The Use and Misuse of Yukio Mishima

The mode of death of a novelist is rarely a cause for concentrated attention by a public beyond that of his or her readership. When, on November 25, 1970, the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima died, it was in a manner that made an impression on the cultural world quite out of proportion to his diminutive physical stature.

On that date, Mishima, accompanied by several subordinates in his private militia, stormed into the Tokyo headquarters of the Jieitai, the Japanese Self-Defense Force, and took a general hostage. He then demanded an audience with the assembled soldiers from the attached garrison. When this was granted, he called for them to throw off the post-WWII ‘Peace Constitution’ of 1947 and return Japanese sovereignty to the Emperor.

The soldiers, young men already a quarter-century from the nationalist Japan of the pre-war period, jeered him. He cajoled them, to no avail. Finally, in disgust, he shouted the traditional salute of nationalist Japan—Tenno Heika Banzai! (Long Live the Emperor!)—and returned to the room where the general was held hostage by his compatriots. There, he committed seppuku, the samurai form of ritual suicide, disemboweling himself with a dagger. The rite was botched, however, by his second or kaishakunin, whose job it was to behead Mishima with a single blow from a sword immediately upon completion of the abdominal cut. His first strike landed on Mishima’s back, and two more were needed to remove his head from his body, before the kaishakunin himself was beheaded by another member of the militia group.

Mishima’s final act–not only the suicide but the effort to rouse the troops and bring about a popular uprising—was a total disaster by any reasonable estimate. But owing solely to this spectacular, scandalous end, his reputation in some circles of both left and right grew and evidence for this can still be found a half-century later. Most of his political admirers on the right—at least if my own anecdotal experience interacting with them online is indicative of anything–have read little of his writing. But it is there, if anywhere, that we must look for evidence if we want to evaluate his contribution to conservative ideology.

Mishima wrote a voluminous amount over a career of a quarter-century, but it is the work of his last five years that is most relevant for our purposes. In 1965, he began work on a multi-volume novel, titled The Sea of Fertility, that dealt with one remarkable individual incarnated four times in different human forms. Each incarnation is personally known by another character, Honda, who appears in every volume of the novel and reflects through the various reincarnations of his friend on the meaning of human life. In August of 1967, after the completion of the first volume, Spring Snow, Mishima wrote a short interpretive commentary on Hagakure, a classic text from the early 1700s on bushido, the samurai code of war and ethics. This work displayed Mishima’s interest in the traditional principles that informed the Japanese warrior class during the country’s feudal period. A central theme emphasized in his commentary is the superiority of honor to mere survival. A vision of one’s own death should be before one’s eyes daily, as the samurai pledged, in situations of uncertainty during battle, to choose always to wade into the fray and embrace death rather than calculate and strategize to survive solely for the sake of surviving.

The next year, 1968, Mishima completed both the second novel of the tetralogy, Runaway Horses, and an autobiographical book that may well be the key text in understanding his view of life, art, and politics, Sun and Steel. Runaway Horses told the tale of the reincarnation of Kiyoaki, the male in the couple from Spring Snow, as Isao, a militant student who carries out an act of political violence Mishima closely modeled on an historical event. In 1877, a group of former samurai revolted against the Meiji government and what they saw as the Westernizing influence it represented, striking against military and political targets until the authorities brutally put them down. Several of the rebels committed seppuku rather than be taken by the enemy. Isao engages in a similar plot, killing a businessman who represents the destruction of traditional Japan for profaning a religious shrine, then, at the novel’s culmination, taking his own life by the samurai rite as the sun rises before him and the police close in. This novel is perhaps the most striking literary document Mishima ever produced. The dramatic narrative is enthralling, and Isao is a compellingly committed character, precisely because Mishima has written him in such a way as to present his actions as more purely rooted in a traditional ethic than was likely the case in the author’s own ostensibly similar final act.

Sun and Steel describes autobiographically Mishima’s commencement, in his third decade of life, of the ascetic and aesthetic regime of physical training that he presented as his modern effort to reinvigorate bushido. Here and in the commentary on Hagakure Mishima expresses abhorrence of the way the American presence in Japan was corroding Japan’s unique world of beliefs and values. He also rejects the manner in which the modern division of labor has caused scholars and warriors to separate themselves one from the other with a completeness that warps both callings, and negates the very possibility for a man to fully know how to live and how to die. The writer or scholar separated from the martial practice and values, in Mishima’s analysis, can only be a flabby, weak wordsmith, and a soldier without wide reading and aesthetic cultivation will not escape vulgar barbarism.

