Memo to the New York Times: Donald Trump is a Republican

A field guide to identifying Republicans in the wild.

Found one! Credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Found one! Credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

The North American Republican is a wily creature. Territorial. Obsessed with tax cuts. And, like the coral snake, difficult for some people to distinguish from its less venomous cousins.

Crikey! That’s quite a blunder by the Grey Lady. And it’s not a blunder limited to just the Times.

Even the Washington Post’s Robert Costa, a whip-smart, deeply sourced chronicler of the GOP, fell for this clever ruse.

So, let’s be clear. Donald Trump won the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. He filled his cabinet with doctrinaire Republicans. He’s relied heavily on the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group closely aligned with the Republican Party, in selecting federal judges. He backed the GOP’s years-long goal of repealing the Affordable Care Act. He is a climate denier. His budget slashes safety net programs, long a top priority of Republican leaders like Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI). Trump even gave a major policy speech demanding business tax cuts at the very moment when rescuers were struggling to pull Hurricane victims in Texas from their flooded homes.

Donald Trump is a Republican.

But its not impossible to see how journalists unfamiliar with the last century of American political history could come away with a different impression. Trump, as compared to, say, Ryan, places a much heavier rhetorical emphasis on racial grievance, and has even claimed that he would protect programs like Medicaid (which Trumpcare would have gutted) or Social Security (which Trump’s budget would cut). The event that sparked so many hot takes suggesting that Trump may not be a Republican was a single deal he struck with Democratic leaders, which funds hurricane relief and keeps the government open for three months.


But the idea that Trump is, as the New York Times claims, a party-busting figure similar to Theodore Roosevelt — who ran on a third-party “Bull Moose” ticket after serving most of two full presidential terms as a Republican — is just silly. It both ignores the way political parties have become more ideologically coherent in recent years, and also reveals ignorance about the last century of America’s racial politics.

The rise of Trump, and the waning influence of Republicans like Paul Ryan, is not a sign that Trump is a political independent. It means that the racist wing of the Republican Party is winning an internal power struggle against the anti-government wing.

The rise of coherent parties

The emergence of the Republican Party as an ideological coalition with coherent political views — skepticism towards business regulation, hostility towards safety net programs, ambivalence or outright opposition towards civil rights laws —  is a fairly new phenomenon in America’s post-Civil War history. Just as the emergence of the Democratic Party as a somewhat coherent opposition to the Republican Party’s agenda is also a fairly new development.

Indeed, Theodore Roosevelt’s bid, which the Times holds up as a low-water mark for two-party politics, says more about the incoherence of our political parties for much of the twentieth century than it does about Trump or Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a boisterous, reformist New York governor pushed into the vice-presidency by Republican Party boss Thomas C. Platt — who hoped that the largely powerless #2 job would neutralize Roosevelt and allow Platt to regain power within New York.


Instead, President William McKinley was cut down by an assassin’s bullet, and Roosevelt became the most powerful man in the nation just months after leaving behind his governorship. Roosevelt’s rise terrified McKinley’s top allies. “I told William McKinley it was a mistake to nominate that wild man in Philadelphia,” senator and Republican “national boss” Mark Hanna exclaimed after Roosevelt’s ascension. “Now look, that damned cowboy is President of the United States!

Roosevelt’s top lieutenant for most of his presidency was William Howard Taft, who eventually became the damned cowboy’s secretary of war. And, after more than seven years in the White House, Roosevelt passed on the presidency to Taft as his anointed successor. Yet, once out of office, Roosevelt grew stir-crazy and frustrated by the more conservative bent of the Taft administration. He eventually decided to run against his former friend on a progressive ticket — splitting the Republican vote and allowing Democrat Woodrow Wilson to seize the presidency.

Democrats, meanwhile, were no more coherent than the GOP. As late as 1924, Democrats nominated John W. Davis — a former congressman, solicitor general, and ambassador — for the presidency. After losing, Davis would go on unsuccessfully defend public school segregation before the Supreme Court. He also became one of Democratic president Franklin Roosevelt’s antagonists and a frequent spokesperson for the anti-New Deal Liberty League.

Davis was joined in the League by the Democratic Party’s 1928 presidential nominee, Al Smith.

The success of FDR’s New Deal entrenched the Democratic brand as the party of business regulation and redistribution, and eventually made politicians like Davis decide that they felt more welcome elsewhere. But the Democratic Party — which, after all, was the party that opposed Abraham Lincoln and Reconstruction — did not develop its modern identity as the party of civil rights until very recently.

