The year was 1965 when acclaimed author James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, Jr., the editor of the National Review considered by some as the father of the American right, were invited to England’s Cambridge University to engage in a debate. What transpired over the course of that exchange is excruciatingly relevant in 2019 as the U.S. still grapples with a 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 February 18th, 1965 debate at the Cambridge Union between Baldwin and Buckley in great detail, joins Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer on the most recent episode of his podcast. Buccola explains that what began as an essay evolved into a 500-plus page tome about two highly influential public intellectuals from the U.S. and the legendary moment they came face to face.
“The debate itself became kind of an obsession of mine,” the scholar tells Scheer on the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence.” “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 the historical moment in question is that the two figures could not be more different in terms of their backgrounds, as both Scheer and Buccola point out. Baldwin, a gay, black author from Harlem, experiences poverty and racism throughout much of his life, while Buckley came from a New York of extreme privilege and a meticulously conservative Catholic upbringing. The latter ultimately helped shape the Republican Party as we know it today, altering the GOP’s approach to race in ways that still impact U.S. politics.
“It's a debate, obviously, that is of the moment,” says Scheer. “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.”
The Republicans’ shift towards white supremacy, led largely by Buckley, is one that Buccola also 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,” the author 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.”
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.
embed code for the debate