These themes—the rejection of cultural imperialism and embrace of the organic cultural originality of each nation, and the critique of the dilution of the potency of traditional masculinity—are frequently encountered in some Western conservatisms. To this degree, Sun and Steel might be read as a properly right-wing text. Yet, much of the book is dominated by the narcissism that had marked Mishima’s personal life from his sensitive, emotionally withdrawn, and rather sickly youth. There is much evidence of the extra-political motivations for the ethic he expresses here, specifically, in his pathological and sexually perverse obsession with the violent death of young men, and especially soldiers. Physical vigor and fearless disdain of death are presented as values here, but they are corrupted by the deep nihilism that infects the entire text. The ethic of Sun and Steel accepts and even longs for annihilation in the void.

This nihilism is made apparent in the final two major books he wrote prior to his death. Throughout 1969, Mishima worked on the third novel in The Sea of Fertility collection, The Temple of Dawn, which is dedicated to a lengthy discourse on religion, specifically the doctrine of reincarnation that informs the entire tetralogy. The Kiyoaki/Isao character reappears here as Ying Chan, a young Thai princess who dies, like the earlier two incarnations of the same individual, at the age of 20, this time from the bite of a cobra. The last year of Mishima’s life was dedicated largely to completion of the final volume, The Decay of the Angel, which was mailed to the publisher on the very morning of the assault on the Tokyo military compound. In this final novel of The Sea of Fertility, Honda returns as an old man to visit his friend Kiyoaki’s mistress from Spring Snow, Satoko, who is now an old woman and the abbess of a nunnery. To his astonishment, Satoko claims never to have known anyone meeting Kiyoaki’s description. Honda’s entire worldview and his sense of his own identity melt away to nothingness: “If there was no Kiyoaki, then there was no Isao. There was no Ying Chan, and who knows, perhaps there has been no I.” The novel concludes with Honda being led by Satoko to a sunlit garden, where cicadas call and carnations bloom, “a place that had no memories, nothing.”

This nothingness is where the Western conservative necessarily takes his leave of Mishima as a political theorist, even if he might yet find aesthetic value in the brilliant literary expression of an ethic that he finds so personally unacceptable. The goal of human striving as the nothingness of escape from the cycle of rebirths is an Eastern value with no resonance in our traditions.

The culture of the Christian West—not the materialist consumer culture Mishima despised in its imperial strangulation of Japan, but rather the West’s traditional culture of order and faith—offers another way toward the purity of action Mishima described in his writing, and Mishima himself recognized the fact. In his commentary on Hagakure, he cites Toynbee favorably on Christianity’s power to “gather…so many avid converts so suddenly…because these people had fervently wished for a goal worth dying for.” Purity of action is, according to Hagakure, the only value in human life worth pursuing. The outcome of the action—success or failure in external terms–is purely secondary to that fundamental. It perhaps would not have escaped Mishima’s attention that some number of those early Christians to whom he affirmatively alludes were the first martyrs of the faith, who, hearing their captors tell them that if they would but make a sacrifice to one of the Roman idols their transgressions as Christians would be forgiven, haughtily shook their heads and walked to the stake or the crucifix to die—not to cease existing, but to refuse the very power of death. Later, on numerous occasions, many took up arms to defend their church and their civilization against cultural invaders at least as formidable as the ones Mishima opposed.

Mishima’s nihilism posits non-existence as the final goal toward which political action—indeed, all action—moves. Western conservatism, at least insofar as it is infused with the spiritual energy of the chief religious system of the West, defies this void and, in the manner so eloquently expressed by Miguel de Unamuno, overcomes it in its furious willful refusal to come to terms with mortality. The dangers of Mishima’s ethic are only too apparent: empty, narcissistic embrace of death for the sake of nothing more than death itself. Our danger in the West is something quite different: it is the quietism that can descend upon us when we are too assured of the gift of immortality. The victory over death is not given passively in our tradition. It must be won through furious striving, even if the striving is only internal. And even a solely internal striving will inevitably and necessarily lead to action in the world when others attempt forcibly to rob us of the cultural scaffolding within which such spiritual pursuits are taken as the highest good. When cultural decay erodes the space within which such striving is to take place, men will have to act, or the striving will die along with the culture that envelops and shelters it.

