Radical Traditionalists: The Fall of Triumph Magazine
By John Médaille | June 24, 2013
In May of 1970, back from the Vietnam War and newly released from the Army, I arrived at the campus of the University of Dallas. UD was an exciting place to be at that time. It had a strong core program (which it still maintains) one rooted in literature, philosophy, theology (in that order) with a smattering of art, mathematics, and science. It had attracted a fine collection of world-class scholars. The heirs of the Southern Agrarian movement were there: Louise Cowan (who still occasionally lectures), Tom Landess, and Mel Bradford. The irascible Wilmore Kendall moved there from the politics department of Yale; he died just before I got there (which I thought was rude of him) but so many people had Kendall stories, it was almost as if his presence lingered at his chosen home.
But there was one person more than any other that had drawn me to UD, the great Thomist philosopher, Frederick D. (Fritz) Wilhelmsen. Fritz was one of those larger-than-life characters that in healthy times were part of academia while somehow transcending it. A tall man with a mop of dar, curly hair and a rumpled suit, he moved in a cloud of smoke and ashes from his ever-present cigarette. I do believe that Fritz was one of those smokers who could have used one match in the morning to light his first cigarette, and then lit every other one from the butt of the last. But Fritz was more than an academic philosopher; for him philosophy could not be confined to the academy, but found its proper place in the public square, deeply involved in the issues of the day and taking an active role in shaping the body politic.
I first became aware of Fritz in the pages of the National Review in the early 60’s, when William F. Buckley, Jr., fresh from Yale, rode the crest of a revived conservatism to establish what is arguably the flagship journal of the Right in America. But it was a success that came at a price, and the price was fusionism. The “conservatism” of Buckley’s journal was an odd combination of traditionalists, Austrian libertarians, and the liberal anti-communists (who would later become the “neo-cons”). These three factions were united by their anti-communism, but by little else. The traditionalists aimed at virtue, while the Austrians and the “neo-cons” aimed at “liberty,” but a liberty that was merely formal; it did not aim at the good or at anything in particular, but was mostly expressed as a lack of restraint, particularly government restraint. As Mark Popowski points out, if freedom is foremost, then no superior principle could ever be invoked. This tension is at the root of all of the problems of what we today call “conservatism.”
Some of the traditionalists associated with NR become alienated from this fusionism. Chief among them was Buckley’s own brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozell. Brent was a convert to Catholicism and like many converts, was more immersed in its precepts than many cradle Catholics. Bozell joined with Fritz Wilhelmsen and other disaffected traditionalists to found a new magazine, Triumph, a journal that would be openly Catholic and Traditionalist. This magazine would have a lifespan of only ten years, from 1966 to 1976. At its height, it would have no more than 28,000 subscribers. Yet, the quality of the writing and the depth of the analysis command attention. It is a journal whose history deserves to be written.
And at last, that history has been written, and written in a way that makes 10 years of intellectual and practical argument accessible. The history is Mark D. Popowski’s The Rise and Fall of Triumph: The History of a Radical Roman Catholic Magazine, 1966-1976. Dr. Popowski has done a brilliant job of condensing the major themes of Triumph and organizing them into sections which allow the reader to follow what was, in my opinion, some of the best political and social analysis of its day. It is as if The Readers Digest sent a team of editors into the archives to distill the Best of Triumph into a single volume. Indeed, at a distance of 40 years, I can still recall many of the articles that Dr. Popowski cites for us. That journal covered a broad range of topics: Secular liberalism, the role of the state, politics, economics, education, race relations, feminism, the Cold War, Vietnam, contraception, abortion, etc. But two issues, more than any others, illustrate the dilemma of Triumph in general and of conservative Catholics in particular. These issues the relationship of traditionalists to conservatism and relations with the Church.
Dr. Popowski helps us understand the predicament in which Catholic traditionalists found themselves. Conservative journals often excluded them if they did not trim their Catholicism, while Catholic journals often excluded them if they did not trim their traditionalism. In either case, they had to subordinate the faith to some ideology, either secular liberalism or American conservatism.
It is not difficult to locate the problem that secular liberalism poses for traditionalists, both in its “secular” and its “liberal” components. The secular cuts us off from the divine while liberalism cuts us off from each other. Our relations become utilitarian in a man-centered universe. Secularization is equivalent to “barbarization” of the political order because only in God can we find a limit to politics. But in a liberal democracy, there is no authority higher than the people’s will, and the people can be mighty willful, especially the people who control the political process (which is usually not “the” people at all).
However, it was not magazine’s relation to liberalism that caused its problems, but its relation to conservatism. Bozell and Wilhelmsen viewed Catholicism as a platform from which they could critique both the Right and the Left. But this proved problematic from the beginning, indeed from the very moment that they began fundraising. Bozell needed support both from the Bishops and like-minded Catholics, and from wealthy Catholic conservatives. He therefore found it necessary to use two fund-raising letters. For the first group, he emphasized that the Church was under attack from the secular world and in danger of collapse. He noted the liberal domination of the Catholic press and promised to be a voice for the Church’s “venerable traditions” which the magazine would “champion unapologetically.”
But in his letter to the conservatives, Bozell phrased his arguments in a political, rather than specifically Catholic context. In doing so, he may have raised expectations that the magazine could not possibly meet. As Michael Lawrence, a long-time editor at Triumph noted, the initial supporters were Catholic conservatives who expected the magazine to argue that there was a “seamless fit” between Catholic Teaching and American conservatism, which for most conservatives at the time, meant the fusionism offered by William Buckley and National Review. They wanted Triumph to do what the editors had accused the liberal Catholics of doing: molding the Church’s teaching to fit a specific ideological agenda. But as Prof. William Oliver Martin, a Triumph contributor noted,
This is a trap constructed by the Enemy. We are licked before we start. I am forced to go along with such ideological terms on a political basis. But I refuse to do it when we are dealing with the guidance of the One, True Church, by the Holy Ghost.
