From the party dedicated to the freedom of the enslaved, to the one who is a staple of Western right-wing politics, the Republican Party’s history is as rich and fascinating as their current state. With the Republicans controlling the White House, Congress and Governorships, as well as having a conservative majority in the Supreme Court, the party is the highest it’s been since 1928, the last time it held all of those things. With their agenda leading America, it’s safe to say that that the Republicans are enjoying a honeymoon period of power.
So what is the Republican Party? Is it the party of Lincoln, of Reagan, or of Trump? Is it a party that believes in tradition? Is it a party that champions the opportunity of everyone, whoever they are? Is it all of those things, or perhaps none at all? Let’s take a look at how the party has progressed, and perhaps where it will in the future.
1854-1865- Founding, Emancipation and some guy named Abe Lincoln.
In 1854, slavery was still sadly a way of life for many Americans, whether slaves or owners. Though many states had banned it, it was still legal in many, usually Southern states. You don’t need this article to tell you what these Africans-Americans went through. This is when the Republican Party came to existent. A group of men- dreamers, idealists in a good sense, came together. Though the abolition of slavery was not their primary interest (they merely opposed its expansion, though some Radical Republicans called for its complete banning), it was something that they were known for. Those who disliked the party would often use derogatory terms to describe its members and supports, the Democrats decrying their support for slaves. Thus, the party showed no interest in expanding in the South, where they would get little support- a far cry from today.
The party was lucky in that it boomed quickly. It soon became the main piece of opposition in the North of the USA, sweeping up support in states where slavery was not so widespread.
This support soon turned into electoral success. In 1860, an enigmatic lawyer named Abraham Lincoln was put up as their party representative in the year’s election. A former Illinois Congressman from the Whig Party, Lincoln has been instrumental in helping the Republican Party come into being. A physically imposing man at 6’4, Lincoln’s greatest asset was his skills as an orator, which came in handy when debating with Democratic rival Stephen Douglas, in the seven famous ‘Lincoln-Douglas’ debates. In November of that year, Lincoln was elected as President, the first Republican and 16th POTUS, following a line of great men, including Father of the Nation George Washington. It was almost unthinkable- only six years previously, the party had come into existence. Now, they were the party of the executive branch. To put it into perspective, it took 24 years from its 1900 creating or the Labour Party to put up a Prime Minister, and even then, it was still a minority government.
Then, 1861 happened.
The American Civil War was a defining moment in US History. With slavery and economics playing a defining role in the breakup of the United States into several parts- the Union, Border States and the Confederacy. As the war raged on, the newest party found themselves in an unusual position of power.
The most famous Republican issue at the time was that of 1863’s Emancipation Proclamation. As the Republicans became associated with Lincoln, seen by many as the man who freed the slaves (whilst forgetting that, he like many in his time, displayed attitudes that would commonly be called racist today), he started the trend of the Republicans being the party of the African-Americans, something that continued until Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. Though slavery was immediately abolished by this announcement, it could not be properly enforced until the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, which was not ratified until December 6, 1865. With that, the Civil War was primary known as the war regarding slavery.
Lincoln was re-elected in 1864, in a landslide not seen until Reagan hoovered up 49 states in the 1984 election. In an effort to create unity, he selected Andrew Johnson, his Democratic opponent as his Vice President. Considering how lenient the President could be in choosing his VP back then, it was unsurprising that he wanted a physical and political display of the Union.
Those who know their history will know that it did not last for arguably America’s most beloved President. On April 14th 1865-Good Friday- Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre by Confederate sympathiser and actor John Wilkes Booth. His death may have prevented his work from being seen through, but his legacy prevailed- he is, after perhaps General Washington, the most popular and beloved President.
Between the founding of the party and the death of its first President, the Republicans enjoyed an unprecedented rise. Whilst despised in the South due to its anti-slavery platform, it still managed to win two elections, one by a massive landslide. Though the Republicans had a variety of policies- they were known as modernisers-they were known, and still are, as being founded as the anti-slavery party.
1866- 1877- Radicals, Reconstruction and Reunification
As Lincoln had picked Andrew Johnson as his VP, the Republicans expected that they would be able to work well with him in delivering a reform package which punished the South and allowed African-Americans more rights.
They were wrong.
Though Johnson was in favour of the Union, he was still more sympathetic to the South than many under him would have preferred. Johnson was unwilling to punish the South, and wished for the former Confederate states to be brought back to the Union more quickly. Though most Republicans were not willing to be too harsh, the so-called ‘Radical Republicans’ controlled the House and the Armed Forces, meaning that compromise was not a thing known to the Johnson Administration. Most notably, Johnson attempted to use his presidential veto to block the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Unfortunately for the leader, both Houses of Congress overrode it with the 2/3 majority needed- just one example between the friction of the Democrat President and his Republican legislators. Eventually, enough was enough, and impeachment was brought against Johnson. Fortunately for the unfortunate man, he was saved by just one single vote. Due to the power of the legislature in the United States, the Radical Republicans were permitted to continue their programme of a harsh Reconstruction- leading to resentment in the South.
In 1868, Ulysses S. Grant was elected as the second Republican President. A highly respected General, Grant had led the Union Forces during the Civil War, and has almost been with Lincoln during the fateful night of the latter’s assassination. His election meant that the Republicans dominated government, as well as the armed forces and other factions which would impact on Reconstruction. Grant, though regarded unfavourably by historians- especially after the corruption and inactivity of his administration, was well known as being in favour of civil rights. He passed the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, an effort to squash the group, as well as the later Civil Rights Act of 1875. Furthermore, he encouraged the citizenship of Native Americans.