The ethic from which Western conservatism draws its deepest inspiration is evidently more consistent with the furious striving of humankind than nihilist aestheticism such as that we find in Mishima. It must not however forget the physical vigor and the fervent desire so vividly expressed in his literary work. Of course, it is not the specific form of Mishima’s action—a ritual suicide—that might inspire Western conservatism. It is the principle of the pursuit of vigorous action that is worshipful of honor and tradition. In the West, too much of what is left of our religious tradition today fails in its inability to provide real motivation for courageous action in resistance to the cultural demolition of our traditions, and one can see the results in the ranks of young men on the contemporary right who contemptuously reject forms of passive, feminized Christianity that offer no space for vigorous, masculine affect and action. Too much of contemporary Western Christianity in its more liberal forms has effectively embraced the secularizing processes that have led, in the United States specifically and throughout much of the West more generally, toward the same kind of cultural suicide to which Mishima’s Japan fell victim after the conclusion of World War II. Here, though, it is not an external military conqueror who oversees the death of our own traditional culture, but rather a deeply radical internal cultural elite who impose on the country an anemic, destructive doctrine of multiculturalist pluralism in a manner only slightly less vigorous than the occupying American pressure on Japan post-WWII.

I remember, long ago, when I was a young student just discovering Mishima’s writing, seeing a wheat-pasted poster on the wall of a building on the university campus where I was enrolled, put there by some radical leftist student group or another. It read “No Guts, No Revolution.” I thought then and now that this is a call to action that might be admired by conservatives, even if the revolutionary goal is abhorred. From the combination of our own cultural ideals and the Hagakure-inspired ethic of Yukio Mishima, the American right might perhaps fashion our own such slogan: “No Guts, No Counter-Revolution.”

Alexander Riley is a Senior Fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. He writes at Substack.

Featured: Yukio Mishima delivers a speech on the balcony of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) building in Tokyo, before committing Harakiri with a short sword, on November 25, 1970.

Wokeism as Neo-Puritanism

“To be woke,” in the vernacular of the predominantly youthful members of this group, means to be aware of or awake to the central parameters of Wokeism, especially concerning the virulence of racism and its effects, and of the myriad ways in which all contemporary societies endeavor to champion whites and oppress non-whites.

It is now frequently noted that the brand of contemporary elite leftist identity politics that is dominant in much of American academia, mass media, and tech industry corporate culture—a phenomenon some have named “Wokeism” –bears some of the characteristics of a religion. Wokeism is certainly on the ascendant in the US and in some other Western countries at present, and in its emotive and moralistic mode of action the comparison to religious life seems at least superficially viable. For the Wokeist, virtually everything in the seemingly complex modern and multicultural societies in which we find ourselves is reducible to one fundamental fact that shapes virtually everything: whites as a group, and whiteness as their social identity and in the forms taken by a connected set of cultural symbols extending from that identity, are unjustly privileged and dominating, and non-whites—especially blacks–are systematically and vigorously excluded from full participation in the life of their societies by virtue of their lack of whiteness. Every institutional and social space in modern society—from schools to the realm of employment to the criminal justice system to medical institutions—is fundamentally warped by white supremacy and antiblackness, and the properly moral response to this is expressive outrage at this fact and a concentrated effort to achieve social change that would demolish white privilege and produce utopian racial equality. The symbolic power of these sacred entities of Wokeism works at a level of emotional intensity that approaches the fervor found in religion.

Some have endeavored to hone this classificatory idea still further, describing Wokeism as a New Puritanism, though typically with little in the way of sustained comparative analysis. There is significant viability in this classification, and elaboration on it can perhaps help us to further understand where Wokeism fits in the broader history and evolution of religious culture in the West.

Let us start with differences. Puritanism was deeply concerned about spiritual matters, specifically, with the nature of God, the eternal nature and fate of the human soul, the existence of Heaven and Hell. Any supernatural element in Wokeism’s religious practice is at best occluded, and much evidence suggests that it simply has no concern for matters outside the social and political spheres. Whereas the Wokeists orient themselves entirely to a worldly politics of progressive transformation, Puritanism had no vision of earthly progress and had no hope for humankind outside of the imminent return of the Christ. American Puritans believed that God would bring them back to England in victory, and this would be followed by the Apocalypse, probably sometime in the mid-1600s. And though the Puritans embraced a variety of individualism, as does Wokeism (though not at all the same variety), they nonetheless adhered to embodied collective worship and rite, which seems absent in Wokeism outside of the ephemeral virtual rituals of social media.

