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The Life and Death of the Republican Establishment: 1908-2016



Dan, the 2016 presidential election to this point surely has proven to be the most fascinating by far of any in over 100 years, with the possible exception of 1992, which was compelling because independent candidate Ross Perot came out of nowhere to capture 19% of the popular vote – had he not dropped out of the race a few months before dropping back in, he might have done far better (he was leading incumbent president George H.W. Bush [R] and Bill Clinton [D] narrowly in polls that summer.

That aberration aside, this is a remarkable election and one that exposes a great deal of the public’s dissatisfaction with establishment politicians.
As far as the Republican Party is concerned, though, it goes beyond an anti-establishment sentiment. It cuts to the core of what the Republican Party has primarily stood for since 1908 – creating and maintaining wealth.

Born of a desire to abolish slavery, the Republicans elected their first president, Abraham Lincoln, in 1860, who did exactly that. The next several years saw a nearly-unbroken streak of Republican presidential victories, as that party symbolized Southern Reconstruction in the form of civil rights and opportunities, whereas the Democrats were the party of racism and segregation.

But a cry against slavery could only be relevant for so long: after all, with slavery abolished for almost half a century, to proclaim “I’m against slavery!” might have garnered a response of: “congratulations – who isn’t?” Clearly, the Republicans needed a new identity.

Enter Theodore Roosevelt’s commitment to his word of honor that – even as he remained the most popular politician in America – he would not seek reelection (after seven years in office, back then, there were no term limits for presidents) in 1908. His handpicked successor was William Howard Taft, the first bona fide establishment Republican.

Taft won in 1908 with Roosevelt’s blessing, and although the latter returned four years later to attempt to regain the presidency, the Republicans had grown accustomed to Taft’s conservatism and only partially reembraced Roosevelt’s monopoly-busting populism. Even then, the party was torn between the bland button-down conservative Taft and the captivating gregarious and rugged progressive Roosevelt. That schism led to the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and it wasn’t until the Roaring Twenties when the Republican establishment would have its next – and last – taste of their candidate’s ascension to the White House in the form of Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover.

With Hoover’s lead balloon fall from the presidential loft amid the Great Depression, the first taste of trickle-down economics ended on an awful note – one so bad that America enthusiastically embraced its first shift to quasi-socialism, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt’s (Theodore’s cousin) New Deal. The Democrats dominated national politics ever since, with two notable exceptions, who were elected less because of their ideology and more based on their personal popularity: Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, and Ronald Reagan in 1980. Every other Republican president elected since then (Richard Nixon 1968, George H.W. Bush 1992, and George W. Bush 2000 – Gerald Ford was never elected) served as vice president to Eisenhower or Reagan or was the son of one.

Enter Donald Trump. What many fail to realize is that Trump’s most vitriolic detractors are not politically correct Ivy League students who find his words offensive and – without fully understanding what fascism is – compare him to fascists such as Hitler and Mussolini. Trump’s most intense foes are the Republican establishment powers-that-be, who realize that a Trump presidency would mean the death to a life they never really had, except for a brief run in the 1920s.

A few decades ago, there really were no social liberals in mainstream politics. Not only was homosexuality a no-no, so was sexuality, period. Married couples on sitcoms slept on twin beds. Prayer in schools was standard. Women under 40 were routinely referred to as “girls.” Police brutality was the norm, and Ralph Kramden’s perpetual threat, with fist cocked, to send his wife “to the moon, pow, right in the kisser!” on TV’s The Honeymooners drew roaring laughter from women and men alike. Half of those social conservatives in America were Democrats, not much different than today’s Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum “values” Republicans. The only Republicans were those who favored a “party of the rich.”
But Reagan’s election in 1980 united the patriots, populists, and values voters, and subsequently gave the trickle-down establishmentarians the opportunity to hijack his good name and pretend that their continued wealth gap-widening, anti-patriotic, anti-populist policies in the ensuing quarter century were things that Reagan would have approved of.
The Republican masses never really were Republicans in the Taft/Harding/Coolidge/Hoover sense. They were Reaganites doubleparked in the Republican space. Donald Trump has pointed that out to them, which is why so many of Trump’s supporters couldn’t care less about the Grand Old Party beyond Trump himself and his brand of patriotism and populism. And when the establishment cries out that “Donald Trump does not really embrace traditional Republican ideas,” the response by the party’s voter base, to the powers-that-be’s horror, is “well, neither do we!” What do you think?


Dino, the most fascinating election in my lifetime was that of 1948, the election that began the scenario you write about. The Democrats had nominated Harry Truman, a liberal centrist and the Republicans had nominated Thomas Dewey a conservative centrist. The Democrats, however, were shattered by two major breakaway parties.

To the left of Truman, Henry Wallace, Roosevelt’s former vice-president, organized the Progressive Party, which was fiercely anti-war, pro-civil rights, and pro-organized labor. Wallace thought he could win or at least establish a viable new party.

To the right of Truman, Southerners opposed to desegregation formed the State’s Rights Democratic Party, popularly known as the Dixiecrats. Their presidential candidate was Sen. Strom Thurmond (SC). Their perspective was to win enough votes to cost the Democrats the election and thus strengthen their influence in that party.

Truman, a far more formidable candidate than originally thought, won a narrow victory. The Dixiecrats carried Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina, plus one electoral vote from Tennessee. The Progressives did not even come in as a runner-up in any state. In short, the Democrats emerged believing they could win without the support of the radical left or racial extremists.

Since the end of the civil war, Democrats had always carried the old Confederate states and won nationally by adding a few additional states. Over the next decades, the Solid South would become Republican and Republicans would win by adding a few additional states. The South and its views never changed, the national parties did. Dixiecrat/Democrat Strom Thurmond would end his career as a Republican.

From the 1950s onward the Democrats became supportive, however slowly, of black civil rights, while moving to the center on economics. When the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson observed the Democrats had just giving the South to the opposition party.

As the Republicans courted the South, they slowly shed their liberal wing. Moreover, many traditional conservatives such as Senator Arthur Vandenberg (MI), who insisted partisan parties stop at the national border, had no successors. Nor were there successors to Republican liberals such as Senators Jacob Javits (NY) and Edward Brooke (CT).

Over the past several decades, the racism that had fueled the Dixiecrats became muted, but xenophobia, religious fundamentalism, anti-unionism, and opposition to social change became ever stronger elements in the Republican Party. Donald Trump’s proposed wall and the Evangelical rigidity of Ted Cruz reflect these views. Marco Rubio, although a Cuban, retreated from his commitment to Hispanic issues. John Kasich is more moderate, but there is no Jack Kemp (Congressman – NY), a Republican who championed black civil rights, anywhere to be seen.

I do not wish to imply conservatives as a group are racists or xenophobes or that any one region is morally superior to the others. Nonetheless, extreme Southern conservatism on many issues has dominated the Republican primaries and that extremism justly troubles the traditional leadership of the party.

Given the crucial role played by Hispanics and black voters in many states, the longterm Democratic orientation pays off in national elections. This coming year the already- existing Democratic edge with women is likely to increase if Hillary Clinton is the candidate and a Trump or Cruz heads the Republican slate.

How white workers, especially males, figure in current voting patterns is too complex a topic to discuss in this space. But states with large white working class populations are often open to either party, indicating white workers are more complex and sophisticated than generally assumed. Winning their support by candidates bound to a Solid South orientation is a formidable challenge.