Back in March, I observed that Donald Trump had transformed the Republican Party in a similar way as Barry Goldwater. For those of you unfamiliar with the reference, Goldwater was a plucky arch-conservative Senator from Arizona who defied the GOP establishment by winning their party’s presidential nomination in 1964. Although Goldwater was subsequently trounced in the general election by President Lyndon Johnson, his influence lived on in the policies pursued by Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes.
Having said that, it is important that we not stretch the Goldwater-equals-Trump analogy too far. Otherwise we will wind up doing a disservice to Goldwater… and, in the process, misunderstand the exact nature of how Trump could win this thing.
Unfortunately, Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard did precisely those things in a recent editorial for The Wall Street Journal. Here is the most pertinent passage:
“Donald Trump has committed the Barry Goldwater mistake. In his 1964 speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination, Goldwater said that ‘extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice’ and ‘moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.’ His declaration sent two messages: Goldwater wouldn’t seek to reconcile with his GOP opponents in the cause of party unity. And he was every bit the uncompromising conservative his critics had said he was.
Mr. Trump, since becoming the presumptive Republican nominee after winning the Indiana primary on May 3, has sent pretty much the same message. Rather than concentrate on unifying the GOP, he has spent considerable time bashing Republicans who haven’t endorsed him and even some who have. Though he would like to have party leaders on his side, Mr. Trump says he can win the White House without them.
He also insists he won’t change his wild-and-woolly campaign style, though it tends to buttress the idea, popular among Democrats and the media, that he’s unfit to be president. It is one thing for Hillary Clinton to suggest that. But some Republicans agree and say so, usually privately but occasionally in public.”
There are three critical details overlooked in Barnes’ analysis.
- Unlike Goldwater, Trump doesn’t have a consistent political philosophy. Although both men stoked the fires of racism in order to galvanize supporters, Goldwater’s opposition to civil rights was part of a larger ideology that wanted to slash taxes to the bone, reduce the federal government’s power on economic and social issues, and beef up the military-industrial complex. For better or worse, Goldwater was an intellectual with a coherent right-wing belief system–and, consequently, adhering to one plank in his platform required a voter to adhere to all of them. By contrast, Trump has been all over the board in his stated political views, which gives him greater flexibility to adjust his stated positions and thereby win over reluctant voters.
- Unlike Goldwater, Trump’s campaign has been fueled almost entirely by his own personality. Although Goldwater’s most zealous supporters tried to develop a cult of personality surrounding their champion, the man himself was noticeably reserved and preferred whenever possible to redirect attention to the issues that mattered most to him. When Goldwater seized the Republican nomination in 1964, it was because his supporters had developed a sophisticated grassroots campaign that the establishment candidates of his time simply could not match. Trump’s campaign staff, on the other hand, has been remarkably small, with Trump rallying supporters by attracting obsessive coverage from a media that can’t get enough of him. This lack of any organizational framework could prove Trump’s undoing—or it could give his candidacy a versatility that will defy political precedent.
- Lyndon Johnson benefited from a good will that Hillary Clinton sorely lacks. While Goldwater probably would have lost the 1964 election regardless of who he was running against, the fact remains that Johnson had been in the White House for less than a year by the time Election Day rolled around. Because he came to power as a result of John Kennedy’s assassination and was widely praised for his masterful soothing of the nation’s collective trauma, voters were generally inclined to approve of his presidency and wanted to give him a chance to lead the nation with his own mandate. Clinton, on the other hand, has negativity ratings so high that she would likely be easy prey for any Republican candidate other than Trump. The good news is that, according to recent polls, Trump’s negatives are hurting him more than Clinton’s are hurting her. Because Clinton is no Johnson, however, this may not always be the case.
Does this mean that Trump should disregard Barnes’ advice? Not necessarily. As long as he doesn’t alienate his core supporters by cozying up to the GOP establishment, it certainly couldn’t hurt him to build bridges, and quite possibly could help. That said, I suspect the 2016 presidential election is going to boil down to three variables:
- How much will bigotry toward Mexicans, Muslims, and women help Trump?
- How badly will Clinton’s scandals hurt her?
- How many votes will third-party candidates like the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein siphon from the Democratic and Republican tickets?
Of these three factors, Variable #1 is by far the most important here. If the economy takes a turn for the worse and swing voters blame undocumented immigrants; or if fear of Muslims spreads due to future militant Islamic terrorist attacks on American soil; or if latent misogyny convinces voters to cast their ballot against the major party candidate who happens to be a woman; or if any combination of these three things occurs, Trump could pull off the greatest political upset in American history. Clinton’s scandals and the threat of losing support to third-party candidates are the backdrop against which these issues will play out, but ultimately America’s fate depends on how Variable #1 plays out.
Barnes’ op-ed in The Wall Street Journal assumes that this presidential election still follows the traditional rules of political baseball, but Trump has created a brand new game. It’s time to learn its rules.