But Wokeism does share a good deal with Puritanism, or perhaps more accurately we should say that it can be readily understood as a phenomenon situated in the same religious evolutionary trajectory that swept along the Puritans. Wokeism is a development that is in fact broadly consonant with the overall drift of Christianity in the West over roughly the past 500 years, or since the Protestant Reformation produced fundamental shifts in the nature of Christian belief and practice. The Reformation signaled an all-out assault on ritual and on the pre-existing Christian recognition that sacredness was located not only outside the world in God’s majesty but also in the world humans inhabited. The Church the Reformation challenged understood that sacredness manifests on something of a continuum, God himself occupying the polar, pure absolute of sacrality while angels, saints, and holy relics, all sacred entities, are nonetheless located at some distance from that pure sacredness, somewhere closer to the profane pole at which humans uncleansed by ritual reside. The Protestants established a stark, total, and unalterable distance between God and man, the sacred and the profane. While it is arguably true that all religion recognizes the magnetic repulsion of sacred and profane, in much primitive religion, as well as in the Christianity dominant in Europe before the Reformation, entities can move and be moved, through ritual, from one category to the other, and sacred things do indeed inhabit the profane world without catastrophe or contradiction.

For the most radical among the Reformers, this was a central blasphemy of the existing Church. God and the sacred are unchanging and ever-lasting, forever beyond the ken and the approach of man, and mysteries by which miracles such as e.g., transubstantiation can be made to systematically occur on command, with prescribed rites and prayers, or mortal humans can become saints by actions of the Church, were anathema to them. Historically, the Roman Catholic Church has been tremendously effective at incorporating elements of indigenous faiths that were based in animistic principles into Christian practice, and the pantheon of the saints has been one of the most effective mechanisms for doing this. Thus, the Marian cult has proven a very efficacious means of bringing populations with local indigenous beliefs concerning sacred mother figures, real and mythical, into the Church.

Protestantism rejected all this categorically, and Wokeism embraces the same exaggerated, exclusivist binary system established by the radical Protestants, though it has been moved into the secular sphere of cultural politics. The thrust of Protestantism, especially in what became known as the mainline denominations in the US, has been toward individualism and the desacralization of the world. Sociologists such as Peter Berger have long recognized that an evolution of religious practice in a direction that deemphasizes collective ritual and the mystical properties of sacred things is essentially a guarantee that the religious body in question will decline in its ability to attract members. Some of the Protestant denominations unabashedly embraced the secularizing momentum and turned the evangelizing, otherworldly project of traditional Christianity into a this-worldly political project of the progressive left. These mainline Protestant groups in many cases have explicitly built the notion of social justice into their church doctrines. They have been shrinking in membership for decades now, as is well documented, and some are next to extinct. Their existing membership skews heavily toward the social elite of American society as defined by education and income, the same groups that are heavily overrepresented among the ranks of Wokeists. The processes of rationalization corrosively melted the glue of their former religious denominations, but these social classes still had and have the same innate need for a symbolically meaningful universe that is a deep aspect of human nature. So, they left their old churches and they transferred the symbolic categories of their former Protestant faiths into the new schema of Wokeism, its sacred object of the suffering black victim of racism, and the opposed anti-sacred symbol of whiteness.

Although they outwardly claim tolerance as a primary value, Wokeists share with Puritanism a practical intolerance that is unflinching and all the more rigid for the fact that those at which it is directed are defined, in a kind of collective psychological projection, as hostilely intolerant. This necessarily means that there is an unavoidable self-contradiction at the heart of Wokeist doctrine: it champions tolerance while acting systematically with violent intolerance. It also shares with Puritanism a belief that childhood is a corrupt state, at least as infected by sin (or in the case of Wokeism, racism) as adulthood. The Puritans preached incessantly to the very young about the terror of death and damnation and the need for full-blooded spiritual fervor in even the youngest. They built frank discussions of the grave into elementary school grammar primers. For their part, Wokeists cheerlead for psychological tests that purport to show “implicit racism” in even the very young and enthusiastically advocate for educational measures at the earliest level to combat “white privilege” and force those in whom the energy of the anti-totem inheres to repent and be reeducated.