To go away from Civil Rights, we must look at Grant’s economic policies. Congress introduced ‘greenback notes’ in order to pay off war debts. Unfortunately, whilst debts were paid off, the introduction of a new type of currency caused inflation- the greenbacks were soon pulled. Like later Presidents, such as Roosevelt and Bush, Grant’s economic policies were put to the test in the Panic of 1873. Again, Grant used Keynesian economics to sort it out- something completely different to the laissez-faire economics characterising the Republican economic policy that we know now. In this case, he injected capital into the banking system. Unfortunately, this led to decline in the non-banking sectors of the economy, causing industrial decay across the nature.
Grant could have gone for a third term, as the 22nd Amendment did not exist until nearly one hundred years later, but the mishandling of the economy and corruption scandals that had defined his second term had weakened him, and he was not chosen by his party. Instead, Rutherford B. Hayes, the Governor of Ohio, was selected by the party. For those who know their history, they’ll know that the election was probably one of the most controversial in history, along with the infamous 2000 election. Hayes lost the popular vote to his Democratic rival, and received some highly controversial electoral votes- winning by a hair. This led to the Compromise of 1877, which we’ll lead onto soon.
The Administration of Grant was almost a complete opposite to what we think of the Republican Party today. Whilst Republicans today often oppose discrimination legislation- usually on ideological grounds of opposing state interference with private enterprise- the Grant era was almost characterised by its sharp focus on civil rights. This success can be pinned down to the same party controlling both the executive and legislative branch, something today’s Trump administration is currently enjoying. Furthermore, his fiscal interventionist views in an economic crisis are strangely different to the laissez-faire attitude that lost Hoover any chance of dignity or re-election after his handling of the Great Depression.
1877-1896- The Gilded Era, Electoral Divisions and Factions
The Compromise of 1877 meant that Hayes could ascend to the Presidency without (too much) squabble. In its most basic explanation, the last federal troops were pulled out of the South, effectively ending Reconstruction for good. As soon as that occurred, there was nothing stopping Jim Crows from spreading throughout the South. The Republicans had failed in their mission to protect the newly freed slaves.
The age brought in both Republican and Democrat administrations, but again, it was economic policy that lost them those important votes. The Republican Party continued the protectionist stance that they had founded their party upon, raising tariffs as his had done in Lincoln’s day. This protectionist method was not popular with the American public, and lost the party its 1892 elections. Similarly to its current force, big business was generally supported by the GOP, though the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act was an unusually anti-big business piece of legislation.
In 1881, the party was dealt a blow by the assassination of President James Garfield. Though he was only short-lived, he was a popular, well-meaning leader. Like earlier Republicans, he was progressive on civil rights, as well as on other matters. He may have survived had his doctors not botched his treatments, but he sadly died- his assassin infamously said he had ‘only shot him.’ Though he was obviously succeeded by a Republican, his assassination was still a blow to morale, and to the party’s progressiveness towards civil rights.
The tariffs put forward by the Republicans were perhaps responsible for the Panic of 1893, however, fortunately for the Party; the Democrats were blamed for the intensity of its effects. Gold reserves were at an all time low, forcing the government to borrow from banks- an unpopular move, considering the left-wing Populist Party was starting up. In 1894, the Republicans made unprecedented gains in the elections, allowing them to control Congress once again, against an unpopular Democratic government.
With unprecedented highs in terms of electoral possibility, something countered by some economic downfalls, the Gilded Era was a mixed bag for the GOP. They had failed in protecting the rights of the men and women they had worked hard in order to free, ushering in a new age of oppression for many minorities- especially African-Americans. The Democrats, however, only won two elections in the nineteen year period- showing that the Republicans meant business.
1896-1908- McKinley, ‘That Damn Cowboy,’ and the Progressive Era
1896 gave birth to the election of William McKinley, and ushered in the so-called ‘Progressive Era.’ The voters had forgotten the McKinley Tariff that was retracted by the government due to its unpopularity, and McKinley won.
The Progressive Era was known for its political and social reforms, with civil rights being no exception to this rule. McKinley was sympathetic to African-Americans, and spoke out against injustices such as lynching; however, there was an integral voting problem- the whites would not support him. Whilst he did give African-Americans certain posts within his administration, he backtracked if whites argued against it, stayed silent on racial incidents, and was overall minimal in his response to any issues. Though the party could remain that of the African-Americans, many who were enfranchises felt disheartened by his lack of response to their plight. McKinley was not alone in this- later Presidents would also struggle with between their conscience and their electability, most notably Kennedy. Still, for a party that was partially founded on helping African-Americans, it was a blow to their voters.
McKinley continued his stance as a protectionist- something followed by later Republicans such as Trump, something that he would use to his advantage in the 1900 election.
What is more interesting, however, is the foreign policy that McKinley pursued. The Republican Party has been torn between Wilsonian isolationism and Bush neo-conservatism, and with everything in between, for years- so it’s unsurprising that McKinley held interesting beliefs. Instead of the Middle East, however, it was Latin America that the President chose to focus upon. Similarly to how Bush wanted freedom for Iraq from Hussein, McKinley wanted independence for Cuba, who were being treated fairly harshly by the Spanish. McKinley initially kept diplomatic lines open, but the sinking of an American vessel by an underwater bomb pushed the President into the Spanish-American war. Interestingly, the American public had been the first ones to push for war. Furthermore, it was a war approved by Congress- a Republican dominated one, mirroring the declaration of the invasion of Iraq in the 2003 Congress. The appetite for war was a Republican dish, and the expansionist policies (the US gained several islands, such as Guam, from the move) were contrary to the anti-imperialist views of later Presidents.
This imperialist attitude, as well as his protectionist economic policies, won McKinley re-election in 1900. His VP, however, had died the following year, ushering in a new Second Man…
Theodore Roosevelt, commonly known was ‘Teddy,’ was pushed into the slot. He didn’t particularly want it, seeing it as a useless job, but nevertheless accepted it. Furthermore, Roosevelt was soon as a liability, a loose cannon after his involvement in the Spanish-American War. By being in that slot, the famous Republican could be watched closely by others in the party.
