Theocracy Now! The Forgotten Influence of L. Brent Bozell on the RightHistorians in the News
tags: conservatism, religious right, Theocracy, Christian Nationalism, L. Brent Bozell
In his salad days, during the high Cold War of the 1950s and ’60s, L. Brent Bozell Jr. was a notorious right-wing polemicist whose ideas influenced everyone from Joseph McCarthy to Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan. Yet he always bristled at the misfortune of living his entire adult life in the shadow of a celebrity relative. “It’s a hindrance to be William F. Buckley’s brother-in-law, because people are under the assumption that I share his views,” Bozell told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1971. “I do not. He is the right-wing establishment. I consider myself outside the establishment.”
Buckley and Bozell, relatives by marriage whose once-tight friendship eventually splintered over political arguments, remain a fascinating study in contrasts. Their divergent paths illuminate the conflicting factions of the right. After a period as an enfant terrible in his 20s, Buckley settled down to become a consummate player of the game of respectability politics, an activist whose prime achievement was to recast the sentiments of the radical right by using polysyllabic obfuscation to gain a hearing in mainstream politics. Bozell took the harder road of the militant agitator, constantly organizing radicalized cadres to push the most reactionary line possible on everything from nuclear war to abortion.
Buckley was a cultural superstar, a pundit whose distinctive drawl was recognizable enough to be regularly mimicked by Robin Williams (in the Disney cartoon Aladdin, among other places). This fame created the illusion that Buckley was the true face of the American right. But the Trump era and its aftermath make it clear that Buckley’s renown was a triumph of marketing rather than a reflection of lasting influence. Since his death in 2008, Buckley seems a diminished figure from an increasingly distant past. By contrast, Bozell, who died in 1997, now appears to have been the true prophet of an unrestrained right that openly embraces authoritarianism. As Jacob Heilbrunn recently noted in Politico, although he was “often dismissed as a kook during his lifetime,” Bozell “did more than perhaps anyone to create the blueprint for the militant conservatism now triumphant at the high court and the grassroots.”
Buckley and Bozell met at Yale in 1946, quickly bonding over religion (Buckley was a cradle Catholic, Bozell well down the path to conversion) as well as a passion for debating politics (both men falling under the sway of the anti-communist firebrand Willmoore Kendall, a political scientist who was a McCarthyite avant la lettre). Bozell’s marriage in 1949 to Buckley’s sister Patricia only cemented the alliance. Taking Kendall’s love of red-baiting as a model, the two friends even as undergraduates were preparing for a life of fighting “the left” (an umbrella category that for them extended from Joseph Stalin to the milquetoast liberalism of Adlai Stevenson).
Buckley scored the first big hit with God and Man at Yale (1951), using Kendall’s arguments against academic freedom to argue that the Ivy League should be purged of atheists and Keynesian economics. In 1954, Buckley and Bozell collaborated on a follow-up tome, McCarthy and His Enemies, a defense of the Wisconsin demagogue. The following year, Buckley founded National Review, which quickly became the flagship journal of the emerging rabid right. Bozell was one of the new publication’s most valued writers.
In those days of youthful élan, Buckley and Bozell made a formidable duo. But as Buckley became a cultural luminary, a divide opened up between them. Buckley was a synthesist and a popularizer. The American right was deeply divided among competing factions (traditionalists, libertarians, foreign policy hawks). Buckley’s goal as editor was to keep the factions together as a viable coalition (under a makeshift ideology National Review called “fusionism”) while also promoting these ideas to a broader public.
Bozell, who took to Catholicism with not just enthusiasm but fanaticism, had no interest in coalition-building: He wanted to set the agenda. The core of Bozell’s politics was a theocratic zeal to impose reactionary Catholicism on the United States (in his wilder moments he aspired to create what his biographer Daniel Kelly calls a “global Christendom”).