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The GOP: 1854-2016?: A Follow-Up Discussion (Part A)

Updated on August 4, 2016
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


As you see in the summary, the question is: How did Donald Trump happen? I am largely responding two and in dialogue with two very fine Rolling Stone magazine articles by one of my favorite writers, Matt Taibbi. My basic premise is that to understand the Trump phenomenon, you have to review the history of the American Republican party, where it came from and where it is going. It was one of Mr. Taibbi's articles that half-jokingly asked whether the Republican party had finally destroyed itself.

Anyway, my contribution has been to talk about what I consider to be the most remarkable case of "ideological swapping" I have ever heard of; really, I think it is unprecedented.

To review briefly:

  • The nineteenth century Republican party was the abolitionist and pro-business party, making the organization relatively progressive on race and relatively conservative on class (you know, favoring owners of "capital" over workers in general).
  • The nineteenth century Democratic party was the pro-slavery and pro-"common man" party (in the Jacksonian sense; recall his battles against big finance, as against the Bank of the United States, for instance), making the organization relatively progressive on class and relatively reactionary on race.
  • The Republicans of the nineteenth century favored a powerful, engaged central government as necessary to bring about the Hamiltonian vision of America's future of industrialization, international trade, high finance, and the like.
  • The Democrats, in general, of the nineteenth century, favored a relatively uninvolved, weak central government, that would leave every man alone to be the "king of his castle," in the Jeffersonian sense, that envisioned agriculture as America's future, and believed that every man should have his own property and land so that he can be totally self-reliant, as the "rugged individual" and all that.

As you know, the Republicans and Democrats has swapped stances on race and governing philosophy. From my own political perspective, the Republican party is now relatively reactionary on race and relatively conservative on class; and the Democratic party is (neoliberalism aside) relatively progressive on race and relatively centrist on class.

As you know, there was a big migration of Southern Democrats into the Republican party in the 1960s and 1970s, in the face of the national Democratic party's increasing commitment to civil rights.

Anyway, the Democrats (again, neoliberalism aside) are, in general, the party of relative "big government," which traditional American liberalism needs in order to serve its expanded constituency of poor and people of color.

The Republicans tend to favor a "small government," to serve its constricted constituency, the corporate community, by instituting policies that facilitate "freedom of the market," through low taxation and deregulation.

Democrats (as "liberals") tend to stand for progressive social development characterized by "tolerance for diversity" in terms of sexual preference, gender preference, women's rights (including abortion), stem-cell research, and the like.

Republicans (as "conservatives) tend to favor social movement at a very slow pace. They are traditionalists in matters of sexual preference, gender preference (they do not recognize such "preferences"), women's rights (including abortion), anti-stem-cell research, and so forth.

Republicans, then, stand for "conserving" the social order, as "conservatives." Democrats stand for "liberating" the social order, in relative terms.

A Few Things

Although the nineteenth century Republican party, the "party of Lincoln" and all that, was the abolitionist party---I would argue that it largely took its abolitionist energy from the abolition-deportation school of thought rather than the abolition-integration school of thought.

What I'm saying is that I believe the Republican party's abolitionist ideology was fuelled by a view that saw as its end the deportation of emancipated black people, rather than their integration into American society.


Take the African refugee colony of Liberia, for example. You can learn from Wikipedia, that the colony was a project of the American Colonization Society (ACS), whose full title was The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America, founded in 1816 by prominent white Americans who opposed slavery but didn't think that blacks and whites could live together for a variety of reasons (1).

The U.S. Congress appropriated $100,000---several tens of millions of dollars in today's money---for the establishment of Liberia in 1819. The United States officially recognized Liberia in 1862, fifteen years after its establishment as a sovereign nation (2).

The Lincoln Phenomenon

As you may know, Abraham Lincoln, the Republican, did not run for the Presidency on the basis of abolishing slavery (that came later in 1863 as a tactical move to win the Civil War). He ran on the platform of the prohibition of the extension of slavery to the western territories.

The argument I always make goes like this: The American Civil War was fought because the South's commitment to plantation slavery made use of huge swaths of land in a way that was contrary to the needs of industrial capitalist development. I believe this is proven by what happened with the South almost immediately after the Civil War and a brief period of Reconstruction.

Basically, the south was allowed to maintain slavery (albeit by another name) in the form of debt peonage and prison labor. But this time this forced labor regime was dedicated to the industrial modernization of the south, in order to get its infrastructure more in line with that of the north (3).

Fernando Wood

After South Carolina seceded from the Union, the next call for secession came from a Northern city: New York City. Fernando Wood was mayor of New York and two days before Mississippi's declaration of secession, His Honor proposed that New York pull out of the Union (4).