Then, in 1901, a man named Leon Czolgosz travelled to Buffalo, New York. When McKinley went to shake his hand, Czolgosz shot him. Several days later, and the infection killed him. Similarly to Garfield, he may have survived had the doctors involved not botched his treatment. With his death, Roosevelt became President.
Where McKinley was a conservative, Roosevelt was a liberal. He wasn’t a liberal in the sense that we may understand today, but both major parties had their conservative and liberal factions at the turn of the century. Similarly to McKinley, he was interested in promoting race relations, but was also unwilling to do much due to public pressure. Inviting businessman Booker T. Washington to the White House caused so much upset that it prevented him from doing so again. Roosevelt was also a proponent of female suffrage; however, Congress was still against passing it on a federal level.
Because of his progressivism, Roosevelt’s band of Republicanism was somewhat on its own. Whereas the modern Republican favours small government, Roosevelt believed in the regulation of large industries, specifically railways. Concerned about its effects on consumers, Roosevelt sought to create a price cap on fares, amongst others. Furthermore, Roosevelt happened in the business of trust-busting, an act that had arguably started with McKinley, but had been furthered by his eventual successor. TR was concerned about big business, contrasting with the current Republican Party favouring them in deregulation and tax breaks. In his persistence of vanquishing the power of large businesses, Roosevelt earned the name ‘The Trust Buster.’
Though this was known was the ‘Progressive Era,’ the conservative McKinley was not so. Though his administration did not characterise this, the political and social reforms that followed- such as the trust busting- showed off the liberal wing of the party, something we haven’t seen since. Both wildly popular in their day, both men also exemplified the popularity politics of the day.
1909-1932- War, Post-War and Economic Cartwheels
Roosevelt’s popularity allowed his chosen successor, William H. Taft, to easily succeed to the Presidency. What occurred, however, was a split within the party.
The progressive and conservative wings of the party became to cause friction within it. Taft was generally opposite to Roosevelt in terms of politics- Taft favoured the conservative wing, and had taken down the tariffs that were the hallmark of Republican protectionist policy. Whilst other areas of this article have focused on policy, this will focus upon the party itself. Taft’s Vice President was picked to satisfy the conservatives who saw him as a progressive, and he took care to appoint conservative members in his political positions. This put him at odds with Roosevelt, who became more and more progressive in his post-Presidency. Some supported Taft, and some supported Roosevelt. Either way, the head butting of the two former allies caused a split between the GOP.
Considering that Taft is seen by historians as only an average President, this may be why. With all this infighting, Taft was never able to pass through any hugely significant legislation- at least significant in terms of modern-day memory.
Roosevelt running for a third term split the party, and Taft lost soundly to Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1912. Though the US initially stood and watched WW1 through its isolationist glasses, Wilson eventually brought the US into the fold in 1917. Both inside and outside of the conflict, WW1 defined the US for a generation. Roosevelt had been upset at Wilson for not going in sooner, but the Republicans were generally less in favour of WW1 entry, with more of them voting against the US entry than the Democrats. This followed through when Wilson attempted to get the USA into the League of Nations, his brainchild. Unfortunately for him, America no longer had the appetite for invasive foreign affairs, and his hopes of getting involved were killed off.
After Wilson finished his second term, the Republicans enjoyed the entire 1920s in the Oval Office, starting with Warren G. Harding. Whilst Taft’s administration had been characterised by in-fighting, Harding’s was full of scandal. Scandal is nothing new to politics, but this was the most major Republican one until Nixon and Watergate. The most scandalous of these was the Teapot Dome Scandal, in which petrol was sold to private companies without proper procedure. Harding’s administration may have been corrupt, but he was not, and he did not know of what went on. With this, it made the Republican party look weak and dishonest, something especially worrying since they followed Wilson, who was known for his stiffness and propriety.
Harding suddenly died in 1923, and his job was taken over by Calvin ‘Silent Cal’ Coolidge, his Vice President. Coolidge, and successor Herbert Hoover, were known for their laissez-faire economic policy and ‘hands-off’ approach to government, an ideology often applied to the Republican Party. Coolidge, in fact, was reported to be a favourite President of Ronald Reagan. Whilst Coolidge was elected himself in 1924, it would be this laissez-faire policy that would be the downfall of Hoover.
Hoover was less than a year in office when the Great Depression hit. The President was of the belief that it could handle itself, and that the economy would get itself in order soon enough. Unfortunately for him, the situation worsened whatever he did. Eventually, Hoover started to invest in infrastructure building and public service, but the Depression worsened still, with unemployment hitting record highs. The voters rewarded him by booting him out of office, electing Democrat.
Though they two terms to Woodrow Wilson, the Presidency between the two Roosevelts was mainly controlled by the Republican Party, who enjoyed unprecedented executive power. Unfortunately, that was not matched by stability. With the party split in Taft’s time, scandals hitting Harding, inactivity in Coolidge’s and economic incompetency in Hoover’s, the Republican Party was pretty on the outside, but ugly on the inside. This resulted in something that they will always regret…
1933-1945- New Deal, Democrats and War (What is it good for)?
In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt held on hand on a Bible and the other in the air, taking the Oath of Office. Little did those watching know, but FDR would go onto be the only President to win four elections. As soon as he was in the Oval Office, he unveiled an ambitious programme known was the ‘New Deal.’ Hoping to alleviate the poverty that many Americans now lived in, he began funding many federal programmes designed to get unemployment down, and the economy up. This action was popular with the voters, allowing him electoral success after electoral success.
The Republicans, however, were less than happy.
This programme reeked of socialism, and many opposed his policies. Many were also angered about the amount of legislation put in front of them, especially since they increasingly lost the numbers in which to deal with it. Republicans were united in this sense, but the liberal v conservative debate still raged on, as it had done in Taft’s day. Also, in even more unfortunate news, the Republicans were now no longer the party of the African-Americans. Minorities were increasingly gaining under the New Deal, and were now splitting off into the Democrats’ pocket.