The most profound similarity between Puritanism and Wokeism has to do with the doctrine of predestination. For the Puritans, this was a ferocious doctrine that threw the believer into a radical inner loneliness, unprotected by any Church hierarchy or ritual, where the most profound decision in his life had already been settled before his birth. In Weber’s famous formulation, the withering psychological burden of understanding that the single most important question of one’s fate was entirely out of one’s hands is the pressure that drove the emergence of the Protestant work ethic. Though Puritans did not believe that one could demonstrate convincingly one’s elect status by adhering to the tenets of this notion of work in a calling, one could at least assuage to some degree the ultimately unlivable tension of total ignorance of one’s fate by acting in a way that would be understood by self and others as most consonant with the actions of a member of the elect rather than one of the damned. These measures might decrease the unbearable uncertainty and anxiety to some degree, though accounts of Puritan founders in America on their death beds still tortured by the agony of not knowing their status demonstrate its limits. For the Puritan, the best, though still not foolproof, way of knowing one was elect was precisely the gnawing anxiety and uncertainty about one’s fate, and conversely the most powerful evidence someone was not among the elect was his convinced belief that he was.

Wokeism has its own version of this dogma and its convolutions, though to date it has not worked out an equivalent of the Protestant work ethic as a tool to decrease the psychological burden of the harsh belief. The inconclusive efforts of white Wokeists to manage this dilemma can take on an extremity that makes the self-abnegation of Puritanism pale by comparison. Ali Michael, who directs a center for race equity in education at the University of Pennsylvania, expressed this effort in neatly condensed form in the title of an article in which she reflected on the story of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who identified as black: “I Sometimes Don’t Want to Be White, Either.” Michael explains that her realization of the fact that Wokeism is based on a symbolic binary so uncompromising that all whiteness necessarily must be classed as directly antagonistic to the sacred her to reject the very idea of having her own children, as “everything I learned about the history of racism made me hate myself, my Whiteness, my ancestors… and my descendants…[and] I remember deciding that I couldn’t have biological children because I didn’t want to propagate my privilege biologically.” The full acceptance of the totemic opposition of Wokeism is this: “[T]he lesson for me is remembering how deep the pain is, the pain of realizing I’m White, and that I and my ancestors are responsible for the incredible racialized mess we find ourselves in today.” Total self-effacement is perhaps the only way forward from such a realization, though Michael would seem not to have arrived at this position yet, as she continues to make a living as a widely sought-after white antiracist speaker and activist.

For Wokeists, all whites are, by the very nature of their state, guilty of racism and “white privilege,” which cannot be undone by any action that person takes. The white Wokeist’s position can only be acknowledged, not changed. Adoration of the non-white virtuous victim and disgust at one’s own racist white nature are the existential result of this doctrine. For the Puritan, faith and its manifestation in work in a calling might lighten the psychological burden, even if it could not modify the decision already made by God. The white Wokeist does not even have this limited mechanism for addressing his suffering. His faith in the purity of the non-white victims of white racism and in the impurity of racists and the systemically racist system they have created does nothing to alleviate his mental state, and it certainly cannot change the determination of his state as a racist oppressor.

Sacrifice as alimentary communion between the god and the members of the cult was still recognized in Puritanism as an essential rite, but it was here already diluted to the form of a sign of the bond between god and cult member, rather than a substantial meal in which the god is literally consumed to replenish sacred power in the bodies of followers. However, this rite, attenuated as it was, undoubtedly provided some significant integrative power for Puritans. It might be argued that a symbolic sacrificial rite is present in Wokeism in the form we saw in the US in the wake of the George Floyd protests/riots in the spring and summer of 2020, when white Wokeists were seen performing oblations to virtuous victim blacks in the form of prostrating themselves before them, sometimes washing their feet or cleaning their shoes.

Another core of difference between these two doctrines—and perhaps the most significant—resides in the fact that, for the Puritan, the resolution of the mystery does take place, finally, if in a supernatural world outside this one, and so it can at least be pointed to with anticipation and, provided faith is strong, confidence. Wokeism, as a fundamentally corrupted trajectory in the history of religion, has rejected the supernatural entirely in its theology, and given that this world is the only one, ultimate racial justice cannot be deferred to the next. It demands endless repentance and self-flagellation on the part of the white Wokeist who understands his inescapable position as oppressor of the sacred victims of racism, indeed, as the incarnation of the anti-sacred. Whiteness as symbol is despised with such ferocity precisely because the despisers recognize in it their own inevitable natures and are predictably unable to fathom that in a way amenable to the reins of reasoned dispassion.

