The Republican Party and What It Means A new book examines the GOP and the pursuit of the presidency.

Republican Character: From Nixon to Reagan

By Donald T. Critchlow (2018, University of Pennsylvania Press) 182 pages including index and notes

Donald Critchlow is a well-established historian of American conservatism, best known, at least in local circles I suspect, for his full-length study of St. Louis’s most prominent right-wing activist, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade (2005), his biography of the author of influential 1964 pro-Barry Goldwater, conservative attack on the Republican Party, A Choice Not an Echo, leader of the anti-Equal Rights Amendment movement, and founder of the Eagle Forum. His other books include When Hollywood Was Right: How Movie Stars, Studio Moguls, and Big Business Remade American Politics (2013) and The Conservative Ascendancy: How the Republican Right Rose to Power in Modern America (2007). He might be classified along with historians like Wilfred M. McClay and Andrew E. Busch as having an intellectual affinity for conservatism; so, in Critchlow’s case, he has something of an ideological stake in the defense of at least some moderate form of the subject he studies. (See his essay in Debating the American Conservative Movement: 1945 to the Present [2009] which sets up his view of the subject contra leftist historian Nancy MacLean’s essay.) This does not compromise the professionalism of his work. Republican Character is not notably partisan or polemical. His sympathy for an aspect or dimension of the subject merely explains the nature of his interest and perhaps is an additional justification for it. To be sure, Republican Character does have an explicit political point to make.

Republican Character offers profiles of four significant GOP aspirants for the presidency during the Cold War period: Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, Nelson Rockefeller, and Ronald Reagan. The study has a built-in symmetry as two of the subjects were successful in winning the presidency (Nixon and Reagan) and two were not (Goldwater and Rockefeller). Of the two who were not successful, one was western conservative (Goldwater of Arizona) and the other an eastern liberal (Rockefeller of New York). One really wanted the office (Rockefeller) and the other was not so sure he wanted it or was qualified to have it (Goldwater). Of the two who succeeded, one wound up resigning the office in disgrace (Nixon), undone by the paranoia produced by his hunger and his cynicism, while the other not only finished his two terms but came to define an era, being considered by most Republicans and most conservatives as the most triumphant and influential GOP president of the 20th century (Reagan). These symmetrical contrasts may explain neither Gerald Ford, who replaced Nixon as president and who lost to Georgia governor Jimmy Carter in 1976, and George H. W. Bush who served as Reagan’s vice president and won the presidency in 1988, only to lose re-election in 1992 to Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, were not included as subjects, although it is not necessarily the case that Bush and Ford would have unduly complicated the biographical grid and might have in fact enriched it. Of course, Ford and Bush are discussed in the book but only in relation to Reagan’s rise to the presidency. (There is one puzzling sentence in the book: “In the last half of the twentieth century, only two of the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination after Eisenhower were elected to the White House: Nixon and Reagan.”[159] But George H. W. Bush was also a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination who was elected to the presidency as well, unless Critchlow is referring to the fact that neither Nixon nor Reagan held a political office at that time of their successful runs.)

Republican Character is not notably partisan or polemical. Crithchlow’s sympathy for an aspect or dimension of the subject merely explains the nature of his interest and perhaps is an additional justification for it.

Critchlow argues, “Prudent temperament and virtuous character … are essential ingredients for political success. Voters can ignore or misjudge the character or temperament of a presidential candidate, but ultimately the personal qualities of a politician determine his or her success or failure as a leader.” (3) At this point, it is reasonable to think that Donald Trump is the occasion for this book as Trump’s opponents and critics have accused the New York real estate magnate of lacking the temperament and character to be president.

(Trump has also been accused of lacking the intelligence for the office but the same charge was made against Ford, Reagan, and George W. Bush and is far more likely to be made against a Republican than a Democrat and particularly against a conservative than a liberal. Liberalism and leftist-leaning thought has a more impressive and extensive intellectual pedigree than conservatism does and the Democrats, since the Depression and despite the Southern segregationist wing of the party, has been more associated with social change and advancement than the Republicans who have been associated with defending the status quo or compromising progress. People who are in favor of “progress”—reform in all its glory, you might say—always seem smarter than people who caution against it.)

