Examing the lurch to the far right of the Republican Party in 2020, when Donald Trump’s hostile takeover has all but conquered the conservative movement, it is difficult to pinpoint any singular moment that lit the flame, writes Pádraig Hoare.
The Presidential election of 1964 is a good starting point.
When Republican candidate Barry Goldwater was bludgeoned on his way to a resounding defeat by Democrat president Lyndon Baines Johnson, it seemed like the end of the road for the small government, minimal regulation resistance movement that he had been trying to build.
Americans, in the vast majority, were appalled by Goldwater’s extremism in the 1960s, the Arizona senator’s warmongering and desire to remove social safety nets for citizens in the name of reducing the size and power of the federal government was a step too far.
LBJ inflicted the most resounding of defeats on Barry Goldwater, winning by the widest margin in more than 100 years in a general election.
That should have signalled the end of Barry Goldwater.
Historians now quip that Goldwater actually won the 1964 election, but that the results didn’t materialise until 1980, when a former Hollywood actor named Ronald Wilson Reagan beat incumbent James Earl Carter in a landslide, usurping Goldwater’s small government positions to do so.
Reagan was no fool, despite the genial, lovingly bumbling paternal role he played to endear him to millions of Americans tired of petrol shortages, the Iranian hostage crisis and unnaturally high inflation.
Reagan took the Goldwater manifesto, but was shrewd enough to realise he needed to broaden the coalition he was assembling.
The Religious Right and Moral Majority would fill the gap, enduring to this day to serve the Republican Party as a core voting bloc that will all but ensure the Deep South on election day, as well as key states such as Texas and Indiana in the Midwest.
With proponents of less regulation, smaller federal overreach ‘Reaganomics’ firmly in place, as well as the vastly over-influential evangelical religious movement locked in, the American right wing had strength in numbers in the 1980s.
Reaganites took it even further with the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine, a key political move that cannot be understated, with its ghastly impact reverberating today as liars, charlatans, conspiracy theorists and fear-mongers pollute the airwaves and television screens to reinforce far right wing talking points.
Under Reaganomics, the pursuit of happiness enshrined in the hallowed US Declaration of Independence became corrupted by the pursuit of profit, and would dominate the agenda in the 1980s, becoming so entrenched in American life that Democrat William Jefferson Clinton would be forced to keep many elements intact during his Presidency in the 1990s.
The election of the first black President, Barack Hussein Obama in 2008, would serve as a political call to arms to the American right, which had lost its lustre under a George Walker Bush presidency marred by endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The far right suddenly had a boogieman on which to focus its ire — this Harvard-educated elite with ties to Indonesia and Kenya.
Crucially, it had Fox News and right-wing radio figures such as Rush Limbaugh to carry the message.
Obama was the perfect lightning rod on which the right would be reborn, culminating in the presidency of Donald John Trump in 2016.
The Grand Old Party as we knew it is long dead, eaten by itself as it allowed invaders to take over in the most Faustian of bargains.
Barry Goldwater, horrified in later life as to how his conservative principles were now used politically, had inadvertently helped create a Frankenstein’s monster in 1964 — it just took 50 years to manifest.
President Lyndon Johnson, riding on a wave of national grief over the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was ambitious when it came to civil rights and eradicating poverty.
His Great Society vision would seek to eliminate prejudice and ensure all Americans had a fair shot and social safety nets. To be able to put his vision in place, the Democrat needed to win the 1964 election.
He could not have picked a better opponent himself. Barry Goldwater, the Arizona senator and arch-conservative, was popular with the small government, less social safety nets resistance movement that had been building since Dwight David Eisenhower’s presidency of the 1950s.
Republican Eisenhower’s tendency to compromise with Democrats to pass legislation was anathema to the Goldwater believers.
The trouble for Barry Goldwater was that the vast majority of the rest of the country were horrified at the thought of removing social safety nets made popular under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.
He was trounced by LBJ in the 1964 General Election, with most observers predicting he would fade into obscurity.
