The Know-Nothing president and the demise of a major political party

The Know-Nothing president and the demise of a major political party
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Donald Trump is certainly not the first president from New York to significantly alter the policy commitments of a major political party and change the course of American history.

Theodore Roosevelt forcibly pushed (via the "bully pulpit") the Republican Party to adopt a more progressive platform when he served as president, and then managed to temporarily relegate it to a minor party when he came in second in the 1912 presidential election, which mercilessly ejected Republican President William Howard Taft from office.

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Franklin Roosevelt also reordered the Democratic Party’s policy priorities during the Great Depression. By downplaying the cultural issues (e.g., Prohibition and racial segregation) that stoked sectional divides and emphasizing the need for the government to act to create jobs and improve the economy, he united middle- and working-class Americans across the country and substantially changed the coalitional make-up of the Democratic Party.

 

But President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Former Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick MORE is no Roosevelt. His nativist tendencies and a steadfast belief in the benefits of protective tariffs make him more like the most forgotten president who hailed from New York: Millard Fillmore.

An accidental president, Fillmore ascended to the office after Zachary Taylor succumbed to cholera in 1850. He had been nominated vice president in 1848 because, as an anti-slavery northerner, he balanced the ticket (Taylor was a slave-owning southerner) and offended only a few (namely, “conscience Whigs” and New York party boss Thurlow Weed).

But over the course of his presidency, he came to offend many more. His support of the Compromise of 1850, which included a stricter Fugitive Slave Act, turned Taylor’s cabinet against him and they resigned. As history professor Carole Emberton has explained, “By pushing this compromise, Fillmore capitulated to the demands of the slave-holding South, fractured his party and helped set the stage for secession a decade later.”

Before the presidency, Fillmore came to distrust Weed, partly because he had urged him in 1843 to resign his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives (step down as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee) and run for governor of New York in 1844. According to historian Damon Eubank, when Fillmore lost, he blamed it on “the Liberty Party drawing support from normal Whig voters, the Catholic vote, and the betrayal of Weed.”

Given this past, it is perhaps unsurprising that once in office, he shunned the abolitionists and continued his ugly battle with Weed and his much-preferred New Yorker, Sen. William Seward, over patronage appointments and the future direction of the Whig Party.

When the Whig Party fell into disarray after back-to-back electoral losses in the 1852 presidential election and the 1854 congressional elections, Fillmore switched his allegiance to the political party that appeared to be on the rise after securing 43 seats in the House: the American Party also known as the Know-Nothings. From this anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and “America First” movement, Fillmore received a presidential nomination.

While the country resoundingly rejected Fillmore's presidential candidacy in 1856, he split the former Whig vote with Republican nominee John Fremont, which as Abraham Lincoln understood, had elevated James Buchanan to the White House. In short, though most forget Fillmore's presidency, his fingerprints are all over the political precursors to the Civil War.

Reflecting on Fillmore’s feuds with members of his own party, his hubris around Southern-appeasement, and his nativist political orientation, it’s hard not to see his ghost in Trump’s presidency. It’s also hard not to see how the degeneracy of the Whig Party under his combative leadership, followed by the rapid rise and fall of the Know-Nothings with him as their nominee doesn’t contain some analogs for today’s national politics.

Said another way, although it may be true that the Republican Party appears more united than ever at the moment — happy about higher presidential approval ratings, gleeful about last year’s tax cut and good economy, and optimistic about the chance to swing the Supreme Court toward the conservatives for a generation — this may well be a temporary state of affairs.

The GOP’s buoyancy and unity are unlikely to survive a poor midterm showing, which given the average margin on the generic ballot and the sheer number of vulnerable House seats held by Republicans seems probable. (The Cook Report lists 84 Republican seats and 15 Democratic seats as competitive; if each party wins only half the seats they now hold, Democrats would net 34 seats, 11 more than what is needed for the House majority. A slightly more sophisticated calculation gives Democrats a net pick-up of 18 seats.)

But other external shocks (such as an economic downturn, a global trade war, a final report from special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE that charges those closest to the president with criminal wrongdoing in the Russia investigation, or a backsliding on the rapprochement with North Korea) could push Republicans who are presently queasy about Trump (conservative Catholics and moderate Republicans) away from his new brand of the GOP.

As it is, his “zero-tolerance” policy on immigration may be helping to rouse an excitable base of conservative voters to the polls, but doesn’t look like it will work long term. In fact, his flip-flopping stances may be creating more, not fewer, fractures in the Republican Party.

Taken together, the Republican Party appears to be in desperate straits — not unlike where the Whig Party was when Millard Fillmore was president. In American politics, it's always precarious to be in power and on top (each party’s fortunes). Trump has run for three years on bluff and bluster. His hot-air balloon is set to deflate.

Because as Harvey Keitel wisely explained in “Thelma & Louise”: “Brains'll only get you so far and luck always runs out.”  

Lara M. Brown, Ph.D., is an associate professor and director of the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University, and formerly was an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University. She frequently appears on TV and radio programs as an expert on American political history, party development and national elections. Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.