“There’s Nothing Republican About the Republican Party”
In 1854, at a schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisconsin, former members of the defunct Whig Party met, seeking to create a new party based on the principles of the old Democratic-Republican Party of Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The new Republican Party that they created stood firmly against the expansion of slavery and thus began to rapidly draw support in the Northern states. Two years later, its first presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, won 11 out of 16 Northern states. Four years later, its second presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the presidency and went on to become one of the most renowned presidents in American history.
From its very beginning, the Republican Party has endorsed principles of civic responsibility, predicated on the conviction that liberty demands freedom from undue governmental burden and relies on a democratic and representative government of a free people.
Rallying cries of the party’s first election included “Free men, free soil, free press, free labor, free Kansas, free speech, Frémont!” In Gettysburg, Lincoln championed a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” and succeeded in his fight that it should “not perish from this earth.” Even the women’s suffrage movement aligned itself with the Republican Party. Essentially, the opposition of the Republican Party to any encroachment of government power upon individual liberties, whether at the establishment or grassroots level, has defined its progression across time.
True to its values of protecting personal freedom, the Republican Party as a movement has been consistently allied with the concept of “small-r” republicanism, despite the fact that its name derived more simply from the Democratic-Republican Party, whose principles the new party sought to emulate.
It is this same Democratic-Republican Party whose luminaries were often cited as instrumental supporters of republicanism as a governing philosophy. Per the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the concept of republicanism fundamentally centers on freedom from “large” and invasive governance by an arbitrary power. Republicanism emphasizes that the rule of law should define the structure of society and often recognizes the few ways in which government can facilitate the rule of law.
It must be noted that (small r!) republicanism diverts such powers of government, to the largest extent possible, away from the designs of a single executive head of government. Instead, republicanism directs the greatest powers of governance towards elected, representative legislators, who work as a group to protect the public from gross government overreach—a particularly fitting undertone for a political philosophy that notably originated in opposition to a monarchy. This contextualizes the jeers that refer to presidents as monarchs, exemplified most recently in caricatures of former President Barack Obama as “King Obama” in right-wing media. This serves as proof of the clear and present fear of executive overreach that appears in both a republican form of government and in the Republican Party’s political philosophy.
It is therefore also clear that the connection between the Republican Party, henceforth referred to as the GOP to avoid confusion, and republicanism reaches far beyond the coincidental nature of their names. The principles of liberty and rule of law form some of the strongest threads of governing philosophy that run throughout the Republican Party’s history.
But this strong tradition finds itself betrayed by the behavior of the new Trump administration. President Trump, throughout his short time in office, his candidacy, and even in his career before entering politics, has displayed a marked lean towards authoritarianism, a lean reinforced by the actions of his staff and, now, his government.
Vox’s political writer Amanda Taub defines authoritarianism well: it is “a term political scientists use for a worldview that values order and authority and distrusts outsiders and social change.” Taub goes on to describe (italics are my own, for emphasis) authoritarians as people who seek out “strongmen leaders who are punitive, who target out groups and have a simple, forceful leadership style that makes them feel strong. And if you were going to grow that candidate in a lab, he would look a lot like Donald Trump.”
Anticipating that readers who support President Trump’s policies might find such a description unflattering, I will seek to elaborate on this definition with no commentary on its merits or drawbacks. There is inherent validity in being authoritarian and in supporting authoritarian candidates and viewpoints, just as there is validity in supporting republican viewpoints, libertarian viewpoints, capitalist viewpoints, or socialist viewpoints.
The term itself is often avoided in the Trump administration’s public comments and actions, presumably due to its negative association with many dictatorships or other anti-democratic governments that American leaders of both parties have opposed since the inception of the American republic. But President Trump, on the campaign trail and in office, has shown no hesitation in praising many of these same leaders and their governing styles. The president’s seemingly cozy relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin is the most publicized example, given that Trump recently compared the legacy of President Putin’s regime to that of the United States by asking Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, “You think our country’s so innocent?” Trump has also praised former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for his capacity in fighting terrorist insurgencies, Kim Jong Un for his “pretty amazing [...] takeover” of the North Korean government, and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad for “getting an A in terms of leadership”—even as news swirled around President Al-Assad’s violent actions against civilians as part of the Syrian Civil War, actions that Human Rights Watch has since deemed genocidal.
President Trump has also sought to employ wide-ranging executive power as a solution for many of the ills of American government. One particularly prominent example is the President’s oft-expressed wish that the American military had “taken the oil”during the Iraq War by seizing control of Iraqi oil fields. This wish also features heavily into his publicly stated proposals for the fight against ISIS, though it has been classified by many as a war crime. In response, President Trump was quoted by CNN as saying, “Can you believe that? Who are the critics that say that? Fools. I don’t call them critics. I call them fools.”
In office, President Trump has not been shy to display these strongman tendencies to foreign leaders. German chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly had to inform the president about the ramifications of the Geneva Convention, a substantial treaty that defines international law for war crimes and other ethical violations perpetrated against both foreign governments and one’s own people. President Trump also reportedly threatened to send American armed forces into Mexico to help deal with “bad hombres” causing civil unrest, though both the American and Mexican governments have denied that he made such a threat during a conversation with Mexico’s president.
