August 20, 2016 Leave a comment
What just happened this week American politics seems all too familiar to those who remember the past. Yet in another sense, we have never seen anything like this before.
Fifty-two years ago Barry Goldwater, backed by a populist grass-roots movement and skilled political operators, defeated his moderate rivals to win the Republican presidential nomination. It was a seminal turning point in American politics.
The Goldwater campaign took political ideals that until then had been promoted only by fringe groups like the John Birch Society and brought them into mainstream political discourse. It marked the creation of what soon came to be known as “The New Right.”
Goldwater’s campaign policies ultimately proved to be far too radical for the American public at the time. In the presidential election he carried only five states and suffered one of the worst political defeats in American history.
But activists for the New Right seized on the momentum that the Goldwater campaign had provided. A key handful of political operatives (notably Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie, Morton Blackwell, Howard Phillips and Terry Dolan) worked tirelessly to perpetuate the new movement. They founded a host of conservative political organizations, publications, media outlets, and think tanks to promote their right-wing agenda, and branded it as a genuinely populist movement. By 1980 their chosen candidate, Ronald Reagan not only won the Republican nomination, but went on to win the presidential election as well in a landslide victory.
Over the next three decades Reagan served as the public standard-bearer for the New Right, so much so that the movement became synonymous with his name. Fiscal conservatism (small government & lower taxes) and a strong military were the original twin pillars of the new right.
Unmentioned in polite political discourse, but well established in fact, was the en masse defection of Southern Democrats opposed to the Civil Rights legislation of President Johnson who gravitated to the Republican Party. The Republican Party proved quite willing to accommodate the racist attitudes of many of these Southerners.
During the Reagan years activists like Paul Weyrich also sought to formally add a third pillar to the New Right’s platform – that of social conservatism. It focused extensively on anti-abortion legislation, opposition to gay rights, abstinence education in schools, and defeating the Equal Rights Amendment.
These efforts were ultimately successful, creating a strong alliance with the Moral Majority (which spun off into a separate short-lived political movement in 1989) and a more long-lasting alliance with the Christian Right that continues today. During this time most moderate Republicans were either forced out of the party or voluntarily left on their own.
Since 1964 The Republican Party has continued to shift rightward in its policies, making many of Goldwater’s and Reagan’s policy ideals seem moderate by comparison. By the 1990s Barry Goldwater was being ostracized by other Republicans for being too moderate in his views.
As I reported in a previous blog,
In 1996, Barry Goldwater sat in his Paradise Valley home with Bob Dole [the Republican nominee that year] and joked about his strange new standing as a GOP outsider. ”We’re the new liberals of the Republican Party,” Goldwater told Dole, who was then facing criticisms from hard-line conservatives in the presidential campaign. ”Can you imagine that?”
Since the election of Barack Obama as President in 2008, the Republican Party has shifted even further to the right, as evidenced in the rapid growth of a new populist faction known as the Tea Party in the 2010 mid-term elections.
When Bob Dole was asked in a 2013 interview with Mike Wallace,
Could people like Bob Dole, even Ronald Reagan, could you make it in today’s Republican Party?
I doubt it. … Reagan wouldn’t have made it. Certainly Nixon couldn’t have made it.
Some have wondered what could be next in the Republican Party’s steady march to embrace ever more extreme right-wing policies.
Enter Donald Trump.
The New “Alt-Right”
Since the beginning of his campaign to win the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump has mounted a distinctively populist campaign focused on winning the support of what has turned out to be a core group of older white voters who feel that their economic livelihoods and personal security are being threatened by “others” – those who are not like themselves. Often resorting to crude and vitriolic attacks, Trump has singled out Blacks, Hispanic migrants, and Muslims as being at the root of America’s problems.
Trump’s Campaign Chairman, Paul Manafort, has repeatedly tried to get Trump to tone down his rhetoric and start acting “more presidential” to broaden his appeal. But this week Trump declared in an interview with station WKBT in Wisconsin,
Everyone talks about, ‘Oh, well, you’re going to pivot. … I don’t want to pivot. I mean, you have to be you.
Another regular object of Trump’s attacks has been “the Republican establishment” in general and the RNC [the Republican National Committee] in particular. Tensions have been growing within the RNC for some time over Trump’s frequently erratic behaviour, emotional outbursts, and outrageous statements. Many prominent Republicans have refused to support him, and some have even left the Party. Yet Trump’s populist message continues to enjoy strong support within his supportive base.
Last week there seemed to be a resolution to the feuding between the RNC and the Trump camp. On August 12 it was reported that the Trump team would be meeting with Republican Party officials in what was termed a “come to Jesus” moment for the Trump team to “patch up a rift that just keeps unfolding.” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus personally introduced Trump at a rally later that day and even embraced him on stage.
The RCN was subsequently taken by complete surprise with the bombshell announcement the following Wednesday that Steve Bannon, the Chairman of Breitbart News, had been recruited to be the new CEO for the Trump campaign. Two days later Paul Manafort announced his resignation as Campaign Chairman.
Under Steve Bannon’s editorship Breitbart News has savagely attacked the RNC and its leadership on many issues including failing to take a strong stance against Muslims and immigrants. One Republican House member was quoted as saying,
Breitbart has no credibility outside of the most extreme conservative wing of our party. … This would seem to signal that Trump is ready to go double-barrel against all of Washington, Republicans and Democrats alike.
He then added,
Breitbart takes a flamethrower to Washington and plays very loose with the facts. I would anticipate an even more bellicose, even less-connected-to-the-facts approach from the Trump campaign moving forward.
It should also be noted that Bannon, who took over Breitbart News in 2012, has since then built the news service into a major voice for what is termed the “alt-right,” peddling a steady stream of “white identity, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and Clinton conspiracies.”
In fact, a former Breitbart News spokesperson (who has since resigned in protest) has complained to ABC News that Bannon “regularly disparaged minorities, women and immigrants during daily editorial calls” at Breitbart and that editorial meetings presided over by Bannon sounded “like a white supremacist rally.”
Meanwhile, white nationalists and white supremacists speak glowingly of Breitbart News. Richard Spencer, who heads a white supremacist think tank (the National Policy Institute), has proudly claimed that
Breitbart and Bannon have helped Alt Right ideas gain legitimacy—and, more importantly, exponentially expand their audiences.
Steve Bannon and Donald Trump see eye to eye on most matters. Trump has long depended on Breitbart News for many of the “facts” he quotes at his rallies and the conspiracy theories he embraces. It is expected to be an enduring partnership, even if Trump looses the presidential race. Bannon will be in an excellent position to expand his “news” network with the backing of Trump much as the now disgraced Roger Ailes did in creating Fox News after playing a key role in Ronald Reagan’s and George H. W. Bush’s presidential campaigns.
With Ailes departing the Fox Network, could Bannon become the new media voice for a newly branded Republican Party? That’s not such a far-fetched idea. We have already seen in the original “New Right” movement just how effective media outlets run by well-placed conservative operatives can be in creating a durable political movement.
In his own version of populist rhetoric, Donald Trump has repeatedly announced his refusal to be “politically correct.” He has made it acceptable at his political rallies to demean women, to denounce Hispanic migrants, to attack Muslims, to assault Blacks, and to spread conspiracies, lies and falsehoods at will.
Trump has campaigned on a platform of misogyny, xenophobia, hatred and bullying. He is directing his campaign toward a growing base of older white voters who share his racist, nativist views. He has become the new face of the Republican Party as he personally takes it into its next phase of right-wing extremism. Welcome to the Republican Party of the future.
Who would have imagined 52 years ago that it would come to this?
Photo credit: Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP