In the run-up to the 1976 election, during the aftermath of the Watergate Scandal, the four-term New York state governor Nelson Rockefeller had been on a campaign trail in Binghamton, New York with the unelected incumbent’s running mate. Despite briefly being the Vice President under Gerald Ford, the growing consensus within the party was that the Governor would make a mediocre Vice President, and a weaker-yet running mate, a relic of a ruling establishment long faded from influence.
When a group of Binghamton University students heckled the rally, Governor Rockefeller was quick to express his thoughts, in what would become remembered as the infamous, “Rockefeller Gesture,” a euphemism for a middle-finger salute. This hadn’t been his first election campaign foray, but it would be his last, and his retirement from politics following Ford’s narrow defeat to the progressive Jimmy Carter, would signal the end for the reigning liberal establishment in the GOP’s pre-Reagan era.
When Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, the grandson of billionaire oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, first entered politics in 1940 after an expression of concern to Roosevelt over Nazi influence in Latin America, he served as a bureaucrat, and as chairman for boards such as the International Development Advisory Board, working in a range of areas from foreign policy to domestic reform on healthcare and education.
After his first election as New York State governor in 1959, he’d come to represent the essence of the Republican Party in its post-war years, that became synonymous with prominent GOP politicians like Eisenhower, with its emphasis on stability and pragmatism, unswayed by the grandiosity of ideology. In years marred by inflationary excess, he was fiscally conservative, and when reform was needed he was undeterred by a ballooning budget deficit. He was hard on crime, but practically a liberal conservationist when it came to the environment. He was pro-choice, achieved complete prohibition on racial discrimination when it came to housing, a fervent supporter (and funding advocate) for the public education system, and created the largest state medical care program under Medicaid for its time. At the same time, he represented a high-income educated voting base, was unchangeably pro-business, and required welfare recipients to attend job training that would lead to major declines in New York state welfare payrolls. In regard to foreign policy, there were few as hawk-ish and anti-communist as him, nor as committed to American exceptionalism and its emphasis on America’s role as the leader of the free world.
His reputation as Governor, and his support from the business world, in these years would make him heir to a powerful wing within the GOP, an “Eastern Establishment”, comprised of many influential businessmen, socially liberal and progressive, whilst remaining fiscally conservative. Despite this, the story of Rockefeller is not one of ascendancy, but one of decline.
When he ran for the Republican nomination in 1964, the foundations of the establishment had begun to crack. A conservative senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, would be his challenger. Goldwater in a surprising twist, harnessed the power of conservative grassroots, and won more than triple the amount of state primaries as Rockefeller. Sometime near the end of the primary campaigns, his top advisor had half-jokingly asked Rockefeller to “summon that fabled nexus of money, influence, and condescension known as the Eastern Establishment.” Just as aptly, he replied, “You are looking at it, buddy. I am all that is left.”
Whilst Goldwater would go on to lose by a landslide to Lyndon Johnson in the national election, the seeds for revolution had been planted. In 1968, Rockefeller would run again, before losing to Nixon, and ended the campaign with his closest competitor being a bright-eyed and bushy browed, conservative governor from California, the would-be heir to Goldwater’s revolution.
After the precariousness and turmoil of the 1970s Republican Party following Watergate, the slow death of the Eastern Establishment had become apparent, culminating in the formation of a new establishment in 1980, when that governor from California, would win in a historic 49 state landslide over Jimmy Carter. The Goldwater Revolution had become the Reagan Revolution, and it’s fusionist brand of suit-and-tie social conservatism and free market economic libertarianism, would take over Republican politics for decades to come, until recently.
In 2016, an upstart party outsider from New York City, who had come of voting age during Rockefeller’s governorship, would contend for the GOP nomination. Brash and vitriolic, Donald Trump would seize on those disillusioned and left behind by the GOP’s Reaganist Establishment, sweeping through the party’s chosen favourites, before winning the national election against the icon of the Democratic Party establishment, Hillary Clinton.