In the coming years, the Republicans enjoyed both splits and unity. In terms of defeating the New Deal, the Conservative Coalition- a mix of Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats succeeded, especially as war created better conditions for the United States citizens. This contrasted with the reaction of the Republicans as war broke out in Europe. Isolationists were pitted against so-called ‘internationalists’ as the GOP decided whether they should support British efforts against Nazi Germany and its allies. This, however, changed in 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor. One lone Republican Senator- Jeannette Rankin- voted against the war, a woman who had also voted against the First World War. With the New Deal dying and the war occupying everyone’s minds, the Republicans enjoyed a period of stability.
Roosevelt tragically died in 1945, but this did not mean the end of the Democratic Renaissance.
Though the Republicans picked up towards the end of the era, they mostly found themselves sitting on the outside of public opinion throughout the Great Depression and World War 2. Roosevelt’s Keynesian economics and caring attitude towards hit people made him popular amongst the electorate, and he enjoyed unprecedented wins. With less Congressmen and Senators, the Republicans didn’t have the ability to both fend off New Deal legislation and create their own programme. The tables had turned for the Party, who had enjoyed the 20s, but not the 30s or 40s.
1946-1960- Dewey Defeats Truman, The Nuclear Family (and Threat), and I Like Ike.
Harry Truman took over after Roosevelt’s death, and like his predecessor, did not get an easy time from the GOP. Truman, at least on the domestic front, wanted a continuation of Roosevelt’s policies. Unfortunately for the man, the Conservative Coalition was still alive and well, and was a powerful force in the legislature.
In the 1952 election, respected WW2 General Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected, with future President Richard Nixon as his running mate. Their dynamic was unusual. Whilst VPs were usually wheeled out at events, with not much official power, Eisenhower left Nixon to deal with the party. In this capacity, Nixon wielded a large amount of power as Eisenhower’s second in command. As a moderate, however, Eisenhower earned the ire of the conservatives in the party, especially those who were opposed to his interested in the UN and containment of communism. One such example was that of Joe McCarthy. Eisenhower attempted many times to turn the nation away from the violence of McCarthyism, considering how bloodthirsty the former Democrat was. Whilst he was happily re-elected in 1956, his policies led to a more conservative GOP- something that will be touched upon later.
Though the Cold War had unofficially started with the Truman Doctrine, it spread in the Eisenhower administration, and the proxy Korean War was a huge part of his legacy. When Eisenhower came into office, he inherited a stalemate. Fortunately for him, an armistice soon followed- as well as the division of the Korean Peninsula.
The 22nd Amendment forced Eisenhower’s executive retirement, and Richard Nixon stepped up to the plate. Unfortunately for him, he encountered a new foe. Where Nixon was old, plain and boring, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was young, handsome and exciting. Charismatic, the Democrat took advantage of the golden age of television. In the debates, the ill Nixon stuttered against the smooth Kennedy, who wowed a new generation of voters. The King Arthur of Camelot, Kennedy ran a strong campaign against an incumbent VP who was banking on experience. The election of 1960 was one of the most exciting. Kennedy barely scraped a win, thus ending eight years of Republican rule.
Communism and charisma were the two defining Republican traits of the period. Following anger against Truman and Eisenhower, the charisma of Kennedy swept the Democrats to victory in a race that could have easily been won by Nixon. It was a period that was characterised by wins and losses in equal measure. Most importantly, the moderate wing was melting away, and was finally torched by Nixon’s 1960 defeat. Conservatism was back en vogue, and would be gracing the cover of Republican Cosmo for years to come.
1961-1974- Camelot, LBJ and Watergate
In 1961, a new age of politics was ushered in. JFK, young and handsome, was the new face of politics. Along with his beautiful wife and young family, he was the poster boy for prosperity and change. The Democrats, at that point in time, was the party of the South. This, however, changed with Kennedy- like a lot of things did. Kennedy was now lobbying for the party to be the one that African-Americans could truly rely on, and not just in terms of votes.
The two things dominated Kennedy’s ‘New Frontier.’ The first was the Cold War, which came to a head in two memorable and tense moments- the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion and 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis. Neither were voted upon by Congress, with the first being a CIA-sponsored activity, therefore not allowing the GOP the luxury of a say in two major world events. This, however, gave the Republicans a new voter base. Cuban-Americans were angered by Kennedy’s unsuccessful actions and his apparent betrayal of their people, and from then on started aligning themselves with the Republicans, in contrast with other Latinos who usually vote Democrat.
Then, of course, there are civil rights. Kennedy’s untimely death meant that he was not able to pass everything he wanted, but legislation such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963 were passed under his administration. Unusually, it was the Democrats who were the opposition to this. As we have learnt, the Republicans were founded as the party of civil rights, and they were more receptive to Kennedy’s ambitious civil rights plan. His actions alienated the Southern Democrats, a huge base for the party, with nearly all of them united in opposition to the young President. Though the Democrats were now the party of the African-American, it seems as though its elected representatives hadn’t got the memo.
On November 22nd 1963, three bullets entered Kennedy as he travelled through Dallas, Texas. He arrived at Parkland Memorial Hospital alive, and left it dead. Just hours later, with a bloodied Jackie Kennedy by his side, Lyndon B. Johnson took the Oath of Office.
With the nation mourning the loss of a beloved President, Johnson knew that had the time to strike, and in July 1964, he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. If we can call anything landmark legislation, it is this, and it showed that the government finally meant business. Though the Democrats did help pass it, their majority was significantly lower than that of the Republicans, who were mostly firm in their backing of the act.
In the 1964 election, the conservative wing of the Party ascended Barry Goldwater to the nomination. A libertarian icon and author of the conservative Bible ‘Conscience of a Conservative,’ Goldwater had opposed the Civil Rights Act not on racial prejudice, but on concern of it infringing civil liberties and states’ rights. Goldwater had been a close friend of Kennedy, and had been crushed by his assassination, despising Johnson. Even though he fought hard, the death of Kennedy and Johnson’s strong campaign lost him the election, and he had to watch as Johnson took his place as a truly elected President. Johnson continued the civil rights agenda, and the landmark Voting Rights Act took place in 1965, finally giving African-Americans and other minorities the chance to truly voice their views at the ballot.
