The Relationship Between Donald J. Trump and the Republican Party: Less Sudden than it May Appear


Max Skidmore

It may appear as if Trump, a demagogic and bombastic outsider and political newcomer, suddenly seized one of America’s two major political parties, shaped it according to his whims, then dominated it entirely. The reality, however, is less dramatic. The Republican Party for years had implicitly been seeking such a figure as Trump.

Republican Senator Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential candidacy led to one of the greatest defeats in American history. Nevertheless, his support for “extremism” (which, Goldwater said, was not a vice) led to an increasingly hard-right party. His campaign, and the highly public support it received from a former film actor, Ronald Reagan, laid the foundation for the corruption and deterioration that today is so obvious.

In 1968, only four years after the Republican disaster, the party’s candidate, Richard Nixon, won the presidency. That year also saw the openly racist campaign of Alabama governor George Wallace, who was running for president as a minor-party candidate. Wallace’s racist appeals, both overt and coded, were lessons for Republicans, and added considerably to their repertoire. Wallace, of course, was not and had never been a Republican, but his mainstreaming of open bigotry provided inspiration for Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” That Nixonian strategy, continuing as it did¾even intensifying¾with Reagan, successfully re-oriented the Republican Party away from its civil rights heritage and toward the prejudices of the racially segregated south. Decades later, Donald Trump (another actor, of sorts, from reality television) was merely the culmination of the increasing “southernization” of the Republican Party.

Although the party might have been expected to heal over time as its message and preferences came to be more inconsistent with the changing views of an increasingly educated America, it did not. Instead, its deterioration intensified, increasing until it created a vacuum within itself that only the least principled and most unrestrained power seeker could fill.

In stepped Donald J. Trump. Whatever it seemed, it was assuredly not Trump capturing and corrupting a party; rather, it was a shameful party offering itself without reservation to the shameless Trump. Ultimately the party’s outrageous choice led to an actual insurrection¾completely Trump instigated¾that attempted to overturn the election that overwhelmingly turned him out of office. The rest is history; it also was tragedy as Trump and the bulk of the Republican Party unhesitatingly overturned America’s great tradition of peaceful regime change that dated back more than two centuries to John Adams who relinquished the office to Thomas Jefferson, honoring the result of the 1800 election.

The Republican Party of the United States had emerged in 1854, during the furor over slavery. That furor had led to the effective dissolution of the short-lived Whig Party, and of assorted minor parties. The founding principle of the new party was opposition to the spread of human enslavement into the territories. With astonishing speed, the new party became one of the two major political parties in the United States, electing a president, Abraham Lincoln, only six years after its founding. From then on, the Republican and Democratic Parties were the bases of America’s two-party system. In the 1880s, the term “Grand Old Party,” or GOP, referencing the Republican Party, began to appear in print. It was another century before the term took on the irony it carries today.

The Democratic Party¾then, for a time, often called simply “The Democracy”¾pre-dated the Republican Party for two decades or so, and had become the other major party. It had emerged from the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Although ostensibly devoted to the interests of workers and recently-enfranchised groups, and although there certainly were anti-slavery Democrats, (and pro-slavery Whigs) the party as such was the party of slavery. To a large extent, it was committed to southern interests, and thus became almost a sectional party during the Civil War, only to expand across the country, still generally supportive of southern segregation, in the decades to follow.

The early Republicans tended to be devoted to human rights, as reflected in Lincoln’s statement that they favored both the man and the dollar, but for the man over the dollar in cases of conflict. It was no accident that the Republican Party, during the Civil War, adopted the first income tax in US history, nor that it favored widespread education, conservation, and popular land ownership (the latter, to be sure, to the detriment of Native populations). Quickly, however, the party also was to become aligned with financial interests, after which it came to reject Lincoln’s preference for human over property rights.

