The genesis of the modern republican Party may be found in a phone call placed by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in the closing days of a deadlocked 1960 presidential campaign between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. With time running out, Goldwater advised GOP national chairman Thruston Morton, Nixon should skip the urban East and concentrate instead on swing states Texas and Illinois. His own motives were far from disinterested. “I’d like to win this goddamned election without New York,” Goldwater told Morton. “Then we could tell New York to kiss our ass, and we could really start a conservative party.”
Four years later, Goldwater got the part of his wish that mattered most. Meeting in San Francisco’s Cow Palace–the same hall where, just eight years earlier, Republicans had renominated Dwight Eisenhower by acclamation–GOP delegates rejected Ike’s Modern Republicanism (“a dime-store New Deal,” sniffed Goldwater) for a sagebrush libertarian who would block federal aid to education, repeal the graduated income tax and make Social Security voluntary.
The stage was thus set for the most divisive GOP convention since 1912, which opened fissures replicated half a century later, as a fading Eastern establishment battled Sun Belt conservatives for the soul of the party. On its second night, a post-midnight donnybrook pitted Goldwater loyalists against their nemesis, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller, a modernist in politics as in art, cited the Ku Klux Klan, the American Communist Party and the right-wing John Birch Society as examples of political extremism. As millions of television viewers looked on, he struggled to make himself heard above the booing and catcalls. “You lousy lover,” one woman shouted at Rockefeller, whose recent divorce and remarriage had come to symbolize for traditionalists a popular culture in which judges made war on religion and governors emulated Hollywood adulterers in flouting the marriage code.
What occurred in San Francisco was the excommunication of moderate and liberal elements presaging today’s GOP–more unswervingly conservative than even Goldwater envisioned. External events played their part in the transformation. As the 1950s Cold War consensus began to fray, racial divisions accelerated the breakup of the old New Deal coalition. The party of Lincoln morphed into the party of Strom Thurmond. Rockefeller-style pragmatism generated diminished support among Republicans for whom government had become an object of suspicion.
From Birchers to birthers, it’s not hard to find parallels between fantasists who imagined Eisenhower “a dedicated and conscious agent of the communist conspiracy” and their latter-day heirs disputing Barack Obama’s origins and loyalty. Obama is hardly the first American President to experience such abuse. In the 19th century, opposition to Andrew Jackson and his policies gave rise to the Whig Party. Depression-era Americans christened shantytowns of tin and cardboard Hoovervilles in mock tribute to their embattled President. Bill Clinton was accused of crimes far worse than perjury, while George W. Bush came in for sustained ridicule, and worse, from the left.
Obama, however, occupies a unique historical position. No mere presidential polarizer, nearly six years into his tenure he defines the opposition party more than his own. Neocons and Pat Buchanan isolationists; Appalachian miners and emotionally bruised billionaires; Mother Angelica Catholics and Ayn Rand objectivists–disdain for the President is seemingly all that unites a coalition as fractious as the one Ronald Reagan successfully bonded through his optimism and conviction politics. How will the GOP cope with life after Obama? We don’t have to wait until January 2017 to find out.
From the outset, the story line of this year’s election has been predictable, unlike many of the races. Would Republicans recapture the Senate after two attempts foiled by the base’s preference for ideological purity over electability? And what would a wholly GOP Congress do to hamper or harass the Obama White House in the continuing effort to tarnish his legitimacy or downsize his place in the history books? (Whether this campaign advances Republican chances to regain the Oval Office in 2016 is another matter altogether.) Massive electoral losses at the same juncture of their presidencies hardly reduced the legacies of Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower or Reagan.
The Republican fixation on Obama is just the latest example of a party out of power settling for tactical advantage over the hard work of intellectual renewal. Assume for the moment that at least 51 Republican Senators take the oath of office in January 2015. Will a GOP Senate prefer the ideological red meat served up by Ted Cruz? The war-weary, civil-libertarian message crafted by Rand Paul? Will it follow Mario Rubio through the shifting sands of immigration reform? Will it play to the base, content to remain a congressional party, secure behind its gerrymandered redoubts?
Other Republicans, less incrementalist in their approach, nurture visions of political realignment as sweeping as the Goldwater takeover of 1964. Until last Aug. 5, Justin Amash was the Congressman from Facebook, an obscure Michigan lawmaker and Tea Party favorite noted for his shrewd use of social media to promote a Ron Paul–ish agenda of unquestioning faith in markets, support for a flat tax and opposition to environmental (and virtually all other) regulation. Yet Amash disdains the national-security state no less than the welfare state. Indeed, he may be the National Security Agency’s worst nightmare. Earlier this year he exploited bipartisan anger over NSA snooping to produce a near majority for legislation to rein in the agency from collecting phone and Internet data.
No small feat for a two-term Congressman, the son of Palestinian immigrants, who had his philosophical epiphany reading Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. Then came Aug. 5, and the kind of instant fame–or notoriety–that a lifetime of constituent service fails to produce. Amash handily defeated an Establishment-backed candidate in that day’s Republican primary, but it was his stunningly graceless victory speech that immediately went viral. To his elders it established Amash as the least civil of civil libertarians; to his fellow millennials, on the other hand, such trash talk is confirmation of his authenticity.
Amash’s refusal to honor election-night protocol was inevitably contrasted with the legendary good humor of his most illustrious predecessor from Grand Rapids, Gerald Ford. Yet Ford’s own entry into politics was as an insurgent, taking on an isolationist Republican Congressman who opposed the Marshall Plan and voted the Chicago Tribune line. Later, reeling from Goldwater’s crushing defeat at the hands of Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society, Ford wouldn’t hesitate to challenge his party’s minority leader or demand a more creative response to the question posed with every succeeding generation: What does it mean to be a Republican?
All politics is not local but generational. It was true when 22-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, fresh out of Harvard, ran for the New York State assembly to the horror of his fellow patricians; when 32-year-old Nelson Rockefeller, scion of the nation’s most prominent Republican family, accepted an appointment from FDR to be his Latin American coordinator; when a charismatic young Phoenix businessman named Barry Goldwater, fed up with local corruption, declared his candidacy for the city council; and when Jerry Ford came home from World War II convinced that the U.S. could no longer treat the Atlantic and Pacific as divinely provided moats. None of these agents of change was their grandfather’s Republican.
Is today’s GOP poised for its own break with the past? It’s happened before.
The author of six books of American history, Smith has directed the Lincoln, Hoover, Eisenhower, Ford and Reagan presidential libraries
This appears in the November 03, 2014 issue of TIME.