In Trump, Conservatism’s Old Guard Sees a New Goldwater

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump appears on a video monitor during the Republican National Convention, Tuesday, July 19, 2016, in Cleveland. 

To the naked eye, Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump would seem to have little in common with the late Senator Barry Goldwater. And given the fact that Goldwater lost the 1964 presidential election to Lyndon Johnson in a landslide, Trump himself might not care for the linkage; after all, there’s nothing Trump hates more than a loser.

But as I’ve talked to the operatives of conservatism’s old guard during the Republican National Convention, the name of the Arizona senator comes up time and again. From his vanquished campaign, the young leaders of what was then called the New Right built today’s conservative coalition. Despite their grand success in delivering Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980, they’ve yet to complete their project: purging establishment Republicans such as the Bushes and the Romneys from the leadership of the GOP. In Trump, they see their chance to finish the job.

So while Trump has only belatedly aligned his political positions with those of the right-wing movement whose leaders prefer the label “conservative,” the movement’s creators are making the case for him—not because they entirely trust him, but because they believe he will get rid of those who have stood in the way of a total right-wing takeover of government.

At a luncheon hosted by the Republican National Coalition for Life at the FirstEnergy Arena, Phyllis Schlafly explained why, at a March Trump rally in St. Louis, she threw in behind the crass billionaire. Since 1996, the Republican platform has born the imprint of Schlafly’s hands, most famously in its anti-abortion plank, but many others, as well—especially on foreign policy and calls for a strong military. “And I want you to know that, in the couple of minutes I had with Donald Trump before I introduced him at that big rally in St. Louis, I asked him to pledge his support for the platform, and he did,” Schlafly, now 91, told several hundred anti-abortion culture warriors at the luncheon. “And that was when I endorsed him.”

Though perhaps best known for her successful campaign in the 1980s to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, it was her advocacy for Barry Goldwater that first brought Schlafly to prominence in right-wing circles with her self-published book, A Choice, Not an Echo, which became a bestseller. At the time, Richard Viguerie, who went on to co-found the religious right movement, was the executive secretary of the Young Americans for Freedom, a group founded by the late William F. Buckley that was consequential in winning Goldwater the 1964 Republican presidential nomination at the convention held in San Francisco’s Cow Palace. Viguerie, a longtime ally of Schlafly’s and a key player in the 1980 presidential election, sat with her at the luncheon. 

“I was there at the Cow Palace in 1964,” he told me in a brief interview he gave to a couple of reporters after the luncheon. “I was in the rafters, where the boos for Rockefeller came from.” He recalled attending that convention as an alternate delegate, and coming upon a crowd of people surrounding a celebrity. It was Ronald Reagan. Two years later, he was the governor there.”

Pressed by Jim Oliphant of Reuters on whether Trump represents the values espoused in the Republican platform, Viguerie replied, “Well, I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see. But the important thing is personnel and he’s committed to appointing conservatives. … Personnel is policy.”

I asked him if he agrees with Trump adviser Roger Stone, the Republican fixer and dirty-trickster—who claims to have first become politically animated when, as a kid, he read Barry Goldwater’s campaign book, The Conscience of a Conservative—who said that the Trump campaign will change the GOP as profoundly as did Goldwater’s. 

“Roger’s right, there’s a coming together of a populist conservative revolt. … I would never pick Donald Trump to be the instrument of the pushing out of the leadership of the Republican Party establishment and bringing this coalition together, but that’s the way it seems to be playing out.”

According to Stone, Trump’s father, Fred, was “a major backer and financier” for the Goldwater campaign. That fits with tales of Fred Trump’s pattern of denying housing to African Americans; many Goldwater voters were brought to his side because of the Arizonan’s opposition to civil rights legislation. The younger Trump simply adjusted that position for the age of reality television, with his well-publicized ejections of black protesters from his rallies, and his footsy-playing with white supremacists.

(Pat Buchanan, another veteran of the Goldwater campaign and author of an essay titled “A Brief for Whitey,” in which he claims slavery was good for black people, has also endorsed Trump.)

Viguerie said that he believes Trump “can” win in November—not that he will. “Most important to Viguerie, it seems, is the “political realignment” that Trump’s campaign portends. “It’s been said many times by others, not by me originally, that Goldwater was the most consequential loser in American political history. George Will famously said the Goldwater won the 1964 election; it just took 16 years to count the vote.”

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