For the GOP, it is once again a time for choosing

When talking about important elections in United States history, 1964 may not stand out. Lyndon Johnson, riding the coattails of the late JFK and his recently passed Civil Rights Bill, easily won. Yet, despite the Republican party’s loss, it was a crucial turning point in the political alignment of the party.

     In the leadup to the 1964 election, the Republican party was divided between its two wings. On one end of the spectrum were the moderate, liberal Republicans, best embodied by Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York. As supporters of certain New Deal programs, they agreed to some  government regulation and were not afraid to reach across the aisle to their Democratic counterparts. On the other end of the spectrum was a rising conservative vision—most notably espoused by Senator Barry Goldwater from Arizona—determined to wrest control of the party from the “liberal Eastern establishment.” 

     They opposed the  New Deal in its entirety, seeing it as an overreach of government, instead emphasizing a laissez-faire economic system with less welfare and government spending. In 1964, the conservative wing of the GOP triumphed over the moderate wing. 

     At the Republican National Convention, the nomination went to Barry Goldwater despite vehement opposition from the moderate wing of the Republicans; amid boos, Rockefeller warned against rising “extremism” within the Republican party. 

Then President Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2020 – The White House via Wikimedia Commons

     Goldwater’s acceptance speech offered no compromise to the GOP moderates; instead, it was a flatout rejection of the moderate wing: “Anyone who joins us in all sincerity, we welcome. Those who do not care for our cause, we don’t expect to enter our ranks in any case.” To those critical of his views entrenched in “extremism,” Goldwater had a response: “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.” 

     He never had a chance. The majority of Republicans were disillusioned with the direction their party took, and the incumbent LBJ easily portrayed Goldwater as a radical, right-wing extremist in a series of brutal ads. He trounced Goldwater in a 44-state landslide.

And yet, in the ashes of Goldwater’s campaign was a phoenix waiting for rebirth. 

     And yet, in the ashes of Goldwater’s campaign was a phoenix waiting for rebirth. 

     One bastion of support for Goldwater’s ideals was Ronald Reagan, then an actor, who propelled himself to political fame through his “A Time for Choosing” speech supporting Goldwater. In 1980—16 years after Goldwater’s failed bid—conservatism triumphed when Reagan won his own 44- state landslide while running on the same values as Goldwater, bringing about the Reagan Revolution of the 80s. 

     Goldwater laid the foundation for the transformation of the Republican party towards conservatism. Today, the majority of Republicans align themselves with the fiscal views initially espoused by Goldwater and put in practice by Reagan: less government interference to the economy and fewer federal programs. 

     Moderate Republicans in Congress are few and far between in an era of increasing partisan polarization.

     Today, the Republican party is at a turning point once again. This time, Republicans are not divided about ideology, but loyalty to a former president. The amount of influence Trump still has over the GOP is undeniable. It will not take Trump sixteen years to change the Republican party, he may do that in four.

     For example, you could point to the second impeachment trial following the January 6 insurrection. Just ten Republican House members voted to impeach, and all have faced attempted or successful censures within their local or state Republican branches for their decision. It was the same case for the seven Republican senators who voted to convict former President Trump. 

     Or, take Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who stated that he would support a 2024 nomination of Trump after calling him “morally responsible” for the January 6 insurrection just a few weeks before. 

     Alternatively, you could look towards Senators like Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, or representatives like Matt Gaetz, Laura Boeburn, Madison Cawthorn, the list goes on and on. These members of Congress  still seem to believe that Trump and Trumpism has a future in the GOP—even embracing it, speaking alongside him at CPAC 2021.

Josh Hawley speaking the night he won the Republican Primary for the state of Missouri – Via Wikimedia Commons

     The point is that, despite everything, Trump clearly has leverage over the Republican party. If anything, the unprecedented second impeachment has solidified his influence on the party, and Trump himself knows this. At CPAC 2021, he openly named the seventeen Republicans in Congress who voted to impeach him, calling them “RINOs”—Republicans in Name Only—implying that anything other than unwavering loyalty to him makes them somehow non-Republican. Just like Goldwater’s message towards the moderates, Trump has made it abundantly clear that there will be no compromise between the anti-Trump and pro-Trump wings of the party.

     Yet not all Republicans share the same acceptance of Trump’s hold over the party. Representative Adam Kinzinger and Senator Ben Sasse have both been loud critics against the former president, despite almost always voting along party lines, and are determined to steer the GOP away from Trump and Trumpism. Both voted for impeachment. Both are very much conservative, yet very much anti-Trump. Of course, there are other, less outspoken GOP members who want the party to turn away from Trumpism, such as Mitt Romney and Susan Collins. But as of now, they seem to be in the minority. 

     And thus, the GOP tug of war begins. In 2022, the ten House members who broke party lines during impeachment will inevitably face challenges by Trump-backed or pro-Trump opponents. The stakes are lower for those in the Senate, with only Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski defending her seat in 2022; the rest are either retiring or will not face challenges until 2024 or 2026. 

     There is no doubt 2022 will be a major indication for the future of the GOP based on the Representatives and Senators they elect. But the definitive indication will come in 2024—exactly 60 years after Goldwater was on the ballot. Win or lose, the Republican nomination for the election of 2024 will determine the party’s swerve towards a return to “traditional” conservatism or Trumpism. Will it be a “normal” candidate, a Trump loyalist, or Trump himself?

     By 2024, all of us in the Upper School will be eligible to cast our ballot for the next President of the United States. Regardless of political party, this will be an important election for all of us. If you are a Republican, I highly recommend you pay attention to the direction of your party. 

     The GOP is, once again, at a historic turning point that will define the party for a long time, and you must make a decision based on the direction it goes.