The following essay is reposted from Jeet Heer’s Substack newsletter, The Time of Monsters.
As a high school student in Omaha during World War II, L. Brent Bozell, Jr. was mentored by a Jesuit priest named Lucius Cervantes, a bit of nominal serendipity that proved irresistible to chroniclers of Bozell’s Quixotic life. Under the guidance of Father Cervantes, Bozell began a spiritual quest that would lead him to convert to Catholicism as a college student, and his particular brand of highly romantic, traditionalist Catholicism was replete with illusions and foolish crusades of the sort that inevitably call to mind the legendary Man of La Mancha, created nearly four centuries earlier by another Cervantes.
At Yale, Bozell made the leap not only to Catholicism but also, in a move he saw as connected, became a conservative polemicist. He developed a fast and tight friendship with William F. Buckley (later his brother-in-law, after Bozell married Patricia Buckley). Buckley and Bozell teamed up as debating partners and quickly became legendary scourges of campus liberals. They would eventually collaborate on a volume defending Joseph McCarthy (McCarthy and His Enemies, 1954) and in launching National Review in 1955.
Working together, Buckley and Bozell were the founding fathers of the modern American right. Buckley today is more famous, but Bozell was the real intellectual pacesetter of the duo, pioneering arguments about social policy and law that became part of the right’s source code. As ghost-writer of Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of A Conservative (1960), Bozell penned one of the all-time bestselling political tracts in American history, a book that introduced the conservative creed to millions of readers.
In the 1960s, Bozell carved out his own identity as being one of the foremost traditionalists on the right, a fierce propagandist for the idea that the state should enforce public virtue. This put him at odds with more libertarian thinkers on the right like his fellow National Review editor Frank Meyer, who distrusted the idea of state-enforced virtue. Meyer and Bozell duked it out in the pages of the magazine, in an important 1962 exchange that defined the traditionalist/libertarian divide.
Bozell’s theocratic politics were shaped by an extended stay he and his family made to Spain from 1961-1963. The trip was initially utilitarian: the Bozells had a large family (eventually having ten kids) and friends told him Spain was a cheap holiday. But the Bozells, along with their circle of Catholic conservative expatriate friends, quickly fell in love with Spain, then ruled by the fascist dictator, Francisco Franco.
“In Spain the Churches were full,” Patricia Bozell later told an interviewer. “The streets were all named after saints; you saw nuns on the street; there were crosses everywhere. You breathed the Catholic thing there; it was rich and full. It didn’t chop things off, partitioning religion into an hour on Sunday.” In political terms, Patricia Bozell is describing integralism: a state where religion is woven into the fabric of everyday common life, with the sanction of the state, in contrast to secularism’s partitioning of the sacred into private life. In a notorious National Review article, Bozell celebrated how the Spanish government supported marriage by making divorce extremely difficult both legally and socially.
In Spain, Bozell thought he found, as Patrick Allitt notes in his 1993 book, Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America 1950-1965, “an ideal, integral Catholicism.” Even after returning to America in 1963, the Bozells retained close contact with Spain, organizing a magazine called Triumph (which ran from 1966-1976) to promote Catholic theocracy as well as an educational institution called The Society For a Christian Commonwealth, which ran annual student camps in Spain for most of the 1970s that became an important training ground for traditionalist activists. (At least 60 students who attended these summer camps went on to become Catholic priests.)
One of the Bozells’ most important allies in these endeavors was Frederick Wilhelmsen, a philosophy professor at the University of Dallas who introduced the Americans to Carlism, a dodgy monarchical faction that was trying to win Franco’s nod to become Spain’s ruling dynasty. The Carlists enrolled Wilhelmsen as a Knight of the Grand Cross of the Order of the Outlawed Legitimacy.
As Allitt notes, Wilhelmsen
was even more enthusiastic about Spain [than Bozell], had earned his Ph.D. in Madrid and worked for seven years (1960-67) at the University of Navarre, all the while praising Spain to the skies and casting aspersions on the United States as the nadir of Godlessness, materialism, and alienation. Always living with at least one foot in Spain, Wilhelmsen was a dedicated monarchist…a deeply traditionalist conservative, militantly anti-Communist, and no less fervently anticapitalist. The strength of monarchy, he believed, was that it harnessed the family, the basic unit of society; the exigencies of government were met with ties of blood, deeper and more primal than any contractual or constitutional system could muster.
Allitt adds that Wilhelmsen “was left with the dilemma of wishing to conserve not the society in which he lived but an imaginary society composed of medieval elements, with no history of its own and no possibility of achievement.”
It’s easy to dismiss the Bozells and Wilhelmsen as political fantasists engaged in live-action role-playing (LARPing), a modern counterpart to Don Quixote. After all, Bozell, in all his time exalting Franco, never learned more than eight words of Spanish. Bozell loved to lay out extravagant political goals that bore no relationship to reality. On one occasion in the early 1960s, he declared, “To stamp out world Communism I would be willing to destroy the entire universe, even to the furthest star.”
As Bozell’s biographer Daniel Kelley wrote in Living on Fire (2014):
This was the Spain that became Brent’s magic kingdom: not the tourist Spain of flamenco and bullfights, not the everyday Spain of shops, farms, offices, and clattering streetcars, but the half-historical, half-mythical Spain of conquistadors and mystics, crusaders and missionaries, that he saw embodied in Philip II’s monastery-church-palace at El Escorial. In his imaginings Brent resembled Don Quixote, another whose Spain corresponded less to objective reality than to a cherished dream. Was it an omen that his mentor at Creighton was named Cervantes?
Yet, I would insist that while the Bozells and Wilhelmsen were often playing at tilting toward windmills, their political activism had consequences that are still with us. In the 1960s, conservatives like Buckley were flirting with moderating their opposition to reproductive freedom (moved, alas, less by concern for feminism than Malthusian arguments about the population explosion). Through Triumph, the Bozells created a potent counter-force on the Catholic right that made opposition to abortion (and later feminism and LGBTQ rights) a litmus test for membership of the conservative movement.
As Allitt notes, “at the end of the 1960s, Triumph devotees began direct actions of their own, some of which were conservative mirror images of the Berrigans’ radical demonstrations, they named themselves Los Hijos de Tormenta (the Sons of Thunder), dressed in the red berets of the Spanish Carlist militia, bore wooden crosses and rosary beads, and chanted, ‘Viva Christo Rey!’ as police arrested and led them away.” The Sons of Thunder, an activist group created by the Bozells, pioneered the violent harassment of abortion clinics, a tactic that subsequently became common. In one notorious incident, Patricia Bozell herself tried to slap the feminist writer Ti-Grace Atkinson for criticizing the virgin Mary.
Catholic integralism has enjoyed a small renaissance on the right in recent years, taken up by prominent apologists like Adrian Vermeule, a law professor at Harvard, and Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor at the New York Post.
Even more worrying, the sort of authoritarian tourism that the Bozells pioneered has also been revived by a new generation of right-wingers who, alienated from the secular liberalism of America, are attracted to illiberal alternatives. The same impulses that took the Bozells to Franco’s Spain now attract the Tucker Carlsons and Rod Drehers of the world to Orbán’s Hungary. Theorists like Vermeule and Ahmari might dream of a Christian commonwealth, but Orbán is showing how it is actually done, providing a real world model to emulate.