Donald Trump, Zachary Taylor, And Is the GOP Going the Way Of the Whigs?

1848 candidates for president and vice president: Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore.
1848 candidates for president and vice president: Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore.

Last week, Dr. Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, had an interesting story in POLITICO in which he compares Donald Trump to Zachary Taylor and indirectly wonders if Trump will do to the GOP what the election of 1848 did to the Whigs. I can’t do the article justice without provoking copyright attorneys from their slumber, you need to read the whole thing.

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.

And then, there was the slavery issue: Taylor’s ambiguous status as a slaveholder who dodged questions about the escalating slavery debate seemed to be a clever choice for a party increasingly divided over the South’s mass enslavement of blacks. The territory the U.S. acquired during the Mexican-American War only escalated the feud, sparking a major political debate over whether slavery would be allowed in the new territories. Both parties (each awkwardly uniting Northerners who disliked slavery with Southern slaveholders) had reason to seek safe candidates that year.

Still, many Whig loyalists mistrusted Taylor. He was crude, nonpartisan, unpresidential. Ohio Senator Thomas Corwin wondered how “sleeping 40 years in the woods and cultivating moss on the calves of his legs” qualified Taylor for the presidency. The great senator and former Secretary of State Daniel Webster called Taylor “an illiterate frontier colonel who hasn’t voted for 40 years.” Webster was so contemptuous he refused backroom deals to become Taylor’s running mate (unknowingly missing a chance to become president when Taylor died during his first term). Indeed, the biographer Holman Hamilton would pronounce Taylor “one of the strangest presidential candidates in all our annals … the first serious White House contender in history without the slightest experience in any sort of civil government.”

By the spring of 1848, now hungering for the nomination, Taylor tried mollifying these partisans. He professed his party loyalty in a ghostwritten letter that his brother-in-law John Allison knew to leak to the public. Still wary of making “pledges,” and boasting of his ignorance of political “details,” Taylor declared, “I am a Whig, but not an ultra Whig” in his first “Allison Letter” of April 22, 1848

Historical comparisons are always inexact, RedStater Dan McLaughlin writing at National Review points this out, and similar facts don’t always produce the same outcomes but this one bears thinking about. (Taylor’s term of office ended in death after 127 days, something to consider. Just sayin’)

The GOP has been experiencing internal tensions between wings that are, on the one hand, essentially indistinguishable from Democrats in political philosophy and, on the other, supporters of a vision of a much smaller and less intrusive federal government. These tensions came to the fore in 2010 when a Democrat controlled House was flipped despite all predictions. In retrospect, it seems clear that there was a third, silent plurality in the GOP, the populist descendants of Anderw Jackson, William Jennings Bryant, Teddy Roosevelt, Bob LaFollette, Huey Long, and George Wallace.

In 2010, the mainstream of the GOP showed that it was willing to accept political opponents into its ranks for the sake of winning. Conservatives, it seems, assumed that the populist strain that gave them victories in 2010 and 2014 was actually a conservative movement.

While the GOP did not seek out Trump as a candidate this year, there is no doubt that the mainstream of the party started moving in his direction before the first caucus. In early January, it became obvious that Trump was the establishment candidate in Iowa. By mid-January it was clear that the GOP elites viewed Trump as a man who could win and with whom they could do business. A conscious decision was made that it was easier to jettison their values for a man who believed in nothing than support several men who actually believed in something.

Trump is bringing with him a background and political philosophy, to the extent that he can be said to have one, is anathema to everything the GOP has claimed to represent since the Reagan Administration… or maybe the Hoover Administration. The fault lines on isolationism, the role of alliances, crony capitalism, free trade, welfare, the role of the presidency, education, race relations and abortion are all plainly visible. If Trump loses, the GOP can sort these differences out for 2020. If Trump wins, actions by a Trump Administration will exacerbate those fault lines nearly guaranteeing a bitter primary fight should Trump decide to run again.

Maybe this is the curtain call for the GOP. I, for one, certain will shed no tears. I’ve put up with abject losers like Bob Dole and John McCain and the ugly spectacle of Failure Theater for longer than any sane person should. I don’t know what comes next but if anything has the ability to destroy the GOP it is a Trump victory.