Newsmaker: The Republican Party
As the fallout from more lurid allegations against Donald Trump continued to dominate the media airwaves this week, many long-time members and supporters of the American Republican Party could almost be heard to wonder aloud: how did it all come to this?
As the Republican nominee for American president, Trump has carried the hopes of his party’s supporters with a simultaneously casual, bombastic and altogether politically unpredictable swagger. He has managed to put the presidential race at the world’s forefront like never before, while at the same time alienating the very people who, in past presidential contests, would have nailed their colours to the Republican mast without hesitation.
For supporters of this conservative party – also known as the Grand Old Party or GOP – the wish to put the boot into eight years of Democratic presidential rule, via current White House resident Barack Obama, is a salivating prospect. The Republicans, proud of a 160-plus-year tradition that has produced formidable leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, have never been shy in fighting for the keys of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
But after a much-circulated video from 2005 surfaced last week, showing Trump making light of sexual assault against women, dozens of senior Republicans withdrew their support for the property billionaire. House Speaker Paul Ryan, America’s most senior elected Republican and former vice-presidential candidate, announced on Monday that he was done defending him. Dismissing Trump’s Republican credentials, former Minnesota senator Norm Coleman had already said in July: “I won’t vote for Donald Trump because of who he isn’t. He isn’t a Republican. He isn’t a conservative. He isn’t a truth teller.” Even before Trump’s nomination, the party was reeling from his incendiary comments about Mexicans and Muslims – with talk centring on whether the party should deny him the ticket regardless of triumph in the primaries.
The Republican Party took its name from the “republican” ethos dominant during the American Revolution against British rule, and can trace its roots to the 1850s, when a group of abolitionists gathered to fight the extension of slavery into the western territories. The slavery issue dominated mid-19th-century America, and on March 20, 1854, anti-slavery advocates met in Ripon, Wisconsin – credited as the founding meeting of the Republican Party.
In a United States that pitted the slave-owning South against the free North, the Republicans quickly began to make their mark. The fledgling party put its first presidential candidate, John C Frémont, up for election in 1856. Although he lost to James Buchanan, he won 11 out of 16 northern states.
It fell to one Abraham Lincoln to truly put the party on the map. The lawyer and politician secured the White House as the 16th president of the United States in 1860. Military victory for the North against the South in the 1861-1865 American Civil War, which saw the South begin to sever ties with the Union in December 1860, helped the Republicans become a dominant part of US political life, while the South entrenched its support for the Democratic Party.
Between 1868 and 1892, five of seven presidential elections saw the Republican Party take the White House. From Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, to the presidencies under the likes of Civil War hero Ulysses S Grant (1869-1877) and William McKinley (1897-1901), the Republicans dominated. But in 1912, the GOP hit the skids: the Progressive Party, headed by one-time Republican president Roosevelt, split the Republican vote helping the Democrat Woodrow Wilson secure the White House.
From 1920 to 1932, the GOP was again the dominant force in the country’s presidential elections, as Progressivism began to ebb away. But the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent Great Depression saw the Republicans falter: Herbert Hoover was dumped by voters in favour of the Democratic economic salvation offered by Franklin D Roosevelt’s “New Deal”. Whereas during the 19th century, the Republicans were the party of “big government”, the “New Deal” brought a clear role reversal. In the years before and during the Second World War, Roosevelt won an unprecedented four elections. He remains the only US president to serve more than the current maximum two terms in office. After Roosevelt’s death in 1945, Harry S Truman carried the Democratic baton until 1952, when the Republicans tasted success for the first time in 20 years.
It came in the form of celebrated Second World War commander Dwight D Eisenhower, who despite his moderate, centrist views, emerged with a strongly anti-communist stance. He dispatched troops to Lebanon in 1958 on the pretext of his anti-Soviet Union Eisenhower Doctrine during the Lebanon Crisis. American Marines stormed the beaches of Beirut amid bemused bikini-clad sunbathers on the orders of Eisenhower, who believed that a Soviet-inspired takeover of Lebanon was imminent. It was the first overt US military operation in the Middle East.
The emerging conservative wing of the Republican Party found its outlet in 1964 when Barry Goldwater was nominated to fight Lyndon B Johnson, who had taken the Democratic presidential mantle after the 1963 assassination of John F Kennedy. Ultra-conservative Goldwater, who rejected the legacy of the “New Deal”, lost heavily with his brand of right-wing politics, but also sparked a conservative change of Republican policy that would shape the future of the party.
The Republicans secured power again when Richard Nixon took the White House in 1968. The soon-to-be disgraced GOP man managed to appeal to what he called the “silent majority” – conservative (white) Americans who were wary of the unrest of 1960s Civil Rights America and who bought into Nixon’s notions of reclaiming “law and order”.
From 1968 until 1992 – despite Nixon’s now infamous resignation in 1974 following the Watergate scandal – the Republicans were an ever-present force in the White House, except for the one-term presidency of Jimmy Carter.
During the 1980 election of Reagan, however, the party’s conservatives found their purest voice as the South abandoned the Democrats. Reagan led a foreign-policy-heavy US for two terms, with anti-communism and small government dominating a presidency that also witnessed the death of 241 US servicemen in a 1983 suicide truck bomb in Beirut. However, it was his role in ending the Cold War and the Soviet Union’s subsequent demise that has forever endeared him to conservative Americans.
Either side of the 1992 election of Bill Clinton, and his re-election in 1996, the Republicans enjoyed more success in the White House with George Bush (1989-1993) and his son George W Bush (2001-2009). Bush Jr won in controversial circumstances in 2000 after a Florida recount handed him victory against Clinton’s former vice-president Al Gore.
The young Bush, whose one-term father evicted Iraq from Kuwait in the first Gulf War, packed his cabinet with conservatives and pursued tax cuts, but met his defining moment with the September 11 attacks. His subsequent “War on Terror” saw the US invade Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 as the party’s more hawkish so-called “neoconservatives” began to assert considerable control.
Today, the political map of the US is a familiar one to modern eyes: split largely between socially conservative Republicans in the likes of Texas and more progressive Democrats in states such as New York.
But as the GOP looks ahead to its presidential showdown with Hillary Clinton, it does so having had its internal politics buffeted by the birth of the grass-roots conservative Tea Party movement in 2009. That espoused a more anti-establishment, conservative brand of Republican politics, while the rise of the largely internet-based so-called “alt-right”, associated with white supremacism and anti-Islamism, is another troubling development.
With the party at loggerheads, and some Republican supporters even declaring their intention to vote for Clinton, can the GOP return to the White House at next month’s election?
Many anti-establishment Americans remain loyal to reality TV show host turned Republican insurgent Trump, however.
“I want a president who’s on our side,” wrote author and philosopher Daniel Bonevac in The Washington Post on October 12 of his support for Trump. “I plan to vote for someone who can change course and return us once again to the task of making America great.”
One hundred and fifty six years after the triumph of Lincoln, the Republican Party is a very different beast.
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Updated: October 13, 2016 04:00 AM