Goldwater Revisited

Inigo Thomas

Richard Hofstadter gave the Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford on 21 November 1963, on the rhetoric and superstitions of the American right. The next presidential election was a year away, but Barry Goldwater, a US senator from Arizona, owner of a department store in Phoenix and author of an influential book about his conservative politics, who promised to roll back Roosevelt’s New Deal, was likely to be the Republican candidate. No one thought he had a chance of winning, but he appealed to large numbers of white voters opposed to the Civil Rights Movement. In November 1963 it appeared possible that the Republicans might win the South the following year: the purpose of Kennedy’s trip to Texas that month was to shore-up the Democrat vote in the Lone Star State.

‘Mr President,’ a journalist asked Kennedy at a press conference three weeks earlier, ‘Senator Goldwater accused your administration today of falsification of the news in order to perpetuate itself in office. Do you care to comment on that?’

‘I am confident that he will be making charges even more serious than this one in coming months,’ Kennedy replied. ‘In addition, he’s had a busy week … suggesting that military commanders overseas be permitted to use nuclear weapons, and attacking the president of Bolivia while he was here in the United States, and involving himself in the Greek elections.’ (Not that the Kennedy administration was uninvolved in the politics of other countries; in Paris, on the morning of 22 November, Desmond Fitzgerald of the CIA handed over a fountain pen whose ink was laced with poison to a man who said he’d assassinate Fidel Castro.)

Hofstadter’s lecture was published in Harper’s a year later, on the eve of the election, as ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’:

In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.

For the paranoid style it isn’t enough to have an opponent; an enemy is necessary:

This enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman – sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid's interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone's will.

The day after Hofstadter gave his lecture, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. That led to the Warren Commission, whose conclusions were seen as the biggest cover-up of all time. Murray Kempton wrote a response to the report in the New Republic:

Most of the speculation which afflicted public discussion about the Kennedy assassination can be blamed on – or perhaps credited to – the refusal of many of us to accept the absurd. But the Warren Report, when it most persuades, is a recital of a series of accidents which ends by convincing us that the absurd really does explain it all, and that Mr. Kennedy really might as well have been killed by a bolt of lightning. Thinking of that, it is possible to sympathise with those who cannot accept such chaos except as the result of the work of a highly rationalised conspiracy.

The Grassy Knoll is less arresting than it once was – most people seem to accept that maybe Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy on his own after all – but it made a brief appearance in the election campaign this year. The National Enquirer ran a photo of Oswald standing with another man in New Orleans a few days before the assassination – a man the tabloid said was, of all people, Ted Cruz’s father. Donald Trump seized upon it at a press conference in Cleveland. ‘I know nothing about his father,’ Trump said, ‘I know nothing about Lee Harvey Oswald. But there was a picture on the front page of the National Enquirer which does have credibility, and they’re not going to do pictures like that because they get sued for a lot of money if things are wrong. There’s a picture, and that’s the only thing I know.’ Trump said the National Enquirer deserved to be respected and ought to get a Pulitzer Prize.

Reaganites in the 1980s looked back on Goldwater as the harbinger of their victory, and while there’s never been a president-elect as grotesque as Donald Trump, there may be less that’s new to his way of making things up, or to his exaggeration, or to his supporters. A week after the election, Declan Walsh, who had been covering the campaign for the New York Times from the perspective of a foreign correspondent, wrote:

The broad topography of Trump country is, in many respects, easy to trace. It is a place of anger and frustration, gripped by a feverish anti-establishment sentiment. People wanted change – and a chance to raise a throbbing finger to the forces they blame for their lot in life.

Trump country, it seems, is Goldwater country revisited.

Soon after the Republican convention in 1964, Lyndon Johnson held a press conference:

Q: Mr President, even though Senator Goldwater said he would not indulge in personalities in the campaign, you have already been called a phoney and a faker, and Governor Brown [the Democratic governor of California] has declared that the stench of Fascism is in the air. Are you looking forward to a real dirty campaign?

Johnson: No, I don't anticipate, so far as the Democratic Party is concerned, that there will be anything about our campaign that is dirty or there'll be any mudslinging.

With absolutely no chance of losing – Goldwater had considered withdrawing from the race because the contest against Johnson was hopeless – the Democrats went ahead all the same with their anti-Goldwater ‘daisy’ ad in September 1964: a little girl plucks the petals off a daisy, counting up to ten, followed by the countdown to the explosion of a nuclear bomb – the message, that Goldwater was too dangerous to be given the codes to the United States’ nuclear arsenal. Whether it was mudslinging or fair warning we’ll never know, however, since unlike Trump, Goldwater didn’t win.


