Could grainy black and white TV images hold the key to America’s political future? Having routed his establishment opponents, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a stern uncle in his thick, black-rimmed glasses, is accepting the Republican presidential nomination on 16 July, 1964.
“Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice … and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue,” he thunders, as an enraptured audience cheers him to the rafters in the wonderfully named Cow Palace arena in San Francisco.
Half a century on, Goldwater is the name on every old-timer’s lips as Donald Trump, the modern scourge of an entrenched Republican elite, makes his own bid for the nomination. In 1964 as now, the party is bitterly divided. Back then the old guard, led by Nelson Rockefeller, told Republicans they “must repudiate these people” – “these people” being the new breed of conservatives taking over the party of Abraham Lincoln.
To no avail. Goldwater went on to lose the 1964 election in a landslide that saw Lyndon Johnson win more than 61 per cent of the popular vote, the largest such margin in modern US history. But it was his philosophy that would ultimately triumph. From 1968, Republicans held the White House for 28 of the next 40 years. Goldwater, not Ronald Reagan, is the true spiritual father of today’s Republican party. Might the same be said one day about Trump?
There are parallels. Not only were Trump and Goldwater detested by elements of their party, both were accused of bigotry. Goldwater was openly backed by the Ku Klux Klan on the streets outside the Cow Palace: the only states he carried in 1964, apart from Arizona, were in the Deep South. This time around, Trump was suspiciously slow to disavow the Klan. And if he were to win the nomination, he would surely change the party as fundamentally as Goldwater.
But the differences are greater. Trump, the businessman, reality TV star and rabble-rousing populist, is a true outsider. Goldwater might have been an iconoclast, but he was a US Senator of 11 years standing when he won the nomination, and would remain a Senator until 1987, when he was 78. Trump has never held any sort of elective office.
Goldwater’s rout of the moderates was the climax of a split within the party, between the formerly ascendant East Coast WASP establishment embodied by Rockefeller, and a new Republicanism taking root in the South and West. Trump’s successes reflect a far more dangerous rift, between a discredited party elite and grassroots voters who feel abandoned by their supposed champions in Washington.
Goldwater operated in an age of traditional political norms, when elections were decided by voters in the middle. Today’s politics is polarised, and elections are won by whichever party more efficiently gets its supporters to the polls.
Whatever happens, Trump will not be on the wrong end of an LBJ-style landslide. Most important, Goldwater’s insurgency was – like almost every such dispute in the party – about ideology. The most spectacular split in Republican history, when former president Theodore Roosevelt formed a breakaway party, was caused by his belief that the incumbent William Howard Taft was betraying his Progressive movement.
The same was true the last time the Republicans entered their nominating convention with the outcome genuinely uncertain: in 1976 when the moderate incumbent Gerald Ford managed to fight off the challenge of Ronald Reagan and his supply-side economic conservatism and hard-edged anti-Sovietism.
This time, the battle is utterly different. Ideologically, Trump is all over the shop: hard-line nativist on immigration; as anti-free trade as a Democratic union boss; with a record of having espoused liberal views on abortion and healthcare
In ideological terms, if there is a Goldwater in this race, it is the Texas Senator Ted Cruz, loathed almost as much as Trump by the party establishment. If Trump is to be stopped, almost certainly it will be done only by denying him an outright majority of delegates on the first ballot.
Here too the differences with Goldwater are instructive. However bitter the party divisions at the time, he won the 1964 nomination by a colossal majority, on the first ballot. Indeed, the last multiple-ballot Republican convention was in 1948, when it took three rounds of voting to nominate Thomas Dewey, who then lost to the incumbent Harry S Truman.
Political journalists of course salivate at the prospect: for once, a convention might break from the norm of a tedious three-day political advertisement and revert to those romantic old days of floor fights, rules disputes, dark horses and deals in smoke-filled rooms – though perhaps not on the scale of 1924 when it took Democrats two weeks and 103 ballots to come up with a nominee.
However, for those same reasons, an open, contested or “brokered” convention – call it what you will – is a party’s nightmare, guaranteeing that all its dirty laundry will be washed in public, a gift for its opponents and all but ensuring defeat at the election. That is doubly true this year. Trump’s supporters will not take lightly to the notion of their hero being denied his rightful crown by the machinations of a few. How easy it was in Goldwater’s day.
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