In 1964, GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater stood at the podium of the Republican National Convention and declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Goldwater’s statement was just one piece of his famous rhetoric that year. Goldwater also said that he thought it would be a good idea if the Eastern seaboard of the United States could just be sawed off and floated out to sea. Goldwater also said that he wanted to lob a bomb in the men’s room of the Kremlin.
These kinds of statements led other Republican elected officials like New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton, and Michigan Gov. George Romney to separate themselves from Goldwater. In response, Goldwater said he didn’t need them.
Goldwater went down to ignominious defeat, winning only six states and 38 percent of the popular vote. (Interestingly, one of Goldwater’s supporters that year was a young teenager named Hillary Rodham, who later became an avid Democrat and married Bill Clinton.)
Does this sound familiar? Once again, Republicans have nominated a Goldwater-like candidate. Once again, they have a presidential candidate who has the stunning ability to antagonize, insult and ostracize many voters. Similarly, he has dismissed Republican leaders. Recently, speaking to his supporters about Jeb Bush, he said, “I don’t think he’s going to endorse me, do you, folks? Who the hell cares?”
One critical difference between Goldwater and Donald Trump is that at least Goldwater had government experience. He had some idea how to get legislation through Congress. He had familiarity with the issues because he had been studying and voting on them during his two terms as a U.S. senator.
But Trump’s strongest governmental credentials are his large donations to candidates of both parties (with accompanying requests for their services when he needed them) and his leadership of the birther movement. The former is a testament to his ability to manipulate the system to his personal advantage, which is not evidence of public mindedness. The latter is a testament to his ability to take a non-issue and, with great effort and energy, prove that it really was a non-issue.
Nevertheless, the effort did win him the admiration and support of the tea party adherents who believed they finally had a candidate who shared their suspicions and viewed the world like they did. In a divided establishment field and feted by unprecedented media coverage, Trump was able to parlay that initial support into larger and larger numbers of Trump voters in Republican primaries. Unfortunately, the rest is history.
Now, Republican leaders are seeking to modify Trump. However, their real goal may be simply to endure the Trump candidacy for the next five months without too much party damage. After that, in their view, he loses and disappears (never being accepted as titular head of the party like past party presidential nominees). Then, the party can start rebuilding and plan for 2020.
Their reaction to Trump ranges from Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan’s grudging endorsements to Mitt Romney’s “never Trump” stance. How Trump can unite the Republican Party base with that kind of support is yet to be seen. The Goldwater scenario seems to stretch out in front of Republicans over the next few months.
Yet, a cardinal difference between Trump and Goldwater is that partisanship is more intense today than it was in 1964 and the vast majority of Republicans who don’t like Trump will hold their noses and vote for him. Moreover, Trump appears to be more successful in creating his own coalition of disgruntled voters. Many are older voters who dislike societal changes and expect Trump to undo them. Others are former middle class voters who have seen their economic situations deteriorate and are angry at the larger economic forces that they believe have ruined their lives. Still others are Obama-haters (including birthers) who believe that Trump is the best chance for undoing the policies of the past eight years.
Will this newly emerging coalition be enough to put Trump into the White House or will it be 1964 all over again? The next few months will tell.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. He is the author of "The Liberal Soul: Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Politics." His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.