Fortunately for the Republicans, the Vietnam War escalated and caused Johnson to become hugely unpopular. As the chant of ‘Hey Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?’ haunted the unconventional Southern leader, the Republicans decided to strike. Nixon knew that the Democrats were divided by Vietnam, and launched a bid to become the 1986 Republican nominee. He eventually succeeded, but was up against Robert Kennedy, who was looking likely to gain the Democratic nomination. Unfortunately, the Kennedy Curse came into effect, and Bobby was tragically gunned down on the campaign trail. Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s VP, eventually became Nixon’s rival. After an election that emphasised social morality and the hugely unpopular Vietnam War, Nixon was rushed to victory.
Though Nixon was thought to be a moderate in the 1950s, he appealed to the socially conservative citizens who were concerned about the sexual revolution of the sixties and the hippie counterculture that had emerged from the Vietnam protests. Nixon didn’t seem as overtly pro-life as some contemporary Republicans such as Rick Santorum, but still didn’t endear himself to the liberals when later Watergate tapes revealed that he thought abortion was necessary in the case of life, and more controversially ‘interracial marriage.’ Interestingly, the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade was passed in his presidency, though he obviously had nothing to do with it due to it being a Supreme Court case. He also vetoed a bill that could have given universal day care, worrying that it may destroy the nuclear family. This conservative attitude and emphasis on the family is one which has stayed with the Republican Party today. Though the idea of family is one that was key to the 1950s and 1960s ideal, the increasing liberalism of the Democrats meant that it was generally a Republican idea from the Nixon age onwards.
The one thing, apart from Watergate, that defined his presidency, was China. Nixon was widely praised for his policy and diplomatic intentions, often meeting with Chairman Mao. As China was hugely communist at the time, similarly to the Soviet Union, this was a big step in policy. Ultimately, Mao was impressed with Nixon, and the two were able to create better Sino-American relations.
In 1972, Nixon won 49 states in a landslide victory that should have secured him a comfortable second term.
That same year, there was a break in at the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Complex. The story was picked up by reporters at the Washington Post, and it soon spiralled out of control. Though Nixon did not directly request the men break in, he almost certainly knew about it, and the whole thing started to damage his second term. Unfortunately for him, the slush fund put aside for the burglars was connected to his official campaign, meaning any association with him was inescapable. As Nixon dealt with this, he was dealt a further blow when Spiro Agnew, his VP, resigned due to allegations of tax fraud. The House Minority Leader, Gerald Ford, was put in his place. He lasted only eight months in that position.
Finally on August 9th 1974, Nixon faced the nation, and resigned, becoming the only President thus far to do so. As VP, Ford ascended to the highest office in the land.
The 1960s and 1970s were a tumultuous period for the Party. For most of the 1960s, the Republicans enjoyed supporting the President of a different party in his civil rights agenda, but unfortunately lost two elections on the trot. With Kennedy’s death, the Republicans lost a lot of power and control, as the Democrats took advantage of the subdued national mood. 1968 was a high point, as they finally gained control of the executive, after they themselves took advantage of the Democrats tearing themselves apart over Vietnam. Unfortunately, Nixon’s dour disposition made him look worse after the charisma of Kennedy and liveliness of Johnson. Even more unfortunately, Watergate completely took him apart. Had he stayed, he would have been impeached, but he managed to retain some dignity in resignation. Though his legacy damaged the Republican Party somewhat, it also laid the groundwork for the social conservatism that runs through the Party’s veins today.
1974-1988- Gerry Ford, Malaise and The Reagan Revolution
‘My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.’
Gerald Ford, the new President, greeted the nations with these words. They hoped. Watergate had damaged the reputation of the Presidency. Before Nixon, the office of the President had held great respect. Even those who had disliked Kennedy had mourned him, simply because they held respect for his office. Now, the Presidency was not as respected as it had been. Nixon had shown that corruption and dishonesty could reach the Oval Office.
Gerald Ford was almost his opposite. No one could deny his kindly demeanour and down-to-earth manner, he seemed almost unsuited to the job. Perhaps that was why he was chosen as VP when Agnew resigned, as Agnew’s reputation had not exactly been spotless either. Unfortunately, this kindness translated into him pardoning Nixon, an unpopular move from the outset. Both his party and the public were angry, as Nixon could get away with crimes that others in lesser positions had. Furthermore, he offered conditional amnesty for draft dodgers. Ford was definitely a moderate within the party, and his actions would alienate the conservative wing- leading to the rise of Reagan later on. He initially wanted abortion to be decided on a state-by-state basis, before moving towards the pro-choice part of the Party.
Further away from domestic policy was the Vietnam question. Though Nixon had been hoping to wind it down, the conflict was still in play. When Saigon fell, the US were able to swoop in, with the war finally ended. Ford did not pledge anymore troops, and instead offered an aid package, as well as the opportunity for some Vietnamese refugees to settle in the US should they so wish.
Unfortunately for Ford, Watergate was still in the minds of many Americans. The Congressional elections occurred soon after Ford’s ascension, with the Democrats gaining control of both of the Houses. Whilst Ford only had two years between the start of his leadership and the election, he did not have the approval of the legislature, nor his own party. In order to appease the membership, he dropped Nelson Rockefeller, his VP, when campaigning for the ticket in 1976. He found himself up against Democrat Jimmy Carter, who campaigned as a liberal outsider. When the time came, Ford won more states, but Carter won more of the vote and gained more electoral college votes. The age of the Republicans was over.