In hiring brazen authoritarians for important positions, such as Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist (who derided the media as “the opposition party,” managed to land a permanent seat in the White House situation room, and contributed extensively to an executive order banning people from several Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States) and Jeff Sessions as Attorney General (who was denied a federal judgeship in 1984 due to accusations of racism and was condemned by Coretta Scott King for actively denying civil rights in his role as Alabama’s Attorney General), President Trump ensures that authoritarian tendencies will find their way into the bastions of American policymaking.
In his sparse Oval Office, which does not even feature family photos, President Trump has hung a lone portrait of President Andrew Jackson, the founder of the Democratic Party, whose authoritarian, populist policies—which led, in part, to the destruction of the Second National Bank and the Trail of Tears—are said to be an inspiration to Mr. Trump. And these leanings are not new. President Trump’s first-ever mention in the New York Times in 1973 was the result of a lawsuit brought against his company by the Department of Justice, on account of its discriminatory policies against non-white tenants.
But just as the republican philosophy has a long history in the GOP, so does this authoritarian bend. Frequently recounted in American History classes is the “witchhunt” of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy and the largely Republican “House Un-American Activities Committee.” Their now-decried investigations, which sought to weed out communists from within the American government, have found a high-profile supporter in former House Speaker and Trump advocate, Newt Gingrich. Gingrich appeared on several news programs after the 2016 election, calling for the restoration of the Committee in order to find supporters of “radical Islamic terrorism” in government circles.
Prominent GOP presidents Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt—patriots featured on the face of Mount Rushmore—are also credited with some of the largest expansions in executive power in American history. Lincoln carried out the Emancipation Proclamation by executive order and refused to comply with a Supreme Court decision overturning his suspension of the right to habeas corpus for those believed to be supporters of the Confederate insurgency. Likewise, in pursuit of construction for the Panama Canal, President Roosevelt supported a coup d’etat against the Colombian government that resulted in independence for Panama. He also took brazen, unilateral action to ensure the formation of the National Park System and to “bust” trusts in the largest industries of the American economy.Even President Ronald Reagan, a prominent proponent of Republican small-government philosophy and, by many polling standards, the most popular modern President, did not shy away from using of executive power. He invaded Grenada without congressional approval, or even awareness, he was sued repeatedly for undemocratic measures taken as a part of the “War on Drugs,” and he prevented large-scale treatment measures for the HIV/AIDS epidemic due to its mistaken association with homosexual Americans. Note that resistance to societal change is a tenet of authoritarianism in my aforementioned definition. The prominence of figures such as Pat Buchanan and Strom Thurmond at some of the highest levels of modern Republican Party politics also speaks to the historical trend of social conservatism.
The strains of republicanism and authoritarianism have warred constantly for control of the Republican Party, and one might argue that these tendencies play into what many call “political decay.” This concept—popularized by political scientist Francis Fukuyama—suggests a trend in the development of liberal democracies and republics: such governments can crumble from the deterioration of their own internal institutions rather than through intentional sabotage by external sources. Fukuyama considers Trump’s election to have actually vindicated republicanism in an important sense: the peaceful transfer of power, one of the most central republican practices, functioned smoothly in allowing President Trump to assume office. In weaker democracies, such a transition might have been hindered, given that those in power before him largely opposed his win.
However, in an interview on the “Ezra Klein Show” podcast, Fukuyama bluntly categorized Trump’s rise as “one of the most severe political crises [he has] experienced in [his] lifetime,” and described the president’s disregard for many of America’s most revered republican institutions as a cause for worry. During his short time in office, the president has expressed anger and disdain at “so-called judges” and has shown little patience for many of America’s limits upon presidential power, such as confidentiality law—President Trump was found to have a partially opened lock-bag on full display at an IBM event in the Oval Office, as well as to have discussed policy towards North Korea publicly with advisors at his Mar-a-Lago resort—and conflict-of-interest restrictions—implicitly condoning Counselor Kellyanne Conway’s promotion of his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line from the White House press room and refusing to place his assets in a blind trust.
It must be emphasized, however, that the issues surrounding republican decay are not localized merely to the GOP, but have taken hold across parties and throughout American governmental systems. The Democratic and Republican parties have switched positions over the course of their heavily-intertwined histories. For example, the first Democratic president was the aforementioned Andrew Jackson and President Trump’s judicial disdain finds a historical precedent in the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was of the most prominent figures in the modern Democratic Party. The same Franklin D. Roosevelt infamously interned thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II, largely due to racist fears, and less-famously sought to unilaterally change the date of Thanksgiving and add three new justices to the Supreme Court to help enforce his own agenda.
Presidential impeachment, the ever-important limitation upon executive power, has never been executed by the Senate. When Democratic presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were drawn up by the House on articles of impeachment, partisan support for the presidents at the Senate level stalled any further action. Increased party polarization suggests that any future impeachment of President Trump would be doubtful.
As a result of many of the developments described above, the American executive has acquired immense powers through which to pursue strongly anti-republican actions. From drone strikes to surveillance powers to data calculation by the various Cabinet departments, the powers of the American president are largely restricted by norms, not laws, and could be very easily twisted to create the kind of autocratic state Mr. Trump has praised in the past.
The question, therefore, that lies before us is whether or not President Trump will follow through on his many autocratic-leaning statements and employ the power and force of the American government in a manner reckless enough to violate the norms currently holding the American republic together, thereby driving it further toward decay. If he does, then we must all look to Congress, to the judiciary, to the American media, and to the American public to see whether they will step forward and safeguard the traditions of the American republic from those who would see them crumble.