Donald Trump, Las Vegas, 2016. Star Max/IPX. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, U.S. Senate, 1950. AP images.
Even before the early caucuses and primaries tested the actual strength of his robust poll numbers, Donald Trump has profoundly disrupted the Republican Party. But how, exactly?
The populist aspects of Trump’s appeal look familiar—an aroused “radical center” alienated from “politics as usual”; economic anxiety; demographic changes that vex the Republican base. Yet Trump isn’t the only Republican making this case. And his history and style differ from the normal insurgent’s in our highly polarized moment.
He doesn’t recite hot-button talking points (like Ted Cruz). He’s not a defense hawk (like Marco Rubio), or Club for Growth supply-sider (like Jeb Bush). Nor does Trump seem a “movement” type. His praise of the Tea Party is devoid of sympathy for its hobby-horse Constitutionalism: the calls to abolish the IRS and the Federal Reserve and repeal the Seventeenth Amendment, the fixation on states’ rights.
Only Trump’s xenophobia—his “birther” speculations about Obama, his denunciations of immigrants and Muslims—situates him on the right. Otherwise, he seems beyond ideology, or indifferent to it. He liked Planned Parenthood (until he didn’t), and has said he’s a fan of the single-payer health care systems in Canada and Scotland. And he seems ill-versed in conservative doctrine.
“He basically never says ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty,’” the editors of National Review noted in October. “He talks only sparingly about the federal debt. He has, in short, ignored central and long-standing conservative tenets.”
All this has made Trump not merely an outsider but an outlier, an unconservative enemy within the conservative gate. This is bad news for the GOP, Charles Krauthammer and Karl Rove warn, and could wreck the idea of “a conservative party as a constant presence in U.S. politics,” says George Will. Another conservative, Ross Douthat, hears fascist overtones in Trump, complete with “popular elitism” or herrenvolk democracy.
The threat begins not in what Trump espouses. Much of it is familiar in our politics. It begins in his presentation: the bricolage of emotions and prejudices; the stream-of-consciousness orations; the gleeful tangling with hostile journalists and protesters; aggressive candor.
Trump may be sui generis, but he doesn’t come from nowhere. The insurgency he’s now leading is rooted in a long, but often neglected or sub-merged, strain of protest on the right. Its targets are “elites,” who much of the time are themselves conservatives.
In 1954, the political writer Will Herberg, an ex-Communist moving steadily rightward, coined the term “government by rabble-rousing.” It was, he theorized, an outgrowth of the “direct democracy” that Franklin Roosevelt practiced in his beguiling fireside chats. Roosevelt was a man of breeding and (limited) intellectual dignity, in Herberg’s view, a natural leader during the Great Depression.
But in the Cold War, with its growing culture of mass media, the FDR-style patrician was out of date, too remote and genteel for a population (or audience) that craved continual excitement. The times called for a different kind of rabble-rouser, “not a cultured and aristocratic gentleman,” Herberg wrote, “but a crude and rather primitive plebian, not a Pericles, but a Cleon.” He would be, that is, Joe McCarthy. Here is Herberg’s description:
He is against Communism and for—Joe McCarthy. He is, in a way, a genius at it, but he has neither the talent nor the interest for the kind of thing the building of a totalitarian mass movement requires. He exploits and utilizes many of the sinister forces that go into the making of totalitarianism, but he does not seem to be interested in organizing them into a cohesive political force. He addresses vast crowds, gets enthusiastic ovations, but leaves his people as he found them, all for McCarthy and against Communism, but not involved in any movement or organization, and certainly not stirred up to insurgency and disaffection, as Fascist or Communist mobs are. It is not in the nature of McCarthyism, nor in the purpose of Joe McCarthy, to desire or encourage such things.
This gets very close to Trump. Of course, there are differences. McCarthy grew up poor on a hard-scrabble farm. Trump exudes the “primitivism” of the Queens provincial, eyeing the gleaming towers of Manhattan (which he has since put his name on, in giant gold letters). McCarthy was a career politician, who worked his way up and through the Republican Party (from a Wisconsin judgeship to the Senate). Trump’s career came in business. Both excelled on TV.
What binds them further is their swaggering air of conquest, alternately truculent and genial, as well as their appetite for breaking the rules, often with the tacit encouragement of the rule-makers—as long as they don’t go too far. Republican stalwarts, including leading senators, didn’t object to McCarthy’s smearing of Roosevelt and Harry Truman (“twenty years of treason”). The trouble came when the targets changed—to the Eisenhower administration and the Army. So, too, Republicans shocked by Trump today didn’t object when he began his “birther“ crusade against Obama. Mitt Romney happily accepted Trump’s support in 2012.
McCarthy, in the end, was taken down by his own party, which had elected a popular president who occupied the political center. But Trump’s cult-of-personality campaign comes at a time when the GOP, and the movement conservatism that sets its agenda, have themselves veered far from the mainstream.
Thanks to his high poll numbers, Trump has backed away from his on-again, off-again threat to mount a third-party candidacy should he be denied the nomination. In fact, it would be a formality.
Trump is al-ready the head of a third party, only it is contained within the GOP, as in-deed it has been for more than half a century.