Fortunately for the Republicans, Carter did not enjoy an easy ride. The Republicans attacked Carter on the economic malaise that spread through the country, with an energy crisis and rising inflation decreasing his power. Furthermore, the crisis in Iran came to a head in 1979, only a few months after the Ayatollah took power. At the American Embassy in Tehran, a group of radical students took the staff hostage, causing an international crisis. Many were angry with Carter for not using force, but he defended himself for many years later, commenting that he was not risking the lives of any soldiers, civilians or hostages. Though he negotiated for their release, they were freed just after Reagan had taken his inaugural oath.
His efforts in pushing for peace between Palestine and Israel were commended, but that was not enough for Carter.
As 1980 drew near, conservative Republicans were finally able to put Ronald Reagan up as the nominee. Ford had stolen the nomination from him four years previously, but after the anger directed at the liberal Carter, they knew they could capitalise upon this. Reagan, the self-pronounced ‘Errol Flynn of B-Movies,’ had an energetic campaigning style, and drew upon his vigorous movie star persona on the stump. Carter found himself floundering against the former actor, and came up short on election day.
If anyone defines conservatism in politics, it’s Ronald Regan. The ‘Reagan Revolution’ energised the party, turning it into a conservative powerhouse in politics. For eight years- though this was nearly cut short by an assassination attempt in 1981- he dominated the scene. Similarly to his transatlantic counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, Reagan believed in low taxes, low welfare, less regulation and a staunch anti-Communist approach. Though hated by liberals at the time, Reagan could not be stopped, and the Republicans enjoyed an extended honeymoon period throughout the 1980s.
Reagan’s brand of economics- Reaganomics- advocated a free market with trickledown economics. Tax was reduced in all income brackets, with minimum thresholds being decreased so that less people were paying at the lower end of the pay scale. Continuing his low spending beliefs, he cut nearly all programmes, protecting popular ones such as Social Security and military. Unfortunately, his military spending outstripped his tax income, and the deficit rose, something he is often criticised.
A social conservative, Reagan also pushed the ‘War on Drugs.’ With most Republicans still to this day opposed to legislation, it became a cornerstone of Republican policy. With his wife Nancy spouting the ‘just say no’ rhetoric, Reagan pushed for harsher punishment for anything from possession to dealing. The party is still criticised for this- drugs were pushed underground even further, many were imprisoned, and it increased the racial bias of the judicial system, with more African-Americans being imprisoned than any other ethnic group. Reagan also opposed discrimination legislation, with more than one law being pushed through without his approval.
The Cold War was also a hugely important part of Reagan’s legacy. His increased military spending went towards a more aggressive policy against the Soviet Union and other advocates of communism, though his personal relationship with Soviet Premier Gorbachev was warm. Many foreign policy events happened in his time- such as the bombing of Libya, but the Iran-Contra Affair was the most influential. Though it was unknown whether he personally authorised the funding of the Contras, his administration was still involved, and his credibility was somewhat damaged. Reagan survived unscathed compared to others, showing his strength and charm, mirroring the later scandal with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
Though the 70s was not a dream period for the Republicans, the conservative wing managed to get their act together and allow a 80s revival. Though a polarising figure, Reagan was personally popular with the public, and won two landslides. The Reagan Revolution was not only a revolution for America, but for the Republican party too. The conservative agenda was set in stone, and the free-market economics were typical of the Western fiscal policy of the Reagan-Thatcher era. Though scandal could have ended him, it came at the right time, and Reagan emerged in 1988 as a well-respected President.
1988-2000- ‘Read My Lips: No New Taxes,’ Economic Boom and A Blue Dress
With Reagan’s held, his VP George H Bush was elected in 1988 against Michael Dukakis. It was an exciting time for the conservative citizen, many of whom were excited to have a continuation of Reagan times. They were wrong.
In 1989, the world watched as the Berlin Wall fell, citizens of East and West Germany reuniting. Bush presided over the resignation of Gorbachev, reunification of Germany and break-up of the USSR, a breath of relief for the 41st President. He was the first President since Truman to not have to worry about nuclear Armageddon, and he furthered relations between Russia and America, with both Gorbachev and Yeltsin.
He also had luck on his side when it came to foreign policy. Though he presided over a Democratic House throughout his term, he managed to gain their approval to start the first Gulf War. When Saddam Hussein attacked the sovereign state of Kuwait, he brought together an international coalition to kick Iraq out of its neighbour, allowing it to be one of the most successful foreign policy interventions by the United States. Whilst he was criticised for not unseating Hussein, he gained the then-highest approval ratings of any President at 89%.
Like Lyndon B. Johnson, he could not have success in both domestic and international affairs. Bush was left to deal with the high deficit that Reagan left, and he had to find a way to solve this. Early in his term, he laid out his tax policy in the famous ‘Read My Lips’ speech, in which he promised not to raise taxes. Unfortunately, the economic climate was not in his favour and he was forced to raise taxes. This not only angered the public, but conservative Republicans who were against high taxation, especially following from Reaganomics.
Though the Gulf War had saved him somewhat, Bush still faced a challenge in 1992. Bill Clinton, a young and charming Southerner secured the nomination. A boy from a poor background and with an abusive step-father, Clinton played on Bush’s wealthy background (such as the shop scanner incident, which made Bush look out of touch). Still, Bush may have had a chance had Ross Perot not entered the scene as a serious contender. Perot pushed the outsider card, stating that the major parties no longer represented the people (mirroring 2015 in the UK, when UKIP surged and Nigel Farage used that line). Whilst he still came in third, he stole more votes from the Republicans than was wanted, allowing Clinton the keys to the White House. Coupled with the lacklustre campaign of Bush, the Republicans had no chance.
Similarly to Teddy Roosevelt and Kennedy, Clinton was a charismatic young man with an adoring looking family on his arm. With the economy booming, Clinton enjoyed the popularity one gets with that, and sat upon unprecedented prosperity. In 1994, however, the Republicans gained majorities in both Houses, for the first time in many years. This allowed Newt Gingrich to become Speaker of the House. A noted conservative, Gingrich became known for the policy package of ‘Contract for America,’ an almost manifesto in its list of promises to the American people. With the Republicans in control, Clinton was unable to pass several key pieces of legislation, including a healthcare bill that was championed by his wife, First Lady Hillary Clinton.
