A combustible, contrarian candidate. A mood of revolt inside the Republican Party. The repudiation of a governor from a family that enjoyed the warm embrace of the political establishment. Political elders in retreat — and in horror.
Donald J. Trump and the insurgents who open their nominating convention tomorrow night in Cleveland may be the vanguard of a Republican insurrection that could remake a 160-year-old political party with roots in a frontier and abolitionist past. And if they are, they are part of a tradition that at hectic hours of history has seen American parties, which don’t change easily or often, adapt to new political conditions and adopt new ideas, transforming themselves even as they may also be agents of social and cultural transformation.
Already this year, the Trump insurrection — a hostile takeover rather than an internal mutiny — has set in motion unpredictable tidal waves of change in the nation and the party, waves that utterly and easily swamped the early favorite and the field.
But it has also summoned echoes of an earlier GOP rebellion, one that began with Barry Goldwater in 1964 and in less than two decades overhauled the Republican Party, challenged many of the assumptions of American life, altered the way politics is practiced, and, by the time that tide was at full flood, in 1980, began an era of Republican domination of the White House that lasted for 20 of the next 28 years.
Back in 1964, 1,308 Republican delegates crowded into San Francisco’s primitive Cow Palace for the party’s convention. For months, Republicans had fought not only to determine the identity of their White House nominee but also to reshape the identity of a party that, to the Goldwater forces, seemed a mere mirror of their Democratic rivals — “dime-store New Dealers,’’ in the withering phrase of the Arizona senator.
Fortified with a sense of daring and destiny, those 1964 Republicans nominated the personification of that era’s new conservatism, a son of the desert West, supported by theorists and publicists in the urban East, determined to reshape a party with a liberal wing into an unalloyedly conservative movement. In doing so, they rendered Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York, the establishment Republican who was primed for the presidency but never really got close, a figure of a discredited past — the precursor, historians may conclude, to the mortifying end of the 2016 candidacy of former governor Jeb Bush of Florida.
Even after Goldwater lost 44 states in a landslide repudiation, the future profile of the Republican Party was not yet clear — a cautionary tale for commentators and worried Republicans who predict a GOP debacle this year and perhaps extending to the future.
“Goldwater got clobbered in 1964 but set in motion the modern Republican conservative movement,’’ said Douglas Brinkley, a Rice University historian. “He made it palatable to be a conservative. It wasn’t clear then that that would be the result, nor was it clear that out of the ashes of that disaster would come Ronald Reagan. We also don’t know the result of the Trump nomination. It may be a disaster for the Republicans — or the beginning of a new Republican populist movement.’’
And so now the Republicans prepare to nominate another outsider determined to remold the party. Though this time the intruder is not so much conservative as confrontational, not so much an ideologue as an insurrectionist, not so much inspired by ideas as by his mood of the moment — impulses, sometimes outrageous but always attention grabbing, meted out tweet by tweet and jibe by jibe.
Trump is every bit as disruptive a force as Goldwater, with a constituency — resentful of immigrants, distrustful of establishment figures, disdainful of the totems and taboos of politics — even more rebellious and incongruous than the 1964 rebels, whose ranks included both intellectuals and the Young Americans for Freedom. Indeed, he may be the greater disruptor: Goldwater was careful not to inflame in talking about matters of race, for example, and his famous trope, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” wouldn’t sound especially radical in the mouth of a GOP contender today.
The result for 2016: a crisis of the old order, or simply, to some, a crisis of order itself.
“I hope we end up in a position where the party can heal and rebuild itself after this,” said former representative Vin Weber of Minnesota, a GOP strategist. “This is a challenge to the party at the level we faced in 1964 and again after Watergate.’’
This is not, of course, the first time rebels have assailed a major political party, and in fact in his “House Divided’’ speech in June 1859, delivered in Springfield, Ill., Abraham Lincoln spoke of the young Republican Party as having been made up of “strange, discordant, and even, hostile elements.’’
The Republicans of that early era survived, and today’s almost certainly will, too. The GOP, after all, controls 34 of the 50 governors’ chairs in the nation and the Congress. Still, some see the potential for a seismic shift.
“There’s a chance,’’ said former GOP governor William F. Weld, now the vice-presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party, “that the Republican Party could be in the middle of a dissolution.’’
Major political parties vanish from the American landscape very rarely, and then only as a result of a challenge prompted by an explosion of new issues. The last major party to disappear was the Whig Party, the victim of anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly in the South, and of pressure on the slavery issue.
“The Whigs were pretty powerful in their day,’’ said Eric Foner, the Columbia University historian regarded as perhaps the nation’s preeminent scholar of mid-19th-century America. “They elected presidents, they competed pretty effectively across the country. But they were overcome in the early 1850s as the issues changed.”
The populists under William Jennings Bryan took over the Democratic Party in 1896, beginning a transformation that, under Woodrow Wilson and then Franklin Roosevelt, would embrace government as a powerful tool of social change.
And then came the transformative flood tide begun in 1964. Only 16 years after the Goldwater debacle, conservatives under Reagan, a onetime New Deal Democrat, took over the Republican Party and created perhaps the most powerful and devoutly conservative coalition in American history, their principal competition being the Tories who opposed the American Revolution and some pre-1861 supporters of slavery.
This forced both parties to become more ideological, with the Republicans eventually losing their liberal wing and the Democrats, an unwieldy collection of northern liberals and Southern conservatives and segregationists, eventually becoming a progressive party under the sway of, among others, women employed outside the home, minorities, and campus intellectuals shaped by 1960s rebellion.
