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The Republican Party: 1854-2016?: A Meditation

Updated on July 14, 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.


I'd like to add my two cents to the discussion about the rise of Donald Trump. What should one make of it, the small possibility that he could become the next President of the United States of America? We all know the story: he is a billionaire real estate developer with exactly zero political or governing experience.

I don't think there has ever been anyone with that profile who has ever made it so far as to actually garner the Republican Presidential nomination. He was not the only wealthy businessperson with no political or governing experience to run for the White House---but again, none with that profile ever made it as far as Mr. Trump has; this is something to consider.

Well, as usual, there is one writer that I know of that absolutely nails it, hits it out of the park, as it were. I'm talking about Matt Taibbi with Rolling Stone magazine. His article, in the June 2 edition is titled, "R.I.P GOP: Donald Trump crushed 16 GOP opponents in one of the most appalling, vicious campaigns in history. His next victim? The entire Republican Party."

Let me slow down a little and back up

There was a time when I was fascinated by something of a mystery --- at least it seemed mysterious to me. The mystery, for me, was this: How do we account for the ideological swap between the Republican and Democratic parties, in the United States, from, say the end of the America Civil War to, somewhere around the 1970s and to the present day?

The "ideological swap" I'm talking about concerns race.

  • The Republican party of the nineteenth century was relatively progressive on race (in that it was the abolitionist party) and relatively elitist on matters of class (in that it was always the pro-business party).
  • The Democratic party of the nineteenth century was relatively reactionary on race (in that it was the pro-slavery party) and relatively progressive/egalitarian-minded on matters of class (think about Andrew Jackson and his opposition to the Bank of the United States, for instance).

Now the swap

  • I'm not saying that the Republican party of today (circa 1970-2016) is racist. But the party doesn't appear to be nearly as, shall we say, "forward-thinking" on race matters, as they were perceived to have been---again, in relative terms---in the nineteenth century. Indeed, some might go so far as to say the party uses racism as a deliberate electoral strategy---what Ian Haney Lopez calls "dog whistle politics," (1) for example.
  • Today, then, the Republican party combines a relatively reactionary stance on race (think anti-Mexican stance under the cover of a desire to crackdown on illegal immigration, for example), with, more or less, the same pro-business leaning, and, therefore, more or less, the same upper class bias.
  • Today, as you know, the Democratic combines its traditional, relative class progressivism with relative race progressivism --- which makes sense, since there is so much overlap and coincidence of race and class in this country.

Let's turn to Mr. Taibbi's article.

On the front cover of the magazine there is a little square, that says inside: R.I.P GOP 1854-2016. Taibbi suggests, half jokingly---but only half---that the Republican party may be in some existential jeopardy in the United States, at least at the national level.

One of the fissures their peril rests upon, according to Taibbi, is that of class.

Let's start with this passage:

"Most Republican intellectuals recoiled in blameless horror from the Trumpening, blaming everything from media bias to the educational system for his rise. Some even promised to degrade themselves with a vote for Hilary Clinton before ever supporting Trump.

"George Will of The Washington Post might have been the loudest objector. Will increasingly seems like a man who is sure history will remember him for his heroic opposition to Trump, and not for those 40 plus years of being an insufferable spinster who writes bad columns about baseball to prove his ties to the common man (page 33).

Stay with me: "to prove his ties to the common man." We're talking, as Matt Taibbi does, about class.

Taibbi has more to say about George Will:

"His diatribes against Trump, a 'coarse character' who read the National Enquirer and brags about the size of his 'penis' (one could almost feel the pain it caused Will to have to commit this word to paper), took on an almost religious character.

"Just before Indiana, Will began treating the nomination of Trump like a forest fire or a SARS outbreak, something that with the right spirit of sacrifice could be contained with minimal loss of life, and perhaps only four years of a Hilary presidency" (ibid).

You get the idea, right?

Good. The right-wing intelligentsia took a moral stand, as it were. Yada, yada, yada...

Stay with me now!

