Not Dead Yet—Rereading David Frum’s DEAD RIGHT 30 Years Later
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Over the last several years, I have written reviews of books that have greatly influenced my thinking on race and politics. These include classics such as Paved With Good Intentions, Alien Nation and The Dispossessed Majority. One book that influenced me—though not in the same way as these other books—is not a classic but does deserve some consideration: Dead Right was written in 1994 by neoconservative David Frum.

Frum analyzed the three main types of conservatism that he believed predominated in the mid-1990s. Why is this noteworthy? From a personal perspective, I read it just before I got access to the Internet for the first time. A chapter on Paleoconservatives made me realize that there was a group of people who thought the way I did—and they even published a monthly magazine: Chronicles. Of course, I subscribed immediately.

So, David Frum is partly responsible for my 30 years of involvement in Dissident Right circles. Of course, I had already read Jared Taylor and Sam Francis so I would have found my way there eventually.

The paperback version of Dead Right that I bought came out in early 1995, so I initially read it in the wake of the vaunted “Republican Revolution” of 1994, where the GOP seemed poised to remake America and reclaim it from the Left. Rereading the book makes me recall the excitement that many conservatives had in those days.

To his credit, Frum saw that the “revolution” would not amount to much. Dead Right has blurbs on the cover from George Will, Bill Buckley, Peggy Noonan, and the Wall Street Journal, so it is also a good barometer of what Conservative Inc. was thinking in the mid-1990s.

Frum considered three main factions of conservatism in his book. The Optimists were led by Jack Kemp and believed economic growth could solve both economic and social problems. The Moralists were led by Bill Bennett and stressed the government’s role in defending and promoting traditional values. The third school of conservatives were the Nationalists, represented by Pat Buchanan. They believed the U.S. was under threat from changing demographics and “Civil Rights” laws favoring blacks and immigrants over whites.

  • Optimists

Reading Dead Right 30 years later, it is amazing to recall how popular Jack Kemp was among Conservative Inc. And no wonder. He pandered to the Left on race and immigration and simply offered low tax rhetoric as a cure-all for America’s problems. Frum describes Kemp style conservatism as

optimistic because it sees America’s social problems as relatively manageable and because its preferred means of addressing them assume the basic moral similarity of most Americans. “It’s not the values of the poor that are flawed,” Kemp told the Houston convention [the 1992 Republican Convention] “it’s the values of the welfare system that are bankrupt.”

Ideas such as enterprise zones, the “conservative war on poverty,” and school vouchers arose out of this faction of conservatives.

And Kemp did have the opportunity to put these into practice as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) after he was appointed to the position by President Bush in 1989. The results were disastrous. Supposedly an opponent of big government, Kemp actually raised the budget of HUD from $19.7 billion to $28.1 billion through schemes such as renovating and then privatizing public housing. He mixed this type of economic theory with hectoring Republicans about race:

The Democrats had a terrible history [on civil rights], and they overcame it.

We had a great history, and we turned aside. We should have been there with Dr. King on the streets of Atlanta and Montgomery. We should have been there with John Lewis. We should have been there on the freedom marches and bus rides. We should have been there with Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, in December of 1955 [“We Had a Great History, and We Turned Aside: An Interview With Jack Kemp,” by Frederick Smoler,  American Heritage, October 1993].


While this rhetoric toward the GOP base made Kemp popular with Democrats and the Main Stream Media, it won him few votes. To the astonishment of Conservative Inc., Kemp finished a distant third in the Republican primaries of 1988 and couldn’t even mount a campaign in 1996, despite being the consensus favorite going into that election.

Kemp would be saved yet again by the Establishment when he was named the vice presidential candidate for Bob Dole in 1996. But his presence did not help and the GOP lost in a landslide—all while failing to attract non-whites to the Republican party.

Not surprisingly, Kemp style conservatism—if it can even be called that—has faded in the GOP today. Echoes can still be heard in the pro-BLM rhetoric of Nikki Haley, but even she has to pretend she wants to control the border. Rand Paul attempted a revival of Kemp-style rhetoric on race in the runup to the 2016 primaries, but fared about as well as his mentor.

