The Republican Trump


From the CRB in an Essay by Charles R. Kesler




Donald J. Trump is a difficult specimen to classify. A Democrat most of his life, admittedly more out of opportunism than conviction, he toyed once with running for president on the Reform Party ticket . . . Trump said he admired Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill, but also, for a while, Barack Obama . . . Trump said he had always been a conservative of sorts, a “common-sense conservative,” as opposed to the impractical, ideological, all-talk-and-no-action conservatives. . . (The party platform on which he ran was a different matter. It embodied the lengthy catechism of principles and policies promoted by today’s conservative movement, with slight nods to Trump’s own America First themes.)

President Trump’s notions have many precedents within both capital-R and small-r republicanism, and that they are not nearly so outré as they may seem when viewed against post-Reagan trends. Granted, there has never been a president quite like Mr. Trump, but the voters, with reason, greeted his principal views as a kind of long overdue return to home truths—truths highly relevant though half-forgotten. As he would say: sad! . . .

“Don’t forget,” Trump said, “this is called the Republican Party. It’s not called the Conservative Party.” . . . (T)he Republican Party is much older than the modern conservative movement (dating, in most accounts, only to the 1950s); that the former used to have a progressive or liberal wing, vigorous until the conservatives took over the party in 1964 and began to remake it in their image; that there are not enough self-declared conservative voters to win the presidency, and that Republicans must always attract, therefore, some non-conservative voters if they intend to win. Trump likes to win. . .  He respects the conservative movement . . . but he doesn’t love it with the ardor he reserves for his own, nameless popular movement. But with his victory, the Trump movement is now in the process of taking over the Republican Party. . .

The new Republican Party that he hopes to form will . . . resemble in certain crucial respects the old Republican Party that existed before the modern conservative movement got going. Where could you find a Republican Party that stood for . . . protective tariffs; immigration only with assimilation . . ; and a restrained foreign policy guided by a firm but modest version of the national interest? (One might extend the list to include, for example, “internal improvements” or infrastructure spending to stimulate commerce and unite the nation, and judges prepared to be activist in order to defend the Constitution.) If not in Mr. Trump’s dreams, you would have to turn to the pre-Cold War GOP, which reached its heyday at the turn of the 20th century and in the 1920s. . .

It’s not that Trump consciously set out to return the GOP to its roots. . . It’s more like his reading of the political situation led him to retrace some of the old GOP’s reasoning, and arrive independently at some policies similar to its own. In fact, he may now have arrived at a point where some acquaintance with the party’s history and principles may help illuminate his administration’s own way forward; and for well-wishers and critics alike, the knowledge could be helpful.

The party of William McKinley and Calvin Coolidge dominated national politics. In the 72 years between Abraham Lincoln’s first election and Herbert Hoover’s loss to Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, only two Democrats were elected president. Between them, Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson racked up 16 years of Democratic presidencies, versus 56 years of Republican ones. . . Overall, the GOP controlled both houses of Congress for about 46 of the 72 years. By these measures, the old GOP, the national majority party for decades, achieved far more power and popularity than the modern, conservatized party ever has.

Those halcyon days of power and popularity coincided with the party’s embrace of the Trump-like policies mentioned above. Which doesn’t prove that these policies caused that political success, needless to say. Many other factors figured in, like the little matter of the Democratic Party’s discrediting itself for decades by its support of slavery, secession, and Jim Crow.