Whether Trump Wins or Loses, the GOP Has to Change.

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tags: election 2016, GOP, Trump

Timothy Lynch is a Professor of History at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

Like a bull in a china shop, Donald Trump has fundamentally transformed the Republican Party. While some partisan stalwarts have jumped onto the Trump bandwagon, others have been seen running in the other direction. Regardless as to whether Trump wins in November or not, the GOP will not be same party it was before the Trump ascendency. What kind of Republican Party emerges in the future is difficult to predict. But partisan regulars would do well to take a good hard look at their party’s past, as they look ahead. A “back to the future” approach may very well be their best hope for relevance beyond 2016.

It is worth recognizing that the Republican Party was not a “national” party from its birth; it drew its support exclusively from the North. Born in 1854 in Jackson, Michigan, the earliest Republicans were organized around opposition to the expansion of slavery into the western territories. Concern over slavery in the West erupted in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1853, which opened up those two territories to slavery. The party attracted anti-slavery activists, Northern Whigs, and ex-Free Soilers, who shared the goal of keeping the West kept as “free soil for free men.” For obvious reasons, the Republican Party held no appeal for southerners. In fact, Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, captured the White House in 1860 without his name even appearing on the ballot of ten southern states.

Early Republicans knew that their fledgling party needed to broaden its appeal beyond the slavery issue. And so they advocated support for internal improvements, what today we would call infrastructure. As New York Tribune editor Horace Greely wrote in 1860, “An Anti-Slavery man per se cannot be elected.” But, “a Tariff, River-and-Harbor, Pacific Railroad, Free Homestead man, may succeed although he is Anti-Slavery.” For Republicans, federal power would both contain the “peculiar institution” of slavery and promote economic activity. It was under Republican leadership during the Civil War that Congress chartered two corporations to build a transcontinental railroad. In addition, the Morrill Land Grant Act (1862) provided funding for education in agriculture, engineering, and military science. This led to the establishment of scores of colleges and universities, Ohio State University among them. For farmers, the Homestead Act (1862) encouraged economic development with its offer of 160 free acres to those who would settle the West and improve their property. These Republicans were hardly laissez faire capitalists, seeing no role for the federal government.

Nearly one hundred years later, Dwight Eisenhower would employ this Republican notion of federal power when he signed the Federal Highway Act (1956), creating the interstate highway system. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, Ike signed the National Defense Education Act (1958), which funded elementary and secondary education in science, mathematics, and foreign languages. Our educational system and infrastructure are once again in need of attention and resources. The pitiful state of many of our schools, roads, bridges, airports, water systems, sewer treatment facilities, and other public works makes this use of federal power more necessary and relevant than ever. Republicans would be well served to follow the example of their fore bearers in this regard.

Because of their position on slavery, the Republican Party, the party of the Great Emancipator Lincoln, became the party of the freedmen. In the short-lived period of Reconstruction following the Civil War, when southern blacks were able to cast a ballot, it was for Republican candidates. Indeed, the first African-Americans ever elected to state and federal office were elected as Republicans. But by the mid-1870s “Redeemer governments” had replaced the Republicans, making the South “solidly” Democratic. And by subsequently disenfranchising the black voter, the Democratic Party would dominate southern politics for almost a century. It was only when the Democratic Party championed civil rights in the 1960s that blacks began to vote disproportionately Democrat and southern whites in large numbers began to pull the Republican lever. (It’s worth noting that Martin Luther King’s father was himself a Republican.)

Playing upon the anger and resentment of many white southerners towards civil rights and integration, the Republican Party used a “southern strategy” that effectively turned the Dixiecrats of 1948 into “Reagan Democrats” by 1980. Feeling betrayed by the Democratic Party, these white working-class voters gravitated to the Republican Party, which showed distain for demanding blacks and “welfare queens.” In 2016, this element within the GOP is animated by Trump’s reference to Hispanic “rapists,” border walls, and bans on Muslims. The lesson here is simple. Be careful who you lure into your tent, they may decide to stay and become a disruptive element, especially in a nation that is becoming ever more ethnically and racially diverse.

At a time when climate change threatens the planet, Republicans should command the high ground. After all, no president has done more to protect our environment and preserve our natural wonders than Republican Teddy Roosevelt. In the early 20th century, TR had the vision to see the dangerous consequences of reckless exploitation of our natural resources and challenged America to go in a different direction. Many of America’s national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and forests are a testament to Roosevelt’s commitment to conservation. Though his name does nothing for the Republican brand, it is worth remembering that it was Richard Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency, not New Deal-Great Society liberals. Unfortunately, Republicans today, with their adamant denials of human-caused global warming, sound more like members of the Flat Earth Society than their progressive predecessors. If there is any contemporary challenge that makes Republicans appear calcified and out of touch, it is their insistence that climate change is not a threat to the planet. They would do themselves, and our world, a great service by acknowledging this problem and acting to curb the catastrophic consequences of it.

The Republican Party’s emphasis on individual liberty and personal freedom has deep roots. Again, it was concern over slavery spreading to the western territories that brought the party into being.   It was a Republican-controlled Congress that passed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, the 14th and 15th Amendments ensuring blacks equal citizenship and the vote, and the 19th Amendment extending suffrage to women. It was a former Republican governor of California, Earl Warren, who as Supreme Court Chief Justice wrote the majority decision in the famous Brown case in 1954, which would call for the desegregation of public schools. Yet, more recently, over issues of reproductive rights and personal sexuality—abortion access, gay marriage, and protections for LGBT individuals—it is Republicans who constrain liberty. Ironically, the same party that wants less government regulation and interference in the marketplace is quite willing to regulate and interfere Americans’ conduct in the bedroom. While this pandering to social conservatives might gain some votes, it makes the party’s ideological position of limited government ring hollow.

What the political landscape will look like after election day this coming November is anybody’s guess. But clearly the Republican Party will not be what it once was before Donald Trump became its standard- bearer. The china shop will need to be put back in order. If it is going to have a future post-Trump, Republicans would do well to look to its past. A “back to the future” approach may very well be their best guide.

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