You know how, after you watch a movie with a surprise ending, you sometimes replay the plot in your head to find the clues you missed the first time around? That's what I've been doing lately with the history of conservatism – a movement I had been part of since my teenage days as a conservative columnist at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1990s. ... It would be nice to think that Donald Trump is an anomaly who came out of nowhere to take over an otherwise sane and sober movement. But it just isn't so.
Upon closer examination, it's obvious that the history of modern conservativism is permeated with racism, extremism, conspiracy-mongering, isolationism and know-nothingism. ... It's amazing how little you can see when your eyes are closed!
The ur-conservatives of the 1950s – William F. Buckley Jr., Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and all the rest – were revolting not against a liberal administration but against the moderate conservatism of Dwight D. Eisenhower. ... Why the animus against this war hero? Conservatives were furious that Eisenhower made no attempt to liberate the “captive nations” of Eastern Europe or repeal the New Deal, and that he did not support Joseph McCarthy's Red Scare. Worst of all, from the viewpoint of contemporary conservatives, Eisenhower was a moderate on racial issues. ...
Most Republicans in Congress voted in 1964 and 1965 for landmark civil rights legislation, but not Barry Goldwater. ... Goldwater was not personally a racist – he had integrated the Arizona Air National Guard – but, like his GOP successors, he was happy to make common cause with racists in order to wrest the South from the Democrats.
Goldwater was just as extreme when it came to foreign affairs. He suggested that Americans needed to overcome their “craven fear of death.” If the Soviets intervened to crush another uprising in Eastern Europe, like the one in Hungary in 1956, he wanted “to move a highly mobile task force equipped with appropriate nuclear weapons to the scene of the revolt.” I used to think Goldwater's reputation as an extremist was a liberal libel. Reading his actual words – something I had not done before – reveals that he really was an extremist.
The delegates to the 1964 Republican National Convention who chose Goldwater as their presidential nominee fully endorsed his far-right views. ... Goldwater didn't win in the fall, but his example still inspires conservatives, making clear that extremism is embedded in the DNA of the modern conservative movement, even though it was often not the dominant strand.
In 1964, the GOP ceased to be the party of Lincoln and became the party of Southern whites. As I now look back with the clarity of hindsight, I am convinced that coded racial appeals had at least as much, if not more, to do with the electoral success of the modern Republican Party than all of the domestic and foreign policy proposals crafted by well-intentioned analysts like me. This is what liberals have been saying for decades. I never believed them. Now I do, because Trump won by making the racist appeal, hitherto relatively subtle, obvious even to someone such as me who used to be in denial.
In fairness, many Republican voters and their leaders, from Wendell Willkie to Mitt Romney, have been a lot more moderate. Their very centrism stoked the fury of some on the right. ...
The history of the modern Republican Party is the story of moderates being driven out and conservatives taking over – and then of those conservatives in turn being ousted by those even further to the right. A telling moment came in 1996, when the Republican presidential nominee, Bob Dole, visited an aged Goldwater. Once upon a time, Dole and Goldwater had defined the Republican right, but by 1996, Dole joked, “Barry and I – we've sort of become the liberals.” ...
The ascendance of extreme views, abetted in recent years by Fox News, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and the tea party movement, increasingly made the House Republican caucus ungovernable. The far-right Freedom Caucus drove House Speaker John Boehner into retirement in 2015. His successor, Paul Ryan, lasted only three years. Ryan's retirement signals the final repudiation of an optimistic, inclusive brand of Reaganesque conservatism focused on enhancing economic opportunity at home and promoting democracy and free trade abroad. The Republican Party will now be defined by Trump's dark, divisive vision. ... The extremism that many Republicans of goodwill had been trying to push to the fringe of their party is now its governing ideology.
That's why I can no longer be a Republican, and in fact wish ill fortune on my former party. I am now convinced that the Republican Party must suffer repeated and devastating defeats beginning in November. It must pay a heavy price for its embrace of white nationalism and know-nothingism. Only if the GOP as it is currently constituted is burned to the ground will there be any chance to build a reasonable center-right party out of the ashes. But that will require undoing the work of decades, not just of the past two years.
This article is adapted from Max Boot's new book, “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right.” It appeared in the Washington Post.