As the primary season heats up, few believe he can win the GOP nomination. The establishment choice is a shoo-in, but the upstart candidate believes the country is on the wrong path, well on its way to losing its greatness. The newcomer promises to reclaim America for “real” Americans, through the restoration of law and order. He advances a platform that makes the establishment cringe, but he enjoys the support of a cadre of conservative activists.
The year is 1964. The candidate is Barry Goldwater – not, as you may have assumed, Donald Trump.
After Republican nominee Richard Nixon lost a close election in 1960, the more conservative faction of the GOP sought a “real” conservative standard-bearer in 1964, and found one in Goldwater. He would go on to win the Republican nomination.
A call to restore America to glory
Despite a solid civil rights record earlier in his career, as a senator from Arizona, Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, arguably the most important civil rights legislation in 100 years. He promised to arrest what he believed was America’s decline and restore the United States to glory. But it wasn’t until New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s campaign stumbled that Goldwater’s took off. His surge was made possible by a relatively small, activist faction of the Republican party: the John Birch Society.
Today, the GOP establishment favorite is former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Like Rockefeller, Bush is off to a rough start – especially when compared to Trump. For proof, consider the most recent Huffington Post poll, an average of 154 polls. Trump enjoys a comfortable advantage over Bush, the establishment candidate: 33% to 9%.
Perhaps more importantly, Trump holds a decisive edge among the modern conservative reactionaries: the Tea Party. A quick analysis of American National Election Study data suggests that a majority of Republicans also identify with the Tea Party.
Among Tea Party supporters, in an analysis of an Economist/YouGov poll I requested, 86% support Trump, versus 29% who support Bush. Further, Trump is the preferred nominee among 52% of Tea Party supporters versus only 10% for Bush. Finally, 91% of Tea Party supporters will be “enthusiastic” about their preferred nominee versus 78% of Republicans overall.
The Tea Party’s enthusiasm about Trump almost certainly stems from his extreme position on immigration. He has said almost nothing about shrinking government, a core concern of the Tea Party. Consider Trump’s solution to the problem of “anchor babies,” children born on American soil to illegal immigrants. He wants to get rid of birthright citizenship, something guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. Tea Party conservatives embrace this position far more than establishment conservatives, as Matt Barreto and I show in our book, Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America.
More engaged supporters
Tea Party supporters, like the John Birch Society supporters in the 1960s, have proven to be a force in the GOP. They are far more politically engaged than establishment conservatives.
In our book, Barreto and I demonstrated that, compared to establishment conservatives, Tea Party conservatives are more interested in political affairs than establishment conservatives. For instance, during the Tea Party wave of 2010, 85% of Tea Party conservatives were interested about what was “going on in Washington” versus 66% of establishment conservatives. More important, where 96% of Tea Party conservatives voted for Republicans, only 74% of establishment conservatives did so.
We also showed Tea Party conservatives are more likely to vote and donate money to candidates than establishment conservatives.
As in Goldwater’s case, few gave Trump much chance to win the nomination when he announced his candidacy just over two months ago. Some still consider him a long shot. The establishment has its candidate and, like Goldwater, Trump continues to say things that cause mainstream conservatives to pause – all while gaining momentum and setting the agenda.
Also like Goldwater, Trump can win the nomination with the backing of a committed faction of activists animated by the fear that “their” America is slipping away. Illegal immigrants are taking American jobs and committing crimes of all kinds, including rape and murder, he says. Trump, like Goldwater, promises to rescue America through the restoration of law and order.
A key difference remains: Unlike Trump, Goldwater was an experienced politician. Goldwater had solid, thought-out policy proposals based on sound conservative principles. For instance, his promotion of small government was rooted in economic liberty, and the belief that big government tempered the practice of personal responsibility. In short, he sought to remove the state from personal and economic life. Trump lacks political experience and has yet to show much in the way of policy over rhetoric.
Even so, do not be surprised if Trump wins the nomination. Yes, Goldwater was eventually beaten badly by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, but not before igniting the grassroots conservative movement that dominated American politics for a generation. Just over a half-century later, as conservatives again lament their loss of control amid issues of race and immigration, it could happen again.
History has a way of repeating itself.