Wood was a Democrat elected on a pro-Southern platform in a three-way race against a Tammany Hall Democrat and a Republican. "What's more, pro-Southern and pro-independence sentiment was widespread in New York, particularly among the merchant class" (5).

Its also worth noting, as a footnote, that there had been African slavery in all thirteen original colonies; and that New York had maintained slavery until 1827 (6). I mention this because it would be interesting, someday, to learn if there were other Northern cities that made abortive attempts at secession.

I'm going to close this installment with two thoughts.

First Thought: Why am I going through all of this history? What does any of it have to do with the rise of Donald J. Trump to the Republican nomination for President of the United States of America?

It's like this:

The MSNBC crowd, as I call them, are always shaking their heads and saying, 'What ever happened to the "Party of Lincoln"?, by which they mean the opposite team, the Republican party.

The Fox News crowd, again, as I call them, are always shaking their heads and saying, 'What ever happened to the "Party of Kennedy"?, by which they mean the opposite team, the Democratic party.

These dueling laments are variations on something I like to call the Good Old Days thesis. In it a deterioration of some kind is identified. From it flow expressions of sorrow, puzzlement, bewilderment at how low circumstances have fallen, in light of how splendid they had been in a magical age in the past.

Therefore, when the MSNBC crowd invoke the "Party of Lincoln," what they are saying is that they long for a time when their opposites, the Republicans, had at least been an "honorable opposition."

The Fox News crowd would say that it was the Democrats who "lost their way," which is why they invoke the "Party of Kennedy."

Whenever a Good Old Days thesis is probed, what we find, almost invariably, is that things were not so splendid as had been previously supposed; and that, indeed, the extent to which the past was not splendid renders the current sorry state of affairs easily comprehensible.

For our purposes, what we want to know is: Did the "Party of Lincoln" ever exist, in the nostalgic way that is invoked by the American center-left?

Spoiler alert: No!

Second Thought

In a book edited by legal historian, Paul Finkleman---Slavery & The Law---we read, in the book's introductory essay (The Centrality of Slavery in American Legal Development), the following:

"[B]y the eve of the Civil War some Southerners claimed that democracy in America was only possible because of slavery... Southerners of various social classes argued for the racial inferiority of blacks and relegated them to a permanently diminished status, thus simultaneously justifying slavery and allowing for greater democracy among whites. Because they were slaves, so the argument went, blacks could never participate in politics. Instead, they provided what Senator James Henry Hammond called a 'mudsill,' on top of which a democracy of white men could be built. Thus, the rights of life, liberty and happiness proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence could be universally applied to white Americans precisely because they were not applied to blacks" (6).

In short, what Dr. Finkleman is saying, is that during the American Civil War, Southerners argued that there was not enough democracy to go around to include blacks. Southerners were saying that any extension of democracy to blacks constituted a corresponding reduction in the rights of life, liberty, and happiness available to whites.

Question: I still want to know what all this has to do with the rise of Trump to the Republican nomination for the President of the United States of America. Please?

In a Rolling Stone article in the magazine's March 10, 2016 issue, Matt Taibbi gets us started.

He writes:

"It has been well documented that Trump surged last summer when he openly embraced the ugly race politics that, according to the Beltway custom of 50-plus years, is supposed to stay at the dog-whistle level" (7).

You know the movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the original 1950s version. First the pod-people have to work clandestinely, stay out of sight, and all that. But when they achieved suitable saturation, they operated boldly in the open. They began meeting on the town square on Saturday mornings; and the exercise became a kind of public works project.

If there are reactionary forces who feel that the time is now, and they are able to blow a more overt racial whistle, that would be discouraging. You'll see what I mean as we move on.

Thank you for reading!


1. (2016, August 1). American Colonization Society. Retrieved August 2, 2016. (Wikipedia).

2. (2015, September 8). Liberia--United States Relations. Retrieved August 2, 2016. (Wikipedia).

3. see, Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Random House, 2008.

4. Lockwood, J. & Lockwood, C. (2011, January 6). First South Carolina. Then New York? (The New York Times "Opinionator" blog?). Retrieved August 2, 2016.

5. ibid

6. Finkelman, P. (1997). Slavery & The Law(P. Finkleman, Ed.). Madison House. The Centrality of Slavery in American Legal Development (p.4).

7. Taibbi, M. (2016, March 10). President Trump, Seriously: He's no ordinary con man. He's way above average -- and the American political system is his easiest mark ever. Rolling Stone, (1256), 34.


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