One of the most popular myths about American political history is that the Democrats and Republicans used to be opposites of one another, and sometime around 1964 they flipped. At face value, this myth makes a lot of sense. Democrats had a strong conservative-populist base in the south, now the bedrock of Republican politics, who strongly opposed the Civil Rights movement. Republicans dominated the west coast and northeast with a swank cosmopolitan style that is reminiscent of today’s Democrats. But that narrative gets history badly wrong, and even romanticizes the old cosmopolitan Republican civic conservatism and elitism as a form of progressivism.
The Republican Party was founded by a mosh pit of dissenting anti-slavery and abolitionist activists, old Whigs, and Protestant moralists in 1854. Another party, the nativist American Party—which formed in the late 1840s on a platform of anti-immigrant Catholicism and pro-Protestant nativism, was a politically successful albeit short lived party that challenged both Democrats and Republicans.
In 1854, this party captured 54 seats in the House of Representatives riding a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment—29 of which came in states north of the Mason Dixon Line. Its most prominent Congressional leader was Nathaniel Prentiss Banks, a Massachusetts congressman turned Republican and Union general. When the American Party dissolved, its northern supporters largely folded into the ranks of the Republican Party. (Its southern supporters folded back into the ranks of the Democrats.)
Republicans and Democrats in the past, had big tent coalitions, which have slowly been dwindling over the last few decades—but at a much faster and alarming rate among Republicans while Democrats have largely retained a strong centrist faction that retains many leadership positions inside the party. The much romanticized “liberal” Rockefeller Republicans would likely be loathed by today’s progressives due to their close connections to Wall Street, commitment to deficit reduction, and generally hawkish foreign policy even if they held progressive views on civil rights, immigration reform, and environmentalism. Even the Eisenhower Republican platform called for balanced budgets and deficit reduction, “Our goal is a balanced budget, a reduced national debt, an economical administration and a cut in taxes.”
Just because the Republican Party was partially founded by anti-slavery and abolitionist activists, doesn’t mean the Republicans were “liberal” in their past. The GOP’s economic program was strongly nationalistic, much like Trump’s economic nationalism he peddles today. It aimed at preserving domestic industry against foreign competition, which may have preserved working-class jobs but made the prices of goods artificially high and maintained de-facto monopolies that held complete control of American markets without the inclusion of foreign goods. According to Trump, that’s the economic policy he plans to recreate.
On trade policy, Trump would fit right in with the old Republican Party’s anti-trade protectionism which was popular well into the mid-1950s with men like Senator Robert Taft, “Mr. Republican,” from Ohio. And of course, Herbert Hoover was one of the most protectionist presidents in history—and after the Great Depression hit, his signing into law a Republican-backed protectionist bill, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, only exacerbated the Depression. Throughout their history, Republicans have been the party of protectionism and high tariffs—and it was only after the New Deal consensus of trade liberalization that Republicans embraced the benefits of international trade.
But then again, even the Gipper enacted retaliatory tariffs aimed at foreign automotive companies—especially Japanese—during his administration. Donald Trump has promised the same. In fact, this is one of the contradictions of contemporary conservative economic policies. Protectionism has always been a conservative idea, but is antagonistic to the free market neoliberalism conservatives also espouse.
(Democrats and contemporary progressives like to forget that on trade policy, the New Deal was vehemently pro free-trade; it was under Roosevelt that the Reciprocal Tariff Act was passed that allowed the President to negotiate tariff reductions with other heads of state free of Congressional interference, the Export-Import Bank was established, and the RTA is widely credited as beginning the era of global trade liberalization and served as the foundation for the establishment of the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.)
On immigration, the Republicans of yesteryear were strongly nativist, tended to be anti-immigrant (and often anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic), and were the overseers of anti-immigrant legislation like Emergency Quota Act of 1921 (signed by President Warren G. Harding) and the Immigration Act of 1924 (signed by President Calvin Coolidge). These laws numerically limited the number of immigrants allowed in the United States and biasedly favored immigrants from Western and Northern Europe and discriminated against immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia. Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and prospective policies are nothing new; they have historical precedence within the history of the Republican Party. Indeed, this is the immigration policy many conservatives want: open borders for White Europeans, walls and deportation for everyone else.
Additionally, Trump’s “America First” foreign and domestic policy attitudes may seem alluring at first. But we’ve seen the America First crowd before, and the dangerous isolationism that Trump oscillates on is also something deeply embedded in the old ideas of the Republican Party.
During the years leading up to America’s entry into World War II, an anti-war lobbying group arose to oppose FDR’s internationalism and pro-Britain and Soviet Union foreign policy in helping both nation’s fight the Nazis called the “American First Committee.” It had broad support by figures on the left and right, but their foreign policy was woefully inadequate and backward. Rather than confront evil and totalitarianism, these idealistic isolationists were convinced Europe’s problem was exactly that—Europe’s. The committee also opposed Roosevelt’s efforts to help the Chinese fight against Japanese aggression. Only after the attack on Pearl Harbor was this group was discredited and rapidly dissolved. (And thankfully the Roosevelt Administration pushed ahead with Lend-Lease to help the British, Soviets, and Chinese.)
