How the Republican Party went from Lincoln to Trump

Today’s Republican Party opposes big government.
It’s culturally conservative. Its demographic support is strongest among white voters, and
it usually dominates elections in the South. And its 2016 presidential nominee has been
heavily criticized for inciting racial tensions. But things weren’t always this way.
Yet over the past 160 or so years, the party has undergone a remarkable transformation
from the party of Abraham Lincoln… to the party of Donald Trump. And to understand how the GOP got the way
it is today, you have to go back to when it first came into existence — in 1854, just
7 years before the Civil War. There are two parties at this point, the Whigs
and the Democrats. America is quickly expanding westward and there’s an intense debate over
whether the new states should permit slavery The Democratic Party, with strong support
in the South, has become increasingly pro-slavery. But the Whigs are divided on the issue. Their
northern supporters are really afraid that the growing number of slave states would have
too much political influence, which they feared could hurt free white workers economically
So In 1854, the country is debating whether or not the new states Kansas and Nebraska
will allow slavery. The can’t agree and the party ends up collapsing. The former whigs
in the north form a new party that will fight against letting slavery expand further; they
call it the Republican Party. By 1860 the Republican Party become increasingly
powerful in the North, enough so that a little known Republican named Abraham Lincoln wins
the presidency. Even though Lincoln promises he won’t interfere
with slavery in the states that already have it, he and his party are still too anti-slavery
for the South to tolerate. So 11 Southern states secede from the Union, forming the
Confederate States of America. The Northern states decide to fight to keep the Union together,
and the Civil War ensues. The result is a Northern victory and the abolition of slavery
nationwide. After the war, Republicans begin fighting
to ensure freedmen in the South have rights. A year after Lincoln’s assassination, the
party passes the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which said black citizens have the same rights
as whites. They fight to make sure that black men have the right to vote, with new laws
and constitutional amendments. But something had happened during the civil
war that began changing the young Republican Party. Government spending during the war
made many northern businessmen really rich. Gradually, these wealthy financiers and industrialists
start taking more and more of a leading role in the Republican Party. They want to hold
on to power, and they don’t think that fighting for black rights in a mostly white country
is the best way to do that. Meanwhile, the South is resisting these new
racial reforms, often violently. And most white Republican voters and leaders now feel
that they’ve done enough for Black citizens in the South, and that it was time to emphasize
other issues. So in the 1870s, the party basically gives up on reforming the South, deciding
instead to leave it to its own devices, even if that meant black citizens were oppressed
and deprived of their new right to vote, and the region was politically dominated by white
Democrats. Fast-forward to the new century. By the 1920s,
the Republican Party has become, essentially, the party of big business. This works out
quite well for them when the economy was booming, but not so well when the economy crashes in
1929 and the Great Depression begins. Franklin D. Roosevelt and other Democrats
are swept into power, and begin dramatically expanding the size and role of the federal
government, in an attempt to fight the Depression and better provide for Americans. Republicans
oppose this rapid expansion, defining themselves as opposition to bigger government, an identity
that the party still holds today. Then, going into the 50s and 60s, race and
the South return to the forefront of national politics, with the civil rights movement attempting
to end segregation and ensure blacks truly had the right to vote.
Civil rights isn’t purely a partisan issue, it’s more of a regional issue with northerners
from both parties supporting it and southerners from both parties opposing. Then 1964, it’s
Democratic president Lyndon Johnson who signs the Civil Rights Act into law. And it’s
Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater who opposes it, arguing that it expands government
power too much. A massive switch-up takes place. Black voters,
many of whom had already been shifting from Republicans, convert almost entirely to their
new advocates, the Democrats. And white voters in the South, who had been staunch Democrats,
start to really resent “big government” interference here and in other matters, like
abortion rights and school prayer. Over the next three decades, whites in the South switch
to the GOP, which makes the South an overwhelmingly Republican region. By the 80s, the party begins
to resemble the GOP we are familiar with today. Republicans elect Ronald Reagan, who promises
to fight for, business interests, lower taxes, and traditional family values. Then, as the 21st century begins, America
is going through a major demographic shift in the form of Hispanic immigration, both
legal and illegal. Democrats and business elites tend to support
reforming immigration laws so that over 10 million unauthorized immigrants in the US
would get legal status. But “tough on immigration” policies and rhetoric become popular on the
Republican right. Then, when Mitt Romney loses his bid for the
presidency in 2012, he gets blown out among Hispanic voters — exit polls showed that
71% of them backed Barack Obama. And the Republican Party starts to look more like a party for
white voters in an increasingly nonwhite country. Given demographic trends, Republican leaders
worry that if they keep losing Hispanic voters by that much, they’ll lose their chances
of winning the presidency. So in 2013, some key Republicans in the Senate — including
rising star Marco Rubio — collaborate with Democrats on an immigration reform bill that
would give unauthorized immigrants a path to legal status. But there’s a huge backlash from the Republican
party’s predominantly white base, which views the bill as “amnesty” for immigrants
who broke the rules. This exacerbates GOP voters’ mistrust of their own party’s
leaders, which had already been growing. And that makes the political landscape of
2015 is fertile ground for a figure like Donald Trump, an outsider businessman who wants to
build a wall on the border with Mexico. Trump isn’t a traditional conservative, but he
appealed to Republican primary voters’ resentment and mistrust of party elites, as well as their
strong opposition to growing immigration trends. And even though he was loathed by party leaders,
he won enough support in the primaries to become the GOP nominee for president. Now, the Republican party is once again at
a major crossroads as it tries to meet the political challenges of the 21st century.
It’s possible that the turn toward Trump and his ideas this year will be remembered
as an aberration, and that a new generation of Republican politicians will find a way
to be more than just the party of white resentment — rediscovering their roots as the party
of Lincoln. But it’s also possible that Trump is just the beginning, and that the
party will increasingly play to white voters by appealing to racial tensions. It’s up
to Republican voters and leaders to decide just what they want their party to be.

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