The 2016 US presidential elections are polarized, controversial, destabilizing, and nothing new. The 2016 election is in many respects a mirror image of the 1964 elections. Today’s leading Republican shares notable similarities with the former 1964 Republican frontrunner Barry Goldwater.
Both Trump and Goldwater entered the campaign as unlikely candidates but quickly gathered attention and support. Trump is an alien figure in the Republican Party. Early on many prominent Party members such as Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan had denounced Trump’s legitimacy and put in efforts to cripple his campaign.1 Goldwater suffered similar disapproval by the Republican establishment and especially by the more moderate so-called Rockefeller Republicans.2 Both were hated up until their Republican nomination where by default the Party rallied support.
Both Trump and Goldwater campaigned through the use of populism and fear. Trump sensationalizes the threat of “radical Islam” and has taken an aggressive, militant stance against what he perceives as a Muslim threat. He has called for “bombing the shit out of them”, killing extremists families, and bringing back methods of torture.3, 4, 5 Goldwater in a similar platform urged a stronger militant stance against Communism and the use of aggression to stop the Soviets. Trump’s lack of understanding in foreign affairs parallels Goldwater’s reckless lack of sophistication. Goldwater at the time argued that nuclear weapons should be used more conventionally and that they should be used in Vietnam.6 Trump has repeatedly called for violence in the Middle East and also has encouraged Japan to develop nukes to protect themselves from North Korea.7 Both Goldwater and Trump’s encouragement of violence received furious responses by the global community and by both sitting Presidents Johnson and Obama.
Johnson and Obama were both targets of the two Republican’s slanderous campaigns. Trump considers America to be weak and in a moral downfall. He calls Obama a pathetic leader and has pledged his campaign to “Make America Great Again.” Goldwater also called Johnson weak and inept. His platform argued that American had fallen from greatness and was in a period of decline. In a campaign video he declared “we, as a nation, are not far from the kind of moral decay that has brought on the fall of other nations and people…. I say it is time to put conscience back in government.”8
Their campaigns were very similar. America was in a decline and there were great threats to the country that needed radical, violent, and immediate action. They were conservative populist demagogues using fear to build support.
Goldwater and Trump were both known for violence on their campaign trails as well. Their logic is that violence against protestors is acceptable because it puts them in their place. They place the responsibility of the violence on the protestor for showing up to their campaigns. They treat the campaign spaces as private areas where violence is acceptable and even encouraged. Both repeatedly encouraged and escalated violent situations between protestors and supporters.
The contextual environment that created both candidates is also similar. In both Goldwater and Trump’s time period there were many sweeping social changes. Goldwater was faced by the civil rights movements. Woman’s Rights, Black Rights, and Latino Rights were all championed in this period. This created a backlash effect in American politics where Republicans pushed to reverse these changes and reaffirm more traditional conservative social norms, all while under the context of deeply entrenched African American racism.
The modern era is experiencing many broad social changes including the acceptance of gay and transgender communities, the ongoing feminist movements, the increased levels of multiculturalism and globalization, and the reduction of religious relevance. Furthermore, similar to Goldwater’s racist backlash, is the modern development of anti-Islamic sentiment. The instability of Middle Eastern politics, the upswing in Islamic terrorism, and the ongoing spread of refugees, has turned many Republicans into Islamophobes.
In both time periods, many conservatives and Republicans felt alienated by changing social norms, felt threatened by other social groups and cultures, were concerned about warfare, bombings, and terrorism, and both periods had a radical political figure rise from the off-field swearing to bring America back to its former glory.
A Washington Post article from Goldwater’s obituary published in 1998 could easily be read as a description of the Trump candidacy:
“During his 1964 presidential campaign, Mr. Goldwater was attacked by Democrats and opponents within his own party as a demagogue and a leader of right-wing extremists and racists who was likely to lead the United States into nuclear war, eliminate civil rights progress and destroy such social welfare programs as Social Security.”9
There are some differences between the two. Goldwater was more focused on social conservatism than Trump; Trump appears to be more socially liberal. However the big difference is that Goldwater had a much less likely possibility of being elected President. Goldwater only won in a handful of Southern States against Johnson and only received 38.4% of the popular vote. Johnson beat Goldwater by a landslide. Trump’s poll results are impressive. While Clinton typically has a 2-12 point lead over Trump, the reality is that Trump often edges close to Clinton and he is a formidable opponent.10
We live in a period of another conservative backlash. A period where transformative changes are occurring, where America’s future is at a crossroads. Now, more than ever, serious, rational, sensible, and compassionate leadership is required. Electing Trump is giving into weakness. Electing Trump is choosing to vote for fear and violence. The same way that voting for Goldwater was a vote to deny social changes and to encourage violence. In a globalized, evolving, and challenging world, what is required is inspiring and informed leadership. Not a revert to the 1960s conservatism and not the acceptance of a destructive demagogue. In a period of confusion and challenge, we need cooperation and companionship. Trump echoes the leadership of an older day.
Trump’s ideas and leadership sound like the past, because that’s exactly where they belong. One day we will, hopefully, look back and remember Trump for what he is. A blip of sensationalist stupidity, a degenerative reaction to uncertainty and change. Trump will be nothing more than another Goldwater, a lesson in how failure and weakness emerges when times get tough.
Written by Daniel Govedar. (June, 2016, Edited Feb 2018)
- “The 1964 Republican Campaign.” American Experience. PBS. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/rockefellers-campaign/
- Robert, Dans. “Dump Trump? Paul Ryan leaves door open to Republican convention revolt.” The Guardian. June 19 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jun/19/paul-ryan-donald-trump-republican-convention
- Engel, Pamela. “Donald Trump: ‘I would bomb the s— out of’ ISIS.” Buisness Insider. Nov 13 2015. http://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trump-bomb-isis-2015-11
- Matharu, Hardeep. “Donald Trump reiterates desire to murder terrorists’ families.” Independent. March 4 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-reiterates-desire-to-murder-terrorists-families-a6912496.html
- McCarthy, Tom. “Donald Trump: I’d bring back ‘a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding’.” The Guardian. Feb 7 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/feb/06/donald-trump-waterboarding-republican-debate-torture
- Tannenwald, Nina. 2006 “Nuclear Weapons and the Vietnam War.” Journal of Stategic Studies Vol. 29, No. 4, Pg. 675.
- Hancocks, Paula. “Japan and South Korea hit back at Trump’s nuclear comments.” CNN. March 31 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/31/politics/trump-view-from-south-korea-japan/
- “Moral Responsibility 1964.” Museum of the Moving Image: The Living Room Candidate. http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1964/moral-responsibility
- Barnes, Bart. “Barry Goldwater, GOP Hero, Dies.” Washington Post. May 30 1998. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/daily/may98/goldwater30.htm
- “General Election: Trump vs. Clinton.” RealClear Politics. Accessed June 27 2016.