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Goldwater’s Legacy is Trumpism

Superficially, the two leaders of the conservative movements of their time could not be more different. Barry Goldwater was resolute and well-spoken; Donald Trump is goofy and simplistic. Goldwater would’ve cringed at Trump’s comments about Mexicans or Muslims. And the man that respectfully conceded the 1964 election definitely would not have approved of the January 6th attack. But regardless of Mr. Conservative’s would-be objections, Trump – and his supporters – are a natural result of Goldwater’s influence on the American Right, distrust of the political establishment, “outsider” identity, and emphasis on states’ rights.

The clearest parallel between Goldwater and Trump is their tendency to view the establishment in Washington and the other halls of power as corrupt and beholden to pernicious interests. Goldwater disparaged the “radical ideas that were promoted by the New and Fair Deals,” that “dominate the councils of our national government,” in his manifesto Conscience of a Conservative. According to Goldwater, this included a belief in excessive government power and a conciliatory disposition towards the Soviet Union. Trump’s rhetoric of “Drain the Swamp” reflects much the same attitude: that the nation’s capital is overrun with crooked politicians seeking to enlarge their own power and influence at the expense of the American people.

When Trump blasts the “Swamp,” he’s not just referring to Democrats – he’s after establishment Republicans too; he has denounced “RINOS,” or “Republicans in name only.” But once again, Goldwater did it first. In Conscience, he criticized the national Republicans for utilizing “the coercive power of the federal government” in tandem with their Democratic counterparts. Their willingness to criticize their own party reflects a common identity of an outsider who promises to save the party and the nation from its corruption. This identity seeks to capitalize on the growing distrust of politicians, especially career politicians, of the American people. They both sought to represent the common American citizen in their fight against an unscrupulous, narrow-minded, and elitist group of federal politicians who were not truly accountable to the people. Because both claimed to represent not just a party, but a movement, neither of them held strong party allegiances that compelled them to withhold their judgment of their fellow members. By appearing non-partisan in their criticisms, they both amassed followers from both major parties, at what they viewed as the temporary – and necessary – expense of the national party apparatus.

Goldwater’s “outsider” strategy was indicative of the birth of a modern American conservative populism. Conservative populism stood in contrast to the left-wing populism of the New Deal Coalition and the segregationist – yet still government centered – populism of certain Dixiecrats. Instead of pitting the people against exploitative corporations, the libertarian populist style of Goldwater pitted the common man against the “oppressive federal government.” Arguably, this form of populism was more suited to the America of the 60s: a prosperous nation with a large and growing middle class than that of previous eras.

Ronald Reagan did not hesitate to build upon Goldwater’s libertarian populist ideology. In fact, he first gained national attention from his "A Time for Choosing" speech supporting Goldwater. Reagan would go on to launch his 1980 campaign, whistling his support for 'state's-rights,' in front of a crowd of white voters in a Mississippi town where young Black civil rights activists had been violently murdered during the civil rights movement. Of course, those slain in Mississippi had been fighting for the very Civil Rights Act that Goldwater notoriously opposed.

Trump represents a revival of not only the “outsider” strategy, but of the same form of anti-establishment populism. Even beyond his “Drain the Swamp” rhetoric, he continues Goldwater’s populist legacy by attempting to address issues facing the working class, such as the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to foreign countries – but with conservative rhetoric. The campaign promise of “bringing the jobs back” also allows Trump to blame the “Swamp” for “selling out” the United States to foreign nations like China and position himself, the “outsider,” as the one that is “defending American interests.” Even the charge of establishment complicity in Chinese attempts at exploitation is reminiscent of Goldwater’s claim in Conscience that “American leaders … are searching desperately for means of ‘appeasing’ or ‘accommodating’ the Soviet Union.”

Beyond identity and rhetoric, Trump and Goldwater still share a commitment to states’ rights: Trump’s view on abortion is remarkably comparable to Goldwater’s regarding civil rights. Recently, Trump, the self-proclaimed “most pro-life president ever,” was rebuked by an anti-abortion group for stating that abortion laws should be determined by individual states after the Dobbs decision. Goldwater, similarly, was supportive of integration, but was “not prepared … to impose that judgment … on the people of Mississippi or South Carolina.” Despite major sections of the Republican Party’s support for federal abortion bans, Trump – whether because of a desire for electability or true personal beliefs – thus maintains the position that would make Goldwater proud.

Even Trump’s rise to national leadership mirrored Goldwater’s. At the 1964 Republican National Convention, moderate Nelson Rockefeller, Goldwater’s main competitor for the nomination, stood up and condemned the Arizona senator’s extremism. The crowd booed and heckled him. The American Right was no longer satisfied with lightly tempered spending and careful internationalism. In 2016 Ted Cruz gave a similarly poorly received Republican Convention speech failing to endorse Trump, the newly selected nominee. Once again, amidst the crowd’s jeers, the nation realized that its right wing hungered for a more conservative, populist vision. Both Goldwater and Trump successfully led an internal movement that usurped the dominant perspective of the party – only Trump actually achieved the presidency.

If Goldwater lived to see what became of his party, he probably would have made a few horrified comments to the press about Trump’s antics. But secretly, inside, he might’ve wanted to give a smile of approval.


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