Trumpism isn't new; it's what the Republican party has been turning into for 50 years Skip to content

Trumpism isn't new; it's what the Republican party has been turning into for 50 years

5 min read

“It’s wrong to pretend that GOP history can be divided cleanly between the pre- and post-Trump eras,” E.J. Dionne recently wrote in the Washington Post

“Before Trump’s emergence, Republicans laid the groundwork for much of what Trump has done — on immigration, on claiming that only his supporters represent ‘the real America,’ on playing racial politics, on denouncing Democrats as ‘socialists,’ on provoking reaction among religious conservatives, and especially, on restricting voting access.”

Murray State University historian Bill Mulligan agrees. “The ‘Trumpification’ of the Republican Party that we witness daily in the contortions of Republican ‘leaders’ is more the culmination of a long process than anything new.”

Added Dionne: “The situation today reflects the worst tendencies of the pre-Trump era in extreme form. Trump didn’t invent most of what is central to his appeal; he says the ugliest, once-whispered parts out loud. And responsible Republicans who see how dangerous Trumpism is find themselves hamstrung because so many of his claims are already familiar to the party’s base.”

While liberal pundit Dionne seems willing to cut “responsible Republicans” some slack, liberal pundit Jamil Smith isn’t. After the “Never Trumpers” parted company with the president, Smith, in a Huffington Post column, called them out for their “performance of utter incredulity at what the Republican Party has become, paired with bewilderment at how the conservative movement arrived at this point. But what the party and the conservative movement have become is the result of a lengthy project for which they now want no credit. The monster they created is alive and pillaging, and yet they not only claim that they aren’t to blame, they also insist that the thing they were working on was still good. Tell that to the many black and brown victims of the Reagan and Bush administrations, and those being targeted now by this president. Ask them how good conservatism has been to them.”

Added Smith: “Like many on the left, I’m interested in intellectually honest political debate, which requires a healthy opposition. If the right has any hope of climbing out of the festering hole it’s dug for itself, conservatives need to acknowledge their role rather than continuing to perform shock and horror. They created this problem, whether through negligence or intelligent design. If people like [right-wing Never Trumper pundit Mona] Charen feel like ‘interlopers’ in the Republican Party, it is because they don’t recognize their own handiwork.”

Mulligan also wants a “healthy opposition” and an “intellectually honest debate.” Too, he agrees with Smith that that “there were plenty of alarm bells and those now criticizing Trump are complicit to varying degrees in his rise.”

But the historian suggests that condemning Never Trumpers for past sins won’t help the anti-Trump cause. “We need to defeat Trumpism, not have a purity test for those allowed to criticize him. Some people learn slower.”

No doubt Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, would be horrified at what became of his party. The GOP was founded in 1854 as an anti-slavery and nationalist party. In 1861-1865, Lincoln and a Republican-majority Congress deployed Uncle Sam’s full military and economic might to put down the southern rebellion, restore the Union, and and doom slavery.

During the post-Civil War reconstruction period, the Republicans championed a trio of historic constitutional amendments: the Thirteenth, which ended the last vestiges of slavery; the Fourteenth, which made African Americans citizens, and the Fifteenth, which extended the franchise to Black men.

Before America’s most lethal conflict, the Democrats were the party of slavery and ”states’ rights,” meaning the right of states to have slavery. While southern Democrats were the most strident supporters of slavery, most Northern Democrats were fine with slavery or were indifferent to the South’s peculiar institution.

Fearing Lincoln and the Republicans would abolish slavery, southern Democrats led the secession movement of 1860-1861 in which 11 slave states forsook the old Union and started the new Confederacy, which was founded on the twin pillars of slavery and white supremacy.

After the post-war Reconstruction period — while white northern Republicans retreated on civil rights and flashed the green light to “Captains of Industry” to be as greedy as they pleased — white southern Democrats created an American apartheid, stripping the vote from African Americans and brutally segregating them from whites. As in South Africa, violence or its threat anchored the Jim Crow system.

But Trump didn’t kill the party of “Lincoln and liberty,” according to Mulligan. It perished by degrees.  

The GOP “did provide critical support for both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act,” he said. But the party “began its movement toward a new vision of itself with [President Richard] Nixon’s Southern Strategy in 1968 which sought to capitalize on the Democrats’ refusal to seat an all-white Mississippi delegation at its national convention and to appeal to the alienated southern white voters, who were supporting George Wallace.”

Added Mulligan: “To a significant extent this was an amoral, political calculation. Nixon was not opposed to civil rights; he cynically saw a political advantage. Ronald Reagan broadened this with his invocations of mythic welfare queens — gaming the system for personal benefit — and arguing affirmative action hurt whites, who were innocent victims of racial politics.

“This not only got Reagan elected, it influenced the Democratic Party with Bill Clinton’s emphasis on welfare and criminal justice ‘reform’ that played to racial fears.”

The GOP’s long retreat on civil rights culminated in Trump’s election in 2016. “He pulled this all together with generalized fear among whites most affected by the changes in a globalizing economy by substituting race and gender as causes of their distress,” Mulligan said. “He demonized Mexicans — as proxies for Hispanics generally — as well as Muslims and those who were not heterosexual, as the causes of the problems besetting less skilled and educated whites. It has proven to be a large enough group to instill fear in the elected class of Republicans.”

Today, Democrats and Republicans, in the main, have chopped away their party’s original roots. The Democrats are the multi-racial party of federal civil rights activism. The Trumpian GOP is the nearly all white party of white supremacy. Now, Republicans are pushing neo-Jim Crow voter suppression laws not just in Dixie, but nationwide.

“In a backlash to 2020’s historic voter turnout, and under the pretense of responding to baseless and racist allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities, state lawmakers have introduced a startling number of bills to curb the vote,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice. “As of March 24, legislators have introduced 361 bills with restrictive provisions in 47 states. That’s 108 more than the 253 restrictive bills tallied as of February 19, 2021 — a 43 percent increase in little more than a month.

“Five restrictive bills have already been signed into law. In addition, at least 55 restrictive bills in 24 states are moving through legislatures: 29 have passed at least one chamber, while another 26 have had some sort of committee action (e.g., a hearing, an amendment, or a committee vote).”

The Great Emancipator must be spinning in his Springfield tomb at what’s become of the party of “Lincoln and Liberty, too.” Likewise, Jeff Davis must be resting uneasily in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond over his party whose members include the first Black president and the first African American-South Asian American vice president.’

“Fueled by the mega-donations of the mega-rich, today’s Republican Party is not just far from being the party of Lincoln: It’s really the party of Jefferson Davis,” Harold Meyerson wrotein the Washington Post. “It suppresses black voting; it opposes federal efforts to mitigate poverty; it objects to federal investment in infrastructure and education just as the antebellum South opposed internal improvements and rejected public education; it scorns compromise. It is nearly all white. It is the lineal descendant of Lee’s army, and the descendants of Grant’s have yet to subdue it.”

Meyerson so wrote on April 8, 2015 – two months before Trump descended the golden escalator.

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Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West KY Community College, and an author of seven books and co-author of two more. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

Arlington, KY