I beg you to be patient as we set this up!

Taibbi then refers to another source of "right-wing snobbery" in the person of Andrew Sullivan, a "British blogging icon and noted hairy person," whatever that means.

It seems that Mr. Sullivan turned in "a 7,000-word jeremiad for New York magazine about how Trump was the inevitable product of too much democracy" (pp.33-34). Basically, Matt Taibbi relates to us a Sullivan rant about the forgotten, struggling, God-fearing, red-blooded, gun rights-protecting, white man.

In any event: "Sullivan's analysis was a balm to the decades of butt-hurt that await the soon-to-be-ex-elite of the Republican Party. It blamed Trump's rise on everyone but Republican intellectuals: Obama, Black Lives Matter and even 'the gay left, for whom the word 'magnanimity' seems unknown'" (page 34).

Stay with me; this who-to-blame part is significant.

These antagonisms are nothing new. The question is: What is new, if anything, about the rise of Trump?

The closest that Sullivan offered as an explanation "was a passage saying that 'global economic forces' hurt blue-collar workers in particular, forcing them to compete with lots of other unskilled and basically fungible human beings around the world. Which made them, he guessed, pissed off" (page 34).

Now we get to it. The question is: How do Republican intellectuals relate to the Republican blue-collar working class? The answer is: not very much at all!

Matt Taibbi lays it out:

"There was never any real connection between the George Wills, Andrew Sullivans, and David Brookses and the gun-toting, Jesus-loving ex-middle-class voters they claimed to embrace. All those intellectuals ever did for Middle America was cook up a sales pitch designed to get them to vote for politicians who would instantly betray them to business interests eager to ship their jobs off to China and India. The most successful trick was linking the corporate mantra of profit without responsibility to the concept of individual liberty.

"Into the heartland were sent wave after wave of politicians, each more strident and freedom-y than the last. They arrived draped in the flag, spewed patriotic bromides about God, guns and small-town values, and pledged to give the liberals hell and bring the pride back" (ibid).

Here comes the payoff!

As for those politicians promising to give the liberals hell and bring the pride back...

"Then they went off to Washington and year after year did absolutely squat for their constituents. They were excellent at securing corporate tax holidays and tax cuts for the rich, but they almost never returned to voter country with jobs in hand. Instead, they brought an ever-increasing list of villains responsible for lack of work: communists, bra-burning feminists, black 'race hustlers,' climate change activists, Muslims, Hollywood, horned owls..." (ibid).

Stay with me. Matt Taibbi is telling us that, over time, Republicans kept rolling out an increasing list of bad guys as scapegoats for their own lack of performance on the economy!

"By the Tea Party era, their candidates were forced to point fingers at their own political establishment for votes, since after so many years of bitter economic decline, that was the only story they could still believably sell" (ibid).

Matt Taibbi is telling us a story of a Republican party that has been forced to run against itself, more and more, over the past fifty years or so (since he mentions "communists"), to win enough votes, at the national level to be competitive.

Does that make sense? What's that image of the snake eating its own tail...?

I think we need just a couple more paragraphs to make the point decisively. This is about Ted Cruz.

"This led to the hilarious irony of Ted Cruz. Here was a quintessentially insipid GOP con man culled straight from the halls of Princeton, Harvard, the Supreme Court, the Federal Trade Commission and the National Republican Senatorial Committee to smooth-talk the yokels. But through a freak accident of history, he came along just when the newest models of his type were selling 'the Republican establishment sucks' as an electoral strategy.

"Cruz was like an android that should have self-destructed in a cloud of sparks and black smoke the moment the switch flipped on. He instead stayed on just long enough to win 564 delegates, a stunning testament to just how much Republican voters, in the end, hated the Republican kingmakers Cruz robotically denounced" (ibid).

Let's look a little further back in history.

The argument can be made that the Republican party should have undergone extensive reorganization after 1865. Yes, eighteen-sixty-five.

If you think about it, one could say that American politics of the two-party variety, really emerged out of the debate between Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804).

