History lesson for Paul Ryan: The Republicans have always been Donald Trump’s party

tags: election 2016, GOP, Paul Ryan, Trump

Amid the chaos, sadness and jubilation of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee, one should remember that Trump isn’t that far from the ideology the party promoted well into the 20th century.  While the much maligned Republican “establishment” and their allies in the fourth estate are still struggling to deal with the reality of Trump as nominee, the conservative insurgents of the fifth estate are eagerly optimistic for a November showdown. Far from killing the Republican Party, Trump is restoring it to its old precepts: nationalism, economic protectionism, and nativism.

One of the most popular myths about American political history is that the Democrats and Republicans used to be opposites of one another, and sometime around 1964 they flipped.  At face value, this myth makes a lot of sense.  Democrats had a strong conservative-populist base in the south, now the bedrock of Republican politics, who strongly opposed the Civil Rights movement.  Republicans dominated the west coast and northeast with a swank cosmopolitan style that is reminiscent of today’s Democrats.  But that narrative gets history badly wrong, and even romanticizes the old cosmopolitan Republican civic conservatism and elitism as a form of progressivism.

The Republican Party was founded by a mosh pit of dissenting anti-slavery and abolitionist activists, old Whigs, and Protestant moralists in 1854.  Another party, the nativist American Party—which formed in the late 1840s on a platform of anti-immigrant Catholicism and pro-Protestant nativism, was a politically successful albeit short lived party that challenged both Democrats and Republicans.

In 1854, this party captured 54 seats in the House of Representatives riding a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment—29 of which came in states north of the Mason Dixon Line.  Its most prominent Congressional leader was Nathaniel Prentiss Banks, a Massachusetts congressman turned Republican and Union general.  When the American Party dissolved, its northern supporters largely folded into the ranks of the Republican Party.  (Its southern supporters folded back into the ranks of the Democrats.)

Republicans and Democrats in the past, had big tent coalitions, which have slowly been dwindling over the last few decades—but at a much faster and alarming rate among Republicans while Democrats have largely retained a strong centrist faction that retains many leadership positions inside the party.  The much romanticized “liberal” Rockefeller Republicans would likely be loathed by today’s progressives due to their close connections to Wall Street, commitment to deficit reduction, and generally hawkish foreign policy even if they held progressive views on civil rights, immigration reform, and environmentalism.  Even the Eisenhower Republican platform called for balanced budgets and deficit reduction, “Our goal is a balanced budget, a reduced national debt, an economical administration and a cut in taxes.” ...

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