In 1998, the Republicans were gifted with a scandal wrapped in a bow.
For several years, Clinton had conducted an affair with young White House staffer Monica Lewinsky, a woman young enough to be his daughter. Though initially successfully hushed up, Lewinsky eventually confessed to a colleague, who then gave it to the appropriate authorities.
Thus, the Lewinsky scandal was born. Though the affair itself was not illegal, Clinton was in trouble, as he had sworn that nothing had happened between the two. Charged with perjury, a lengthy impeachment process in the Republican Houses began. On the outside, the family-oriented party decried his lies to the American people, and how he had flaunted improper relations with a woman who was not his wife. Though the House of Representative impeached him, the Senate saved him, and he was acquitted of all charges. Like Reagan ten years earlier, Clinton came out relatively unscathed. Though he had to go back, cap in hand, to his wife, his popularity remained high, and historians still rate him highly. Unfortunately for him, time was up, and he would now have to leave office.
2000-2008- Hurricane Katrina, Gaffes Galore and a Neocon War
When an election is decided by the highest court in the land, you know it’s a close one.
A new millennium hit, and so did a new election. Al Gore, Clinton’s Number 2 gained the Democratic nomination, with George H W Bush’s Son, George JR, gaining it for the Republicans. When November arrived, it was time to decide. No one expected what would happen. As the night drew on, it was clear that it was incredibly close. Suddenly, all eyes fell to Florida, where Bush’s brother Jeb was Governor. Florida had declared it early for Bush, but as it went on, it came too close to call- a recount was needed, because nobody was truly sure. The State of Florida officially requested it, but a 7-2 decision from the Supreme Court meant that it was declared null and void. Finally, Bush got the validation he needed. He was President.
The Republicans had both Houses, and the executive. In the early months of his administration, Bush laid out an ambitious domestic programme.
Then, on September 11, 2001, four planes crashed in the United States. Two entered both World Trade Centers in New York. One hit the Pentagon in Virginia. The final one, believed to be destined either for the White House or the Capitol Building, was downed by the brave passengers into a field in Pennsylvania. When the dust settled, nearly 3,000 people were killed. Terror had arrived at America’s front door, and it sent the nation into panic mode.
For his actions in the days following the attack, Bush gained huge praise for his response in assuring his panicked countrymen. He was angry, though. In a widely watched speech, Bush declared an ‘Axis of Evil,’ compromising of Iran, Iraq and North Korea, all apparent supporters of terror. In 2001, forces invaded Taliban-held Afghanistan. He was not done, however.
The Iraq War, along with Korea and Vietnam, will be known as one of the most controversial wars that America was involved in. Though it was passed through Congress- a majority of Republicans backed it, and a majority of Democrats voted against it- it slowly became hugely unpopular. With a coalition of only four countries, America rode in and took down a leader of a sovereign country, creating a destabilising effect in the Middle East. Opponents questioned the legitimacy of the invasion, as well as whether it was a force for good or bad.
Its unpopularity did not go too high until several years after the initial invasion, allowing Bush to beat later Secretary of State John Kerry in 2004. Whilst he may have hoped for peace on the domestic front, he was unfortunate in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit. The Hurricane killed over a thousand of people, sending more out of their home and causing millions in damage. The worst hit city was the vibrant and historical New Orleans, which was nearly destroyed. Bush courted controversy, as his response was criticised as untimely and inadequate. Similarly to the sad situation in Flint, Michigan, many believe the response was lesser because the majority population of both is African-American. Race relations are hugely tense in the States, and this situation did not help. With accusations in both the Middle East and Louisiana, Bush fell short of expectations.
Neo-conservatism surged in the Bush era, but not all Republicans subscribe to it, and it’s better for Republicans today to criticise it rather than support it. Bush continued a conservative agenda when it came to social issues such as gay marriage and abortion, but it was not significant because it was not unusual. Hurricane Katrina and Iraq, however, put the Republicans on the back foot in terms of popularity. In 2006, after both of these events, the Democrats gained control of both Houses, giving the Party problems.
2008-2015- Obamacare, Gun Tragedies and Race Relations
In 2008, respected veteran and former POW John McCain gained the Republican nomination. In the Democrat camp, it was going to be historic- it was close between Hillary Clinton and African-American Barack Obama. Eventually, Obama surged to victory. Whilst McCain followed the white male mould, he picked Sarah Palin as his running mate. An election was fought, and Obama eventually clinched it with a decent majority. America had elected its first African-American President, and he had a Democratic House to back him up. After a dark time for Republicans on Bush, it looked as though it would get even darker.
Three things defined America.
Whilst the Democrats enjoyed their majority, the Affordable Healthcare Act (more popularly known as ‘Obamacare’) was signed into law. Obamacare forced insurers to accept all applicants and not increase premiums based on illnesses or gender, and also got many to buy coverage. Though popular because of its encouragement of socialised medicine and increase in covered citizens, it was hated by Republicans. Unfortunately, as they did not control Congress until two years later, the Republicans could not do much. That has not stopped them, however, from constantly criticising and undermining the Act.
In 2012, the Republicans gained advantage of public mood and won both Houses.
Later that year, however, an unthinkable tragedy occurred. On a December day, a young man entered an elementary school in Connecticut. Brandishing a gun, and fresh from murdering his own mother, he fired upon the children. Twenty children under eight were killed, along with six staff members, and the perpetrator, Adam Lanza, committed suicide. Though school shootings were nothing new to America, the youth of the victims and its proximity to Christmas made it all the more heartbreaking. On TV, Obama shed quiet tears as he encouraged the parents of the nation to hug their children tonight.
