Why Trump’s Election Makes the Collapse of the GOP More Likely, Not Less
This is a transcript of from the March 28 edition of The Gist, a daily podcast hosted by Mike Pesca. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Mike Pesca: The Whigs were a political party, a precursor to the Republicans. They elected two presidents, Zachary Taylor and William Henry Harrison. They both died in office, serving a cumulative one year, five months. Abraham Lincoln was once a Whig, Henry Clay was a Whig, Daniel Webster was a Whig. They had a lot of great ideas like the national bank and more infrastructure.
They were probably more right on the big issues than their opposition party, the Democrats—but they died out. Why?
Well, they were elitist, but also the why brings us to today and the failure of the health care bill. Historians are drawing parallels between today’s Republicans and the Whigs of yore. Extrapolate from that what you will.
Philip A. Wallach is a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. He’s written a report called “Prospects for Partisan Realignment: Lessons From the Demise of the Whigs.”
Philip Wallach: Hi. Good to be with you.
Pesca: Before we get to the resonances with today, let’s talk about who the Whigs were. I’ll pick a point in history. What was their apex, would you say?
Wallach: The Whigs formed around opposition to Andrew Jackson in the 1830s. Just as political parties were taking something like the shape with which we’re familiar, where they sort of become mass turnout operations. They were the party of protective tariffs. They were the party of government involvement in the economy, participation for the federal government in building out railroads and rivers and harbor improvements.
Pesca: And on slavery?
Wallach: Slavery managed to be kept outside of the conflict between Democrats and Whigs during that period. They were both bisectional parties, meaning they both had Northern and Southern branches. There was sort of an unspoken, and frequently tested, agreement to keep slavery out of it.
Pesca: Can you go through a few of the other issues that were dividing them?
Wallach: Sure. First is a set of issues that had been keeping Democrats on one side and Whigs on the other that stopped performing that function. The tariff was a big one. That was sort of the Whigs’ main issue. Then Democrats reconciled themselves to a middling tariff, and it lost some political salience. Infrastructure, both parties ended up supporting subsidization of railroads and rivers and harbors and improvements, that sort of stuff. Opposition to Andrew Jackson, which had been such a unifying thing for the Whigs in the first place. Well, Andrew Jackson fell off the political scene, and so that stopped being something that held them together.
All those things stopped holding the Whigs together. Meanwhile, some factors rose up that really pulled them apart. Slavery was by far the most important one. Interestingly, prohibition also came onto the national scene at this time. Maine passed state prohibition of alcohol. That really divided Whigs between drys and wets.
Then you had nativism, which emerged with a force in the late 1840s. The U.S., at that time, had a level of foreign-born population comparable to what we have now, something like 12 percent. “Native” Americans found lots of things about that trend troubling that had anti-Catholic overtones, as most of the immigrants at that time were either Irish Catholic or German Catholic. Democrats tried to warm to those immigrants. Whigs tried to hold the nativist elements within their coalition, but they had a hard time doing that. That caused them a lot of internal tensions as well.
Pesca: Let’s talk about nativism for a second. That reminds us of an issue that’s going on today—nativism, or anti-immigration. What are the differences between then and now?
Wallach: Then, there wasn’t so much emphasis on cutting off immigration. It was on regulating the lifestyles of immigrants. A part of the prohibition movement actually intersected with this, the sense that these immigrants needed the social tutelage of their betters. There was a similar law-and-order element. Immigrants were portrayed as especially menacing to the native-born population. Politicians certainly did a good amount of posturing on what they would do to keep the native-born safe.
There were a lot of similarities.
Pesca: OK, so let’s bring it up to today. Before the election, it seemed when Donald Trump was trailing in most polls and most betting models, there was all this talk about how Trump would not only lose, he would imperil Republican majorities in the Senate, maybe even the House. That it could be the realigning of the Republicans. He could wreck the party.
That’s why people were talking about the Whigs, because it looked like Republicans had a strong chance of really losing. Then the Republicans won.
How is it both true that if they’d lost, they would be like the Whigs, a party that disintegrated, and true now that they won, “Yeah, they’re still like the Whigs, a party that disintegrated?”
Wallach: Well, nobody’s disintegrating yet, that’s for sure.
Since before the election, I have been saying that I thought the Republicans would have a much bigger problem keeping their coalition together if Trump won. The logic goes like this: If Hillary Clinton were president today, there would be one huge, overriding thing unifying all Republicans—opposition to Hillary Clinton and the continued Democratic high-handed government in the White House. That really would have made a lot of other differences between Republicans sort of pale in comparison.
Donald Trump winning presents a real challenge—he clearly represents a very different vision of what the party ought to be about than what it has been over the last decade or so. Like Zachary Taylor, who came in and won in 1848, he is an outsider. He doesn’t have much affection for the old party insiders. He seems eager to pick fights with them. That certainly still seems true today. He’s leading a populist movement as opposed to a conservative one. That’s very different for the Republican coalition.
A lot of these potential crosscutting issues around the theme of populism and anti-establishment, he really brings to them to the fore. Republicans are forced to deal with those issues in trying to hold their coalition together. Whereas, I feel like if Hillary Clinton were president, they could have pushed a lot of them under the table.
Pesca: That’s true.
There are factions within the Republicans like the Tea Party, or John Boehner’s Main Street Republicans. There are also factions within the Democratic Party, the Bernie and Hillary factions.
Why do you think the Republican Party has more cutting factions?
Wallach: To my eyes, it looks like the Republican base has more things pulling them apart more strongly. Trump, himself, having the potential to become this super-divisive figure, is something that I think Democrats don’t have to deal with.
I mean, Democrats are in rough shape in many ways when you look across the whole political map. They are at a very weak point today. As these crosscutting issues come in, they create challenges for both parties at the same time. It creates the kind of environment where you could have a reshuffling, a reconfiguration, where some new party could offer a different structure for the conflict of American politics.
Pesca: If the emphasis is on the ideological divisions, might it be that issues don’t matter as much today? That there’s this team identification thing, not just against Hillary or Obama but red team versus blue team in a way that Whig team versus Democrat team didn’t exist?
Wallach: Well, maybe that’s right, but maybe that’s not. We do have a very strong voting polarization in Congress, right? That’s just an established empirical fact. Whether that actually tracks a very meaningful divide over the issues or whether it just means that the leadership is very good at whipping their members to vote in certain ways isn’t so clear.