Freudianism has been effectively decimated as an explanatory system for human behavior by scientific research into the brain, but one is almost tempted here to invoke the Freudian doctrine of trauma, the unconscious, and neurosis. Unbearable, awful knowledge (one’s own racist whiteness) proves too painful to keep in the conscious mind, so it is stored away in the unconscious, where it nonetheless still acts on the conscious self in occluded ways in the form of neurotic behaviors (the sheer violence and irrationality of antagonism to the anti-sacred). But there is no need for outmoded Freudian categories to understand the seriousness of the problem here. In psychological terms, fervent adherence to an uncompromising moralistic set of beliefs about the world that frame self as irrevocably on the side of unmitigated evil cannot indefinitely be maintained. Escape from the Wokeist system is one possible resolution for white Wokeists. I see no others that do not in the end lead, as self-hatred almost inevitably does, in the direction of unsustainable psychological anxiety.

It is not clear how Wokeism will ultimately make this workable for its troubled white members, or indeed if it can. We have historical models for some of the ways mercilessly moralistic, self-contradictory, self-despising political religions work themselves out, e.g., in the late 1960s and 1970s in the form of the homicidal and suicidal Weather Underground. Whether Wokeism, or some significant number within its ranks, will take up this path is yet to be determined. Wokeism’s white members cling fervently to the chiliasm of the results of the “Browning of America” they endlessly reiterate, but they can derive no obvious comfort from this anticipated End Time, as they seem to recognize, in their heart of hearts, that there is no squaring this circle and their status cannot be changed even by that millennialist conclusion.

There is in the end no making amends for white Wokeists. They stand condemned, by their own beliefs, with no hope of redemption. Here, religion in the history of the evolution of the Christian West has become a merciless moralizing enterprise for self-punishment (and punishment of others) and status pursuit on a hierarchy in which victimization according to a rigorously identitarian calculus is the coin of the realm. This may be one of the future, corrupted paths of religion in the West, and we would do well to learn more about its inner workings.

Alexander Riley is a Senior Fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. He writes at Substack.

Featured: “The Fallen Woman,” by Henri de Caisne; painted in 1852.

Whither America?

There are three types of books: those one ignores altogether (most of them), those one obtains and keeps forever, and those that are read and discarded once they have outlived their utility. Most topical politics/current affairs books are in the first class. At least 99% of those that escape that category are in the third, necessarily finding their way to the recycling bin within six months to a year. All astute readers of such books know that, however useful they might be in the brief window of their viable lifespans, those that merit rereading even a year after their publication are among the world’s rare phenomena.

This past year marked the 20th and 10th anniversaries of two noteworthy exceptions to this general rule by perhaps America’s most venerable paleoconservative voice. Even after all these years, Patrick Buchanan’s The Death of the West and Suicide of a Superpower can still be profitably consulted as guidebooks for the major political and cultural crises of our times.

When The Death of the West hit the shelves in 2001, there were horrified shrieks from those perfectly content with the steady decline of traditional America. Some of the shrieks were emitted by those writing at journals then still considered by some to be sites of serious conservative thought. Take Jonah Goldberg’s yelp of a review at National Review as exemplary of this type. For this writer, Buchanan’s argument was “racist,” “white supremacist,” “bigoted.” There was, of course, no evidence in The Death of the West to support these recreant charges. Buchanan was crystal clear that it is not immigration per se nor even immigration from the Third World and from cultures different from ours that poses the existential threat to America. It is a combination of several phenomena. Unprecedented quantities of new immigrants, legal and illegal, from distant cultures is the first. The lack of a rational plan for moderating their numbers over time as we had always previously done is the second. A third is the total abandonment by those who control American institutions to the project of assimilating those immigrants to traditional American cultural values.

Christianity is the major source of those values, Buchanan argued. De-Christianization, to which he devoted an entire chapter in this book and in Suicide of a Superpower, is the most devastating weapon in the elite war against American culture. It is being promoted in virtually every possible manner in contemporary America. Shared religion has unarguably been a major feature of American culture from the establishment of the first colonies here. Christianity has been far and away the dominant faith, in pure quantitative terms of number of adherents and in terms of the shaping of broader American values. Goldberg’s review does not mention the topic, so absorbed is its author in hyperventilating about race. But many of a still more determinedly multiculturalist worldview not only acknowledge but actively cheer de-Christianization. I see this at the university where I work daily. In the ten years since the publication of Suicide, the percentage of the population identifying as Christian has dropped more than 10 points. There is every reason to believe the trend will continue, thanks in no small part to the active work of our educational institutions and the increasingly secularist contours of public life as shaped by the courts.