More than a decade later, a former Democrat turned GOP Governor of California, actor Ronald Reagan, would invoke the spirit of Barry Goldwater as he ran against unpopular incumbent Democrat president, Jimmy Carter, in the 1980 election.
This time Americans were ready for change, believing the small government, less regulation would kickstart the economy with ‘trickle down economics’ — the concept being that rich Americans and corporations would share their success with the middle-class, who would also benefit from lower taxes and less interference from Washington.
Barry Goldwater was now enjoying a renaissance, a conservative icon to be heralded alongside fellow visionaries like free market economists Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman.
While he would support Ronald Reagan in 1980, he lamented in later life the undue influence of the so-called Moral Majority in American politics.
Religion had no place in conservative political circles, he said, supporting a woman’s right to choose, gay men and women in the military, and other personal freedom in private lives.
In 1981, Barry Goldwater told the US Senate:
“There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs.
"There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus, God, or Allah, or whatever one calls the supreme being. But like any powerful weapon, the use of God’s name on one’s behalf should be used sparingly.
“The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100%.
"If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both.
“I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A,B,C, and D. Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me?
"And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate.
"I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of conservatism.”
The genie was already out of the bottle, and evangelical Christians would exert a disproportionate influence on American life that lasts to this day.
The name Jerry Falwell is synonymous with evangelical Christians and political influence, and it is little wonder why.
Ronald Reagan needed to expand his conservative movement beyond Goldwater small government and free marketeers, and Baptist minister Falwell knew it.
Falwell and his fellow evangelicals formed the Moral Majority in 1979, as Reagan was embarking on his run to the White House.
Their position was for “traditional family values”, which in reality meant opposition to equal rights for men and women, opposition to homosexuality, opposition to divorce, as well as support for prayer in schools and allowing third-level religious institutions like Bob Jones University to uphold segregation while remaining tax exempt.
The crucial issue that the Moral Majority used as a rallying point was opposition to abortion.
Ironically, it had not been on the agenda for most evangelical Christians in the 1970s, even following the landmark Roe V Wade decision in 1973 in the Supreme Court that legalised abortion.
Leading magazine at the time, Christianity Today, voiced its disapproval at the Roe v Wade decision, but did not use it for political capital. It largely remained a non-political issue, albeit a troubling personal one for many religious voters.
Falwell and the Moral Majority used abortion as a rallying call to Catholics in 1979, a mere 20 years since evangelicals vehemently opposed Jack Kennedy’s ascendancy to the White House on the grounds of his Catholic faith.
Abortion suddenly became the lightning rod for religious voters in the 1980 election, with scholars and sociologists such as Martin Riesebrodt now saying it masked the real motives behind Falwell’s Moral Majority — the preservation of ‘traditional family roles’, where men went to work and women raised children and kept the house.
It also meant men keeping a stranglehold on government and political offices throughout the land, and minorities in influential positions at a minimum by preserving the status quo.
Expert academic in US religion, Michael J McVicar explains in his 2016 paper: “The Religious Right alone did not create the Reagan coalition, but its infrastructure concretised a general trend in the electorate.
"Conservative white evangelicals who had returned to the Democratic Party to support Carter in 1976, now defected back to the Republican Party, solidifying a trend decades in the making…
"After the 1980 election the Religious Right became synonymous with the GOP in the popular imagination, a linkage that would fascinate and frustrate political conservatives and Christians alike and trouble Democrats for decades to come.
"The interconnected components of the Religious Right provided important leverage in close elections across the country: in party primaries, local elections, and national congressional midterm elections where voter turnout and razor-thin margins decided outcomes, the organs of the Religious Right could prove decisive.”
When the Moral Majority organisation was declared defunct in 1989 due to financial mismanagement and declining popular support, it didn’t stop the Religious Right’s influence.
Falwell said: “The religious right is solidly in place and, like the galvanising of the black church as a political force a generation ago, the religious conservatives in America are now in for the duration.”
