Meet the Bozells, America’s First Family of Right-Wing Violence

Leo Brent Bozell IV

Leo Brent Bozell IV on the floor of the US Senate Chamber on January 6, 2021. (US Department of Justice)

Those who keep an eye on the American right couldn’t help but take notice of the news that L. Brent Bozell IV was arrested last Tuesday for participation in the January 6 riot. Leo Brent Bozell IV, to give the name in full, is no ordinary ruffian but a young princeling whose bloodline unites the two most important reactionary dynasties in America, the Buckleys and the Bozells. Over the past century, stretching across four generations, these intertwined families have promoted antidemocratic politics, a push that often shaded into violence.

Writing in The New Republic, Timothy Noah used Bozell IV’s arrest to tell a story of the decline of American conservatism. But if we dig into the roots of this family tree, there is a pattern of violence that suggests the January 6 insurrection was no anomaly but the logical culmination of a privileged clan’s abiding hatred of democracy.

The first to bear the name Leo Brent Bozell was born in Kansas in 1886. A newspaperman turned Omaha-based advertising executive, he became L. Brent Bozell Sr. upon the birth of his son and namesake in 1926.

The Bozell patriarch was nominally a Democrat but also fiercely anti–New Deal and anti-labor. As Jon Schwartz records in The Intercept, Bozell Sr. “became a director of an Omaha streetcar company, which hired 390 private guards and paid for guns, ammunition, and tear gas for the Omaha police to crush a strike in a particularly ugly way in 1935.”

Bozell Sr. was on the verge of converting from Anglicanism to Catholicism when he died in 1946, a spiritual journey that his son would complete the following year as an undergraduate at Yale. Bozell Jr. underwent not just a religious transformation at Yale but also a political one, abandoning the Democratic Party for the GOP thanks to his close friendship with classmate William F. Buckley Jr., another scion of a wealthy reactionary household. During Bozell Jr.’s conversion, Buckley was his sponsor (in effect, his godfather).

Buckley and Bozell formed a tight alliance, first as debating partners and then as frequent collaborators in publishing and political activities. Bozell married Buckley’s sister Patricia in 1949 after bonding with her while helping her prepare anti-progressive talking points for a debate at Vassar. The couple would have 10 children. (The facts of Bozell’s life are recorded in Daniel Kelly’s 2014 Living on Fire: The Life of L. Brent Bozell, Jr.—a competent but skimpy book. Bozell deserves fuller biographical treatment.)

In 1954, William Buckley and Bozell teamed up to write McCarthy and His Enemies, a defense of the red-baiting demagogue. The following year, they launched National Review. Although always in the shadow of his celebrity brother-in-law, Bozell distinguished himself as a formidable debater and polemicist. As an organizer of the emerging conservative movement that would take over the Republican Party, Bozell was second in impact only to Buckley himself. Among other achievements, Bozell  was the ghostwriter for Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative (1960), one of the best selling American political books of all time and the launching pad for Goldwater’s conquest of the GOP in 1964.

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Perhaps jealous of all the attention paid to his more famous brother-in-law, Bozell was never afraid of staking out extreme positions. He repeatedly advocated a preemptive nuclear war against the Soviet Union. His reasoning was that because the Communists were materialists, they would be more fearful of universal death than believing Christians. This meant that nuclear weapons offered a comparative advantage to the United States. On one occasion he declared, “To stamp out world Communism I would be willing to destroy the entire universe, even to the furthest star.”

The Bozells moved to Spain in the early 1960s and fell in love with Franco’s fascist regime, which they saw as an ideal Christian commonwealth. As an expatriate in Spain, he became a partisan of the Carlists, an ultra-reactionary monarchist faction. With a Carlist friend, Bozell dreamed up the idea of a Catholic magazine they wanted to title La Inquisición, in tribute to the Spanish Inquisition. Wisely, Bozell abandoned that title and looked for a less incendiary alternative. The magazine would be launched in 1966 as Triumph—initially billed as a conservative rival to the liberal Catholic journal Commonweal.

But when it appeared, Triumph was to the right not just of the Catholic Commonweal but also of the more secular National Review. Openly a journal of Catholic theocracy, sometimes called integralism, Triumph repeatedly called for the overturning of the American constitutional order with its separation of church and state. Bozell’s dream was of an America where the state actively encouraged Christian belief, with fascist Spain as the model.