Indeed, 1964 was also a key moment in the life of the Democratic Party. That was the year Lyndon B. Johnson fought for, and won, a civil rights bill that transformed the lives of black people in America but also began a transformation of the character of the Democratic Party. Its Solid South withered away; former governor George C. Wallace of Alabama and former vice president Richard Nixon would woo and win many of those Southern Democrats in 1968, and Reagan would complete the transformation in 1980. Today, three-quarters of the House seats in the Old Confederacy are controlled by the GOP.
As a result, the Republicans, who once ran city machines in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and San Francisco, are now a resolutely Southern and suburban party. The Democrats, their dependence on the South for electoral primacy now a faint and painful memory, have evolved into a party whose strength resides in the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic states, and the Pacific West.
And both parties are still evolving, the GOP most obviously.
“Trump has said he sees a different party in a few years,’’ Weld said, “and I think he’s right.’’
An important new addition to the Republican Party, attracted into the GOP by Trump, is what Dennis Goldford, a Drake University political scientist, calls “the middle-finger segment of the American electorate.’’ Many of those voters were Democrats a generation ago.
The Goldwater insurgency eventually produced an entirely different Republican Party, and there are some similarities to the Trump ascendancy, particularly in the ire or worry it inspires in some.
“The Republicans seem to be about to nominate a candidate whose views of war and peace and other subjects have alarmed and alienated great numbers of people in his own party,’’ the commentator Joseph Alsop wrote on the eve of the GOP convention in 1964. The columnist Walter Lippmann, who by 1964 was regarded as the mouthpiece of the capital establishment, had a similar view. “Senator Goldwater,’’ he said, “has a passion to divide and dominate.’’
That alarm — and that passion — takes its modern form in Trump, whose contempt for what Capitol Hill parliamentarians call the “regular order’’ is if anything greater than that of Goldwater, who was liked by Democrats and was friendly with John F. Kennedy.
The agony in the modern Republican Party may be best reflected in the pages of The National Review, the conservative magazine that was founded by William F. Buckley Jr. and that provided much of the philosophical rigor of the Goldwater movement.
In the space of four pages in its June 13 issue, Ramesh Ponnuru warned that Trump “would make the Republican Party less conservative while simultaneously discrediting conservatism with large portions of the public, perhaps for many years,’’ while another writer, Jay Nordlinger, added: “He is the brand of the party. As I see it, or smell it, an odor now attaches to the GOP, and it will linger long past 2016, no matter what happens on Election Day.’’
The verdict of Election Day may be the least significant part of this. Like Andrew Jackson in the first third of the 19th century, Mr. Trump is an unusual political figure, with no apparent successor of even remotely equal voltage. But the emergence of Trump as the GOP nominee has itself presented the Republican Party with either the threat or the opportunity to change its composition and its image, as the early Democrats did under Jackson.
“Parties continually change,’’ said former Republican governor Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania. “There are people in both parties who want something different. But I’m not sure they know what they want.’’
The Manhattan businessman appeals to a group of voters the Republicans have had difficulty attracting — working-class whites and those in sales and clerical positions. Along with the middle-finger voters, Americans with this profile have from time to time backed Republicans; they supported Reagan, for example, in 1980 and 1984. But they haven’t become enduringly aligned with the party. It’s possible Trump could move them into the GOP permanently.
“If that happened, and if it persisted, the Republicans would be a very different party,’’ said John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “Trump doesn’t have to win to reorganize the coalition. If he simply gets a different set of voters than George W. Bush and John McCain attracted, and if it persisted, we could see a reorganization of all of our politics, including the Democratic Party.’’
The Democrats have had their rebellions, too, the last one occurring as the young Hillary Rodham, a onetime “Goldwater Girl,’’ was coming of age politically as an activist student at Wellesley College and later as a law student at Yale.
The assault on the party establishment and the effort to reshape the party after Vietnam and the youth rebellions is congruent with the life of another onetime presidential candidate, former senator Gary Hart of Colorado, who was the campaign manager for Senator George S. McGovern of South Dakota in 1972 and later was a reform-oriented presidential candidate in 1984 and in 1988.
The Hart critique has eerie similarities to the current crisis in the Republican Party.
“I don’t think the Democratic Party has ever gotten ahead of the change curve,’’ Hart said in an interview. “We’ve been responding to events more than anticipating them. But so have the Republicans. . . . Trump took over a party that was stagnant and exploited people’s frustrations.’’
Now those frustrations are expressed and addressed in a Republican Party platform that will likely attract careful attention and likely will be studied by historians for decades. The meaning of the Trump moment can only now be guessed at — just as was true of those struggling to make sense of Goldwater’s nomination in 1964.
“No one can yet define accurately what happened to the Republican Party at San Francisco — whether the forces that seized it were ephemeral or were to become permanently a majority that would alter and perhaps end the Republican Party as known through a century of American history,’’ the election chronicler Theodore H. White wrote months after the 1964 Republican convention. “This will become clear only as the years throw perspective.’’
The 2016 platform, and the party that is to ratify it, represents a major departure in American history. As White wrote almost a half-century ago, their import and impact will become clear only as the years throw perspective. They may prove, as so many Trump critics inside the Republican Party are arguing, a recipe for trouble come Election Day and a longer term narrowing of GOP prospects. They may prove quite the opposite. But, as with the party’s proudly provocative nominee, they will not be ignored.
David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.