How the Republican Party went from Lincoln to Trump

Today’s Republican Party opposes big government. It’s culturally conservative. Its demographic

support is strongest among white voters, and it usually dominates elections in the South.

And its 2016 presidential nominee has been heavily criticized for inciting racial tensions.

But things weren’t always this way. Yet over the past 160 or so years, the party

has undergone a remarkable transformation from the party of Abraham Lincoln… to the

party of Donald Trump.

And to understand how the GOP got the way it is today, you have to go back to when it

first came into existence — in 1854, just 7 years before the Civil War.

There are two parties at this point, the Whigs and the Democrats. America is quickly expanding

westward and there’s an intense debate over whether the new states should permit slavery

The Democratic Party, with strong support in the South, has become increasingly pro-slavery.

But the Whigs are divided on the issue. Their northern supporters are really afraid that

the growing number of slave states would have too much political influence, which they feared

could hurt free white workers economically So In 1854, the country is debating whether

or not the new states Kansas and Nebraska will allow slavery. The can’t agree and

the party ends up collapsing. The former whigs in the north form a new party that will fight

against letting slavery expand further; they call it the Republican Party.

By 1860 the Republican Party become increasingly powerful in the North, enough so that a little

known Republican named Abraham Lincoln wins the presidency.

Even though Lincoln promises he won’t interfere with slavery in the states that already have

it, he and his party are still too anti-slavery for the South to tolerate. So 11 Southern

states secede from the Union, forming the Confederate States of America. The Northern

states decide to fight to keep the Union together, and the Civil War ensues. The result is a

Northern victory and the abolition of slavery nationwide.

After the war, Republicans begin fighting to ensure freedmen in the South have rights.

A year after Lincoln’s assassination, the party passes the Civil Rights Act of 1866,

which said black citizens have the same rights as whites. They fight to make sure that black

men have the right to vote, with new laws and constitutional amendments.

But something had happened during the civil war that began changing the young Republican

Party. Government spending during the war made many northern businessmen really rich.

Gradually, these wealthy financiers and industrialists start taking more and more of a leading role

in the Republican Party. They want to hold on to power, and they don’t think that fighting

for black rights in a mostly white country is the best way to do that.

Meanwhile, the South is resisting these new racial reforms, often violently. And most

white Republican voters and leaders now feel that they’ve done enough for Black citizens

in the South, and that it was time to emphasize other issues. So in the 1870s, the party basically

gives up on reforming the South, deciding instead to leave it to its own devices, even

if that meant black citizens were oppressed and deprived of their new right to vote, and

the region was politically dominated by white Democrats.

Fast-forward to the new century. By the 1920s, the Republican Party has become, essentially,

the party of big business. This works out quite well for them when the economy was booming,

but not so well when the economy crashes in 1929 and the Great Depression begins.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and other Democrats are swept into power, and begin dramatically

expanding the size and role of the federal government, in an attempt to fight the Depression

and better provide for Americans. Republicans oppose this rapid expansion, defining themselves

as opposition to bigger government, an identity that the party still holds today.

Then, going into the 50s and 60s, race and the South return to the forefront of national

politics, with the civil rights movement attempting to end segregation and ensure blacks truly

had the right to vote. Civil rights isn’t purely a partisan issue,

it’s more of a regional issue with northerners from both parties supporting it and southerners

from both parties opposing. Then 1964, it’s Democratic president Lyndon Johnson who signs

the Civil Rights Act into law. And it’s Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater

who opposes it, arguing that it expands government power too much.

A massive switch-up takes place. Black voters, many of whom had already been shifting from

Republicans, convert almost entirely to their new advocates, the Democrats. And white voters

in the South, who had been staunch Democrats, start to really resent “big government”

interference here and in other matters, like abortion rights and school prayer. Over the

next three decades, whites in the South switch to the GOP, which makes the South an overwhelmingly

Republican region. By the 80s, the party begins to resemble the GOP we are familiar with today.

Republicans elect Ronald Reagan, who promises to fight for, business interests, lower taxes,

and traditional family values.

Then, as the 21st century begins, America is going through a major demographic shift

in the form of Hispanic immigration, both legal and illegal.

Democrats and business elites tend to support reforming immigration laws so that over 10

million unauthorized immigrants in the US would get legal status. But “tough on immigration”

policies and rhetoric become popular on the Republican right.

Then, when Mitt Romney loses his bid for the presidency in 2012, he gets blown out among

Hispanic voters — exit polls showed that 71% of them backed Barack Obama. And the Republican

Party starts to look more like a party for white voters in an increasingly nonwhite country.

Given demographic trends, Republican leaders worry that if they keep losing Hispanic voters

by that much, they’ll lose their chances of winning the presidency. So in 2013, some

key Republicans in the Senate — including rising star Marco Rubio — collaborate with

Democrats on an immigration reform bill that would give unauthorized immigrants a path

to legal status.

But there’s a huge backlash from the Republican party’s predominantly white base, which

views the bill as “amnesty” for immigrants who broke the rules. This exacerbates GOP

voters’ mistrust of their own party’s leaders, which had already been growing.

And that makes the political landscape of 2015 is fertile ground for a figure like Donald

Trump, an outsider businessman who wants to build a wall on the border with Mexico. Trump

isn’t a traditional conservative, but he appealed to Republican primary voters’ resentment

and mistrust of party elites, as well as their strong opposition to growing immigration trends.

And even though he was loathed by party leaders, he won enough support in the primaries to

become the GOP nominee for president.

Now, the Republican party is once again at a major crossroads as it tries to meet the

political challenges of the 21st century. It’s possible that the turn toward Trump

and his ideas this year will be remembered as an aberration, and that a new generation

of Republican politicians will find a way to be more than just the party of white resentment

— rediscovering their roots as the party of Lincoln. But it’s also possible that

Trump is just the beginning, and that the party will increasingly play to white voters

by appealing to racial tensions. It’s up to Republican voters and leaders to decide

just what they want their party to be.