this passage and come up with a parallel dynamic:
One senses that the conservative ultras are resigned to having to vote for Romney in November against President Obama. They are determined not to vote for him twice, using the primaries to give voice to their hearts and their guts. They will keep signaling their refusal to surrender to the Romney machine….
So now we have Donald Trump as the current leader of the GOP peasants. The loathing of Trump by the Republican Establishment is his foremost credential.
In the recent debate in Cleveland, Trump offered a remarkably full-throated endorsement of political incivility. Now is not the time to worry about “tone,” he declared. Dave Weigel’s latest dispatch quotes a woman at a Trump rally: “People want a real person now because we’re tired of the politicians.” Though “real person” is perhaps not the first term many of us would produce when trying to describe the mogul, the point is still clear: He’s an outsider, a bomb-thrower, someone who can claim he’s leading a charge on the drawbridge. If and when Trump implodes, his followers will find someone else, similarly apoplectic and rebellious, to rally behind. It won’t be Jeb Bush.
And then over on the left, here’s Bernie! He got 27,500 people to show up at a rally in Los Angeles, and 28,000 in Portland. He’s leading Hillary Clinton in the polls in New Hampshire. He’s the Howard Dean of Campaign 2016. What’s it mean? It means at the very least that the Democratic Establishment needs to listen to what Sanders is saying. He’s no fluke. The electorate will not follow a script dictated from Washington. Didn’t someone once say that democracy is messy? Next time maybe we’ll talk about Shays’s Rebellion in 1786-87. (I think they actually had pitchforks then!)
Aug. 13 update: My colleague Phil Rucker has an excellent piece today that discusses in depth the phenomenon of the odd-year political insurrection and the challenges it creates for Establishment candidates. Professional politicians such as Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham and Bobby Jindal struggle to get any traction (Perry may have to drop out soon, as he’s out of cash). Ted Cruz, though another professional politician, positions himself as the guy who refuses to go along to get along (he’s widely disliked among his colleagues), and Rucker reports that Cruz is the one who is most likely to pick up the Trump supporters if they tire of the mogul:
But other Republicans think the tempest that Trump has whipped up will not die down. One of them is Cruz, who is among the best-funded candidates and is building a nationwide grass-roots organization. Cruz has refrained from attacking Trump, setting himself up to capture the anti-establishment vote when it looks for its final home this winter.
Tracked down my N.H. primary 1996 coverage in a dank archive here at WaPo galactic HQ. Here’s one excerpt (the story itself is ridiculously long; the headline is “May the Batter Man Win,” which is how we wrote heds back in the day, before the rise of SEO and Click Lit):
Of the major candidates only three look strong, led by the front-runner, Bob Dole, whose stump appearances have done nothing to contradict the assessment this week by Time magazine that he has been, at times, “almost incomprehensible.” The emotional highlight of a Dole speech is when he walks into the room. Everyone claps heartily. He’s an American hero!
Dole’s the master of the very short sentence — he barks. Tonight in Milford, he said: “I want you to know who I am. And what I’ll do. Because we’re talking about electing someone to the most important office in the Free World. . . . Well, it’s not very complicated. And I’m not very complicated. Like everyone else in this room, I was born. I was born in Russell, Kansas . . . .”
Poised for an upset is Pat Buchanan, a TV commentator. Strength: rhetoric. Weakness: reminds some people of Juan Peron. Buchanan is a populist, a nationalist, a right-winger endorsed by Klansmen and neo-Nazis, a “Christian conservative” labeled a “liberal” in the Weekly Standard, a protectionist who points out that on trade issues he is supported by Ralph Nader and Jesse Jackson. Right? Left? You make the call!
Then comes Lamar Alexander, who’s egregiously inoffensive. His campaign puts an exclamation mark after his given name, but he is so mild-mannered that you definitely hear only a period when he says such things as “Let the future begin.” No other candidate could pull that off. Buchanan hasn’t uttered a sentence without an exclamation mark in weeks.