Jefferson and Hamilton were two of the leading intellectual figures of post-revolutionary America. They held fervently felt but diametrically opposed visions of the what the future of America should be.

Jefferson was the inspiration of the relatively race-reactionary, class-progressive Democrats.

Hamilton was the inspiration of the relatively race-progressive, class-conservative Republicans.

This is before the "ideological swap."

Jefferson believed that America's future lay in the focus on agriculture, the ultimate freedom of every adult man of having his own patch of land, upon which he was master of all he surveyed: his household, his biological family, his paid workers, and his slaves. This vision called for a relatively weak central government.

Hamilton believed that America's future lay in the commitment to modernization, to industrialization, banking, and finance, good relations with England, a commitment to a unified, modern transportation and communications matrix, national unity, and a strong central government, and the like.

The Civil War was basically the Jeffersonian-Hamiltonian debate carried on with guns.

The important thing to see here is that both visions of America's future, contain implicit assumptions about the kind of people needed to execute the vision (class).

Thomas Jefferson's vision of America's future is more structurally inclusive because no specialized training and education is needed to farm the land.

Alexander Hamilton's vision of America's future is more structurally exclusive because specialized training and education and social connections, I might add, are necessary to do banking and finance and diplomacy and industrial entrepreneurship. Some men must be the worker bees and a tiny fraction must be the bosses. A commitment to social and economic hierarchy is suggested.

The last thing I'll say is this: The "ideological swap," I've mentioned without going into details, served to broaden the constituency of the Democratic Party, and constrict the constituency of the Republican Party, especially after 1964 with the nomination of Barry Goldwater for President.

Southern Democrats (relatively race-reactionary/class-progressive) hung with the national Democratic Party, gratefully, throughout the New Deal, from the 1930s-1960s; and then when the region wasn't so poor anymore, they crossed over into the Republican Party.

Southern Democrats simply could not abide the national party's commitment to civil rights in the 1960s.

African-Americans and Southern Democrats crisscrossed each other. Most blacks that still belonged to the Republican Party, in the 1960s, simply could not abide the "Southern Strategy" that the party decided to embark upon and migrated over to the Democrats.

Remember that there is a tremendous overlap and coincidence of race and class in America. The Republican Party structurally focuses on white voters because they are most likely to fuel the decision-maker, visionary, entrepreneurial Hamiltonian classes. But this is why the Republicans, at least on the national level, do much better the smaller the voter turnout.

Another interesting thing about today's Republican Party is that it has imported a lone-wolf, self-reliance, rugged individualism from the original Jeffersonian conception.

Today's Democratic Party structurally focuses on people of color, women, gays, and other minorities because these groups happen to be the ones most likely to occupy the social space somewhere between the bottom and the middle, in class terms.

Theoretically at least, the Democratic Party has imported, from the original Hamiltonian conception, the devotion to governmental federalizing and centralizing tendencies, in order to do progressive work on both class and race.

Does all of that make sense?

In other words, there have actually been two ideological swaps between the Democrats and Republicans: on race and governing philosophy.

We are done but it is interesting to think about how the era of so-called "Neoliberalism," has served to, yet again, reconfigure ideas between the Democrats and Republicans, as it pertains to race, class, and governing philosophy.

For example, a "New Democrat" like William Jefferson Clinton, rather rewrote the rules about what the Democratic Party of Franklin "New Deal" Delano Roosevelt was supposed to stand for.

When Clinton said that the era of "big government" was over, he was, at least rhetorically and nominally, returning to Hamilton (inspirer of Republicans) the devotion to federalism.

When he contrived his "Sister Souljah" moment with Jesse Jackson, he was at least symbolically holding blacks at arms length, for the purpose of showing "America" that he was his own man, independent, and so forth....

Oh well, its all very confusing when you start thinking about it real hard. Let's stop now!

Thank you for reading!



1. Lopez, Ian Haney. Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism & Wrecked The Middle Class. Oxford University Press, 2014.


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