As I observe the fractious political debate consuming the Republican Party I can’t help but try to place the clash in historical context. Of course there are many examples in the development of the American party system when there were seismic shifts when parties split and evolved in new directions. The Federalist Party self-destructing in the aftermath of the War of 1812 and the eventual split in the Jeffersonian Republicans into the National Republicans of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay on one side and the Democratic Republicans of Andrew Jackson on the other. During the antebellum period many forces were at work that continually destabilized both parties and by the 1850s fierce debates over the extension of slavery into the territories had spawned the Liberty Party, the Free-Soil Party, and most successfully, the Republican Party. And while the debate over slavery was reaching white-hot intensity so too was the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant fury that led to the founding of the American Party (the “Know-Nothings”) to keep the United States uncontaminated from these outside forces that would destroy the Anglo-Saxon Protestant fabric of the nation. It was a time of such political turmoil that any attempt at compromise was vilified. After the Civil War the parties were relatively stable until 1912 when Theodore Roosevelt led progressive Republicans in a third-party attempt to recapture the presidency. In more recent times there have been other shifts, most notably as the Democratic Party gradually became the party of civil rights, which led southern Democrats to bolt in 1948 and form the States Rights Party (the “Dixiecrats”) and then, after LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the rupture was complete when unhappy southern Democrats flocked to the Republican Party.
In some ways what is happening in the Republican Party in 2016 can be seen as another example of the types of political metamorphosis that has occurred many times in the American party system. But in some way it parallels a different historical trend: the white backlash during the Reconstruction Era. During the last decades of the nineteenth century there was a powerful backlash against the abolition of slavery. The literacy tests, the poll taxes, the Jim Crow laws, and, of course the Ku Klux Klan, were white southerners’ responses to the abolition of slavery and the granting of citizenship and suffrage to African Americans. It took a century before the modern civil rights movement successfully overthrew segregation and the barriers to first-class citizenship. But this led, as many historians (Manning Marable, Heather Ann Thompson, David Garland, Mary Louise Frampton, Ian F. Haney Lopez, Jonathan Simon, Bruce Western, and others) have called a “Second Reconstruction.” The white backlash to the civil rights movement was clearly apparent in the fight over bussing, the crushing of the Attica Prison revolt, the dismantling of welfare and other social programs, the wars on crime and drugs, mass incarceration, and violent heavy-handed policing of black neighborhoods in America’s cities.
The startling popularity of Donald Trump and his message, which is essentially to make America white again, has shocked political pundits, reporters, and the establishment in both political parties, and yet is it really all that surprising? Aren’t we experiencing another backlash? It seems that for every advance in race relations in the United States there is a swift and severe reaction. After eight years of the presidency of the nation’s first African American president is it really a surprise that new restrictions on voting that adversely affect minorities have been implemented in dozens of states or that we are witnessing the rise of a man who questioned the loyalty, the citizenship, the American-ness of Barack Obama? Donald Trump is merely the unifying force bringing together all those who have just not been able to accept a black president. Trump has clearly become the leader, the spokesman, the CEO as it were, of this “Third Reconstruction.”
Ralph Young is professor of history at Temple University. He is the author of Dissent:The History of an American Idea (NYU Press, 2015)