Where did the GOP Go Wrong?

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Part 1: Trump is not an aberration. He is an exemplar.

There are good Republicans. There are Republicans who are disgusted with insurrection and conspiracy. There are Republicans who hate Trump with a passion. There are Republicans whose only reason they keep the label and vote for Republican candidates is simple habit or a fear of the available alternatives. A lot of them were (and are) members of my family. When I was a very young child, long before I had any idea of what politics was (let alone a political party) I had a grandfather who, usually teasing and perhaps occasionally in anger, had a pejorative he would toss at the kids. We didn’t know what it meant, but it was obvious from the scorn in his voice that it was something we would never want to admit to:

“You’re a Democrat.”

“No, we’re not,” we’d swear. “We’re good. We’re Republicans, like you and mom and dad, like every other person in the room.” We didn’t know what a Democrat was. We had no idea what one looked like. We only knew that it was bad.

My father was a proud Republican. He was also a good man. He was a principal in the inner-city schools of Saint Louis. A big man, he was quiet and strong. His presence was a little bit intimidating. He was also kind and open and hated the racism and poverty he saw every day. Because he was tall and strong and intimidating (and white) he was assigned to serve in the most difficult schools, in neighborhoods full of poverty and crime and people of color. On occasion I would go into the city to help him, and it was enlightening to be the only one in the room who looked like me. I’m sure if he were alive today, he’d be anti-Trump. I don’t know that he could think of himself as anything other than a Republican. Maybe, like Max Boot, he’d consider himself a “Biden Republican.”

I think my father would have supported the Lincoln Project, but I doubt he would have followed Boot’s lead and registered as an independent the day after the 2016 election. It’s more likely he would have been like Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who like my father is proud of his military service and an ex-fundamentalist Christian. When asked why he still bothers when the GOP has all the signs of a cult of personality, Kitzinger replied “I’m a Republican because I’ve been a Republican far longer than Donald Trump has.” Trump is

a Republican usurper, and he’s a RINO. I’m not going to let him take the party. So I will fight. I will fight like hell.

I hope that’s where my dad would be. It bothers me that my mom is not. She supported Trump through the election. She may be one of the 81 percent of self-identifying Republicans who still have a favorable impression of the man, or the 60 percent who believe the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him, or the 55 percent who say the attack on our Capitol “was led by violent left-wing protestors trying to make Trump look bad.” I don’t know if she’s that far into the cult. By mutual understanding, we avoid political topics now. But when I’m done with this essay, I’ll ask. I need to know. I hold out hope. In our last political conversation, she was willing to say she was willing to “wait and see” if Biden was the devil she’d been told he was.

How did this happen? How did the Party of Lincoln turn into the Party of Trump?

Perhaps we should start by recognizing that Lincoln, an admittedly great president, was not the paragon he is often portrayed as today. Like Biden, he was a professional politician, and he recognized that politics is “the art of the possible.” Lincoln was the leader of the moderate Republicans, flanked by the Radical Republicans and the War Democrats. In the 1850s he didn’t claim to be an abolitionist, but merely a man who opposed the extension of slavery into new territories. But he also denounced the Dred Scott decision, instead emphasizing the importance of reading the Constitution through the lens of the Declaration of Independence. In his Senate campaign against Stephen Douglas, he used a moral argument against Douglas’ legalism. His Cooper’s Union speech insisted on his moral opposition to slavery, rejecting that anyone could successfully grope “for some middle ground between the right and the wrong.” Yet after the presidential election of 1860, where he had no ballots cast for him in 10 of the 15 slave states, in his first inaugural address he declared

I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the resolution of slavery in the States where it already exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

Even after the first successionist resolutions were passed in the South he refused to take the first shot. He continued to be supportive of a Constitutional amendment that would have protected slavery in states where it already existed. He only called on all states to send volunteer troops to “preserve the Union” after South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter. Once the war began, he resisted emancipation attempts by Union commanders. He sought to persuade the Southern states to accept compensation for emancipating their slaves. Through all this the goal was to “save the Union,” not to abolish slavery. Even Fredrick Douglas, who was often frustrated as he continued to push the president toward abolition, eventually recognized a practical wisdom in Lincoln’s position:

I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict. His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.

Lincoln was not a god. He was not an idealogue. He was a good and great politician, attempting to do what he could to reduce evil and secure the Union. If he were alive today, he’d likely a supporter of Joe Biden.