Although the Republican Party developed an energetic progressive movement in the early 20th century, it could not maintain its progressive orientation. The 1920s saw the party become identified almost completely as the party of business, and the wealthy. When the Democratic New Deal under Franklin D. Roosevelt absorbed progressive elements in the 1930s and on the whole adopted progressive programs, Republicans tended to become even more devoted to what Americans call “conservative” policies: exaggerated patriotism and nationalism, isolationism, limited government, favor toward business, extreme protection of property, hostility toward programs crafted to benefit the people or anything they could describe as “socialism,” minimal economic regulation, and minimal taxation of wealth (this American version related only tangentially, if at all, to classic European “conservatism”). At the same time, Republicans became authoritarian: favorable toward the regulation of social conduct, despite their adoption of individualist, libertarian, rhetoric. The “individualism” that came to characterize Republicans, tended to be limited to economic matters; the freedom to accumulate wealth, and to use it with little or no restriction.

Following World War II, when Democratic President Harry Truman advocated fair housing, de-segregated the military by executive order, and proposed a national health service Republicans became more oriented toward policies of the south. This was the height of irony, in view of the anti-slavery commitment that had motivated the party’s founding. The two parties then shifted orientations fully after Lyndon Johnson worked for, and signed, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Outraged by attacks on their “way of life,” southerners, as LBJ had predicted, shifted their politics. The “Solid South” no longer was solidly (or at all) Democratic. Bigoted southern Democrats en masse became bigoted southern Republicans. The Democrats had become the party of civil rights and human rights¾insofar as one existed in American politics¾and the Republicans had become ideological “conservatives.” As they did so, they came more and more to operate on a cult of personality that motivated so many autocracies in the world, summed up by Hitler’s Nazis as the Führerprinzip. Over and over, after Reagan’s presidency, Republicans who sought their party’s presidential nomination, claimed to be “more like Ronald Reagan,” than their opponents. Reagan worship continued undiluted until the advent of Trump as a Republican absorbed all the oxygen from the Republican room, so to speak, and superseded¾and far surpassed¾Reagan as the cult figure to dominate all things Republican.

By the 1960s, the Democratic Party had come to reject the explicit racism and the policies of white nationalism that until the early 20th century had been at its core.  The party then accepted the civil rights movement that sought to end racial discrimination and segregation. This caused the Republican Party to embrace the least humane principles of American politics, those that dominated the south, and most often (especially until after the Wilson administration, 1913-1921) had been associated with the Democratic Party.

Both parties, nevertheless¾after the Democrats’ defeat in the 1860s when they pursued the policies of secession and treason that brought about the Civil War¾were parties devoted to the “rules of the game,” and both generally supported the idea of self-government based on generally understood principles of democracy. They worked to ensure the most effective functioning of the legal system that the Constitution demanded, and that the political system enacted; even if a party had opposed a given law, its members generally cooperated with the other to make it work for the good of the whole.

As the latter part of the 20th century dawned and Republicans began to take away from the Democrats their most unsavory motivations, though, they also began to become less committed to democratic norms and to the “good of the whole;” even less committed to any political party’s most vital function: the very act of governing; this should have been expected.

 Republicans recognized that they were in trouble because of their devotion to the wealthy, to property as opposed to human rights, and because of their harsh disregard for the country, for democracy, and for the bulk of its people. Their orientation had progressively less appeal to those people. Nevertheless, they stood firm in their rejection of what at one time they had professed to accept as democratic values.

Instead of modifying their goals to make them more appealing to the people, they became more strident and more open in their “conservative” policies.  Following the example set by their post-Reconstruction ancestors, the architects of Jim Crow, they set about crafting ways to prevent majority interests from taking control. Ultimately, they discarded any guiding principle other than pursuit of power. This led them away from their previous professions of patriotism, and toward violence, dictatorial rule, and even subservience to foreign meddling if they saw it as aiding their cause. For elaboration, and documentation, see my Common Sense Manifesto.[1] Descriptions of a few of the outrageous Republican actions follow.

