A candidate who exploited white resentment and racist rhetoric.
A bitter primary fight that threatened to sever the Republican Party.
Warnings of a catastrophic GOP defeat in the general election.
There are many similarities between Donald Trump’s journey to the top of the 2016 GOP heap and the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964. But there’s one place where current reality could depart from historical parallels: Don’t expect Republicans to publicly rebuke Trump, the way some moderate GOPers did during and after Goldwater’s 1964 nomination.
Republicans now face a more polarized environment, a knee-jerk abhorrence of the presumed Dem nominee Hillary Clinton, and a candidate whose mere Twitter account makes him a very scary man to make enemies with, historians and political scientists told TPM, which makes the calculus for intra-party opposition to Trump more difficult now than it was for Rockefeller Republicans in 1964.
Already we are seeing Republicans lay the seeds of resignation to a Trump nomination, whether it’s the congressional endorsements he’s beginning to collect, the test balloons floated by establishment types signaling they’re coming around, and even the call by some prominent Republicans for #NeverTrump-ers to back off. More deafening still is the silence on the part of other GOP leaders, who have avoided calling Trump out by name, even if they are clearly uncomfortable with the position he is putting their party in.
This is not how things unfolded in 1964, when prominent moderates in the party loudly protested Goldwater and everything he stood for, up until and after the GOP convention.
“Voters got a signal that this was not a Republican candidate like the others,” David Karol — co-author of “The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform” and a politics professor at the University of Maryland — told TPM.
From the get-go, top Republicans made their wariness of Goldwater well known. Thruston Morton, chair of the RNC, said in 1960 that Goldwater’s rhetoric was “too strong a flavor of conservatism for many a Republican to swallow,” while Richard Nixon warned in 1962 that Goldwater could usher in “the first major all-white political party.”
“When [Goldwater’s] ‘Conscience of a Conservative’ first comes out, Republicans are like, ‘No, this is would actually be horrible if he ran,’” said Leah Wright Rigueur, author of “The Loneliness of the Black Republican.”
Resistance to Goldwater’s nomination manifested itself in the last-ditch effort to block him at the convention, through the failed candidacy of Pennsylvania’s moderate Gov. Bill Scranton, as well as doomed attempts to change the party platform so it explicitly condemned extremism and celebrated civil rights.
“These [platform planks] were staged as protests and they [were voted] down, but it was about showing, ‘These are things we believe in and they are going outlast Goldwater himself,’” said Geoff Kabaservice, author of “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party.”
Even after Goldwater became the nominee, New York Republican Sens. Jacob K. Javits and Kenneth B. Keating (NY) and even Senate Minority Whip Thomas Kuchel (R-CA) publicly withheld their support, while historically Republican newspapers endorsed Lyndon Johnson (for some papers, the first Democratic endorsement in their existence). Citizen groups like Republicans & Independents for Johnson popped up to urge voters to “Split your ticket … Not your country.”
Even those who didn’t disavow Goldwater outright went to great lengths to distance themselves from him, like Washington’s future Gov. Dan Evans (R), whose staff instructed a large farmer to stand in front of press cameras at a rally where both Evans and Goldwater would be present in order to prevent a shot of them together.
The terrain facing Republicans today is very different. The party is not factionalized like it was in Goldwater’s day, when moderate Republicans still held considerable sway. The current polarization of the parties also makes it a much harder sell for GOP lawmakers to oppose Trump in a general election.
“There’s less ticket splitting and that means Republican Senate candidates and House candidates to a degree can be threatened by a weak candidate at the top of the ticket,” Karol said. “Even though you might think they should be able to say, ‘Look he’s not the Republican Party, he’s just him,’ it’s harder in this kind of era to make that case.”
It’s worth noting that the GOP’s most prominent Trump opponents are either cycles away from a re-election race (Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska), or likely done with their political careers entirely (Mitt Romney).
And then there’s Trump himself, who has proven a way with insults and turning his followers against his rivals unlike any other presidential candidate in history.
“Trump commands this incredible microphone. Goldwater did not. Goldwater did not have certain media access, which Trump does,” historian David Pietrusza told TPM. “He can transform you into Lyin’ Ted or Little Marco.”
And from a political standpoint, Trump is not the purist ideologue that Goldwater was, which makes a strategy for rebuking him even more puzzling for moderate Republicans. If there is anyone who has drawn a Goldwater-like backlash, it’s Ted Cruz, the last major candidate standing in Trump’s way, Wright Rigueur said
“The sheer hatred that most people have for Ted Cruz is much more similar along the lines [of Goldwater],” she said.
In the end, Johnson crushed Goldwater, winning more than 60 percent of the popular vote and by a 486-52 margin in the Electoral College. It was the staggering defeat moderate Republicans had warned of, but it didn’t doom the GOP to political oblivion. Nixon, who ultimately campaigned for Goldwater, won the White House four years later.