Fifty-six years ago, a political campaign carried with it an edge of extremism. It was conservative insurgency of Barry Goldwater, propelled by a groundswell of right-wing energy largely emanating from the South and West, that conquered the Republican Party. The Goldwater campaign was not in any way a phenomenon of establishment politics. Instead, it built momentum from the grassroots up, and culminated in the takeover of the Party of Lincoln by a hard-right rigorist and his supporters. What started in the bustling suburbs of Orange County and the mill towns of the South Carolina Piedmont ended in an historic nomination, and an historic disaster.
That was long ago, and the repercussions of the Goldwater campaign have thoroughly reshaped politics here in North Carolina. As Mark Twain’s oft-cited dictum goes, history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. This year’s North Carolina governor’s race exhibits that quality of historical symmetry. In the North Carolina Republican Party’s embrace of #ReOpenNC, we are seeing a Goldwater movement in miniature, and polls point toward this populist takeover’s consequences being just as dire for the GOP.
Though its true origins are murky, the #ReOpenNC protests appear to have originated with a band of people who can only be described as cranks. Most of them were anti-vaxxers. When they showed up in Raleigh’s Capitol District to express their grievances, they brought with them the aesthetics of a populist effusion. Tea Party flags were everywhere; the scene was boisterous and unruly. Not much time passed before key North Carolina conservatives were embracing the populists and their cause.
With Bob Luddy’s fiery public letter to Roy Cooper, the alliance between mainstream state Republicans and the ReOpen protests was well under way. Forest’s campaign now makes strong statements in favor of reopening. In Gaston County, the Republican Chair of the County Commission is openly defying Governor Cooper and his shelter-in-place order. The relationship between #ReOpenNC and the Republican Party became explicit when Congressman Dan Bishop attended and defended one such demonstration.
What does all this have to do with 1964? In both cases, an energetic right-wing popular movement wrapped itself around the Republican Party. And in both cases, the movements were unpopular with the public at large. Lyndon Johnson’s campaign was able to lampoon Goldwater with the mocking slogan, “In Your Guts, You Know He’s Nuts.” Polls find strong opposition to reopening the state too early and Roy Cooper leading Dan Forest by margins that rival LBJ’s landslide defeat of Goldwater. In short, the NCGOP has embraced a cause that will alienate it from the majority of mainstream North Carolinans. Six months out, it’s impossible to know how the election results will settle. But if history rhymes, it is likely to be a sour melody for North Carolina Republicans.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.