An initial break with standards of acceptable conduct came with the Nixon administration. Although this appears to have been largely forgotten, President Nixon, primarily through his henchman, Vice President Agnew, launched a campaign against the press. Nixon had long been known for his attacks on reporting that failed to support his actions, but his attacks became more strident, and more telling, when he weaponized his vice president.  Effectively blunting accurate reporting, Republicans began a mantra of “the liberal media.” So successful was this theme, that ever since, the term “liberal media” in public discourse¾untrue though it was¾became commonplace; much like “damnyankee” once was in the south. The culmination of decades of repetition was the even more powerful attack on accurate reporting by Trump, who popularized the term “fake news” to describe any coverage that failed to praise him adequately. Trump regularly blasted the news media as¾note the rhetoric borrowed from totalitarian tyrants¾“enemies of the people.” Both Nixon and Trump, one should remember, were haters, and both maintained “enemies lists.” Only the more simple-minded Trump, though, appeared to be in awe of totalitarians, and of totalitarianism itself. Nixon was too intelligent, and—although this is not a word that springs to mind when thinking of “Tricky Dick”—had too much decency compared to Trump, to be similarly taken in by foreign dictators.

The first known political maneuver in modern American politics suggesting that even overt treason might not be a deterrent foreshadowed ominously the direction the Republican Party might take in years to come. Candidate Nixon’s henchmen at his direction sabotaged the 1968 Paris peace talks in a deliberate effort to prolong the war in Vietnam. The purpose was to avoid an “October surprise” of peace that might swing voter support to Democrats, and their candidate, the sitting vice president, Hubert Humphrey. This was known earlier, but not finally verified, until 2016,[2] and was a clear indication that at least some powerful Republicans were willing to continue bloodshed and death in order to advance their own political fortunes.

There is considerable evidence that the Reagan campaign did something similar during the 1980 race for the presidency, when his henchmen dealt with Iranian officials, promising them arms and the like, if they would not release the American hostages during the campaign. Reagan and his campaign feared release would boost President Carter’s chances of being re-elected. The hostages were indeed held longer, and were not freed until the very instant of Reagan’s inauguration. The “Iran-Contra Scandal” included this, as well as other actions that also were virtually treasonous. To be sure, the deal to delay the hostage release has not been completely verified. Republicans saw to that by blocking funding for the investigation. There is full verification, though, that the Reagan administration did supply arms to Iranian terrorists who then did turn those arms against Americans. Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush (who had been Reagan’s vice president), subsequently pardoned Iran-Contra figures, making it impossible ever to secure their testimony.

During the administration of the younger Bush, the office of Vice President Cheney, leaked the name of Valerie Plame Wilson, an undercover CIA agent working in the Middle East, to conservative columnist, Robert Novak. This put her at risk, although she made it home safely. Her vital work on nuclear proliferation, however, was destroyed, her contacts disappeared (almost assuredly, executed), and her career was ended. This destruction of American interests, and its overt betrayal of America’s friends, took place because of outrage at her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had demonstrated that Saddam Hussein had not secured nuclear materials from Africa, as the Bush administration had charged. It now has been verified that the G.W. Bush administration, and that of the Bush ally, British prime minister Tony Blair, presented false information to justify the Iraq War. Even worse, both administrations knew that they were committing their countries to war based on lies.[3] The resulting legacy has been tragic.

Uniquely among American presidents, Donald Trump always had refused to commit himself to abiding by election results. Even in the 2016 election, he said clearly that he would accept the results¾if he were to win. Even winning, he openly resented the greater number of popular votes that went to his opponent, Hillary Clinton. He considered an election to be fair and valid only if he won, but even that was not sufficient; he judged an election to be valid not merely if he won, but only if he were to have won by a huge majority.

There were legitimate concerns in 2020, that Trump would refuse to accept any other result. Of course, a losing candidate is not required to concede a loss, and the winning candidate wins, despite what the losing candidate says, or does. Trump, though, set about attempting to undermine public confidence in elections, which meant confidence in the entire process of political selection. That was profoundly undemocratic, profoundly subversive, and profoundly threatening to the continued existence of the United States as a democratic republic.