So while “Republican character,” as a phrase, might be glibly dismissed by liberals and Democrats as an oxymoron, it is for Critchlow a truly important concern for the reasons stated in the previous paragraph, in essence, because of the history of the Republican Party since the end of World War II: its struggles for an ideological identity where, for the establishment, conservatism can be contained and mean something other than mere opposition to the left and, for “movement” activists, conservatism can become the actual backbone of the party that has espoused it but never really tried or practice it, bowing always to liberal hegemony; its perilous position in the American race dilemma as the party of white interests and white identity even as it half-heartedly hopes to convince the non-white public that whiteness represents successful universal values, a claim not totally without merit or, let us say, without some basis in reality; its fight against becoming a permanent minority party, a major preoccupation for Republicans since the defeat of Herbert Hoover in 1932 and the triumph of the New Deal. Trump, the ultimate bad boy of American politics—his brash anti-intellectualism, his reckless iconoclasm, his trickster cunning, his genius for drama, his starkly unprincipled nature (not, by any means, our first unprincipled president), his insecurity-fueled egotism, has brought the issue of Republican Character to a head, presented a crisis for conservatism and the Republican Party which I think is one of the reasons Critchlow wrote this book. What does it mean to be a Republican now by looking at the modern origins of what it meant to be a Republican in the post-war era? Critchlow underscores the singularity of Trump in this way: “What makes the early twenty-first century unique is the intensity of these anxieties [fear of corruption and lack of accountability coupled with political paralysis] and the pervasive distrust that permeates all layers of society. In 2016, Donald Trump tapped into voter distrust in government and politicians by running as a populist without clear ideological principle. … His attraction as a candidate was that he appealed to the passions of the people and declared himself as a candidate who reflects their anxieties. He translated moral character into the self-interest of the people. This conflation of the people’s emotions and the public interest was not new to American politics by any means, but Trump’s unrestrained appeal to voter passions was quite unlike anything ever seen in American politics.” (156-157)

While “Republican character,” as a phrase, might be glibly dismissed by liberals and Democrats as an oxymoron, it is for Critchlow a truly important concern for the reasons stated in the previous paragraph, in essence, because of the history of the Republican Party since the end of World War II … 

Critchlow’s argument has two dimensions. The first is realpolitik: “The focus on the ideological foundations and rise of postwar conservatism … often fails to see the compromises, opportunism, betrayals, and strange alliances made by conservative politicians in the postwar years that belie ideological principle.” (4) This has led to a profound distortion of how some Republicans and many conservatives understand the problems of the party because they fail to understand fully the nature of American party politics. The second is originalist: “The founders of the American republic understood the importance of character in politics…. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, whatever their later political differences, agreed that the rule of disinterest was a necessary quality to leadership. Disinterest meant independence from sordid, local faction and a capability for governing for the greater good.” (6,8) Ultimately, in blending these two contradictory views, Critchlow comes up with “principled pragmatism” as “essential to political success.” (10)

The profiles that the book provides contain nothing new for anyone with more than a superficial acquaintance with the Nixon, Goldwater, Rockefeller, and Reagan. We learn about Nixon’s relationship with his Quaker mother, his battering trying to play football as a college student, his “iron ass” tenacity in Duke Law School, his molding himself as a rabid anti-communist in the Alger Hiss case, the humiliations he experienced as vice president under Eisenhower, his failed attempt to unify the liberal and conservative wings of his party during his 1960 presidential run, his embarrassing defeat running for governor of California in 1962, his resurrection as the “New Nixon” when he runs for president in 1968, his tendency to govern as a liberal rather than conservative, his undoing in the Watergate cover-up scandal. All of this is pretty much common knowledge about Nixon in explaining what gifts and liabilities he brought to the presidency.

And so the accounts go with the rest: Goldwater’s privileged upbringing, his anti-intellectualism, his questionable judgment, his contrarian crankiness. Rockefeller, the poor little rich boy who wanted to shape the world in his image with his army of hired experts, his belief in welfare statism, his “cockhound” proclivities that led to a scandalous second marriage and an ignominious yet comical death, his inability to be a “good party man.” And Reagan, with the drunken father, the youthful lifeguard, the radio announcer, the B-list actor, the liberal turned conservative after marrying Nancy Davis and working for a General Electric spokesman in the 1950s, the successful run for governor of California in 1966, the soft challenge against Nixon at the GOP convention in 1968, the hard, acrimonious challenge against Gerald Ford in 1976, the anti-Panama Canal treaties stance, the election victories in 1980 and 1984, the standing up to the Soviet Union.

Republican Character reminds readers that the men and women in politics are rarely ideologically consistent, often opportunistic, and sometimes make strange alliances and unappealing compromises, as Reagan, Rockefeller, Nixon, and Goldwater did. As Critchlow writes, “Americans seem to be repulsed by the rough-and-tumble of politics.” (148) This seems strange for a frontier country populated by particularly aggressive settlers and that indeed fought a bloody civil war. Critchlow also laments the decline of the ideals of virtue and the absence of honor that the founders thought essential to “a well-ordered republic.” (157) Whether this declension of the idea of civic virtue accompanied by a rising sense of reticence and repugnance about the rough-hewn nature of politics indicates overall a growing skepticism on the part of Americans about their own country’s viability or the clarity and worth of its mission is, for Critchlow, unclear but the trend is troubling. Americans, on the whole, are caught between expecting too much and too little from politics. This may explain the wild ideological swings in the last three presidential elections with Bush, Obama, and Trump as if the electorate is obsessed with overcorrecting for its previous choice.