If one takes a truncated view of American politics, one can be forgiven for believing that Gore Vidal was a simple liberal. His works suggest such. The City and The Pillar, one of the first novels to deal with homosexuality, seems to argue that gender is a simple social construct. (Vidal disliked the term “homosexual” but he exemplified the hedonistic life style with his many partners, claiming he slept with over a 1000 men and women. A figure I don’t much doubt.)
He used “Crypto-Nazi” to describe William F. Buckley and threw the term “far right” around more often than a reasonable person possibly should. However, debating Vidal was to hold yourself witness to flair and occasional bullshit. He wanted to win, not prove a point and it worked in Buckley’s case; Vidal’s abuse in effect crushed Buckley’s polite, readymade TV sheen and revealed his rather angry demeanour underneath. I’d recommend the documentary, Best of Enemies to see Vidal captured in action but not to take too much from it. It is a surface level documentary that thinks American politics can be summed up as “Liberals Vs Conservatives” with nothing in between or outside of it.
Vidal’s real views, beyond the image and debating tactics, are lot more interesting than people give him credit for. Rather than the dull liberal he is made out to be, Vidal was a part of a dwindling WASP elite whose power base was in the process of being taken away as soon as he arrived. His family had been one of the first whites to come to the USA, and they littered the American political scene throughout their run. He reflected those ideas in his historical novels on the “Empire” of the USA, following a family much like Vidal’s throughout the history of a Nation, complete with its subversions, liars, frauds, and cowards. He wrote of these unsavory matters while all the while not even betraying even a hint of embarrassment.
Vidal dissected the image of American treasures of the likes of Hamilton and Lincoln, while also celebrating dissenters like Aaron Burr, the intellectual vice president who Vidal modelled himself upon.
Yet, for all of that criticism and that mockery, Vidal remained proud of his country, it was his history after all and he considered himself a “conservative,” a traditional adherent to the values of the USA. He openly chastised FDR as a president who provoked violence to achieve his ends all the while trying to keep his promise of not sending young men into foreign entanglements. At the time of those actual events, Vidal had been involved as a member of the America First committee in opposition to the US involvement in WW2, alongside patriot Charles Lindbergh.
His other historical novels (alongside his essays), specifically Julian, about the life of Julian the Apostate and his attempts to restore paganism to the Roman Empire after the rise of Christianity -lost causes being a Vidal speciality – are all well worth a read.
Vidal was never afraid to court political heresy. His views on race and immigration put him against most established norms of the period. In 1986 in the left wing magazine The Nation he made the following unconventional statement:
“My conclusion: for America to survive economically in the coming Sino-Japanese world, an alliance with the Soviet Union is a necessity. After all, the white race is a minority race with many well deserved enemies, and if the two great powers of the Northern Hemisphere don’t band together, we are going to end up as farmers–or, worse, mere entertainment–for the more than one billion grimly efficient Asiatics.”
And in a lecture in Dublin in 1999 he discussed the “dramatic migration of tribes”:
“They are on the move from east to west, from south to north. Liberal tradition requires that borders must always be open to those in search of safety or even the pursuit of happiness. But now with so many millions of people on the move, even the great-hearted are becoming edgy. Norway is large enough and empty enough to take in 40 to 50 million homeless Bengalis. If the Norwegians say that, all in all, they would rather not take them in, is this to be considered racism? I think not. It is simply self-preservation, the first law of species.”
Contrary to many pundits of the supposed Right who argued for immigration control on mere economic grounds, Vidal was – incredibly enough – arguing in favor of specifically protecting the white race. It is a shame his writings on this topic received a scant degree of follow-up.
Yet paradoxically enough, Vidal remained forever entwined with the Democrat party. He favorably described Hilary Clinton as a “wit”, and also supported Obama in 2008. Though he spent some time with the People’s Party and Nader, he remained unwavering in the belief that real Liberal Populism would eventually come about through the Democrat party.
Perhaps that has more to do with his waning influence on politics – he could merely have been grasping for something to cling onto. By that stage, his work had started to decline in popularity. The mainstream discourse had dropped him. The interviews on TV had all but stopped.
It marked a sad end of the professional life of a man who had a lot to say that was worth hearing, and whose overall message of nationalism and non-interventionism is still well-worth heeding.