At the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa in mid-August, Barry Goldwater Jr., son of the GOP’s 1964 nominee for president, was stumping for Ron Paul with a rambling speech that closed with the advice to “take life with a grain of salt…and a shot of tequila.” That’s not exactly the typical counsel one hears in Republican speeches these days, not since the religious right started bringing Bibles rather than booze to the party. But Goldwater was there for a specific purpose, and it wasn’t to give a sermon. He was there to remind Paul’s followers of their place in history. His father, he reminisced, “launched this movement in 1964 when he wrestled away from the Eastern liberal establishment the conservative philosophy and established it as the philosophy of the Republican Party.” The Tea Party, he went on, is his father’s legacy, with a “consistent message: get the government off our backs.”
If the 76-year-old Paul’s campaign seems quixotic—and Goldwater’s presence a jarring anachronism—his campaign tent in Ames provided a palpable sense of where the Republican Party is headed: not just a passing of the baton from the Goldwaters to Paul but from the whole geriatric GOP crew to Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who was on hand to support his father. The Paul campaign’s senior adviser, Doug Wead, a former Bush adviser, repeatedly referred to the younger Paul as “a possible future president himself.”
The idea of President Rand Paul—he who once used a Senate hearing to unleash a tirade against low-flow toilets—is a perfect crucible for where today’s Republicans have taken the party of Goldwater. His antigovernment rhetoric is both a product of that era and tinged with the worldview of the cataclysmic conservative movement that followed: the religious right. As a Senate candidate, Paul told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “I see that Christianity and values is the basis of our society…. It helps a society to have that religious underpinning.”
While no clear Republican front-runner has emerged, establishment Republicans are so nervous about their options—which apparently consist of Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann—that they have created an environment in which a single tweet about a possible focus group by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (widely seen as a more palatable candidate) can consume a morning’s news, even if it turns out to be false.
Setting aside the crucial divide between the isolationist, antiwar Pauls and the Christian Zionists Perry and Bachmann, the GOP appears to be stuck with a field of antigovernment zealots. All of them share a foreboding vision of the government as your enemy, out to steal your money and your freedom. In Iowa, even Romney blamed the country’s economic decline on socialism and Obama’s failure to understand the “real” America, telling a crowd at the state fair that the president found inspiration in the “social democrats of Europe,” in contrast to his own love of “freedom and opportunity, American style.” Romney even noted that he is “particularly fond of the Tenth Amendment,” a favorite of the Tea Partiers.
The rhetoric in Ames was rife with dark visions and ugly metaphors, such as Iowa Representative Steve King’s comparison of “Obamacare” to a “malignant tumor” that is “metastasizing” as it “feeds on our liberty.” Days before, in Des Moines, Rand Paul lambasted our “government of busybodies” for treating you like you’re “too stupid to take care of yourself,” as evidenced by OSHA regulations, energy-efficient light bulbs and other household items. And “to make things worse, we’ve given them guns,” he added, claiming that the Agriculture Department sent armed agents to raid an organic food store in California.
Newt Gingrich, despite his campaign’s implosion, still enjoyed the admiration of the GOP faithful, at least for his speechmaking skills. Back in some imagined golden era, he said in Ames, “Americans had a right to dream.” But the “bureaucratic socialists” have taken all that away, turning us into “subjects,” not citizens. Gingrich’s golden era, it seems, took place not only before the 1964 Civil Rights Act—considered by Paul Sr. and Jr. to have been a bad idea—but even before the Civil War. We are living in the “most significant moment since 1860,” Gingrich said, apparently suggesting that the GOP faithful are the slaves fighting for their freedom.
If Gingrich was rousing Republicans for a civil war, Bachmann and Perry were rousing them for a spiritual battle. Their dog-whistling to the evangelical base poses the greatest threat to Romney’s ability to pull ahead—unless, of course, they split the vote, in which case Romney, like John McCain in 2008, will emerge the default victor. Bachmann and Perry are poised to compete for the evangelical base: he with his religious cred from The Response, his all-day praying and fasting event in Houston, and she with her “biblical worldview.” They might not be emphasizing their increasingly out-of-the-mainstream opposition to gay marriage on the campaign trail, but that’s not the only measure of the culture war. The 2011 Republican Party, a purer fusion of its antigovernment and über-religious wings than ever before, takes on government (i.e., “socialism”) and secularism (i.e., Satan) broadly, with attacks on evolution, global warming, environmental regulation and any “nanny state” impediments to good Christian capitalists.
While Goldwater Jr. would have his acolytes belting back shots of tequila, anecdotal and polling evidence continues to mount that Tea Partiers are largely animated by Christian right activists who see their antigovernment activism through a biblical lens: that neither the Bible nor the God-given Constitution granted the government the authority to provide citizens with healthcare or a social safety net, regulate guns or pass laws that protect consumers from environmental harm or predatory corporations. (They’re people too!) As the antigovernment dogmatists and the biblical literalists of the religious right propel the GOP of the future, expect the race for the Republican nomination to escalate into a competition between front-runners outdoing one another to paint government as an evil, freedom-stealing villain, squelching the entrepreneurial hopes and dreams of the freedom-loving citizens of the Christian nation.