Following the incomplete Reconstruction, the political result of the Civil War was to entrench the power of the Democrats among whites in the South, backed by the laws of Jim Crow. It wasn’t until the passage and implementation of the Voting Rights Act under President Lyndon Johnson that this began to end. Johnson was himself deeply racist, but he also supported the legislation, seeing it as necessary to prevent a race war. He told one Republican “You’re either the party of Lincoln or you ain’t…. By God, put up or shut up.” And while he was joyful when he signed the bill, his joy was tempered by his fear that “we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come.”

He was right. Although he had supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Right Act of 1965, by 1968 the issue of race was one element of the South’s drift to the Republican Party. Yet the change was not as sudden as it is sometimes presented as being. Nixon’s so-called “Southern strategy” was more interested in the votes of Northerners who had moved to the South. Nixon won these new Southern voters. But the deep South went to ex-Democrat George Wallace, who carried five states in the electoral college for his American Independence Party. It is a sign of the difference between 1964 and 1968 that in Alabama George Wallace was the official Democratic candidate on the ballot, while Johnson’s vice-president was reduced to running with a third-party status. After the election the so-called Dixiecrats, with one exception, refused to join the Republican party.

It wasn’t so much that the Republicans won the presidency in 1968 as the Democrats lost it. Johnson was wildly unpopular, and in large part due the war in Vietnam and perceptions of widespread violence in the streets he chose not to run for a second term. His chosen successor, Hubert Humphrey, had the old wing of the party behind him, but he was also associated with Johnson’s failures. Robert Kennedy was the favorite of the antiwar bloc, but his assassination after the California primary fragmented that group. This, the violence in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic Convention and on college campuses and in the inner cities, all played to Nixon’s call to restore “law and order.” And, like today, the distribution of electoral votes favored the Republican, so despite a narrow gap in the national popular vote, with Wallace’s wins Humphrey only received 36 percent of the electoral vote.

Throughout the 1968 campaign Nixon was careful to avoid race as an issue, except in the context of “law and order.” Some claim that these were “dog whistles” aimed at racist Southern Democrats, but the electoral results and Nixon’s policies in office contradict this story. In 1972 McGovern was tagged as the candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion” — by the man who eventually became his running mate — and his fate was sealed. Race was not the central issue. In fact, the South only became Republican in the 1980s and 1990s, and this was largely a product of an appeal to Christianity, anti-communism, patriotism, and anti-abortion sentiments — not race.

Or was it? A lot rests on what one means by “Christian.” The same Catholics who opposed abortion included masses of angry men who threatened Black children who were being bussed for desegregation in Boston. It included the Southern Baptists who supported imprisoning Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Birmingham jail. King, in his letter to the pastors of that city, observed

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

These are people who were more attracted to “law and order” than to observe that “Black lives matter.” They were dedicated to the defense of a status quo that implied the preservation of injustice. Today, these are the people who claim to defend the “real America” of Donald Trump against the “ideal America” of Lincoln and the Declaration of Independence.

The gaps between Republicans and Democrats began to grow wider on the issues when Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” led white conservatives in the South to join the Republicans in opposition to “tax and spend liberals.” In 1994 there was not only a net gain of 54 seats in the House and eight seats in Senate: the day after the election two sitting Senators shifted from the Democrats to the Republican party. The conservative coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats (often referred to as the “boll weevil Democrats”) who had shaped outcomes since the New Deal ceased to exist. This was the culmination of the real “Southern strategy.”

The Contract with America was based on the text of Ronald Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union Address. These elements, in turn, were limited to only the “60 percent issues”: legislation that had polling support of 60 percent of the American people. For the most part, they focused on structural and policy reforms: a balanced budget amendment, anti-crime (pro-police) legislation, welfare reform that cut cash payments to young mothers and requiring work in exchange for continued benefits, tax credits for married couples and children, a reduction of payments to the UN, a limit on punitive damages and weakening of product-liability laws, capital-gains cuts, restrictions on regulations, and term limits for members of Congress.

Most of these things were not implemented, others were modified to avoid a veto, some were rejected by the Supreme Court. But that didn’t matter. The Contract was a political document, not a governing plan, and it put the Clinton White House on the defensive.

The Contract with America showed that drawing clear distinctions between the parties would work, politically. It was also a plan that would have reduced options for the poor and for people of color. The ideological divide between the parties began to grow.

Only two pieces remained: people began to demand the changes that the leadership had cynically promised, and these changes came to become the agenda of a racist Christian right.

See Part II

Professor emeritus of world politics. Interested in current events and potential futures, tired of living in the Dark Ages, working to build something better.

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