Conservatives looking for some bit of consolation in the prospect of a Donald Trump nomination have begun to suggest that Trump’s probable general-election defeat to Hillary Clinton, though a disappointment, might portend a new, invigorated conservatism — much like Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat to Lyndon Johnson in 1964. If history doesn’t repeat itself, as the saying goes, perhaps it rhymes.
And, indeed, Goldwater’s crushing defeat is surely the most fruitful loss in American political history. His campaign galvanized the conservative movement and wrested the Republican party from the grip of its eastern moderate faction, setting the stage for the ascendance of, among others, Ronald Reagan. The chain of causation is straightforward: no Goldwater, no Reagan “Time for Choosing” speech; no “Time for Choosing” speech, no Governor or President Reagan. As George Will said at National Review’s 25th-anniversary celebration, which took place just after Reagan’s 1980 landslide: “Goldwater won the election of 1964; it just took 16 years to count all the votes.”
As historical analogies go, this one appears promising on the surface. The excitement surrounding Trump, the new or previously disengaged voters he is drawing out, and the disruption he is visiting upon the previous boundaries of “acceptable” political discourse might suggest that he offers a Goldwater-like opportunity to change the direction of American politics, even if he loses. Trump hasn’t just moved the Overton window on immigration, Islamism, and several other issues; he’s shattered the glass and torn out the frame. What conventional GOP candidate is capable of doing that?
But the proposition that Donald Trump is the second coming of Barry Goldwater overlooks crucial distinctions between 1964 and today. First, unlike 1964, this year’s election is winnable, and it’s perverse to suggest throwing away a winnable election. In the mid 1960s, with the exception of the fledgling American Enterprise Institute, there was almost none of the infrastructure that exists now — no Heritage Foundation, no Cato Institute, no Americans for Tax Reform, and few grassroots groups — and conservatives had almost no influence in Congress. A conservative candidate faced structural disadvantages that are unthinkable today.
And 1964 was particularly difficult. In fact, 1964 was an unwinnable election for any Republican presidential candidate. Barry Goldwater knew that his candidacy was doomed from the moment of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. As William F. Buckley wrote in National Review at the time, three presidents in 14 months is the kind of thing people go for in banana republics, not in the United States.
In those circumstances, it made sense to conduct a campaign to advance conservatism within the Republican party, which before Goldwater was still in the “me, too” mode of offering low-budget liberalism as an alternative to Democrats’ still regnant New Dealism. (In the 1960s, the “constructive Republican alternative program” was known on Capitol Hill by the obvious acronym “CRAP.”) Goldwater understood this. He would later say: “We knew that the only thing we could accomplish would be moving the Republican headquarters from New York to the West Coast, and we did that. We got it away from the money.”
Again, on the surface this sounds much like what Trump is doing. It is no doubt correct to interpret Trump’s support as a massive rejection of the Republican party’s current leadership. But does today’s Republican “establishment” have the same ideological character as the establishment of 1964? It is one thing to be out of touch or to have ineffectively opposed Barack Obama or to have badly misjudged a key issue (immigration). But it takes a whopping lack of perspective to conclude that today’s Republican “establishment” is liberal. (The many people who think Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan are “RINO” collaborators with President Obama presumably will reconsider after a term under President Hillary Clinton, House speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer.)
Furthermore, in his resistance to the Republican establishment of 1964, Goldwater ran a campaign of true conservative principles, articulated in his 1960 best-seller Conscience of a Conservative, in which he laid out a conservatism that sought to contest, rather than compromise with, the order that had prevailed since the New Deal. Trump, by contrast, shows little acquaintance with the conservative movement or serious conservative thought. Whatever the virtues of The Art of the Deal, it is no Conscience of a Conservative.
It seems clear that, instead of besting a liberal establishment, the Trump campaign is fracturing the conservative movement.
Goldwater’s campaign prefigured the coalescence and ascendance of that movement. Goldwater was Moses to Reagan’s Joshua; Goldwater didn’t get us to the Promised Land, but he showed the way. Who would be Trump’s successors? Who might give a pro-Trump “Time for Choosing” speech in October? A Trump defeat would more likely mean an exile into the political wilderness for a now- fractured conservative movement, and it would be the Republican “establishment,” not the Tea Party, that would pick up the pieces of a shattered party. It is tempting to see a historical precedent in the election of 1912, when the GOP split in two and handed the White House to Woodrow Wilson, who won fewer popular votes than William Jennings Bryan had in 1908. But Republicans may do better to reflect on the election of 1860, when the Democratic party split in half over the unacceptability of Stephen Douglas to southerners. The Democratic party, on the presidential level, didn’t recover for 70 years.
That is likelier with Trump than with any other nominee Republicans could choose this cycle. And here one parallel with 1964 is appropriate. Prominent liberals — from Martin Luther King Jr. to California governor Pat Brown to reporters at CBS News — eagerly proclaimed Goldwater a “fascist” and said that the 1964 convention prefigured “Hitlerism.” About the vitriolic media coverage, Goldwater later remarked: “If I had had to go by the media reports alone, I’d have voted against the son-ofabitch, too.” It is not a stretch to expect this sort of rhetoric from the Left over the course of the general election — to the detriment not just of Trump but of conservatives down the ballot. And given the violence erupting at Trump rallies, his reflexive authoritarianism, and the nativist sympathies of his most ardent fans, this charge would be far more compelling than it was when directed at Goldwater.
In 1964, Goldwater was the only conservative candidate in a field of liberal Republicans. This election cycle featured many worthy conservative candidates, several of them with significant accomplishments (Governors Jindal, Perry, and Walker come to mind). It is a peculiarity of this cycle that Trump has won chiefly because the conservative vote has been divided; it is doubtful he’d have won head-to-head votes against most of the top tier of this field.
For those looking for a conservative alternative, Ted Cruz is still standing. The knock on Cruz is that he’s unelectable, though most polls show him running more strongly against Hillary Clinton than would Trump. But even if you conclude that Cruz would face an uphill general-election fight, it is better to lose with Cruz, whose approach to the issues showcases clarity and depth, than with Trump, who is inconsistent, unprincipled, and opportunistic.
It is astonishing that after eight years of Obama, when the normal cycles of politics favor the out-party, the Republican party — which, as National Review’s late publisher William Rusher liked to point out, is merely a vessel for conservatism, as a bottle is for wine — is threatening to break apart. Goldwater didn’t break the conservative movement; he consolidated it. If the conservative movement is reconstituting itself, it would be better to do so with an authentic conservative candidacy. Harry Jaffa, the man who wrote Barry Goldwater’s famous line “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” also counseled, “To prefer noble failure to vulgar success is of the essence of moral freedom and human dignity.” If you want a noble conservative beacon who might herald, in 2016, what Goldwater did in 1964, the junior senator from Texas fills the order better than the vulgar populist from Manhattan.
– Mr. Hayward is the Ronald Reagan Visiting Professor at Pepperdine University and the author of The Age of Reagan.