While still holding office, the “lame duck” president (one whose term had not yet ended, despite having lost in his efforts to achieve re-election), frantically sought to reverse the results of clear and fair elections. Trump and his henchmen brought numerous lawsuits attempting to use the legal system to achieve what he failed to do electorally: win the election. Time and again, these baseless lawsuits failed. Trump called repeatedly for violence, alleging that real Americans needed to “stop the steal.” Finally, Twitter and other social media banned him because of his flagrant lies, thus effectively shutting off the only way he knew how to communicate widely. Nor did he cease when he left office. As of late September, 2021, when this was being written, he still, nearly a year after the election was settled, continued to pressure some state election officials to reverse their certification of his loss. He seemed to harbor the deluded notion that he still might somehow be reinstated; an impossibility under the Constitution.

Ultimately, while he still had his platform, Trump urged his supporters¾fanatically committed, yet decidedly in the minority¾to march on the Capitol in Washington and “fight like hell,” to intimidate members of Congress and prevent them from counting the electoral votes, a process that had been set for January 6th. Thousands did so. They stormed the Capitol, threatening members, fighting with Capitol Police, and retreating only when the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police joined the battle with the threat of troops from National Guard Units. For the first time since the Civil War, America witnessed a violent insurrection, explicitly designed to reject the votes of the majority¾and even the electoral college¾and install the loser. That the coup failed does not minimize its threat to the country’s foundations. No democratic republic can survive as such if enough of its people seek to undermine it, and Trump did everything possible to undermine the very system that had installed him, a system that even ignored the majority’s vote, and installed him as a minority-vote president.

Right-wing extremists attempted another potentially violent demonstration on 18 September in Washington, D.C., but the effort failed, and was even anti-climactic; so few came that they were outnumbered by law enforcement officials.  The purpose of the demonstration was ostensibly to demonstrate support for the “patriots” who had been indicted for participating in the coup attempt in January. Trump, of course, expressed his support for the “political prisoners”—demonstrating how little he cares for the foundations of the United States as a democratic republic.

This was another in a long succession of Republican failures. It would seem as though Republicans might have to expect failure has a matter of course. Consider that Trump lost his re-election bid, and that the popular vote against him was enormous. Democrats retained control of the House, and gained control of the Senate. Consider also, the tragic record of Covid deaths when Trump was in office and his disclaimer of any responsibility for national health policy. At the state level, the same dynamics play out causing the huge death tolls in Florida, Texas, and other states where there are Republican governors and legislatures.  As a rule, there will be stubborn, ignorant, and vicious refusals to mandate protections against viral spread.

In 2021 alone, not only did the January insurrection and its September sequel fail, but so did the Republican effort to recall California’s governor, Gavin Newsom. There was a massive vote in the election on September 14 to retain Newsom as governor. In Arizona, there was a group of Republican state senators that forced a new “audit” of the 2020 vote in the state’s large Maricopa County. The effort was a fiasco, leading one of the Republican senators who had supported it to express his regrets, saying it made them look like idiots. Indeed.

Nevertheless, Republicans around the country thought the Arizonans had a good idea. In several other states, they announced plans to conducts their own “audits” of their states’ votes in 2020. In Pennsylvania, Republican state senators demanded complete information of all voters, including partial Social Security numbers. The state’s attorney general said “no.” In Texas, hours after Trump sent a letter to Governor Abbott demanding that Texas conduct its own audit of Democratic counties, the governor, of course, meekly ordered such “audits.” This, even though Trump had carried Texas, and could have gained absolutely nothing from such an effort.

The Arizona “auditors” had taken seriously the preposterous suspicion that Arizona ballots had been routed to, or corrupted by ballots from—of all places—China. Betraying their racism, they examined the ballots for “bamboo fibers,” assuming that anything from China had to contain bamboo, and apparently assuming that bamboo existed only in China. They found none.

