Fifty-two years ago this month, Ronald Reagan made a speech in which he said the following:
Our natural, inalienable rights are now considered to be a dispensation of government, and freedom has never been so fragile, so close to slipping from our grasp as it is at this moment. Our Democratic opponents seem unwilling to debate these issues. They want to make you and I believe that this is a contest between two men…. that we are to choose just between two personalities.
The two men referenced were Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater, the 1964 candidates for president. Ronald Reagan titled his address “A Time for Choosing.” Now it might seem — certainly to a number of very eminent Republicans it will seem — that Donald Trump bears no comparison with Goldwater. None of the flamboyant moral turpitude exhibited by Trump was associated with the 1964 Republican nominee. And yet, Reagan thought it necessary to defend Goldwater in these terms:
Well, what of this man they [the Democrats] would destroy? And in destroying [him], they would destroy that which he represents, the ideas you and I hold dear. Is he the brash and shallow trigger-happy man they say he is?
Reagan goes on to praise Goldwater’s character, with examples from his life, weaving the defense of the candidate into one of conservative principle. This answered the Democrats’ vilification of Barry Goldwater as lunatic, racist, militarist, ignoramus, and cold-hearted, narrow reactionary. The idea that whatever your party affiliation or political perspective, you could not countenance putting such a man in the White House was a theme of the Johnson campaign. And so Reagan defended him.
Again, it will be objected that no comparable defense of Trump’s character could be mounted without violence to the truth. But if the reader scrutinizes the quoted sentences from Reagan’s speech, it will be apparent that it was not solely, or even primarily, for the sake of a man named Barry Goldwater that he spoke that day. Indeed, by October 27, it was evident to Reagan and everyone else that Goldwater had no chance in the election. More than the election was at stake. The destruction of Goldwater by character assassination, not merely his defeat, would derail the movement to preserve constitutional liberty, which is American conservatism. And in doing so, it would presage the decline of the Republic.