The Fairness Doctrine, introduced in 1949 under the supervision of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), ensured that radio and television broadcasts must adhere to being fair and balanced when presenting issues that could be contentious.
In other words, the perception of bias must be absent from presentation, and the integrity of fact and truth had to be preserved where possible.
It was abolished in 1987 during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
According to legislative attorney Kathleen Ruane’s report in 2011 for the Congressional Research Service, “issues of public importance were not limited to political campaigns”.
Nuclear plant construction, workers’ rights, and other issues of focus for a particular community could gain the status of an issue that broadcasters were required to cover in a fair and balanced manner, she wrote.
“In 1987, after a period of study, the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine. The FCC found that the doctrine likely violated the free speech rights of broadcasters, led to less speech about issues of public importance over broadcast airwaves, and was no longer required because of the increase in competition among mass media.
"The repeal of the doctrine did not end the debate among lawmakers, scholars, and others about its constitutionality and impact on the availability of diverse information to the public.”
In other words, the rise of right-wing radio and television was now unfettered to spew opinion as fact, no matter how invidious or insidious.
Figures like Rush Limbaugh, with barely concealed contempt for minorities, the marginalised, and women’s issues as a whole, became overnight stars on the airwaves with a public yearning for an idealised past that existed only in their imaginations.
Limbaugh’s reward for stoking social flames for 30 years? A presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by Donald Trump in 2020.
The advent of Fox News in 1996 was seen as a conservative’s alternative to the perceived liberal and left-wing bias of the general news media.
The media had long been a patsy for Republican failures — GOP politicians routinely blamed the press for their own shortcomings long before Barry Goldwater.
Fox News became a huge hit with conservatives from the beginning under the leadership of former GOP operative Roger Ailes, an outwardly charming man with disturbing private views and behaviours that included sexual mistreatment of women and a pathological hatred of Barack Obama.
Donald Trump was encouraged to claim Barack Obama was not a US citizen on Fox News — a classic fear-based trope that the first black president was an outsider, of the other, a Muslim to be feared.
Fox News host Glenn Beck told the morning audience that Obama had a deep-seated hatred of white people, while the network’s prime-time stars Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly told the audience nightly that the president was a far-left radical, hellbent on taking their money and establishing a benevolent dictatorship that would curtail their freedoms.
Fox News has became the most-watched news cable channel in the USA, predominantly with older viewers who are self-proclaimed conservatives, religious right and anti-immigrant.
Its viewership shows little sign of decline now that it has abandoned any semblance of fairness in favour of lauding Donald Trump.
By any measure of the imagination, Donald John Trump should be anathema to conservatives.
With no political ideology other than far-right populist positions, the thrice-married philanderer who paid off an adult film star, insults women routinely, and treats the White House as his own personal fiefdom would leave conservatives of the ilk of Barry Goldwater aghast.
Yet he is an icon to right-wing conservatives and religious blocs ranging from the Boomer generation, born in the 1950s, to younger white reactionary voters afraid of changes to the social order that dilutes their power and privilege.
Dissent is not tolerated in the Party of Trump, while all political opponents in his own Republican Party have been either vanquished or seen their influence curtailed.
Former foes such as right-wing media personalities Glenn Beck and Mark Levin saw the way the wind was blowing, and not only fell into line, but have seriously profited financially due to their Damascene conversions.
Former political foes such as Ted Cruz, who called Trump “utterly amoral” and a “pathological liar” during their battle for the GOP nomination in 2016, have joined the Trump train, leaving their conservative principles at the door to serve the king.
“He is proud of being a serial philanderer…a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen… he describes his own battles with venereal diseases as his own personal Vietnam,” said Texas senator Cruz said in 2016.
Ted Cruz is now one of Trump’s staunchest allies, having seen his own support jeopardised on talk radio and Fox News for not towing the line.
You get what you paid for, the old adage says. You made your bed, you must now lie in it. Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.
The Grand Old Party as we knew it is dead, long live the party of Donald Trump.
It just took nearly 60 years to get there.