Perhaps the feature that most separates The Death of the West from almost every other book of its kind is a brilliant chapter summarizing the history of the intellectual influence of post-Marx Marxian theory in the Western world. It is not that there are no other popular books that attempt to critically take on the influence of thinkers such as Georgy Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse. Indeed, it is something of a requirement in a certain genre of pop conservative book writing today to include at least a few pages of benighted gesticulation at the amorphous object “cultural Marxism.” Such efforts generally are absent any concern whatever for having gotten the writers and ideas they are attacking right. They are shamefully confident in the knowledge that most of their readers would not be able to distinguish Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels from Roxanne Gay and Nikole Hannah-Jones or know why it is important to be able to tell them apart. Buchanan, on the other hand, has evidently read the Marxists and understood them. He has taken them seriously because what they proposed to do was serious business. His criticism of the role their thought has played in our recent revolutions is therefore devastating in the way that the blathering of the pop conservatives can never be.

Buchanan was well ahead of the curve in the right’s glacially slow realization of the damage that was being done to the culture by the American cultural revolution of the mid-20th century. Evidence of the late conversions of writers who today write things like Buchanan has been writing for decades is not hard to find. Christopher Caldwell, then at the Weekly Standard, trashed Death of the West in a pollyannish New York Times review. Now, twenty years later, Caldwell has written a book that makes the same dire argument he criticized Buchanan for advancing.

In 2011, Suicide of a Superpower turned the civilization-focused lens of the earlier book more narrowly on the American nation. It eloquently described the precipitous decline in the birth rate of the part of the American population that had, up until only a few decades ago, made up no less than 80% of the country’s citizens. The cancerous expansion of the collectivist and resentment-fueled diversity cult throughout America’s institutions also received focused attention. The assault on freedom as a political value and the simultaneous slavish worship of notions of equality that deny reality and crush difference were expertly discussed. But here, as in The Death of the West, Buchanan did not content himself with a litany of the problems. He also proposed solutions. Saving America requires, minimally, several concrete steps. We must begin to dismantle the American empire abroad. The state must be radically downsized. We will have to embrace economic patriotism and punish corporations that refuse it. A moratorium on immigration will be necessary. Finally, we must stop granting federal courts the authority to define our culture for us.

That last item is of special concern in light of the recent past. When the judicial system endeavors to tell us what marriage is or isn’t, or what rights this or that group has by virtue of their membership in the group and what others are required to do in recognition of those rights, judges are transformed into dictators. This should move citizens to become rebels. No one has granted them this power. Their usurpation of the function of a democratic polity should be refused with the haughty disdain of a sovereign people.

Rereading the passage in Suicide of a Superpower wherein this topic is discussed now, I recalled the innumerable times during the four years of the Trump presidency when courts overturned his executive actions or otherwise limited their purview. Within just the first two years of his administration, federal courts ruled against Trump’s executive actions and challenges to court responses to them more than 60 times. In that same period, courts struck down more than 90% of the administration’s efforts to roll back federal regulations and other aspects of the administrative state. Amid that display of quasi-totalitarian power by unelected officials, a colleague commented to me that it was in his view a wonderful and democracy-preserving thing to have the neutral courts to keep political actors in check. I was laughing uncontrollably well before he had even finished the sentence.

In both books, Buchanan hammered hard on the two central causes of the suicidal American drift of the past fifty years. The first of these is the betrayal of the elite classes in America, which have turned firmly against traditional American culture, most profoundly and tellingly with respect to religious faith. The second is the unprecedented, radical demographic transformation of the country, through historically elevated levels of immigration and the lowering of native-born American birth rates as a result of new birth control technologies and the feminist revolution. Very few people were talking about these things in 2001, and no one in the mainstream media was. Yet for a full decade after the publication of The Death of the West, Buchanan still appeared frequently on television and wrote in high profile periodicals. It is nearly impossible to believe today, but he was a regular on CNN and MSNBC news panels and programs, including Morning Joe, Hardball with Chris Matthews, and The Rachel Maddow Show, up until less than a decade ago.

It is commonly believed that the publication of Suicide of a Superpower is the explanation for Buchanan’s excommunication from mainstream public media. Yet the basic ideas of that book are already present in the earlier one. And in 2008 he had published another book, Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, which made yet another provocative argument that outraged all the right people. There were irrational charges of anti-Semitism and even sympathies with Nazism in the wake of that book’s emergence, although all the major points Buchanan made regarding Hitler’s true ambitions had been recognized by academic historians. Yet he stuck around on television for several more years.