Triumph’s editors hoped to avoid the conundrum by avoiding partisan politics altogether, both in the narrow sense of “Republican/Democrat” or in the ideological sense of “conservative/liberal.” However, even this strategy ran into problems after Roe v. Wade. As Dr. Popowski notes,
Roe v. Wade had a paradoxical effect on the editors. It fostered in them an even more cynical view of American society and the depths of its moral decadence; yet, it simultaneously forced them into a greater involvement in politics—including especially the organization of political pressure groups—to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision.
It should be noted that it forced them to go where they did not wish to go: into the thicket of “conservative” (this is fusionist) politics. It was an uncomfortable situation all around.
But despite all of this this the editors find much support among the Bishops, who were having their own problems. This was that turbulent period following Vatican II. Obedience to the Church was a bedrock principle of Triumph, one that the editors believed the liberals were undermining. Bozell and Wilhelmsen considered themselves supporters of Paul VI and faithful to the bishops and to Vatican II. They acknowledged the validity of the “new” mass, even though Fritz would mutter during the more egregious violations of liturgical usage, and do so in a voce not altogether sotto.
As the situation in the American Catholic Church became polarized, the bishops totally lost control of the situation, and did not act against even the most egregious of the dissenters. Preoccupied with ecclesial affairs, the bishops offered little in the way of specifically Catholic responses to the social and political problems of the day. The writers at Triumph found themselves drawn into these battles and ended up undermining the authority of the Bishops, albeit reluctantly.
Although the book covers the fall of Triumph, it does so only in a few brief paragraphs in the conclusion. Here the author is on less sure grounds and his description is at best incomplete. Dr. Popowski identifies four causes for the failure: Financial problems due to the fall in circulation; L. Brent Bozell’s chronic illness; the magazine’s apocalyptic tone; and the magazine’s radicalism. But the first point merely describes the collapse rather than explains it. The second was certainly a factor, given that L. Brent Bozell was “the heart” of Triumph, but a more robust movement could have survived the problems of one man. And as for apocalypticism and radicalism, they are, to put the matter crudely, marketable commodities and even circulation builders; if these could kill a movement, Fox News would be dead by now and Rush Limbaugh would be thin.
I think that the problem for Triumph—and the lesson to be drawn from its failure—lies in its relationship with movement conservatism. For conservatism is a very difficult thing to do in a country like America which traces its founding back to the most radical liberals of their day. Our founding document, the Constitution, aims not at a polity of virtue, but one were vice checks vice; the checks and balances are designed to pit one avaricious group against another not for the purpose of eliminating avarice, but merely to ensure that the grumbling hive does not shake itself apart. A conservatism forced to defend such a founding on anything but pragmatic or historic grounds finds itself in a contradictory position. Most American conservatives are, at best, Lockeans, that is, heirs of the Scottish Enlightenment. And many conservatives, even many Catholic conservatives, have gone over completely to the dark side to extol such atheist “philosophers” as Ayn Rand, or such atheist and anti-Catholic thinkers like Ludwig von Mises, who excoriated Jesus Christ as “nihilist” and who described himself as “a man of 1789,” that is, of the French Revolution.
To deal with this, many conservatives have opted for a myth of the founding, in which the Deism of the founders becomes a kind of crypto-fundamentalism and their naturalism a kind of crypto-Thomism. Such a myth is comforting but unpersuasive, and such a “conservatism” can never be more than right-wing liberalism; the values of the Enlightenment become the actual content, become the thing “conserved.” William F. Buckley once said that a conservative is one who stands athwart history and yells “Stop!” But in fact, American conservatism cannot do this; at best, it can only whisper, “Slow down; you’re scaring the children.” By moderating the dominant Liberalism, such conservatism actually does Liberalism a service; the radically revolutionary aspects are never clearly seen and so the traditionalist reaction never quite sets in. And even if it does, it finds itself armed only with weapons supplied by the founding Liberals, and hence is never able to defeat Liberalism. For this we may say with infallible certainty: in any dispute between a liberal and a liberal, the liberal will win every time.
The founders of Triumph understood all this very well. As Dr. Popowski says,
The editors sought to lead an exodus of American Catholics from the American state and society and to establish a Catholic tribe—not for isolation but for confrontation—in order to fortify and order their ranks from which they could lead sallies into American society to convert it to the Roman Catholic faith.
What is the purpose of such a tribe? It is not, as with the fusionists, the attainment of political power. Rather, it is the establishment of alternate ways of life that bear witness to the coming Kingdom of Christ. The task is not to lead a Great Revolution, but rather a million little revolutions: a home school here, a cooperative there, a vegetable garden that advances self-sufficiency, an ethical business, etc. To do the diverse set of tasks that God calls us to do in the particular place in which He has set us. This is never the task of the mass of men, but always a movement of a remnant, a remnant which serves as the leaven of the loaf, the salt of the earth.
But although the editors understood the task, they were never quite able to pull it off. Throughout, they remained Men of the Right, at least in public perception and to a large degree in reality. As such, they had no real function on the right. The fusionists at National Review or First Things are always willing to accommodate a marginalized traditionalism, but in an essentially liberal and pluralist democracy, they can never allow it to move to the center. As part of the right-wing, Triumph was, at best, superfluous and at worst perplexing. Its survival, even for a brief ten years, is a testimony to the determination of its contributors.
I will always be grateful for having been taught by Fritz and having been tutored by Triumph. And I am grateful to Dr. Popowski for reminding me of just how great those gifts where, and for writing this book which allows everybody to share in those gifts. Both in its success and in its failure, Triumph has much to teach us.