Donald Trump, the Great Embarrassment

tags: election 2016, GOP, Trump

Jill Lepore is a staff writer and a professor of history at Harvard. “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is her latest book.


“The Republicans never do any serious fighting in public,” H. L. Mencken declared in 1932, just before the G.O.P.’s Convention, where Herbert Hoover ran for the nomination, all but unopposed. Less than a month later, it took the Democrats four ballots and five days of sweaty deal-making before F.D.R. won his party’s nomination, defeating the former New York Governor Al Smith with delegates thrown his way by the Texan John Garner. “The Democrats, unlike the Republicans, always do their fighting in public,” Mencken wrote. “The history of the party is one long record of ambushes, treasons and kidnappings.” So, too, is the history of much of American politics. But hardly anything in the history of either party compares to the present carnage in the G.O.P.

And that’s saying something. After all, at the nation’s Cain-and-Abel political founding, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson’s Vice-President, fatally shot Alexander Hamilton, who had been George Washington’s Treasury Secretary. Presidents have famously betrayed their Vice-Presidents; parties have collapsed; voters have come to blows. In 1832, Andrew Jackson dumped Vice-President John C. Calhoun, throwing him under the proverbial stagecoach for Martin Van Buren. In 1854, when the American Party couldn’t agree on a candidate, its dissenters split off into the North American Party. In 1856, two different Missouri delegations showed up at one Democratic Convention and got into a brawl on the floor. Until 1896, not a single Election Day passed in the United States without someone getting killed at the polls.

Democrats really have liked to do their fighting in public. The Democratic mess, for a long time, had to do with Southerners, who bolted from Conventions and nominated their own candidates. When Southern delegates departed the Convention in 1860, the chairman announced, “The delegations of a majority of the states of this Union have, either in whole or in part, in one form or another, ceased to participate in the deliberations of this body.” And, with that, he quit.

Parties have dumped incumbents, which has generally meant losing the election. The Democratic Party refused to nominate the impeachable Andrew Johnson in 1868, allowing Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, to win the White House. Candidates have fallen apart. Horace Greeley, who ran against Grant in 1872, died before the Electoral College even met. Not infrequently, party stalwarts have despised their nominee: in 1972, the year that George McGovern won the Democratic nomination, “Anybody but McGovern” was a Democratic slogan. (McGovern lost to Richard Nixon; after Watergate, many people pasted bumper stickers to their cars that read, “Don’t Blame Me—I Voted for McGovern.”) ...

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