US Presidential Election 2016: the Republican party, from Lincoln to Trump
It is near impossible to escape school anywhere without learning some history of the USA, the minimum of Abraham Lincoln and his liberation of slaves is unavoidable. Even for someone far away from America, this holds true.
The wonder generated by juxtaposing Donald Trump next to Lincoln wears off on tracing the history of the Republican party. Though it would be fallacious to argue that there was something deterministic about the arrival of Trump, the choices the Republican party made over the years has created an evolutionary pathway from Lincoln to Trump. Fossils of movements that can serve as missing links dot the history of Republican politics. Trump is not an anomaly but a consequence of the politics that came to be known as conservative. It is the story of the difficulties of building a politics of conservatism and traditionalism in a discovered land.
Becoming the party of Lincoln
Historians periodize a political era in American history as a party system, and by that classification the modern Republican party emerged during the third party system. The Republican party replaced the Whigs, which fought the populist politics of the Democratic party. The Whigs went down because of the schism over slavery, as the southern wing of the party was populated by slave owners while the northern faction was under businessmen who were pro-enterprise and were for free labour. This North-South fault line that emerged during the Whig years realigned American politics forever. Compared to the South, the industrial North had a racially progressive disposition owing to its large White working class base. Slavery was not beneficial to their interests, and this informed their reaction to it.
Around this time, the US saw a massive influx of Irish and German Catholic immigrants. The arrival of Catholics was perceived as a danger to the Protestant majority nation. Another break away from the Whigs came to represent this popular sentiment. Popularly known as the Know Nothing Party, the nativist party promised to purify American society from Catholic influence. They framed their opposition to Catholics as a stance against tyranny, a feeling rooted in their belief that Catholicism, unlike their tradition of Protestantism, was irreconcilable with democracy.
But as America started expanding westward, during the era of ‘manifest destiny’, slavery rose to the forefront of issues. As the nation allowed new states into the Union, a conflict between the Northern free states and the Southern slave states developed over the boundaries separating the slave states from slavery-free states. The interests of Southern slave states and the Northern free states were mutually incompatible. The South was then the richest region of the Union, and wielded an overpowering influence over American government. Abolitionists argued that the South was determined to dominate, and will eventually turn America into an oligarchy.
Abolitionists, or people who were opposed to slavery, were a minority, and they were spread over many political parties. The arrival of the Republican party gave a common platform for all who were opposed to slavery. But opposition to slavery was not enough to build a winning coalition. So Lincoln and party articulated a political platform that was not overtly radical, instead it took account of the economic woes of the majority and argued for protective tariff, a homestead law, internal improvements, and construction of a Pacific railroad. They were also careful to avoid any confrontation with the nativists. In 1860, Lincoln won and the southern states seceded from the Union;
forming the Confederate States of America, and the Civil War began. The secession and the Civil War was a consequence of the politics against slave power, and the politics for the abolition of slavery was a consequence of the Civil War. Lincoln began as a moderate, and his position on slavery evolved over time. But by the end of the war, the Radicals who wished to abolish slavery were getting stronger. Though the North won the civil war and the Union, the radicals lost momentum in their fight against slavery with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by a race fanatic.
The end of radical republicanism
From being the Radicals to the ‘party of the small government’
Andrew Johnson followed Lincoln as president, but he was neither a Republican nor a follower of Lincoln’s politics. Johnson was a Democrat who sided with the Union in the Civil War because of patriotic reasons that had nothing do with the moral cause against slavery. Collateral damages of the civil war included the moral outrage against slavery, and a majority of the Union wished for a return to normalcy. Proliferation of free labour to the South never occurred, and many ways of the old world survived into the post-Lincoln era. The military reconstruction act was the last Lincolnian act from the Republican party, it established the principle of equality, and fastened the spirit of the Declaration of Independence over the constitution of the Union. President Johnson pardoned a large number of Confederates, and they returned to positions of authority in the South. Remnants from the slave era survived in the South post-war in the form of Black codes that permitted discrimination against Blacks.