  • Moralists

Frum describes another branch of conservatism that noted how Kemp-style policies had failed to stop the moral rot of America in the form of single-parent families, drug use, crime and welfare abuse. Led by Bill Bennett, Moralists attempted to use government to fight these problems by instilling character and virtue. Dead Right defines moralist conservatives as believing that “American society was being subverted from within by moral decay, and the task of conservatives was to resist.” This meant

Moralistic conservatives are ready to deploy social authority to instill bourgeois values in the black urban poor, to assimilate Third World immigrants, and little more diffidently, to correct the faults of the American middle class.

Bennett first came onto the political radar when he was selected over the better-qualified paleoconservative scholar Mel Bradford to head the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1981. This had to do with the fact that Bradford was a “racist” who supported George Wallace in the 1970s. Bennett would later become Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan and then led the “War On Drugs” for President George Bush I in 1989.

Much of the talk about “family values” and “standards in education” came from moralist conservatives and the group had a lot of overlap with the then powerful Christian Coalition. To their credit, the moralists were less likely to ignore the deficiencies of the poor, especially blacks. Frum noted:

Moralist conservatives eschew sentimentality about the poor: in the absence of restraint and guidance, the poor can be expected to be idle, sexually casual, and violent, and so indeed they are.

Frum notes that Bennett was often asked to run for office, but he never ended up doing so.

Moralist conservativism seems all but dead now and Bennett has faded from the headlines, though he did end up supporting Trump, unlike several of the conservatives discussed in Dead Right.

Personally, Bennett never seemed to differ all that much politically from his friend and ally Jack Kemp. Frum admits that the difference between optimists and moralists often came down to tone. I do recall that Bennett was a frequent guest on Rush Limbaugh around this time. While he was solid on affirmative action and did not pander as much on race as Kemp, Bennett was often deployed to prevent conservatives from supporting Pat Buchanan and Proposition 187.

  • Nationalists

Frum does a decent job describing paleoconservative or what he calls “Nationalists.” But he barely hides his contempt for this group. (A more favorable analysis from around the same time is Paul Gottfried’s 1988 book The Conservative Movement.) Represented by Pat Buchanan and the writers then centered around Chronicles magazine, these conservatives dissented from National Review-style conservatism that had dominated the movement since the 1950s. Frum spends time noting how Nationalists broke from conservative orthodoxy on issues such as foreign policy and free trade—themes that Buchanan stressed in all three of his presidential runs in 1992, 1996, and 2000.

But it is the issue of race that seemed to most agitate Frum in regard to nationalists. Ironically, he seems to understand much of what lay behind this:

The American complexion visibly darkened in the 1980s. The white proportion of the population dropped from 83 percent in 1980 to just over 80 percent in 1990 [this number included Hispanics who were around 9 percent of the population, so whites would have been a little over 70 percent in 1990]. (When Buchanan was born in 1938, the country was 90 percent white). Even more rapid demographic change is coming.

Not only was the racial makeup of the U.S. changing, but the elites of both parties were also taking the side of non-whites against whites. This was symbolized by President Bush’s signing of the 1991 Civil Right Act, which strengthened Affirmative Action and which Frum believes was the main impetus for Buchanan’s primary challenge in 1992.

Frum made a point I have rarely seen elsewhere: Buchanan went from a standard conservative while serving for Presidents Nixon and Reagan in the 70s and 80s, to a paleoconservative by the early 90s. Frum seems to believe paleocon columnist Sam Francis was behind much of this change of heart. He quoted Francis throughout Dead Right, perhaps with the intention of harming him and smearing Buchanan. But it only serves to show how much of a visionary Francis was.

