Why do the politics of free markets and cultural reaction keep returning like some Republican Freddy Krueger?By Kim Phillips-Fein
hen Barry Goldwater sought the Republican nomination for president in 1964, his opponents—especially Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney—pilloried him for holding views that had no basis in reality, which for them meant mainstream politics. Here was a politician who criticized labor unions and had made an enemy of the United Automobile Workers; who rejected any suggestion of peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union; who loathed Social Security and argued that the federal government should play no role in guaranteeing civil rights; and who warned of a growing criminal threat that he seemed to associate with unruly protesters. Perhaps worst of all, Goldwater refused to distance himself from the conspiratorial John Birch Society, accepting their support as he fought for the nomination. When his loyal delegates waged a dogfight at the Cow Palace and secured him the candidacy, he tipped his hat to the Birchers in his acceptance speech: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
For all the fear of extremism in 1964, neither Goldwater nor his opponents could possibly match the sheer spectacle of the 2016 race for the Republican nomination, with its distinct resemblance to a reality-TV show. Donald Trump’s gold-plated hair is the least of the attractions. With the various candidates taunting each other for being insufficiently pro-gun, anti-immigrant, or pro-life, mocking each other all the while with locker-room humor, it seems that the conservative movement has reached the end of the line. One by one, the putatively mainstream Republicans—the patient Jeb Bush, the stolid Scott Walker, even the obstreperous Chris Christie, all of whom did their duty by attacking public-sector unions, defending the right to work, and pushing tax cuts—have been kicked to the sidelines.