His brand of populist political messaging shook the GOP, who found his brand of polemical rhetoric and unashamed boorishness jarring to the suit-and-tie conservative image that had been cultivated for so long, and his populist protectionist economics and reactionary social views, antithetical to the free market economics, and firm but controlled social conservatism of the establishment. Nevertheless, they went along with the ride. Now with Trump’s recent defeat and the riot at the capitol, these unresolved tensions that had long plagued Trump’s presidency covertly, have come to a head.
For when an observer can look past the populist theatrics and alarming rhetoric that dominates “Trump-ism,” it becomes apparent that Trump-ism represents the beginning of a potentially decades-long shift for the GOP, just as it did with the advent of an Arizona senator in 1964; the difference being Trump’s revolution seems more akin to a tidal wave, when compared to Goldwater’s gentle tide.
The fiscal conservatism and economic libertarianism from the Reagan consensus, has been eroded, and in it’s place, a protectionist economic vision upheld by the mid-west and southern blue-collar socially conservative grassroots, disillusioned with globalisation and free trade. The steady but sometimes over-fervently dogmatic social conservatism of the establishment, replaced with a reactionary conservatism and race-baiting, stemming from an inability to overcome the social tensions that a country as large and diverse as America will have.
With the growing social liberalism and progressivism of the corporate sector and the educated upper-middle class, the GOP has begun to realise a new base, in a share of the uneducated blue-collar working class that has felt left behind by other political factions. Too socially conservative to join with left-wing populists, too protectionist to join the centrists, and too economically left-leaning, and anti-elitist to fall in line with the Republican establishment.
For better or for worse, just as California and the American West spearheaded the Reagan Revolution in the 80s, it is these folks, who will spear the coming transformation of the GOP into a far more socially conservative and fiscally pro-worker but devoutly pro-nationalist economic platform. The manifestation of this can already be seen amongst the GOP ranks, with infamous extremist conspiracists like Marjorie Taylor, but also in young rising figures such as Madison Cawthorn, Josh Hawley, and more experienced figures like Tom Cotton, some of whom have distanced themselves with Trump after the Capitol Riots, but who haven’t abandoned Trumpism’s ideological foundations, and who without a doubt are here to stay.
After all, it was Trump who led the push for an additional $2000 stimulus check in the GOP, against the wishes of establishment figures, in a moment of rare policy agreement with the likes of Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Amongst the Democratic Party, it was also Bernie Sanders who had the most agreement with Trump’s protectionist goals to shield American workers, despite Sanders’ disapproval of Trump’s implementation. In the aftermath of the election, it was an establishment figure like Senator Marco Rubio that announced, “…the free market exists to serve our people. Our people don’t exist to serve the market,” before stating the working class American is against large businesses that only care about profits.
Just last week, the highly influential annual CPAC was held, and amongst the uninvited was the glaring omission of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. It served not only to perhaps de-escalate tensions with this year’s CPAC dedicated as Trump’s podium, but as perhaps a broader symbolic gesture from the Republican base to its establishment. However, as tenuous its current position is, the prevailing Republican establishment still lives, maintaining a visage of control, just as it had during the turmoil of the late 60s and early 70s.
When Rockefeller made his infamous gesture in ‘76, it wasn’t just a brief moment of irreverent retaliation to his hecklers. It was the parting gesture of a weary and dying consensus, in a moment of pure and honest expression, unconcerned by political optics. And perhaps more significantly, it was the watershed moment of self-acceptance of its own fading into political irrelevancy.
We’ve yet to discern the McConnell Gesture, nor would its name roll as easily off the tongue. Nevertheless, there is a melancholic irony in seeing a hegemonic establishment end as it began, in the hands of a youthful grassroots Mid-Western/Southern upstart.
Brendan Xu is a member of the Sydney University Conservative Club