When 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.
What appeals to Republican primary voters, especially those who are radicalized and revanchist and have a taste for nonsense and paranoia, is Ted Cruz’s “defense of religious liberty” and Trump’s rich-guy braggadocio, especially his visions of brown-skinned immigrant hordes stampeding over the American border to violently seize our jobs. The Tea Party is standing off against voters happy to jettison the old truisms of the free market in favor of a pumped-up nationalism, leaving David Brooks and National Review to tie themselves in knots explaining that none of this is genuine conservatism. The right has experienced schisms many times before, and its collapse has been predicted, erroneously, on many occasions, going back to LBJ’s victory over Goldwater in 1964 and as recently as Obama’s election in 2008. Still, the divisions and chaos unleashed by this primary season make one wonder: How long can this possibly go on?
For a generation, scholars of American politics, almost all of whom are liberals or on the left, have been driven by a sense of bewilderment about the right. Ever since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, they have puzzled over how, in the face of what seems to them its self-evident backwardness, the right’s politics of fantasy and rage has remained imperishable. Their work has looked for the origins of conservatism everywhere, from suburban kitchens to corporate boardrooms to academic departments. Their arguments are characterized by a distinct note of surprise and disbelief about the lasting power of conservatism. Wasn’t the politics of religious fundamentalism refuted in the Scopes trial of the 1920s, which concerned the teaching of evolution in public schools? Didn’t the 1929 stock-market crash and the Great Depression prove the folly of laissez-faire? Weren’t the Southern segregationists defeated by the civil-rights movement, and the role of women in social life and the workplace thoroughly transformed by feminism? Why, then, do the politics of free markets and cultural reaction keep returning like some Republican Freddy Krueger?