In 1964, my maternal grandfather flabbergasted his entire family and astonished parts of the civilized world by casting his ballot for Barry Goldwater for President of the United States, against Lyndon Johnson.
He defied his rural Missouri Democrat upbringing and sold his soul to the Republican conservative disaster then brewing.
He was a “union man,” my grandfather was, meaning a New Deal labor Democrat. He was never a Wobbly, but he knew the songs by heart and played them by ear on piano. When my grandfather at age twenty-seven left rural Missouri, he arrived as a Democrat in Kansas City, Kansas, and stayed that way.
He became a labor leader in a right-to-work state, president of the carpenter’s local for a time. He sponsored all his sons-in-law for the union (there wasn’t any other way of joining, those years), and—as was once said of Harry Truman’s mother—he never knowingly spoke to a Republican. My father matched his politics to his father-in-law. Except for Eisenhower, Dad never voted for a Republican, ever, not even when it might have made sense.
For these working men who survived the Great Depression and World War II, there was something about the pitch to the “forgotten working man” that appealed to them deeply and raised their hopes. Any criticism of Franklin Roosevelt in my father’s hearing was met with crude words from his farm life childhood. FDR had saved the farmer, saved the factory and construction worker, provided for old people, and handed out shovel-ready WPA jobs, and he had done it single-handedly. He made America great again; there had better not be any argument.
Yet my grandfather voted Goldwater. It was over Social Security. He was working but “retired.” He didn’t like the earnings limits Social Security imposed; he wanted his full income and his Social Security. Some of the things Goldwater said about Social Security made him think a Republican would deliver.
I am a case for genopolitics, goofy as it is. Since reaching political consciousness, I do not remember a time when I was not a Republican-trending conservative. I was never a Democrat, converted and gone neo-conservative. As a tender-aged teen, Goldwater was my dude; same for my crowd in the county teenage Republican club. (Yeah, fine, we were nerds.)
This year I was looking for a challenging conservative outsider nominee. I could have done Ben or Carly or Rand. Instead I’m dealing with Trump and now I’ve got an uneasy Goldwater déjà vu feeling all over again.
Goldwater had a habit of saying what he was thinking and he never managed to break himself of it. He thought it would be nice to cut off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea (a jab of course at moderate and liberal Republicans living there). He wanted a voluntary Social Security system and privatization of the Tennessee Valley Authority. As a Cold War foreign-policy initiative, he thought we should target a nuclear bomb at the men’s room in the Soviet Kremlin. He suggested using low-yield nukes in Vietnam. There wasn’t anything he said that did not produce fear-smear copy for the press.
A magazine polled 1,189 psychiatrists who agreed that Goldwater was emotionally unstable and psychologically unfit for the presidency. Some of those polled said he had signs of being a “compensated schizophrenic” on the model of other totalitarian leaders. None, of course, had actually interviewed him, and he later won a defamation lawsuit against the publisher.
CBS newsman Daniel Schorr, broadcasting from Germany just prior to the GOP nomination, reported that Goldwater might begin his campaign from Bavaria, pointing out that it was Hitler’s old stomping ground. Some right-wing Germans, Schorr said, had invited him to speak. Schorr had no sources and no invitation had been made.
Goldwater’s campaign was largely abandoned by moderate and liberal Republicans, especially the ones he bruised in the primaries. Predictably, Johnson took it in a walk. Republicans lost thirty-six seats in the House of Representatives (leaving 140) and dropped two in the Senate (down to 32). The Democrats gained an absolute two-thirds supermajority. It was said to be The End of the Republican Party.
Trump is no Goldwater. If he were, he might be doing better. He lacks Goldwater’s self-deprecating sense of himself, for one thing. His nomination annoys me profoundly, even if he did win it fair and square. I have no plans to vote for him.
Whatever variety of outsider populism Trump awakened, he’s walked all over it. His collapse in early polling heralds a Republican debacle. Nothing like it has happened since Goldwater. It is a long way to November, obviously, and October surprises may await, but I doubt anything will help him.
What is happening to Trump already happened to Goldwater. My hope is that 2018 ends up being a 1966 déjà vu year.
Russell E. Saltzman writes from Kansas City, Missouri, is also a contributor at Aleteia. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @RESaltzman. His previous First Things contributions are here.