Monday, June 06, 2016

A History Lesson The Republicans Seem To Have Forgotten

It looks like the Republican Party has nominated an "outsider" who wasn't truly even a member of their party -- Donald Trump (who is actually campaigning against both major political parties).

Some on the left have tried to compare Trump to fascists like Hitler or Mussolini, but perhaps a better comparison can be found in our own political history -- the nomination of Zachary Taylor by the Whigs in 1848, and his subsequent election. He is generally regarded as one of our worst presidents, and his nomination hastened the destruction of the Whig Party.

Taylor (pictured here in a photo by Matthew Brady) had come out of the Mexican-American War as a national hero. But he was not a politician, had no experience in civil service, and indeed, had never even voted before the election of 1848. His only "qualifications" were his war hero status and his disdain for politics (including both political parties -- Democrats and Whigs).

Doesn't that sound a lot like Trump, whose only "qualifications" are his celebrity status and his disdain for politics (including both political parties -- Democrats and Republicans)? Gil Troy at has written an excellent article (that I urge you to read in full) on Taylor's nomination and election, and how it destroyed the Whig Party. It's a history lesson that should worry the hell out of Republicans.

Here is some of what Mr. Troy wrote:

As an active soldier, Taylor demurred at first. All his life, Taylor had proudly refused to enroll in a political party, boasting that he never voted. As late as 1846, Taylor insisted the idea of becoming president “never entered my head … nor is it likely to enter the head of any sane person.” His wife was ill and he felt unqualified. And he preferred to tend to his vast landholdings and slaveholdings in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi—an inherited fortune augmented thanks to goodies showered on him after his war victories that made him one of the wealthiest Americans of his day.

Eventually, however, the political fervor swept up Taylor, too. In various letters that were quickly (and intentionally) publicized by the recipients, Taylor began explaining how “a sense of duty to the country” forced him to overcome his “repugnance” and permit people to advance his name. He might defer to the “spontaneous move of the people” but “without pledges” to stay true to any specific platform plank. He would only accept a nomination to be “president of the nation and not of a party.” A genuine nationalist who recognized how much Americans disliked professional politicians, Taylor placed himself above the “trading politicians … on both sides.”

Despite all this talk of staying away from one party or another, Taylor began inching toward the Whig Party, and the Whigs inched closer to him. At first glance, a general seemed to be a strange choice for the Whigs. Founded in the 1830s as a strained coalition of Southern states’ rights conservatives and Northern industrialists united mostly by disgust at Andrew Jackson’s expansion of presidential power, the Whig Party considered the war a disastrous result of presidential overreach. In fact, the popular backlash they stirred against Democratic President James K. Polk was so great that the Whigs seized control of Congress during the 1846 midterm election. But once America’s victory over Mexico triggered such enthusiasm, some Whigs calculated that running an extremely popular war hero like Taylor would prove to voters that the Whigs were patriotic, despite their anti-war stance.

Taylor also appealed to the Whigs’ founding fear of presidential power. In the letters he wrote, he invoked Whig doctrine, justifying a passive president who deferred to the people and the Congress. . .

That June, during their convention at the Chinese Museum Building in Philadelphia the Whigs were torn over Taylor. On the first ballot, Taylor won 76 percent of the Southern vote, but 85 percent of the Northern delegates opposed him. A rival Mexican War hero, the Virginia-born General Winfield Scott, appealed to antislavery Whigs who hated Clay and Taylor because they were both slaveholders. On the fourth ballot, Taylor secured the nomination, beating Clay, Scott and Webster.

Taylor claimed he won on his own nonpartisan terms, without any promises. This victory signaled “confidence in my honesty, truthfulness and integrity never surpassed and rarely equaled [since George Washington],” Taylor boasted, 98 years before the originator of Trump-speak was born. . .

The nomination left many other Whigs dissatisfied. Even though the convention nominated the loyalist Millard Fillmore as vice president, many lamented that Taylor’s popularity had trumped party loyalty and principles. The party had not even drafted a platform for this undefined, unqualified leader. Horace Greeley of the New York Tribunepronounced the convention “a slaughterhouse of Whig principles.” The Jonesborough Whig did not know “which most to dispise, the vanity and insolence of Gen. Taylor, or the creeping servility of the Whig Convention that nominated him. . .

And the party did indeed begin to dissolve. Almost immediately after the nomination, the self-proclaimed “Conscience Whigs” (anti-slavery Whigs) bolted, refusing to support a slaveholding candidate. Joining various other anti-slavery factions, including those that defected from the Democratic Party, the rebels formed The Free Soil Party and nominated former President Martin Van Buren.

Heading into the general election campaign, things didn’t look so good for Taylor. He started writing more and more letters crowing about his independence, disdaining party discipline, even saying he would have accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination too in his quest to be “president of the whole people.” His vanity and recklessness further dampened Whig enthusiasm. . .

Taylor won—barely. He attracted only 47 percent of the popular vote, merely 60,000 more popular votes than Clay had in 1844, despite a population increase of 2 million. Turnout dropped from 78.9 percent in 1844 to 72.7 percent in 1848, reflecting public disgust with both candidates. . .

The 1848 election “demoralized” Whigs and undermined “the masses'” faith in the party. Greeley mourned this Pyrrhic victory: Whigs were “at once triumphant and undone.”

Greeley turned out to be right. Taylor was the last Whig president. His nomination had attempted to paper over the sectional tensions that would kill the party, but ultimately exacerbated them. Running a war hero mocked the Whig’s anti-war stand just as running a slaveholder failed to calm the divisive slavery issue. And, as a nonpartisan outsider, Taylor proved particularly unsuited to manage these internal party battles once elected.

Most dispiriting, Taylor, who made no pledges and had no principles, gave rank-and-file Whig voters nothing to champion, while alienating many of the most committed loyalists. In The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, the historian Michael Holt notes that Taylor’s victory triggered an “internal struggle for the soul of the Whig party”: was it more committed to seizing power or upholding principle? Underlying that debate was also a deeper question, still pressing today, about the role of fame, popularity, celebrity, in presidential campaigning—and American political leadership.

Unfortunately for the wobbling Whigs, Southerners then felt betrayed when Taylor took a nationalist approach brokering what became the Compromise of 1850. As a result, Holt writes, “Within a year of Taylor’s victory, hopes raised by Whigs’ performance in 1848 would be dashed. Within four years, they would be routed by” the Democrats. “Within eight, the Whig party would totally disappear as a functioning political organization.”

Neither destiny nor sorcery, history offers warning signs to avoid and points of light for inspiration. America’s modern two-party system is remarkably resilient. Republicans have recently enjoyed a surge in gubernatorial, congressional and state legislative wins. Still, Trump and the Republicans might want to study 1848 to see the damage even a winning insurgent can both signal and cause. And many Republicans might want to consider what is worse: the institutional problems mass defections by “Conscience Republicans” could bring about—or the moral ruin that could come from the ones who stay behind, choosing to pursue party power over principles.

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