At the same moment when Will Herberg was theorizing about McCarthy, one of the period’s best political reporters, Theodore H. White, was exploring a parallel development on the right, the growing belief that “both older American parties are legitimate objects of deep suspicion.” Out of this suspicion, or alienation, “an unrecognized third party in American politics” was taking shape beneath the placid surface of the American consensus. Its adherents were dissident conservatives, including the members of rightwing “patriotic societies” forming throughout the country, in almost every state. They were tuning in to rightwing radio broadcasts and reading extremist books and pamphlets. It had given rise to a new set of political values—for instance, the idea that McCarthy was the nation’s “senior patriot,” White wrote.
Many tenets of this radicalism are familiar today: fear of “enemies within,” hatred of foreign nations and their governments, the belief that the American military can dominate singly with its missiles and bombers. Through it all ran the feeling of betrayal, and it began at the top, with the leader of the Republican Party, with Eisenhower himself. The first Republican President after the Democrats’ treasonous twenty years, he angered many on the right by declining to roll back the New Deal or to put the country once again on a unilateralist footing. He also let the civil rights revolution go forward.
Liberals might be the originators of these offenses, but the GOP had failed to stop them and so was complicit—just as today many on the right accuse the Republican Congress of being handmaidens to Obama and the Democrats.
The new third party “is so far not an organization but a state of mind,” White observed in 1954. But it had powerful and confident advocates.
Houston oilman Hugh Roy Cullen was one. He voiced the dissident Republicans’ grievances to White: “You know,” Cullen confided, “I groomed Ike for the presidency. He’s a swell fellow. But he’s got some damned people around him who are inexperienced . . . . You take this [Harold] Stassen . . . . He’s a likable cuss. I furnished him some money to run for the nomination so he could then give the votes to Ike. He almost didn’t. I said, ‘Harold, you won’t do. Mentally, you’re a conservative, but at heart you’re a socialist.’ ” When Eisenhower didn’t support the Bricker Amendment, a proposal to the Constitution that would have curtailed the President’s treaty-making powers, Cullen sternly counseled him, in a telegram: “Ike, I hope you will not wait but attend to this important matter immediately.”
This, too, sounds like Trump, who also treats political pros like vassals or hired hands. “Most of the people on stage, I’ve given to, a lot of money,” he said in the first Republican debate. Now, his patience worn thin, he had no choice but to step forward himself and put things in order—with the help of other A-team doers (including billionaire investor Carl Icahn at Treasury).
As it happened, Eisenhower-era renegades did mount a third-party campaign, in 1956. It was organized by two defectors from the administration, “Dean” Clarence Manion (chairman of a commission on federal-and-state relations) and T. Coleman Andrews (the IRS commissioner). Both were ardent states’ righters appalled by Eisenhower’s moderate politics, who both became in-house dissidents. Andrews quit his job. Manion was fired. Together they formed a protest ticket. It flopped. Adjusting course, Manion began looking for an insurgent who could undo the Republican establishment from within. He found his man in Barry Goldwater, who captured the presidential nomination in 1964. Goldwater’s heir Ronald Reagan led a similar revolt in 1976.
Both had the atmosphere of third-party campaigns. Goldwater and Reagan were able to mount their insurgencies from within, just as Trump is doing now, and the result was a rejuvenated right, which achieved three presidential victories in the 1980s, all by wide margins. In each case, dissident energies were harnessed and pulled into the wider orbit of the GOP. This created the illusion, still with us, of a disciplined GOP built on ideological unity and organizational rigor. But it was really a compound of disparate forces, inherently unstable.
Conservative intellectuals don’t like admitting this, however, because it suggests their movement lacks ideological and intellectual coherence. And so, for example, George Will contrasts Trump’s bad ideas with the noble conservative legacy of Goldwater.
But in the 1960s, the GOP establishment feared Goldwater much as it does Trump today and viewed him similarly, as an ill-informed, loose-lipped, angry provocateur who would lead the party to disaster. Goldwater, too, was a fount of candor—and made a spectacle of himself in the New Hampshire primary, confounding opponents and supporters alike. In his book Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, Rick Perlstein captures the startled reaction to Goldwater in the 1964 campaign: “Did he really believe laissez-faire economics could end poverty?” Did he really think there was no need for a nuclear test ban treaty since American missiles were so sophisticated that the Pentagon could “lob one into the men’s room at the Kremlin”?
Today conservative intellectuals draw ominous parallels between Trump and the John Birch Society. But Birchers held important positions on Goldwater’s campaign in 1964—one reason that the editorial boards of historically Republican newspapers endorsed the Democrat Lyndon Johnson, just as some Republican donors may now support Hillary Clinton if Trump is nominated.
Goldwater lost so badly that the Republican legislators who survived the election ran in the opposite direction, afraid of being tainted by association with him. Many helped LBJ and the Democrats enact the Great Society. This is the precedent that frightens conservatives today, but they don’t say it. Goldwater has been recast as a hero of “the movement,” and his defeat as the necessary first step toward Reagan’s victory in 1980.
The facts about Goldwater in 1964 and McCarthy in 1954 haven’t gone away. They remain embedded in the GOP. The gale forces driving Trump’s candidacy are the same ones that have driven the Republican Party for most of its modern history. Once again, the unrecognized third party is demanding to be heard.
Sam Tanenhaus, a journalist, historian, and former editor of The New York Times Book Review, has written extensively on the history of conservatism in America. His biography of Whittaker Chambers was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He is currently at work on a biography of William F. Buckley Jr.