Dr Simon Topping writes:
When looking for precedents for the current presidential campaign of Donald Trump many commentators and historians have pointed to 1964 Republican nominee Senator Barry Goldwater. In many ways Goldwater was the prototype for Trump, but in terms of style more than policy (which, of course, assumes that ‘the Donald’ articulates anything, beyond making America great again, that could be even vaguely described as policy).
It is worth remembering that the battle in the GOP in 1964 was between its progressive and conservative wings, not between politicians mud-wrestling over ownership of the lowest common denominator in American politics. Goldwater’s rival was Nelson Rockefeller the moneyed (the clue’s in the name) governor of New York. Rockefeller came from a tradition of New York and, indeed, north-eastern, Republican progressives, who included Thomas Dewey (the failed candidate of 1944 and 1948) and Wendell Willkie (defeated by Roosevelt in 1940), alongside others such as Dewey’s campaign manager Herbert Brownell, who pushed for progress on civil rights as Eisenhower’s Attorney General.
All were criticised by conservatives for aping the Democrats; Dewey retorted by accusing his critics of wanting to repeal the twentieth century, further stating that ‘we refuse to be against the Ten Commandments just because the Democrats say they are for them’. Conservatives demanded, however, a clear delineation between the two parties after the failure of Nixon to defeat Kennedy in 1960, the relatively benign presidency of Eisenhower and twenty years of Democratic rule prior to that.
In this analysis, the travails of the party since the 1930s were due to its inability to project a distinctive and distinctly conservative message. This insurgency coalesced around Goldwater, who had been senator in the traditionally Democratic state of Arizona since 1953, after he wrote (or at least put his name to) The Conscience of a Conservative in 1960, which became the template for his campaign.
Among those receptive to this message was a teenager called Hillary Rodham, who became a high school ‘Goldwater Girl’, (‘right down to my cowgirl outfit and straw cowboy hat emblazoned with the slogan “AuH20”’, as she recalled) and would later forge a successful political career under her married name, although the resemblance between Hillary’s campaign symbol (an ‘H’ with an arrow through it) and Goldwater’s is probably an unfortunate coincidence. Note: Hillary Rodham did not vote for Goldwater, because she was not old enough to vote.The problem with Goldwater was neither his conscience nor his conservatism, but rather his temperament and those attracted to his banner. He was a staunch anti-communist, whose considered view on nuclear weapons was ‘Let’s lob one into the men’s room at the Kremlin’, a stance which Lyndon Johnson, able to capitalise on public sympathy after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, ruthlessly exploited with the infamous ‘Daisy Spot’ TV ad. The unsubtle premise of which was, ‘vote Republican, get nuked’. Despite its notoriety, the ‘Daisy Spot’ was shown only once, but it did begin a tradition of negative TV ads which included George H.W. Bush’s 1988 ‘Willie Horton’ ad, linking crime and race, and the 2004 ‘Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’ campaign, besmirching Democratic nominee John Kerry’s war record in Vietnam.
Back to Goldwater. He undoubtedly struck a chord with elements of middle, specifically white, America, and began the process of shifting white Southerners outraged by Johnson’s stance on civil rights (the Civil Rights Act was passed in June 1964) to the GOP.
Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act (rather than African American civil rights, per se) was couched in conservatism and the limits of federal power rather than overt personal racism, in that he felt that aspects of the act were unenforceable; yet the stance of his Southern white supporters was undoubtedly rooted in racism and bigotry, and the subtleties of the logic behind the opposition were either lost or ignored (and according to Snopes he never promised to overturn the act).
‘Betrayed’ by the Democratic Party, and a Southern president no less, the white south proved most receptive to Goldwater’s message. The Republican convention had the worst racism and racist undercurrents in memory, which Goldwater did nothing about, and drove many of the GOP’s remaining African American members from the party.
One slogan used by his supporters was, ‘In your heart, you know he’s right’; opponents countered with: ‘in your guts, you know he’s nuts’. In response to charges of extremism, Goldwater channelled the great Roman orator Cicero in his acceptance speech: ‘extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue’.
Johnson won the election by a landslide, but arguably Goldwater won the political war. The reasons for this have been well-rehearsed by historians. His ideas – smaller government, social conservatism, appeals to white fears – were adopted by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and remain core in the GOP today, and, in more extreme form, in the Tea Party. Johnson was warned that civil rights would cost the Democrats the south, and so it eventually proved; but just as significant is the fact that Johnson was the last Democrat to win the majority of the white male vote.
Yet such is the nature of the modern Republican Party is that even Goldwater would not recognise it, and perhaps not even be welcome within it. By the 1980s, he was opposing the influence of evangelical Christians within the party, supported gay rights and was pro-choice, stances which would make a RINO (Republican In Name Only) in the eyes of the party’s current grassroots, indeed, his granddaughter has endorsed Clinton, stating that she ‘is only one candidate who will live up to my grandfather’s values’.
Goldwater retired from politics in 1986, to be succeeded in the Senate by noted surrender monkey, John McCain.