They did, however, for some strange reason, take ballots out of the state, reportedly hiding them in an isolated location, hundreds of miles distant, in Montana. Regardless, after months of delay, on the 24th of September, they issued their final report.

Contrary to Republican beliefs, the voting machines had performed as intended. Moreover, their own report indicated that Trump did, indeed, lose legitimately. It said even that Trump’s loss, in fact, was somewhat greater than the official count had shown.

In the serious insurrection attempt on the 6th of January, not only had the Trump-inspired seditionists sought Democratic Speaker Pelosi to assassinate, but they had set up a gallows on the Capitol lawn, and chanted their desire to find and hang even Republican Vice President Pence. His offense was that he had not followed Trump’s demand to steal electoral votes and thus overturn the recent election. Happily, their thirst for vengeance remained unslaked.

Immediately after the riot, even Republicans, still frightened and in shock, condemned the insurrection. A number even blamed Trump, himself, for his obvious instigating role¾remember his shouted urging of the mob to march on the Capitol and “fight like hell.” Within a few days, though, most Republicans denied that they had ever been in danger, that anyone else had, and that there had even been an insurrection. This after the entire world had seen the violent assault on the Capitol and its police guard. Rather, there had been merely a “peaceful tourist” assembly in the (vandalized) Capitol building, some said absurdly.

These acts of malfeasance and many other Republican actions of the last few decades, would have been sufficient throughout American history to bring down administrations, and to destroy political careers. So degraded has the party become, however, and so outrageous were Trump’s actions, that no revelation, and no verification, seems sufficient any longer to shame Republicans. They readily deny painfully obvious facts, or even to recognize them, but to say, “so what”?

The Trumpist Republican Party now has thrown all pretense of “conservatism” aside, along with any attempt to be consistent. Actions a Democrat does, however benign, they will condemn; the same action, or even a violent and treasonous one, by a Republican¾especially Trump¾they will applaud. The frenzied, out of control, insurrection had put all members of Congress in danger, even Republicans. Still, though, they closed their eyes (and minds) to reality.

The Party, as indicated, no longer even pretends to devote itself to conservatism. An examination of Republican policies demonstrates that the party now operates in pursuit of a few basic principles, most of which simply are cynical efforts to please their “base;” some examples are:

The GOP opposes all measures to regulate or reduce the proliferation of firearms. When a mass murder takes place, as one does frequently, they are likely to say, “now is not the time to politicize the issue.” Instead of policy, they rely on “thoughts and prayers” for the victims. They were never content to rely on “thoughts and prayers” to keep out of the country those they opposed; rather they sought a huge, expensive, and futile wall.

The party seeks to eliminate all abortion. Republicans often are equally hostile to contraception. Thus, despite professing to favor limited government, and “freedom,” they would empower government to take full control of all women, or girls of childbearing age. Ultimately, this presupposes required regular medical exams to ascertain whether or not they are pregnant. Republicans ignore the fact that a government has to be powerful to forbid abortion, and that a government sufficiently powerful to forbid abortion will also be powerful enough to require it, or if they so choose, to require pregnancies. The result of an effective prohibition of abortion is the enslavement of women, subjecting them to government dictates regarding their own bodies. Quite clearly, the motivating factor is misogyny. The Texas approach that other authoritarian states are admiring is to empower citizens to spy on one another, and to reward them if they follow the demands of the state. A police state is just around the corner, if the anti-abortion fundamentalists continue to have their way.

The party elevates a warped version of “religious freedom,” to overwhelm personal privacy. It seeks to ensure “religious freedom” for corporations to regulate the conduct of their employees. All this presupposes that the religion in question is one that possesses official approval. The party actually has two components: one that consists of Christian fundamental evangelicals, and the other that is relatively secular. The former openly seeks a theocracy that is rigidly authoritarian¾even totalitarian. The latter would be content with a secular dictatorship that maintains them in power, but it cooperates gleefully with the religious fanatics. The two groups use one another for the purpose of securing and maintaining power. The characteristics of the resulting government otherwise are of less concern to them.

