Over the past few days, a lot of people have been sending around an old political ad from 1964 that purports to show a lifelong Republican explaining, in a sober, deliberative tone of voice, why Barry Goldwater “frightens” him and why he’s going to vote for Lyndon Johnson instead.
Because Johnson would never create a massive new welfare state that perpetuates poverty, nor would he ever get us into a giant boondoggle of a war. And his support for civil rights heads off the threat of race riots in the cities, right? So clearly he was the safe choice.
But I digress.
That ad is going viral now, 52 years later, supposedly as an eerily prescient parallel to how Republicans feel about Donald Trump today.
But there are three big problems with that response, because in its historical context, the ad meant the exact opposite of what resistance to Trump means today.
First, it’s a fake. This was a real Johnson campaign ad from 1964. But the “lifelong Republican” who turned against Goldwater? Not so much. He was an actor—this actor—reading a script written for him by the Johnson campaign. You can kind of tell by his delivery, which is a little too smooth for a regular person, complete with the artful flourish of his cigarette. So instead of “confessing” the secret thoughts of a real Republican, he’s just describing how the Johnson campaign wished actual Republicans would feel.
Given how the election turned out, some Republicans probably did feel that way. But not the kind of Republicans who are objecting to Trump today. The actor in that ad was meant to represent the views of the Rockefeller Republicans, the old “moderates” who were “me-too” welfare statists.
And that leads us to the next big problem with the ad: the “safe” Republicans were the real disaster. I’ve already mentioned how the supposedly “safe” Democratic alternative to Goldwater, Lyndon Johnson, went on to have one of the worst presidential terms in American history, between the Vietnam War and the failed programs of the Great Society. But the actor in the Johnson ad also points to Richard Nixon as the kind of safe, non-frightening Republican he had previously supported. After the disaster of Johnson’s term, it was to Nixon the country would turn.
This ad was written by Democrats, and in their eyes the only good, reasonable Republican is one who is not currently running for office. But we know that once Nixon actually became president, they came to regard him as a unique object of hatred. Yet Nixon’s presidency was also a disaster for advocates of small government and a strong national defense.
Nixon extended “affirmative action” and created the Environmental Protection Agency, and, worse, he did both through executive orders, creating major new policies without the consent of Congress. He severed the last links between the dollar and gold, and when that caused inflation, he imposed wage and prices controls, again by executive order. He tried to wind down the Vietnam War, but his stupidly unnecessary Watergate scandal—a product of his own vanity and insecurity—ushered in the 1974 Democratic Congress that forced the abandonment of South Vietnam and assured our loss in that war.
To be sure, nobody knew in 1964 that Nixon would do any of this, and even by 1972, he was still probably a better choice than McGovern. But Richard Nixon is the basic source of every argument you will hear on the right that voting for a liberal Republican is worse than voting for a Democrat, because he undermines our own side’s opposition to the policies of the left and ends up saddling us with the blame when those policies fail. That was exactly the experience of the Nixon administration.
Add to this the fact that the guy in this ad sums up everything Republicans like myself have learned to dislike about spineless, condescending establishment types. The original script for the ad—which had him mewling about “peaceful coexistence” with the Soviets—would have been even more insufferable. As it is, he is being used by the Johnson campaign to associate Goldwater with the KKK, saying that “either they’re not Republicans, or I’m not.” Well, he was right about that. The KKK weren’t Republicans. They were Democrats—and the Johnson ad was designed to make us forget that. A lot of us have spent our entire lives fighting that kind of smear, in which Democrats try to project their own party’s racist history onto their opponents.
So when we understand the real meaning of this ad, does it end up undermining Republican opposition to Trump?
No, it does not, and that leads us to the biggest problem with the reaction to this ad: Donald Trump is no Barry Goldwater.
Nixon was such a disaster for Republicans that they would eventually turn back toward Goldwater. Not to the man himself—though he would remain in the Senate until 1987—but to the movement he helped bring together. Goldwater lost the general election in 1964 but won the ideological war within the Republican Party, and his supporters would go on to shape much of the future of the right.
That included a young campaign adviser by the name of William Rehnquist, who would become the chief justice of the Supreme Court. It also includes the man who eventually appointed Rehnquist: a governor by the name of Ronald Reagan. Reagan burst onto the national scene in 1964 by giving Goldwater the best, most principled endorsement ever: his “time for choosing” speech.
Among other things, this included a proposal for privatizing Social Security, a clarion call to stiffen our resolve against Soviet tyranny, and the best description I have ever heard of the true political “spectrum.”
You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well I’d like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There’s only an up or down—up to man’s age-old dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism.
Barry Goldwater was a principled politician who ran an ideological campaign, which energized a broader ideological movement in favor of liberty.
That’s the fundamental contrast to Donald Trump, who is running a campaign based almost entirely on a single issue—immigration—and on a cult of personality: the idea that Trump is such a great deal-maker that he will make America great again just by being smarter than the losers who run things now. Donald Trump’s candidacy is not about ideas. It’s only about Donald Trump.
As to what Trump will do once in office, it’s anyone’s guess. But you can figure out the general direction just by considering one thing that’s missing from his campaign: Trump never uses the word “liberty” in his speeches.
So everyone calm down about how this 1964 LBJ campaign ad reflects today’s opposition to Trump. That could not be more wrong. The people who are objecting to Trump are not the ideological descendants of wimpy Rockefeller Republicans like the guy in the ad. We are the ideological heirs of those scary Goldwater Republicans.