The History of the Republican Party (1854-2016)

To understand the context of Republican voters settling on Donald Trump, let's take a look

at the history of the GOP.

The Grand Old Party was formed by antislavery forces in the 1850’s. Back then, the Republican

party was actually the progressive party in American politics. The first Republican President

was Abraham Lincoln, who was elected in what political scientists say was the first of

three critical elections in American history. Before Lincoln was even inaugurated, seven

southern slaveholding states had seceded from the Union, setting the stage for the Civil

War. Lincoln and the Republicans in congress who controlled the Union won that war and

freed the slaves. But after Lincoln was assassinated, during reconstruction, the Republican Party

punished former leaders of the Confederacy by not allowing them to vote or hold office,

and gave former slaves the right to vote. This turned whites in the south against the

Republican Party for the next 100 years and led to the creation of the Klu Klux Klan and

Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation and took the vote away from blacks.

In 1896 the second critical election in American history gave William McKinley the presidency

and the Republicans large majorities in both houses of congress. This time-period cemented

the Republicans as the party of low taxes, conservative social policies, and anti-government

intervention in the economy, although legendary President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt tried

to push the Party in a more progressive direction.

Fast-forward to after the stock market crash of 1929 when the country was in the depths

of the Great Depression, but the Republicans refused to take direct government intervention

to help the economy, leading to the third critical election in American history, in

1932, when Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal Coalition defeated incumbent

Republican President Herbert Hoover by 413 electoral votes. “That the only thing we

have to fear is fear itself.” Roosevelt then enacted the most progressive social programs

in history, won reelection three times, and led the US to an eventual victory in WWII.

The Republican-controlled congress never wanted to be out of power for that long again, so

they approved the twenty-second amendment to the constitution, which limited presidents

to just two terms in office.

After the war Roosevelt’s Democratic successor Harry Truman integrated the U.S. military

- a move that angered many white southern Democrats who began switching to the Republican


In 1952, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower - the World War II Supreme Allied Commander - became

President. His centrist governing style went a long way toward normalizing Roosevelt’s

expanded role for the federal government.

In 1964 Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act which was intended

to end discrimination, especially in the south. This moment, more than any other, defined

the parties as we still know them today, with the Democrats coming full circle from being

the party of the Confederacy 100 years earlier, to ultimately embracing diversity and equal

rights; whereas the Republican Party shifted significantly to the right on social issues

as it happily took in the many white voters abandoning the Democrats.

This shift was on full display, as 11 southern states voted for the Republican Richard Nixon.

Six years after Nixon’s Presidency ended in disgrace after the Watergate scandal, the

Republicans finally had a leader they could be proud of in the former actor and Governor

of California Ronald Reagan. Reagan took advantage of a bad economy and the Iran hostage crisis

to defeat sitting President Jimmy Carter in a landslide and became the father of modern

conservatism with deep tax cuts and a massive buildup of the U.S. military that helped facilitate

the fall of the Soviet Union.

Reagan was followed by his Republican Vice President, George H.W. Bush, who helped cement

many of Reagan’s signature policies.

Bill Clinton’s democratic presidency was dangerous for Republicans in that he was a

charismatic white southerner capable of making inroads with the Republican base, so to counter

his appeal, they highlighted his infidelities, a tactic that was largely successful in tainting

his presidency despite Clinton’s success in building a strong economy and securing

a relatively peaceful world.

Clinton’s troubles led to the victory of Texas Republican Governor George W. Bush over

Clinton’s Vice President Al Gore in one of the closest elections in history, a contest

that was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court. “Just moments ago I spoke with George

W Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43rd President of the United States.” Bush

actually lost the popular vote to Gore by more than a half million nationwide.

The 2001 attacks sent Bush’s approval ratings into the stratosphere, but his presidency

quickly went awry. Instead of continuing the strong economy he inherited from Clinton,

W. Bush instead invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, two costly wars that the Republicans combined

with deep tax cuts, creating a massive hole in the US budget. By the time Bush left office,

his approval rating was below 30%, turning many Americans against the Republican Party.

In the final weeks of the 2008 election the economy collapsed, undermining the credibility

of the Republican nominee John McCain, and handing the White House to Barack Obama - the

nation’s first black President - who won a convincing victory with large majorities

in both houses of congress. Upon taking office, Obama moved quickly to enact his reformist

agenda, which included overhauling the Health Care system, jumpstarting the economy with

an $830 billion jobs and infrastructure stimulus package, and passing financial regulatory

reform to rein in the excesses of Wall Street.

Out of power and desperate to stop Obama and the Democrats from achieving too much, Republican

elected officials and powerful conservative media outlets began to make thinly veiled

racial attacks on Obama to stir up passions among their mostly white supporters; passions

that the party’s 2008 Vice Presidential nominee - the rural Alaskan governor Sarah

Palin - had flirted with during the previous campaign. It worked, and with the help of

right-wing mega-donors, like the Koch brothers, who spent hundreds of millions of dollars

to stop the Democrats from acting on their electoral mandate, Republican voters came

out in full force in the 2010 midterm election, handing the Republicans back the House in

the biggest congressional swing in more than 60 years.

But Republicans in congress didn’t live up to their promises to repeal Obamacare or

many of the other achievements of President Obama, further frustrating their voters--the

culmination of which was the birther movement, spearheaded by none other than Donald Trump,

who insisted that Hawaiian-born Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya. “I want him

to show his birth certificate.”

In the eyes of most Americans, Trump was embarrassing himself. Obama even taunted Trump to his face

several times. “All kidding aside, we all know about your credentials and breadth of

experience. [Laughter]” That was likely the moment when Trump made up his mind to

run for President, as his ego couldn’t handle becoming a laughingstock at the hands of his

archenemy. But the same outlandish behavior that made Trump the butt of jokes, also made

him a favorite among Republican primary voters.

It also helps that Donald Trump is an expert at using America’s media culture to his

advantage, and in his campaign for the Republican nomination he simply doubled down on the braggadocio,

“go ahead, go ahead - Donald - don’t get nervous” translating his appeal with the

tv-obsessed masses as the tell-it-like-it-is billionaire into millions of actual votes

to become the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nominee.

To color in the picture I’ve drawn of how we got to Trump, here are the more colorful

words of Matt Taibbi, a writer for Rolling Stone, who offers an autopsy of the Republican

Party that is so unwaveringly true that I’ll repeat it at length--his article is linked


Quote, “The rise of Trump’s ‘throw the bums out’ vibe was the inevitable consequence

of the basic dynamic of the party, which by the end was little more than a collection

plate for global business interests that were, if not foreign exactly, certainly nationless.

There was a time in this country – and many voters in places like Indiana and Michigan

and Pennsylvania are old enough to remember it – when business leaders felt a patriotic

responsibility to protect American jobs and communities. Mitt Romney's father, George,

was such a leader, deeply concerned about the city of Detroit, where he built AMC cars.

But his son Mitt wasn't. That sense of noblesse oblige disappeared somewhere during the past

generation, when the newly global employer class cut regular working stiffs loose, forcing

them to compete with billions of foreigners without rights or political power who would

eat toxic waste for five cents a day.

Then they hired politicians and intellectuals to sell the peasants in places like America

on why this was the natural order of things. Unfortunately, the only people fit for this

kind of work were mean, traitorous scum, the kind of people who in the military are always

eventually bayoneted by their own troops. This is what happened to the Republicans…”

Thanks for watching.

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a 30 day free trial membership. I’d recommend Team of Rivals about the first Republican

President, Abraham Lincoln, and how he led America through the civil war. It’s one

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Until next time, for The Daily Conversation, I’m Bryce Plank.