Up until the 1960s, the South, with its voting rights restrictions and white-supremacist governments, was a collection of one-party states. And, because many Southern whites still resented the GOP’s role in the Civil War and its immediate aftermath, that one party was the Democrats. When Lyndon Johnson, himself a southern Democrat, entered the White House in 1963, the Democratic Party was still a dog’s breakfast of northern liberals, southern populists, and even a few purist conservatives like Sen. Harry Byrd (D-VA), whose hatred of government spending would make Paul Ryan smile.


After signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Johnson reportedly turned to his press secretary and said that he feared that Democrats “have lost the South for a generation” due to their new association with civil rights. He wasn’t wrong.

Welfare chauvinism

One of the most important charts, if you want to understand how men like Donald Trump have come to dominate a party once led by men like Paul Ryan, is this one.

CREDIT: Center for American Progress
CREDIT: Center for American Progress

What it shows is that Ryan’s mix of Medicare vouchers, deep Medicaid cuts, deep cuts to food stamps, and tax cuts for the wealthy is not popular. It is not popular with the nation as a whole. It is not popular with Republicans. It is not even popular with Republican donors. Only rich Republican donors support Ryan’s designs.

The GOP, in other words, had a problem. It wanted to win elections, but was also trying to sell voters on a set of policy proposals virtually no one likes. There’s simply no way to build a majority around the Ryan Budget. There is a way to build a majority coalition, however, between voters who support the GOP’s economic policies and other voters who recoil culturally against liberalism. And this is where the kind of voters LBJ angered with his civil rights agenda come into play.

Because America’s system of government will necessarily lead to a two-party system, it is easy to view modern American politics as a struggle between two different factions — a multicultural, pro-government faction and an anti-government faction increasingly driven by white identity politics. But there is diversity within these two coalitions, and many allegiances formed between groups that are not natural allies.

One of the most important shifts in American politics since the 1960s is the Republican Party’s capture of racist populists that previously identified with the Democrats. Though some southern Democrats were also Paul Ryan austerity fetishists in the vein of Harry Byrd, much of the Jim Crow South was dominated by welfare chauvinists — politicians who believed both in government largess towards poor whites and cruel oppression towards African Americans.

Alabama Gov. George Wallace was a New Dealer who embraced the politics of racism after he discovered that it was the only way to advance his career. South Carolina’s “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman led a murderous “rifle club” that cut down African Americans in acts of terrorism, yet he also built two state colleges and sponsored the first national legislation banning corporate political donations. Tillman’s protégé, Jimmy Byrnes, would go on to serve as a congressman, senator, Supreme Court justice, secretary of state and as Franklin Roosevelt’s right-hand man (when FDR traveled abroad, he would sometimes leave Byrnes a safe full of signed, blank executive orders, just in case the need arose).

Byrnes also held one other job in government. He was the governor of South Carolina who hired John W. Davis to defend segregation in the Supreme Court.

LBJ’s embrace of civil rights forced welfare chauvinists to choose between the party that supported their economic interests and the party that more closely aligned with their views on race. And the Republican Party started actively courting these voters not long after the Civil Rights Act became law. That was the purpose behind Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and many of his appeals to “law and order.” It’s why Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 presidential campaign near Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of a brutal murder of three civil rights workers. And it’s why he told the largely white Mississippi audience “I believe in states’ rights.”

With welfare chauvinists joining the GOP’s other constituencies, the party was able to form a coalition that could compete in national elections.

Yet, as men like Paul Ryan moved the Republican Party’s economic agenda further and further to the right, that agenda appealed to fewer and fewer people. To win, Republicans had to win more and more support from voters who do not support their economic agenda, and that meant that welfare chauvinists make up a larger and larger share of the Republican Party coalition.

The genius of Donald Trump is that he figured out that he could win the GOP’s nomination by appealing directly to the kind of voters who, once upon a time, would have supported George Wallace. Even though the party’s leadership was largely controlled by fiscal conservatives similar to Ryan, the bulk of the party’s membership supported a very different agenda. And Trump campaigned for his party’s nomination by appealing to that agenda — even if his White House has largely found common cause with the Ryan faction.

Donald Trump, in other words, is not an independent. And he is certainly not a third-party powerhouse in the vein of the Bull Moose. He is the leader of a major faction within the Republican Party — a faction that is just now discovering that it is powerful enough to challenge the GOP’s longtime leaders.