As the 1964 Republican convention approached, many political observers warned that right-wing extremists were about to take over the Grand Old Party. The mainstream media rang the alarm bells, churning out a stream of documentaries, books, and articles with titles like “Thunder on the Right,” “Danger on the Right,” and “Barry Goldwater: Extremist of the Right.” The GOP — whose banner had been carried by stodgy caretakers like Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s and self-described moderates like Thomas Dewey, Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon since WWII — was poised to pick as their Presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, the polarizing darling of the American right. When Goldwater delivered the now famous line in his acceptance speech, “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” his supporters leapt to their feet and cheered for a full minute, some fixing menacing stares on the moderates in their midst who were less enamored of such fighting words. The Goldwater enthusiasts taunted skeptics with buttons that said “In your heart you know he’s right.” His critics countered with “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.”
How could this happen? How could the party of stolid, respectable competence — more suit-wearing Kenosha banker than bolo-tie sporting Phoenix cowboy — hand the keys over to a shoot-from-the-hip iconoclast who opposed almost everything the federal government did apart from preparing to fight a world-obliterating nuclear war? In the closing scene of Dr. Strangelove, released to critical acclaim in January of 1964, Slim Pickens’s character rides a nuclear warhead to his death, hooting and hollering and waving his cowboy hat like a good freedom-loving American. For the majority of Americans who had not yet jumped on the Goldwater bandwagon, watching the GOP convention at Oakland’s Cow Palace in July 1964 felt like watching Slim Pickens ride gleefully toward the inevitable mushroom cloud that spelled his (and the world’s) destruction. There’s good reason the anti-Goldwater daisy ad struck a chord with the American electorate.
But it wasn’t just Goldwater himself who inspired feelings of puzzled disdain among the political commentariat of 1964, it was also his supporters, the “deplorables” of their day. The South’s most ardent segregationists, for example, flocked to Goldwater’s standard because of his outspoken opposition to the landmark Civil Rights Act. Such folks had filled roadsides in the South in recent years with “impeach Earl Warren” billboards to express their revulsion at the Chief Justice who’d spearheaded the Brown v. Board decision. And then there were the reactionary industrialists who thrilled to Goldwater’s virulent anti-unionism. These important funders of Goldwater’s campaign thought union leaders like Walter Reuther posed as great a threat to American freedom as Nikita Khrushchev. Goldwater’s grassroots operation, meanwhile, was staffed by an army of paranoid John Birchers who saw America-hating “comsymps” (communist sympathizers) stealthily taking over school boards, churches, the media, the Democratic and Republican Parties, and virtually every other institution in the country. Goldwater was also backed by retired General Edwin Walker, the “better dead than Red,” trigger-happy anti-Communist zealot who was parodied in Dr. Strangelove by the character of General Ripper, of “precious bodily fluids” fame.
If in 1964 you thought the US should pull out of the “satanic UN” because it posed an existential threat to your church and your family, then Goldwater was your man. If in 1964 you thought disgraced Senator Joseph McCarthy was a great American patriot who had been given a raw deal by a witch hunting press then again, Goldwater was your guy. Not all Goldwater supporters were deeply reactionary racists or antisemites who believed in outrageous conspiracy theories, but it appeared that the nation’s most outspoken, reactionary bigots and conspiracy theorists were all Goldwater supporters. Was it unfair to associate Goldwater with the excesses of his most ardent supporters? Or was it naïve to overlook the dark and familiar, illiberal energies that had gathered around the figure of Goldwater and forcefully propelled him to the head of the Republican Party, despite the best efforts of the party’s more moderate establishment? In 1964, no one knew what the future held and thus no one knew just how concerned they should be.
Today the John Birch Society, to the extent that anyone even remembers them, is more an object of ridicule than concern. Dr. Strangelove taught generations of Americans to laugh at the absurdity and pathologies of Cold War hardliners like General Walker. But in the tense and uncertain atmosphere of 1964, in a nation still mourning JFK’s assassination and unsure of its future, many looked upon the collection of political oddballs assembled at the 1964 GOP convention and saw a terrifying future. Hitler analogies bloomed on the pages of major newspapers and magazines. Many commentators saw in the political culture of Goldwaterism “a recrudescence on American soil of precisely those super-nationalistic and right-wing trends that were finally defeated in Europe.” It hadn’t happened here in the 1930s, but what if it was starting to happen now, in 1964?
To the extent that Americans today remember Barry Goldwater, few remember him as an aspiring Hitler or Mussolini. George Will, the dean of “respectable conservatives” and hardly a figure of the far right, dedicated his 2019 book to Barry Goldwater, a man he considers to be his political hero. Another prominent Trump critic on the right, Max Boot, wrote in “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right” that Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative converted him to conservatism as a young man and still stands as an admirable statement of conservative principles. Given the historical drubbing Goldwater received at the hands of LBJ, it’s understandable why few remember him as an existential threat to American democracy. Goldwater’s reputation was also burnished in 1974 when he and two other Republican Senators somberly walked to the White House to inform Nixon he needed to resign. The not uncommon fear in 1964 that Goldwater was a potential leader of American brown shirts seems, in hindsight, like laughable hyperbole. Goldwater, who came out in support of gay rights late in his life and took many other positions that went against conservative orthodoxy, has come to be regarded as a respected elder statesman. For the fraction of Americans who even remember him, Goldwater most likely has the familiar feel of an independent-minded, truth-telling maverick from Arizona who embodies the best of the American political tradition, even if one doesn’t agree with everything he did and said.