What changed? Regarding Patrick Buchanan, nothing. But the attitude of American cultural elites toward political heterodoxy continued the process of hardening that had then already been underway for decades. And as their power grew, their ability to censor substantive criticism of the origins and agenda of their class grew concomitantly. This is yet another important take-home from a rereading of these books. Virtually everything in them is today impossible to say in a mainstream press book, or in a mainstream journal or newspaper, or on a network or major cable television program, or in any of the most popular social media. The cultural revolution that Buchanan described so accurately has proceeded with just the ferocious rapidity that he predicted.

In addition to the anniversaries of these two fine books, a decade observation of yet another Buchanan milestone is nearly upon us. It was in August 1992, thirty years ago this summer, that he gave his splendid speech on the opening night of the Republican convention. I found it on YouTube and listened to it again, for the first time in many years, while working on this essay. Every point he made in it is still a relevant element of authentic paleoconservative opposition to the progressive culture that rules America currently. The speech will today certainly still cause quivering and shaking in the ranks of those on the right who look to ConInc for inspiration. In it, he gives the lie to their pathetic miming of the left’s favorite canards. For he concluded the Houston speech by emotionally evoking, in the wake of the Los Angeles riots of that April and May, the heroic denizens of LA’s Koreatown who went to the rooftops of their shops and businesses to defend them. He also cheered the soldiers in the US armed forces of all races and ethnicities who block-by-block took back Los Angeles from those who tried to burn it down with the one power that rioters and revolutionaries cannot resist: “force, rooted in justice, backed by moral courage.”

The basics of the political program advocated in The Death of the West and Suicide of a Superpower are already there in the 1992 speech. A renewed public presence for Christianity. An assertion of the rights of communities to protect themselves from the moral outrages of the American cultural revolution. An argument for protection for the jobs for blue collar Americans who are seeing their livelihoods sold out by the corporations, the immigration advocates, and the radical environmentalist interests. A powerful critique of radical feminism and its vicious efforts to demolish the most basic principles of human social organization and solidarity. A defense of the heterosexual family as an institution. A rejection of the endless imperial wars to spread democracy to countries that either do not want or cannot sustain it.

There is still evidence of some of what Buchanan pointed to in these books as sources of hope for positive change. Surveys still reveal that nearly ¾ of Americans believe race and ethnicity should not be considered in college admissions. More than 60% of blacks agree. But how you ask the question matters. Pollsters, who are part of the cultural elite class, are mightily motivated to ask it in ways that will get the answers they want. If you ask not whether race should be considered in admission, but rather “Is bringing more blacks and Hispanics on to campus a good thing or a bad thing?” something odd happens. It turns out that Americans are unwilling to call many things “bad” when it comes to race, even if that means seemingly embracing views inconsistent with their true thoughts. There is a new and formidable weapon of the enemies of traditional America. It is the carefully-executed dissimulation of the expert class that purports to tell us what we believe, and that through their mendacity and their power affects what we do believe in the long term. Expect the elite effort to manipulate American opinion in this way to continue and escalate.

On other scores, the situation has grown much more dire since Suicide of a Superpower. The freefall of American beliefs about what it takes to be American has been nothing less than stunning. In just the four years from 2016 to 2020, the numbers of those willing to say that being American has at least something to do with speaking English, sharing American customs, being a Christian, and having been born in the US decreased precipitously. Stunning, but also utterly predictable, as this is tightly related to the very demographic change Buchanan was noticing. More people than ever before who do not speak English and who do not share American customs or Christian faith are entering the country. As they take up residence and get consulted by pollsters, we can expect support for traditional beliefs about American identity to continue to plummet.

From time to time I allow myself the flight of fancy to imagine where America would be now if Patrick Buchanan rather than Bill Clinton had been our 42nd President and had served two terms. As a flight of fancy, it allows me to ignore the very real question of whether the country was already too far gone even three decades ago to have had the required perspicacity in a general election to select a second President Buchanan over Slick Willie. (For the record, I believe it certainly was). Such melancholy thoughts about alternative histories are nearly all that is left to those who recognize how harrowingly accurate Buchanan has been on every major American political question he discussed in these two books. They are dual epitaphs for the great civilization into which Americans over 50 were born and which some of them may live to see finally take its last breath.

Alexander Riley is a Senior Fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. He writes at Substack.

Featured image: “End of the Season,” by William Merritt Chase; painted ca. 1885.