Republicans seek to have a minimum of immigration, and no influx of refugees.

They favor opinion over fact, and deny the role of scientific findings in public policy, even in the face of mass death from a pandemic.

There is little indication that the party actually cares about the substance of these issues. Republican leaders seek solely to secure and maintain the support of their hard core voters. What gets serious and sincere Republican attention, is an effort to subvert majority will. Republicans generally recognize that their actual policies have no broad public appeal. Instead of pursuing support, however, they seek to diminish, or even to eliminate, votes that would turn them out of office. At the same time, they attempt to hide their real intentions. As they make it more and more difficult to vote, they lie in state after state that they are making it easier to vote, merely making it harder to commit fraud (which they know is virtually nonexistent in modern America).

Republicans go to extreme efforts to draw district boundaries so that they maintain power, regardless of their minority status. They also make voting as difficult as possible in areas in which they have less than majority support. These usually are districts with voters who reflect the interests of people of color. This has led to the greatest suppression of votes since post Reconstruction days when Jim Crow policies became solidified.

Worst of all, Republicans have succeeded in controlling governments in numerous states. There, they are adopting measures designed to empower them to overturn the results of elections when they dislike the outcomes. They are avidly developing mechanisms to permit them to disregard and overrule the will of the voters. At the same time, they charge “liberals” with being “elitists.” The clear Republican intent here is to make it impossible for them to lose elections, regardless of how large Democratic majorities may be. In other words, they are openly plotting to end even the possibility of rule by the people.

This, then, is the relationship between Trump and the Republican Party. The Party reflects his will, and supports his whims. Regardless, it is not the case that he corrupted the Party. Rather, the corruption was endemic, and of long duration; it prepared the party for one such as Trump. Sadly for the country, and the world, such a person was available, and eager to fill the pernicious role that the Republican Party had been crafting for him.

No one can say with certainty what ultimately will happen. One thing, though, is certain. Things as they currently exist cannot continue. No democratic republic based on a two-party system can long survive if one of its major parties refuses to honor and abide by accepted principles of restraint, popular government, and peaceful changes of political power. The current court system has been systematically corrupted by stolen seats, and decades of ideological appointments by right-wing Republicans. The Senate retains its archaic rules that permit the minority to thwart majority rule.

Thus, there are two major reforms needed urgently. The Senate must change its procedures, including elimination of the filibuster, which empowers and encourages a minority to thwart the will of the majority. Also, the Supreme Court must be expanded by four seats, to enable it to counteract rulings protecting the extreme right.

Examples of such rulings are those protecting virtually unlimited financing of politics by the wealthy; those that sacrifice public health and create physical dangers by giving preference to a narrow and extreme version of “religious liberty”; yet others that permit states virtually to outlaw abortion, thus reducing women to the status of slaves, in what would seem to be a clear violation of the Thirteenth Amendment.  Ultimately, the worst of the rulings suggests that the Court accepts Republican measures to make it impossible for them to lose elections, regardless of what the majority of the voting population desires.

Finally, if the Republican Party does not truly cast off its current extremism and accept restraints on its conduct, it must fade from importance¾even existence¾and be replaced by another party that will conduct itself within democratic norms. As things stand, unless it reforms itself dramatically, either the Republican Party will vanish, or the United States as a democratic republic will do so.

[1] The Common Sense Manifesto (With a Nod to Thomas Paine, Not Karl Marx), Washington: Westphalia Press, 2020.

[2] See John A. Farrell, Richard Nixon: The Life,New York: Doubleday, 2017, quoted in Skidmore, Common Sense Manifesto, pp. 4-7.

[3] See Marcia and Thomas Mitchell, The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War, Sausalito, CA: PoliPoint Press, 2008; see also Skidmore, Common Sense Manifesto, p.25.