While the South opted out of modernity, the North saw rapid industrialisation. And along with industrialisation came the labour movement. The first general labour union came into existence in 1866, and the unions started attracting large crowds. A certain Karl Marx offered his support to the National Labour Union. Organised labour and its class politics were not in congruence with the Republican ideals of the American working man.
Mainstream Republicans feared about a labour uprising and started leaning towards big businesses for support. They inherited the suspicion of the executive and support for the private enterprise from their parent party, the Whigs. Their opponents often accused them of being the party of the rich. Around this time, the Democratic party moved in favour of workers, and rooted for protectionism with the Chinese Restriction Act which prohibited the immigration of Chinese workers but not of professionals or scholars. These changes contributed to the political realignment in the American party politics after the Civil War.
A mix of idealism and realpolitik informed the Republican embrace of money and big business. But the affair came at a cost, the influence of money in politics did not go unnoticed, and an anger against it ended the dominance of Republican party in governance, marked by the election of the Democrat Grover Cleveland to the White House. Cleveland’s time in office was marked by an economic crisis and the labour unrest that followed it. Violent strikes and a general fear of socialism among the populace helped the Republicans to turn the tide in their favour.
From Small Government to Active Government
If the government remained small while the businesses are growing, it is bound to happen that soon some of these businesses will interfere in the business of government. The Gilded Age created inequalities and destroyed the possibilities for social mobility. Inequality, immigration, corruption and lack of hope in social mobility created a popular demand for change, and Theodore Roosevelt captured this sentiment with his inclusive vision. He rose through the ranks of the party as a crusader against the influence of big money in politics. He wished to severe the links of the party with Wall Street. He changed the dynamics between government and corporations, and wanted to make them act in the public interest. His offer and demand was for a ‘square deal’ for everyone.
The other end of his square deal was the empire. He was fascinated by the power of the navy, and his government built the United States into a maritime power. Republican party’s transition from an isolationist ‘small government’ to a party of the empire occurred under the influence of Teddy Roosevelt. But the US had a long standing tradition of isolationism owing to its anti-colonial origin. American isolationism fell out of favour among the powerful with the country’s increased participation in global trade. Safe seas are necessary for maritime trade, and the advent of steamships necessitated foreign outposts for coaling. The demand for securing command overseas also created ideologues who could make a case for it. In 1890 Alfred T. Mahan published The Influence of Sea Power upon History, in which he argued for ‘Sea Power”. Sea power is an argument that countries with greater naval power will have greater worldwide impact. The late 19th century was a time when the great powers around the globe were frantically looking to expand and colonise new territory. Mahan’s arguments were widely received and it soon became a guide and strategy.
American fans of Mahan included Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, the founding fathers of the empire, who managed the American expansion overseas. Never in history has there been a major geographical outreach that lacked a moral rationalisation. An imperialist intellectual built the rationalisation for American expansionism, Albert J. Beveridge improved upon the expansionist doctrine of “manifest destiny” to create the “march of the flag”, “Would not the people of the Philippines prefer the just, humane, civilizing government of this Republic to the savage, bloody rule of pillage and extortion from which we have rescued them?”
The American empire came into existence in 1898 with its acquisition of Philippines.
The progressive era in Republican politics ended with the exit of Roosevelt and his founding of the Progressive Party. The split was ideological. Theodore Roosevelt’s square deal demanded a tighter regulation on corporations, and the balancing of power between government and private interests. But the majority of the Republican party was not in favour of regulations, who instead felt that business works best when left alone. The rupture opened up the 1912 election with the votes split four-way, and Woodrow Wilson emerging as the winner. It must be noted that a socialist and labour activist, Eugene Debs garnered 6% of the final votes, the best performance by a socialist in a US election. The next time a socialist politician made a mark in a US Presidential election was after 100 years, when in the 2016 Democratic primaries Bernie Sanders amassed 13 million votes.