The question then arose: what to do? Lanza had a history of mental problems, but did not have a criminal record. The gun was his mother’s, legally obtained. Nancy Lanza had failed to keep them away from her son, which allowed him access to them. What could they do? The parents of the victims arrived at Capitol Hill to lobby for some kind of legislation that would prevent this sort of heinous act from happening again. Only a month after it had happened, a Democratic Senator introduced the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013, which would regulate them and limit the Second Amendment. Unsurprisingly in a Republican Senate, the bill lost, along with others that were put forward. Whilst the Republicans had always been strong proponents of gun owners’ rights, this set a new bar. Though Republicans and other constitutionalists were pleased, it created an uncaring image of the members, portraying them as uncaring of the lives of innocent children.
It wouldn’t be the last. In 2013, African-American teen Trayvon Martin walked the streets of Florida. One evening, he was shot by a man named George Zimmerman after an altercation. When Zimmerman was acquitted, huge protests occurred throughout the streets, with the Black Lives Matter movement springing out of it. This was not the last racially-based controversy that occurred throughout the administration, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. The most notable was that of the death of Michael Brown, which cause huge unrest in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, with others such as the death of Sandra Bland also making headlines. The BLM became huge on social media and on a domestic front, and all eyes were on the administration of an African-American President. Whilst most Democrats were sympathetic, Republicans were more critical of the protests, and often made statements that were seen as siding with the shooters rather than the ethnic community. With over 90% of African-Americans voting for Obama in both elections, and 88% voting Clinton, it was clear that the Republicans had now totally alienated the African-American community.
Though the Republicans made gains in the Obama administration regarding legislative power and blockage of bills, it gained an unpopular reputation. The racial tension that stemmed from some questionable shootings truly showed how the party had changed its demographic of voters, whilst still keeping its ideology in terms of citizens’ rights. Obamacare was a failure in the eyes of the GOP, a bill unparalleled in its criticisms, and showed how united the party could be against something it truly hated.
2015-Present: Crooked Hillary, Build A Wall and lots and lots of controversy.
When Donald Trump stood in front of his supporters in 2015 and announced his candidacy for 2016, no one really believed it. He had run before, but nothing had come of it, and he wasn’t a true red Republican in terms of his history.
He proved them all wrong, and he wasn’t the only one.
Formerly Independent, Bernie Sanders threw his hat in the ring. A socialist who rejected the trappings of the Washington political elite, he surged in the polls, gaining the support of the young amongst other demographics. Unfortunately for him, Sanders was up against an absolute political machine, a machine by the name of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Though Sanders enjoyed a steady stream of popularity, his sudden momentum was not good enough to beat Clinton, who gained the nomination.
In a similar Republican vein, it looked like Trump was to be beaten. His rivals included Jeb Bush, son and brother of two former Presidents and Ted Cruz, a staunchly conservative Senator who also rejected the ‘Washington cartel’ (mainly because he was absolutely despised by his fellow politicians). Bush enjoyed an early time of popularity, with Cruz the angel of the evangelicals, along with fellow Hispanic Senator Marco Rubio. Trump, however, was not to be deterred. Mixing unconventional techniques, controversial statements and a healthy campaign fund, he threw himself into the spotlight. Eventually, against all odds, he became the Republican nominee.
Though Trump was formerly seen as moderate on issues, his conservatism on immigration earned him the trust of disgruntled voters from blue collar states and the Rust Belt, many of whom felt left behind by the establishment. The two most controversial statements were on immigration. The first was the so called ‘Wall,’ to be built on the US-Mexico border. Trump spoke out against the level of illegal immigration from the country, as well as the perceived criminal element amongst them. The international community condemned him, along with members of his party. Secondly, he called for a ‘complete shutdown of Muslim immigration’ until a proper vetting process could be put into place. As soon as it came out, he was decried for xenophobia and racism, with citizens of the UK signing a petition to keep him out. Even then, it allowed him popularity- many citizens in the US had been concerned about Muslim immigration, especially after the 2015 San Bernardino massacre. These voters were upset by Clinton’s comments on them being ‘a basket of deplorable,’ and moved towards Trump.
In order to quell the party, Trump picked arch-conservative Mike Pence of Indiana as his running mate. The polls were often tight, but most put money on a Clinton victory. The world was shocked when on November 8th, Clinton won the popular vote, but the Electoral College came out for Trump.
He’d won. Like Brexit, against all odds, he’d won.
Whilst his opponents went into meltdown, Trump got into the Presidency. For the first time in nearly ninety years, the Republicans held the Presidency, Legislature, majority of Governorships and now had the chance to tip the balance in the Supreme Court when it picked a new Justice. That came when he announced Neil Gorsuch, who was swiftly elected to the post of Associate Justice. Trump’s nominations, especially Jeff Sessions and Betsy DeVos were controversial, often defeating bipartisan fights.
The Trump Presidency is still new, but we have seen so much. There was a ban on certain citizens travelling to the United States from certain Muslim nations, an extremely controversial move that angered the world but earned the support of his most vocal fans. Furthermore, he made good on his Obamacare promise and began the movement of its repeal. The House of Representatives voted to repeal it in May, and a new version is making its way through the Senate as we speak.
Since 2015, the Republican Party has reached a new age. Trump may have allowed some toxification of the Party, but it also energised a new wave of supporters, men and women who finally felt like they had a place in American politics. Though the conservative faction may have been angered, Trump’s pick of Pence has quelled them for now, and many are now reluctantly lining up to support their President.
From the party of Lincoln to the party of Trump, the GOP has enjoyed historic highs and suffered historic lows. Whether living through the Reagan Revolution or the dominance of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, they have come from humble beginnings to being a cornerstone of the two party state, beating the Federalists and Whigs of old. The current Republican party, as a whole, shows a protectionist, big business, socially conservative and low taxation policy, and it looks as though it is going to stay. The GOP has not been aligned on everything for the past 163 years, but alignment seems not to matter now.
It is winning- but for how long?