  • 21 November 2016 at 7:23pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    This time around the populist paranoia is focused not upon some sinister foreign foe or Hollywood-style arch villain, but on certain groups of our fellow citizens: the rich and powerful, especially those whose fortunes have been piled up in the financial sector of our economy and those who have exported jobs abroad in search of rock-bottom labor costs (distaste for these poeple is understandable, but the 'normal political' approach of tax-'em and shame-'em would be helpful); intellectuals in general, more especially liberal or "cosmopolitan" writers and commentators; the high-ranking revolving-door folks who move back and forth between government positions and academia, lawyering, and the corporate world (once again, a justifiable resentment); the "liberal mainstream media" (a poor choice of whipping boy, since their viewing and reading markets are dwindling and they are fairly tame to begin with); and all those pesky non-white immigrants.

    And, in terms of the purveyors of paranoia, the differences between Goldwater and Trump in accomplishments, variety of experience, basic human decency, competence, actual service to his country, and intelligence and temperament are enough to make good old Barry seem to be a sort of avuncular saint. In Trump we really have a terrible yet vacuous) person on our hands, whose idle-mindedness and general ignorance bode ill for all, including his rabid supporters. His behavior as president-elect in recent days is scary - I'm feeling a little bit paranoid myself. Given the fragmented and 'niche' character of contemporary news-reporting and analysis, I doubt that even someone with the brains and writing ability of Hofstadter would make a serious dent in Trump's armor. Nonetheless, all hands should be on deck to keep the ship of state from sinking under his weird command - we have to wait hopefully for this grotesque buffoon to self-destruct, also hoping that he doesn't take too many of us down with him.

    • 29 November 2016 at 5:12pm
      John Cowan says: @ Timothy Rogers
      To be sure, some of those non-whites are "immigrants" only in the sense that their remote ancestors were dragged here by the Americans of the day.

  • 21 November 2016 at 9:32pm
    streetsj says:
    My natural instinct is to think that fears of actual-Trump will prove to be overblown - I certainly don't go along with the Brexit doom-mongering - but everything I read seems to have good reasons why my objections are wrong.
    Fukuyama in the FT wrote, en passant, that there were rumours that he owed the Russians large sums of money. I haven't read it elsewhere and it seemed a strong allegation to make completely unsupported in a serious paper. If true, it might explain his otherwise surprising support for Putin. And would be yet another concern.

    • 29 November 2016 at 5:10pm
      John Cowan says: @ streetsj
      The most disturbing thing, to my mind, is the Kremlinology that has taken over the U.S. press. But this is not because secrets are being kept (as in actual Kremlinology) but because the President-elect palpably does not know on Monday what he will do on Tuesday, and therefore neither does anyone else.

  • 22 November 2016 at 4:27am
    tony lynch says:
    "Fukuyama in the FT wrote, en passant, that there were rumours that he owed the Russians large sums of money. I haven’t read it elsewhere and it seemed a strong allegation to make completely unsupported in a serious paper. If true, it might explain his otherwise surprising support for Putin. And would be yet another concern."

    So tell me again, who are those subject to the paranoid style of politics?

  • 22 November 2016 at 1:08pm
    Jeremy Bernstein says:
    Just when I have decided not to think about Trump for a day he does things that are so absurd that my day is lost.He has now informed the British that Julian Asange should replace the present American ambassador. He was informed that there was already an ambassador who will remain in place. He might have been asked to get stuffed. Then he said a wind farm off Scotland should not be built since it interferes with the views from one of his golf courses.I repeat get stuffed. The one hope I have is our Senate.The same baroque rules that kept Obama from getting things done will apply in this case as well.There is a Yiddish curse that also applies, you should have seasickness and lockjaw at the same time.

    • 22 November 2016 at 1:24pm
      suetonius says: @ Jeremy Bernstein
      Where is the Assange story reported, I couldn't find it. Trump is far from the only person to object to a wind farm because of ruined views, it famously happened off Cape Cod a number of years ago, all these Massachusetts liberals screaming about the ruined views. It was gross then, and it's gross now. And it's true, the Democrats could filibuster everything for four years, except the filibuster can be ended by a majority vote, and I have little doubt the Republicans would do it.

