A New Film Examines the Godfather of Modern Conservatism

William F. Buckley Jr., widely considered the godfather of modern conservatism, defended Joseph McCarthy and his communist witch hunts. He praised the “restraint” of Alabama law enforcement officers who brutally assaulted civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. He was also a silver-tongued intellectual who abhorred boorish thinking and behavior and savored debates with the sharpest minds of his era.

Such a track record invites the question asked, implicitly and explicitly, in a new “American Masters” documentary: What would Buckley think of the current Republican kingpin, Donald Trump, and his followers? Would Buckley, who died in 2008, denounce the direction of the movement he helped start and disown a former (and perhaps future) American president who has expressed his admiration for a strongman Russian president? Or would he find a way to fold Trump and his supporters into his dreams of a conservative empire?

In “The Incomparable Mr. Buckley,” which premiered last week on PBS and is streaming on, Buckley’s son, the novelist and former George H.W. Bush speechwriter Christopher Buckley, gives a cryptic assessment of what the senior Buckley would think of Trump: “He might just have said, ‘Demand a recount,’” a riff on William F. Buckley’s oft-repeated joke about what he would do if he won his 1965 New York mayoral bid. In a recent video interview, however, Christopher Buckley was more direct.

“I don’t equate Trumpism with conservatism,” he said. “I’m very glad my father and Ronald Reagan are not alive to see what’s happened to the G.O.P. and to the national discourse.”

Others, including some who appear in the film directed by Barak Goodman, say it’s not that straightforward.

“My own view is that Buckley would probably think about Trump more or less what he thought about McCarthy,” Beverly Gage, a history professor at Yale University and author of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize-winning J. Edgar Hoover biography “G-Man,” said in a video interview. “He would see Trump as tremendously useful as a concentration of many of the themes and constituencies that Buckley stood for.”

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