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. In the decades since, I have written for numerous conservative publications and served as a foreign policy adviser to three Republican presidential candidates. 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 conservative is permeated with racism, extremism, conspiracy-mongering, isolationism and know-nothingism. I disagree with progressives who argue that these disfigurations define the totality of conservatism; conservatives have also espoused high-minded principles that I still believe in, and the bigotry on the right appeared to be ameliorating in recent decades. But there has always been a dark underside to conservatism that I chose for most of my life to ignore. 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. Ideological conservatives viewed Eisenhower as a sellout; John Birchers thought he was a communist agent. 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. He appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren, who presided over the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education, and then sent troops to Little Rock to enforce desegregation.
Most Republicans in Congress voted in 1964 and 1965 for landmark civil rights legislation, but not Goldwater. In his 1960 bestseller “The Conscience of a Conservative,” Goldwater wrote that “the federal Constitution does not require the states to maintain racially mixed schools.” 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. ...