US politics of the 1920s. Frequent labour unrest and race riots created a sense of crisis. This was also the time of the first wave of ‘red scare’ (fear of communism) that swept large parts of the country. WWI and the immigration that followed it created a new round of politics based on identity. In 1924, the Immigration Act came into existence that restricted immigration based on national origin. It aimed at preserving the White character of the demographic. Congressman Albert Johnson and Senator David Reed, both Republicans, were the two main architects of the act. These laws were inspired by the Eugenics movements and the discriminated included Jews. Hitler himself invoked this act as a model for purity laws. These events propelled the Republican party towards the conservative end of the political spectrum, a place where they have remained ever since. While signing the Immigration Act, President Calvin Coolidge commented that, “America must remain American.” This was the era when the party founded to oppose slave power and to bring progress, turned conservative. It found something to conserve in America, the American about whom it had some notions.
Republicans and Democrats reverse roles
The Great Depression ended many dreams, including the ideals of the Republican party. It discredited their case for non-intervention in markets. Their attempts to balance the budget made the situation worse. The discontent over economy built way for a new coalition. Enter another Roosevelt, American politics underwent a realignment. Franklin Roosevelt’s government introduced the New Deal policies to fight the depression, which expanded the role of government with massive spending. African Americans were disproportionately affected by the depression and Roosevelt’s interventions were beneficial for them. This helped the Democrats win African American support, hitherto a loyal voting base of the Republican party ever since the Civil War. Democrats also had the support of labour unions. The United States never had a strong left/labour party before, the New Deal coalition helped to forge an alliance between the working class and racial minorities. But the gain made among working class and racial minorities were not received positively by the Southern Democrats.
The South was relatively less industrialised and unions were viewed with suspicion. Ever since the Civil War, Democrats used to win in the South. But as the party started welcoming racial minorities and labour unions to its tent, their old vote base ditched them for the Republican party. The culmination of it occurred when Democrats passed the civil rights bill that ended segregation. There occurred a split in the southern base of the Democratic party, and the pro-segregation wing of it under the leadership of Strom Thurmond joined the Republican party. Thus US politics underwent a complete realignment, with the party founded to fight slavery becoming the party of segregation, and the originally racist party becoming the party of civil rights.
Forging a Majority
Progressive republicanism ended with the exit of Roosevelt, Lafollete and Mahan from the party. But the empire they created remained a reality. No more the politics of isolationism was a viable one.
The post-WW2 era demanded a politics that must also take into account and manage the vast American influence across the globe. An active government is needed to maintain an empire, so a ‘small government’ in itself cannot amount to a political ideology. American conservatism faced a challenge here. As conservatives, what must they conserve?
Republicans tried their own smaller variant of the New Deal under Eisenhower called “Modern Republicanism”. But it was not contrasting enough, and hence never appealed to the extreme right wing of the party. The Cold War with the Soviet Union brought another wave of red scare, and it became clear that any new kind of right wing ideology must have anti-communism as an integral element. Racial progress and cultural movements were changing the fabric of American social life. Rapid social changes often antagonise large sections of the population. The 1960s thus created a large constituency of people discontent with modernity and change; religious right, traditionalists, Catholics, libertarians and ex-Communists, anti-communists, anti-unionists, anti-civil rights, medium-size business owners, big business, etc. What was needed was a coherent ideology that could bring this ensemble together. And ‘Movement Conservatism’ did that.
In 1955, William F. Buckley Jr founded the National Review, a small magazine that aimed at making conservative ideas respectable in the age of liberalism. In his own words, the purpose of it was to
“stand athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it…”. He was very successful in getting ex-communist intellectuals of all varieties to the fold. Former Trotskyist James Burnham and the famous Communist defector Whittaker Chambers found their home there. Under his leadership, they defined the boundaries of the conservative political terrain. They were careful to eliminate groups that could have been detrimental to the building of a majority coalition. His opposition to the John Birch Society, a far right extremist group, is a notable one. They remained outside mainstream conservative platform for years. The first time they got an entry to a mainstream conservative platform was during the Conservative Political Action Conference of 2010. Buckley died in 2008.