Here are just a few quotes that Frum highlights in the book that show how Sam was often the only person writing about these taboo issues more than 30 years ago:

  • “…economic digestion by foreign powers, the danger not only of crime but of outright anarchy, cultural disintegration under the impact of massive immigration and militantly antiwhite and anti-Western multicultural movements—have to do with whether the American nation, as a political unity and a cultural identity, will live or die.”
  • “Immigration from countries and cultures that are incompatible with and indigestible to the Euro-American cultural core of the United States should generally be prohibited, current border controls should be rigorously enforced, illegal aliens already here should be rounded up and deported, and employers who hire them should be prosecuted and punished.”
  • “Americans will never know how close the rest of the country actually came to mutating into one huge Los Angeles during those four days [the 1992 Los Angeles riots], but it may have been a lot closer than they realize. Racial ‘disturbances’ were reported in no less than 12 other cities around the country. In Las Vegas, actual riots continued for some days afterwards. Omaha reported at least 11 racially motivated assaults on whites by blacks. In Madison, Wisconsin, the windshields of parked police cars were smashed, and Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Tampa, Birmingham, and other cities also had trouble. In the Washington area, there were several reported racial assaults on, insults to, and harassment of whites, and other cities and areas no doubt had their own small tales that never made the news at all, as well as innumerable episodes that no one even mentioned. To alert observers … it seemed as though the whole national edifice might crumble into cinders.”

Frum criticizes the Nationalists as being “multiculturalism’s children” and he is partly correct. Without anti-white animus coming from all U.S. institutions, the nationalists would not have as much support as they do. While Buchanan would never get the Republican nomination—and earned less than 1 percent in 2000 when he ran as a Third Party candidate after bolting the GOP—he was clearly a forerunner to Donald Trump.

So how does Dead Right stand up after thirty years? The three categories offered by Frum seem a bit broad. Many conservatives of the era—such as Rush Limbaugh—tended to accept ideas from each category.

But if Conservative Inc. accepted the ideas of the Optimists and the Moralists, they would eventually read most of the Nationalists out of their movement.

However, the rise of Trump and the Dissident Right in 2015 marked a turning point.  Sam Francis—who died a marginalized writer in 2005—has become an icon on the Right and his legacy and influence on the movement sems to have outpaced both Kemp and Bennett. This would have been unthinkable in 1994. Pat Buchanan is retired but remains a beloved and influential elder statesman. He is widely credited with the rise of Trump, who easily won the Iowa caucuses this month and is up by 66  points in the current GOP primary race.

On Martin Luther King day in the U.S., several popular conservative influencers are taking aim at civil rights and the deification of Martin Luther King. Only Sam Francis (and dissident outlets like American Renaissance and Instauration) would have done this in 1994:

Of course, has been saying this for years—see Did Pre-MLK America Really Need Redemption? by Paul Gottfried from 2003.

I cannot end the review without a word about David Frum. I enjoyed rereading Dead Right despite knowing that the author has become strident in his hatred of Trump Republicans (he voted for Clinton in 2016). In the book, he claimed to promote less government as the way forward for the GOP. But even then, he was a neoconservative in support of civil rights enforcement and an interventionist foreign policy. Not exactly a formula for limited government. His Twitter feed now shows he is—if not a Leftist—at least a victim of Trump Derangement Syndrome:

His other main concerns seem to be Ukraine and Israel:

Still, Frum has—or had—sensible views on many racial issues. He was a staunch opponent of Affirmative Action and even called for an immigration moratorium in 2011. Peter Brimelow, who is quoted in Dead Right and thanked in the acknowledgements, has mentioned that Frum was personally very friendly to him—a point echoed by another dissident whom I cannot name. It is too bad that a man who seemed to at least partially understand the reality of racial issues chose to target Paleoconservatives rather than support us.

We can take comfort in the fact that the Dissident Right is now  a driving force behind conservatism in the United States. Nobody would have predicted this in 1994. Patrick Buchanan and Sam Francis have been vindicated and their sacrifices were not in vain.

The true Right is still very much alive and could well save another foundering enterprise often given up for dead—the United States of America.

Peter Bradley (email him) writes from northern Virginia.


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