Bozell became increasingly more devoted to his faith in the 1960s, which took him in radical directions. Some historians draw a contrast between the supposedly moderate William F. Buckley and the fire-breathing Bozell. That’s a little too simplistic. On some issues, Bozell was more measured than Buckley and certainly less racist. In 1955, Bozell objected to a notorious National Revieweditorial asserting that “the white race” deserves to “prevail” in the South. In the late 1960s, Bozell welcomed the emergence of the Black Power movement as a salutary rejection of the American status quo. Under the pressure of Catholic “just war” theory, Bozell also lost his earlier enthusiasm for a planet-engulfing nuclear holocaust.

Bozell was more extreme than Buckley on birth control and abortion. But at least in the case of abortion, that was more in terms of tactics than goals. In 1966, Buckley had flirted with the idea of accepting abortion legalization, although on benighted Malthusian grounds—to reduce the numbers of the poor—rather than out of any sympathy with feminism. However, the outcry from Bozell and other Catholics soon led Buckley to revert to the anti-choice position.

Buckley himself had little use for the methods his brother-in-law used to fight reproductive freedom. Bozell, his wife, Pat, and their son Chris were pioneers in the harassment of abortion clinics as a political tactic. As John Judis records in his biography of William F. Buckley, in 1970 Chris Bozell “started a neo-Carlist group, Los Hijos de Tormenta, the Sons of Thunder. In June, [L. Brent Bozell Jr.], swinging a huge wooden cross, led the Sons of Thunder, adorned in red berets and Khaki shirts and pants, through the locked plate-glass door of the George Washington University Student Health Service, which, according to Bozell, was counselling abortion.”

Buckley condemned the Sons of Thunder for actions he saw as politically counterproductive. Despite this fissure, the two branches of the family were never that far apart.

Both the Buckleys and the Bozells have a long history of violence. In 1937 in Sharon, Connecticut, four Buckley siblings participated in cross burning in front of a Jewish resort. Neither William Buckley nor Patricia Buckley participated—but only because they weren’t old enough. As William Buckley recalled in 1991, “I wept tears of frustration at being forbidden by senior siblings to go out on that adventure, on the grounds that (at age 11) I was considered too young.” Buckley of course would later renounce his family’s anti-Semitism, although he also made an active effort to stop one of his sisters from marrying a Jewish man.

In 1968, Buckley famously threatened Gore Vidal on national TV, “Listen to me you queer,” Buckley blustered. “Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” In 1971, Patricia Bozell stormed on stage at the Catholic University and attempted to slap the feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson for words that Patricia Bozell thought insulted the Virgin Mary. Publically, Buckley defended his sister. Privately, he was mortified.

Of the 10 children of Bozell Jr. and Patricia Bozell, the one who most closely followed his parents’ politics was L. Brent Bozell III, born in 1955. Briefly heading the National Conservative Political Action Committee after the death of founder Terry Dolan (a closeted gay man who died from AIDS in 1986), Bozell 3.0 set up shop as a media critic and became a mainstay of right-wing punditry. Appearing on Fox News in 2011, he asked, “How long do you think Sean Hannity’s show would last if four times in one sentence, he made a comment about, say, the president of the United States, and said that he looked like a skinny, ghetto crackhead?” Bozell III then added, “Which, by the way, you might want to say that Barack Obama does.”

In 2017, reporter Ben Jacobs, then of The Guardian, was body-slammed by a Republican congressman. Bozell III responded with a tweet saying, “Jacobs is an obnoxious, dishonest first class jerk. I’m not surprised he got smacked.”

Given these facts, Charles Murray, Andrew Sullivan, or other comparable masters of racist pseudo-science might speculate that the Buckley-Bozell clan has some genetic predisposition towards political violence. Such a theory would be absurd. Biology is not political destiny and people can choose to break with a bad pattern. William Buckley’s only son, Christopher, abandoned his father’s politics and voted for Barack Obama.

A better explanation might focus on the privileged existence of the Buckley-Bozell dynasties. These are people who were never really punished for their bad behavior and so continued to run amok generation after generation.

When he died in 1997, Bozell Jr. was often spoken of as a once-brilliant man who ended up as a marginal crank. But from the perspective of 2021, that Bozell looks more like a prophet than an outlier. Integralism is more popular in right-wing American Catholic circles than ever, with high-powered advocates like Adrian Vermeule, a law professor at Harvard, and Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor at the New York Post. Politically, the American Catholic bishops of 2021 are closer to Bozell than they are to the bishops of 1965. Like Bozell, contemporary bishops prioritize outlawing abortion above all else.

The Buckley-Bozell clan’s brand of authoritarian theocracy and opposition to the rule of law is increasingly common. According to John Judis, Bozell Jr. once considered calling his magazine Future. That’s a title that is too close for comfort. There will be more L. Brent Bozells in the future.