For an idea to become a movement, faces are needed who could persuade the masses. The first messenger of Movement Conservatism was Barry Goldwater. He argued that the United States must not “stagnate in the swampland of collectivism” or “cringe before the bully of Communism.” From an electoral perspective, Goldwater was a disaster. The Democrats won the 1964 election by a landslide. But during the campaign, a failed actor became born-again as a political star. A TV speech made on behalf of Goldwater launched Ronald Reagan to national recognition, formally called “A Time for Choosing”, his speech which would later come to be known simply as “the speech.” In that he articulated Movement Conservatism for the larger public and made it a common knowledge, “You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well, I’d like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There’s only an up or down: [up] man’s old — old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. ” The political realignment following civil rights movement separated the labour left and racial minorities from the majority. Richard Nixon addressed this majority as the moral majority, and implied the possibilities of good & bad Americans.
The Rule & Fall of Movement Conservatism
Ronald Reagan was the first Movement Conservative president. And during his era, the Republican party got more radicalised. Intellectual backing for the movement came from the Chicago school economists. Reagan institutionalised supply side as policy, and welfare spending was dropped and tax-cuts became a priority. The fall of Communism reiterated their belief in themselves. Even after Reagan’s era, the party continued to make gains. And in 94 the Republicans won control of both Houses of Congress with their promise of a “Contract with America,” to cut federal taxes, balance the budget and dismantle welfare programs enacted and expanded under Democratic rule. Criticism of supply side philosophy is abundant, mainstream economists from all ends of the spectrum have discarded it as a fad. But the Republican party is petrified. From the party of Reagan it became the party of what would Reagan do? And they knew what Reagan would do, tax-cuts.
But the petrified include not just the Republican leadership, but a majority of the citizens who remain committed to these policies. And a sizable number of them are themselves poor who continue to endorse policies that are not in their interest. This is one of the most important phenomenon in modern American polity. Political scientists and observers have various, and often competing, theories to explain this phenomenon. There are some who argue that a lack of opportunity to engage in class-based politics is driving them to extremism. Some others argue that rising income inequality brought forth the situation, where the rich could buy more influence with money power. Acclaimed journalist Thomas Frank’s book What’s up the matter with Kansas? explores the rise of populist conservatism in the US using Kansas as a backdrop. He believes that cultural issues are becoming the hot buttons in elections.
“They turn out every two years to return their right-wing heroes to office for a second, a third, a twentieth try. The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining.”
Paul Krugman thinks it has more to do with racism than culture war or inequality. More inelegant explanations are on offer from politicians. Barack Obama think they are bitter people who cling to their guns. And Hillary Clinton feels that at least half of them belong to the “basket of deplorables”.
It is beyond the scope of this essay to evaluate the claims of these different theories. What we know for sure is who won their support in the Republican primary of 2016.
The Rise of Trump
Trump won among all sections of the Republican support base. Religious right, evangelicals, traditionalists, social conservatives. There were candidates with stronger conservative credentials. He was just the loudest and the most vulgar among the lot. It seems what they wanted was loud and vulgar.
While the Republicans were consolidating their support among White Americans, the country was becoming more diverse. Or in other words, with a diverse population, the politics of Republican was becoming untenable. The tenure of the Obama presidency also saw the rise of fringe movements within the Republican party. The Tea Party Movement is a prominent case, which energised the base and in the act, annihilated the establishment. While he is a product of conservative politics, Trump is also a break from it. Opposition to free trade agreements and reluctance to lead the empire overseas, makes him and his supporters different from every other major movements in the Republican party. Instead isolationism, protectionism and racism are driving them away from the mainstream economic philosophies. They crave for the protection of a wall, inside which they hope to become great again. This must be the closing of the American conservative mind.