But what if the people who warned about the rise of the far right in 1964 were correct? What if Goldwater the politician lost, but the dangerously illiberal political culture of Goldwaterism won? Much ink has been spilled over the question of where Donald Trump came from. How was it that someone who tapped into the nation’s deep wells of racism, xenophobia, religious bigotry, and misogyny could, in the 21st Century, win the nomination of the party of Lincoln, let alone a national election? How could a GOP putatively committed to limited government embrace a leader who befriended some of the world’s leading autocrats, engaged in open warfare against the nation’s democratic institutions and norms, and declared himself above the law and unbound by the accountability built into our system of checks and balances? How could such an illiberal figure, someone with no understanding or respect for the nation’s traditional commitments to liberal democracy and civic equality, be so beloved by the GOP’s rank and file, and so slavishly catered to by the Republican establishment?
Mark Hatfield, a moderate Republican senator from Oregon warned his contemporaries about the danger of right wing extremism. In a 1967 book he described such “Far Right crusaders” this way: they “would deny that a man is Christian if he does not share their political beliefs…they counsel that you can accept either the welfare state or Christ — but not both. Far Righters often equate Communism with the devil and America with God. And God, to the Far Righters, is a personification of a white, Protestant, anti-Communist American. They have turned the scriptural tables and created God in their image.” Hatfield was appalled that people would reject the premise that America was a secular and ecumenical nation, or deny that the modern American welfare state was a good and necessary thing, or oppose the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. There was room for disagreement in politics, but those opinions should have been beyond the pale. That was the sort of illiberalism Hatfield saw driving the Goldwaterite political culture of 1964, and that was the direction he feared his party was headed. In 1964 Goldwater and his supporters skipped Hatfield’s keynote and held a gathering offsite because they knew what Hatfield would say and they had no interest in hearing it. By the 1990s people like Hatfield had been pushed out of the GOP. He and many others fought hard to prevent his party from embracing far right illiberalism, but he ultimately failed to prevent his 1960s premonitions from coming true.
Many observers in 1964 laughed at the claims of Goldwaterites that it was their small government, pro-freedom principles that were drawing people to their standard. It wasn’t that firing up his supporters, such critics charged. It was the segregation, the conspiracy theories, the antisemitism, and the reactionary xenophobia that was dressed up in the language of strict constitutionalism and local control. This gap between the theoreticians who gave plausibly liberal philsosophical gloss to Goldwaterism, and the illiberal grassroots foot-soldiers has been a feature of American conservatism from the start. Too often people who studied conservatism focused on the ideas, the Kirks and the Buckleys. When really, such people were relevant to only a small swathe of the people driving the conservative bus. It was Schlafly tapping into misogyny. It was Goldwater and then Nixon tapping into Southern segregationists and Northern white racial resentment voters. That’s where the energy was in the conservative movement and everyone knew it, but somewhere an agreement was made not to talk about that explicitly. Somehow Buckley got fingered as the guy who read the Birch society out of conservatism, not the guy who feistily and more than a little defensively chastised the leader of the ADL in 1966 for implying that conservatism has anything to do with antisemitism and who insisted that the Birchers were fine people, though he didn’t share all of their views. We see Buckley who rejects the KKK, but in his 1965 debate with Baldwin implies that many of the leaders of the civil rights movement were an existential threat to everything America held dear and needed to be fought just as the English fought the Nazis.
Because we’ve gotten the history of conservatism wrong, at least in the way our mainstream media tells the story, it led to stories about how shocking it was that Trump could win the GOP nomination saying the outlandish things that he did. If you read critical depictions of the new GOP rank and file in 1964 they sound a lot like Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” comment. Why on earth would you build a party around these sorts of people? Why would you seek out the approval of segregationists in the midst of a historic civil rights movement that carried such moral force and was shifting public opinion around the country? Why would you build a party around proudly parochial people who thought the United Nations educational programs designed to foster tolerance and international cooperation were communist plots designed to poison the minds of their children and ripen them up for authoritarianism? Why would you build a party around people who thirsted for nuclear war, who feared fluoridated water, who thought Eisenhower might be a Communist, and who thought implementing Medicare was tantamount to building gulags? Of course such people were out there in the polity, but what serious person of the 20th century would lend credence to these ideas, give coordinated force to these dark, suspicious, and often hateful energies?
Perhaps a lesson we can learn from 1964 and what happened in its wake is that there’s value in calling something out for what it clearly is. Goldwaterism normalized bigotry in an age when bigotry was under assault. There were plenty of people in 1964 who saw and said that, but their voices were drowned out by those who wanted to accept the plausibly deniable line that Goldwaterism was a principled, small government, pro-freedom position that a few people might have been attracted to for the wrong reasons. To anyone who has been paying attention, that will sound an awful lot like the so-called economic anxiety that we kept hearing about in the wake of Trump’s election.