I watched the next episode of The Contenders, dealing with the Presidential candidates of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan — though, in keeping with the show’s overall theme of people who didn’t make it to the White House, the focus was on Reagan’s unsuccessful challenge to Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976 rather than his winning bid four years later. The episode was called, inevitably, “The Conservatives,” and their analysis of Goldwater’s election in 1964 was pretty close to mine: not the decisive defeat of the radical Right we thought and hoped it would have been at the time, but merely a major battle the Right lost in a war they ultimately won. One of the commentators noted that never in American history has a losing Presidential candidate — especially one beaten as badly as Goldwater was — reshaped U.S. political history so fundamentally (though one could make a similar case for Al Smith in 1928, since most of his agenda got enacted under Franklin Roosevelt and his Democratic successors), not only putting the Right’s ideas (reversing the welfare state, deregulating business, emphasizing individual liberties over social welfare while simultaneously maintaining a strong military and aggressively challenging the Soviet Union) front and center in the American political debate but bringing about the “flip” between the two major parties’ positions on civil rights in general and African-American equality in particular that led to the switch of the “Solid South” from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican. Goldwater carried six states: his own, Arizona (albeit narrowly) and five in the Deep South — and the decisive factor in his Southern victories was his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. His position was that the government itself should not discriminate on the basis of race, but it had no business telling private employers and enterprises that they should not discriminate — when Rand Paul was criticized recently for taking a similar position and saying he would not have voted for the Civil Rights Act if he’d been in the Senate then, virtually nobody in the punditariat recognized that as the position Goldwater had actually taken in 1964. (Ironically, in his later years — after, in my analysis, the fall of the Soviet Union had liberated Goldwater from the compromise he’d had to make with big government to protect the nation against the Soviet threat and freed him to be the libertarian conservative he’d always been by instinct — Goldwater called for the addition of Queer people as a protected class to the Civil Rights Act he’d voted against originally.) In the history of the American Right, Ronald Reagan is generally considered the person who took Goldwater’s ideas and put a more winning face on them, using all the communications skills he’d learned as an actor under the Hollywood studio system to make Right-wing politics and ideology sound fresh and new.
As much as Reagan has become a secular (or maybe not so secular) saint among Republicans in general and Right-wingers in particular — he is to Republicans their beau ideal of what a President should be, as FDR is to Democrats — watching him in these old clips reinforces that not only has the modern Republican party ceased to be the “party of Lincoln” in any but the most literal historical sense, it’s largely ceased to be the “party of Reagan” as well. That’s not only because modern Republicans routinely violate Reagan’s fabled “Eleventh Commandment,” “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican,” but because Reagan understood that the way to “sell” Right-wing economic policies to people who would actually be hurt by them if they were enacted was to put a happy face on them, to frame them in the context of individual rights and liberties and to evoke the mythic dream of America as a “shining city on a hill” that could be achieved, not by a big leader or a big bureaucracy, but by individuals coming together and maximizing their own well-being and thereby fulfilling Adam Smith’s promise of an “invisible hand” that would make everybody better off. As I noted when I wrote about Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at this year’s Republican convention, he had ripped off Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan — “Let’s Make America Great Again” — only he had dropped the “Let’s,” by which Reagan had meant that making America great again was at once a collective enterprise and one we would fulfill as individuals by making ourselves great again. Michael Reagan, who was interviewed extensively for this program, has said elsewhere that his dad would have been horrified by the Trump phenomenon, and I have no doubt Reagan fils is right: Reagan was an individualistic conservative who believed in the power of each person to shape his or her own destiny, and there’s an incredible clip in this documentary that sounds in the context of 2016 almost like Reagan coming back from the grave to rebuke Trump. Reagan said that if people elected him and expected him to fix everything, they would be wrong; Reagan’s idea of conservatism was individual self-responsibility, not handing everything over to a Great Leader who said, “I alone can fix it.” (In the same article I noted the frightening contrast between the slogan Barack Obama’s supporters had chanted in 2008, “Yes, we can!,” and the one Trump’s backers chanted in 2016: “Yes, he will!”)
I suspect that if Trump loses this year’s Presidential election — and it’s looking more likely every day that that will indeed happen — his supporters will be looking for the person who can be to Trump what Reagan was to Goldwater: the articulate spokesperson who can put the smiling face on Trump’s ideology (to the extent he has one — one of the most scary things about Trump is that he doesn’t seem to have any consistent ideology, taking his positions on impulse and not being too concerned about whether what he’s saying today is consistent with what he said yesterday — Reagan may have done a political 180° from his youth as a New Deal Democrat to the Right-wing Republican he became later, but at least he had a coherent conversion narrative: “This is what I believed then, this is what I believe now, and this is why I changed”) and ultimately lead it to victory. There don’t seem to be any people in the Republican party — or even outside it — who could fill that bill: the idea that their current GOP can find their savior who delivers a last-minute TV appeal for Trump on the order of Reagan’s 1964 election-eve speech “A Time for Choosing” and thereby mark himself (or herself) as the Trump lama is hard to believe. The Republican Right has become so bitter, at least in part because of the contrast between the number of elections they’ve won and the little they’ve actually been able to achieve in terms of lasting social change, it seems the only spokespeople they throw up these days are full of bile and venom (there’s a reason not only why Trump won the Republican nomination this year but the second-place finisher was the equally bilious and hateful Ted Cruz) and there’s little indication that the Republican Right has a “second Reagan” waiting in the wings somewhere — but stranger things have happened.