      As for Yiddish curses, I'm remembering my grandmother, who died 35 years ago. I miss hearing Yiddish, though I used to sometimes back when I lived in Williamsburg Brooklyn and I used to walk over to the Hassidic area with my dog.

  • 22 November 2016 at 2:21pm
    Jeremy Bernstein says:
    Forgive me by I conflated Julian Assange with Nigel Farage-a common error. I had in mind the sixty vote threshold in the Senate for passing various things. The Republicans will have 54. If Sessions is confirmed for Attorney General they will have 53 until he is replaced. There are a few Republican loose cannons that may wander off the reservation from time to time.

  • 22 November 2016 at 6:17pm
    Joshua K says:
    Didn't Hillary Clinton campaign on behalf of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election?

    • 29 November 2016 at 4:48pm
      MajorBarbara says: @ Joshua K
      See my reply to Suetonius, infra, as I'm not going to retype it.

  • 22 November 2016 at 7:16pm
    suetonius says:
    The thing about the 60 vote threshold in the Senate is that it's historically unusual. Even now, some things only require a simple majority. In the past, if you wanted to filibuster, you had to actually be speaking, remember the scene in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?" All it would take to return to a simple majority for everything in the Senate is a simple majority vote, it does not require 60 votes to change the rules.

  • 22 November 2016 at 7:18pm
    suetonius says:
    Oh, and yes, Hillary was a Goldwater girl in high school.

    • 29 November 2016 at 4:47pm
      MajorBarbara says: @ suetonius
      So? Do you hold all the same opinions now as you did as a teenager? Clinton became a Democrat in 1968 and has been one ever since.
      Attributed to Keynes: 'When the facts change, I change my mind. What, sir, do you do?'
      To the Apostle Formerly Known as Saul of Tarsus: 'When I was a child, I spake as a child, I thought as a child'.
      To me: 'Minds are like diapers [nappies, to you UK folks]. They should be changed often, and usually for the same reason'.

  • 22 November 2016 at 9:14pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    On the supermajority issue, the way it is used now is to move a bill forward for a straight vote (here 51% would prevail), to end consideration of a bill, and in considering certain presidential nominees to high office. It's only a Senate procedural rule, established not all that long ago, and I have no idea if can be constitutionally challenged. The several supermajorities mentioned in the US Constitution have to do with impeachment proceedings and amending the constitution, and they vary from 60% through 67% to 75%, depending on what we're talking about (some of these refer not to senators but to state legislatures). I think some specific budget bills are exempted from being constrained by this procedure.

    • 22 November 2016 at 9:35pm
      Jeremy Bernstein says: @ Timothy Rogers
      "Cloture" which is what it takes to stop a filibuster is subject to it as are Supreme Court nominations.

  • 29 November 2016 at 4:44pm
    MajorBarbara says:
    I've been screaming into the wind for months that people need to re-read Hofstadter. Not just the Paranoid Style essay, though obviously that's important, but two other essays in the same book, the first from 1954, on 'pseudo-conservatism', and the second from 1965, after the LBJ/Goldwater contest, 'Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited'.
    Aside from Hofstadter's prescience, perhaps the most important observation he makes is that these 'pseudo-conservatives' are not really conservative. They are radicals, as radical as any Jack Cade or Jacobin or Maoist who wishes to raze the entire structure to the ground.
    That said, the description of the 'enemy' in the Paranoid Style as quoted here - 'is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman – sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving' - is held to as tightly by the paranoid left as the paranoid right. 'Identity politics', combined with the increasing inclination on all sides to isolate oneself in a bubble and deal only with those who already agree with one, has led at least some on the left - especially the collegiate young whose ideals are uncontaminated by contact with the real world - to pigeonhole, label, and demonise the opponent.
    Meanwhile, Trump's transition is chaotic. He really seems not to know what he's doing. As might be expected for a man who has no clear ideology beyond tweets, buzzwords, and dogwhistles, and no clear values beyond the glorification of himself. He's like the dog who chased the car, caught it, and has no idea what to do with it. He will end by disappointing his followers - fortunately.

  • 29 November 2016 at 7:54pm
    Blackorpheus7 says:
    Trump in power is much worse than the prospect of Goldwater back then for several reasons, possibly the most important of which is the joker in the deck: global warming. The sense, however evaded, of finiteness, of Mother Earth slipping off its axis, has contributed to America's 11th hour manic carnival of greed, cruelty, extreme violence--each undisguised, each under the rubric of entertainment. And Trump, we know, is the Grand Entertainer.

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