But isolationism has always had a stranglehold on the Republican Party. During World War I, the strongest opposition to American involvement came from Republicans. The League of Nations was bitterly opposed by many Republican Senators. Again, in the years leading up to World War II, Republicans like Robert Taft, William Edgar Borah, and Gerald Nye were staunch isolationists. Even the 1940 Republican nominee, Wendell Wilkie, a figure that has reentered public debate with attempts to see parallels between him and Trump, was a fierce critic of Roosevelt’s and the New Dealers internationalism and “anti-German” policies. Again, Trump would find a welcome home in the Republican Party of the 1930s and early 1940s.
However, the New Deal and the outbreaks of hostilities in Europe in 1939 also gave rise to a new breed of Republicans who can trace their lineage back to Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and the Federalist Founding Fathers. These Republicans, largely from the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, were deficit hawks, internationalists, accepting of the New Deal (some even enthusiastically supportive like La Guardia), and had largely moved away from anti-immigrant attitudes. This group of Republicans, the “eastern establishment” derided by Flyover Country conservatives like Robert Taft and later Barry Goldwater, orchestrated a modernizing and rebranding effort for the Republican Party that remained true to the tenants of fiscal conservatism and free-markets, but embraced new ideas in foreign policy, trade relations, and immigration.
These Republicans, led by figures like Henry Stimson (Roosevelt’s Secretary of War), Fiorella La Guardia, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., Thomas Dewey, Leverett Saltonstall and later by Samuel Prescott Bush and Nelson Rockefeller, moved the Republican Party toward a direction of acceptance of the New Deal, a re-invigorated Hamiltonian internationalist foreign policy of maintaining global stability and advancing American business interests, and an openness to immigration. (Many of these Republicans were also the direct descendants of America’s earliest pilgrims which embedded into them a certain cultural and civic conservatism that is largely eschewed as “elitist” by today’s conservatives.)
The “eastern establishment” grew in prominence when Thomas Dewey defeated Robert Taft in 1944 for the Republican nomination, and again in 1948—even if Dewey lost both elections nationally. From the 1940s to the 1970s, the “Me Too” Republicans helped steer the GOP away from its nativist, isolationist, and anti-immigrant attitudes that had long shaped and dominated the party. But the nomination of Barry Goldwater and the election of Ronald Reagan marked an important tipping point for the Republican modernizers.
Although media entrepreneurs like William F. Buckley Jr. and his army at National Review also helped the Republican image makeover by purging anti-Semites (like those found writing for the American Mercury) and isolationists (like the members of the John Birch Society) from the acceptable ranks of the new “movement conservatism” emerging in the 1950s, this second-leg of the conservative makeover also posed problems. Buckley’s internationalism was not from the conservative geopolitical internationalist tradition, but a strong nationalistic anti-communism that demanded internationalism purely on the grounds of anti-communism. Buckley and the NR writers were generally sympathetic to Joseph McCarthy, someone whom the Republican modernizers loathed. Also, National Review had a sketchy history on the Civil Rights movement that allowed flexibility to channel the discontent of the White working class in the south.
The tightrope walked by the movement conservatives and the re-molded fiscally conservative, internationalist, but pro-New Deal conservatism of the Republican establishment came to logger heads with the nomination of Goldwater and the election of Reagan. Goldwater chastised these Republicans. Reagan was careful to include some, but his sympathies lay more with the movement conservatives who always contained within them a certain populist streak.
But Reagan remains the ever illusive hero of Republicans. Goldwater was unable to maintain the fragile alliance between Republican modernizers and reactionaries, between the arch-conservative base and the preppy, connected, Wall Street oriented educated elite typified by men like Rockefeller whom Goldwater vilified. Reagan, it is said, struck the balance.
In Trump’s nomination, we are seeing a return of the Grand Old Party, not a demise of it. He is no Ronald Reagan, but the ghost of Republicans past. His supporters, and his rhetoric, feed into the self-victimized belief that the Republican Party was hijacked by the eastern establishment. His nomination is the culmination of an 80 year conspiracy imagined by the conservative-nationalist working class.
The modernizers who shed the shackles of nativism, insular nationalism, isolationism, and economic protectionism while retaining the creedal Republican commitment to deficit reduction, balanced budgets, and free markets mixed with a new conservative internationalism which sough global stability, were the real enemies all along. Of course, these Republicans, now a decrepit and dying species, have a certain claim to a conservative-federalist lineage too that goes even beyond the Republican Party to America’s very founding with Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and John Adams.
The venom aimed at Donald Trump by the Republican establishment and their media allies is not necessarily one of antagonism to his policies, but a venom pitted against Trump for visibly destroying what they had been working so tirelessly to build since the days of the New Deal—a remodeled, civil, and polite conservatism that hid its more crass and insular elements while promoting a policy-oriented politics. Far from being out of place, or even “destroying” the conservative movement, Donald Trump has channeled the suspicions of conservatives who had been ostracized by Republican modernizers for the last 80 years. Trump has exposed the Republican establishment as nothing more than a new makeover in an old face—and that is why they hate him.
Author: Paul Krause