As the contemporary Republican Party struggles to define a political platform for the 2016 presidential election, it is apparent that Abraham Lincoln’s would-be heirs have yet to grasp core ethical insights that Lincoln articulated 160 years ago.
As American debates over Irish and German Catholic immigration intensified in the mid-19th century, US politics made for a toxic stew from which emerged the short-lived Know-Nothing Party, which among other goals advocated residency requirements of 20 years or more for immigrants to acquire citizenship and the exclusive reservation of public office for US-born citizens. Reflecting upon the political climate at the time, Abraham Lincoln, who won the 1860 presidential election as the candidate of the Republican Party, wrote to a close friend, Joshua F. Speed, to express his views about the Know-Nothing Party in August 1855:
I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.
The emergence of Donald Trump as the candidate who leads early polling prior to the primary campaign of 2016 has awakened the ghosts of Know-Nothings and their fear of Catholic European immigrants in the mid-19th century. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric against Mexicans plays upon the same sort of xenophobia that has energized US politics at various periods in US history.
In addition, his derogatory comments about women, including presidential candidate Carly Fiorina – another Republican campaigning in the primaries – suggest a cavalier disregard for a significant constituency in the US electorate. This campaign strategy follows upon his longstanding attempts to question President Obama’s academic record, and these attacks have apparently won approval from some of the political base of the Republican Party.
Trump’s embrace of xenophobic themes in his campaign for the presidency has opened the way for Americans to confront the reactionary themes of US politics that – in times of acute political stress – gain renewed currency as a basis for populist campaigns. As the American historian Richard Hofstadter suggested in a Harper’s Magazine article in the 1960s:
American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.
In his 1964 presidential campaign, the Republican candidate Barry Goldwater had opposed the passage of the Civil Rights Act introduced by the Johnson administration and promised by John F. Kennedy in 1963 prior to his assassination in November of that year. Goldwater had shown himself willing to pander to segregationist sentiment in his presidential campaign as proof of his commitment to the vision of American conservatism that he espoused. Goldwater’s conservative campaign was also occurring in the wake of Kennedy’s election as the first, and only, Catholic president. Kennedy’s election was a harbinger of the social and political change that would redefine American life and culture in the 1960s. The growing mobilization of the civil rights movement to ensure that the legal regime that underpinned Jim Crow culture in American life was dismantled had triggered a political backlash that Goldwater sought to exploit in his 1964 campaign.
As in the 1850s and 1960s, Trump’s campaign rhetoric has become a vehicle for popular discontent articulated against the historic outsiders – Catholics, women and people of color – who pose a “threat” to the American mainstream. This rhetoric inevitably poses questions about whether Trump’s rhetoric is targeting other Republican candidates in the primaries, some of whom identify as Catholic, Latino or Black.
As the 2016 campaign unfolds, in the wake of Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency for two consecutive terms, the Republican Party confronts a fundamental crisis of identity. It has to grapple with the challenge of transforming itself into a party that can transcend its historic compromise with the Southern segregationists in the mid-1960s. The passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 by the Johnson administration had pushed the Southern Democrats, among whom were Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, to embrace Richard Nixon and his Southern strategy in 1968. That strategy had opened the way to Republican political dominance since 1968 at the expense of the image of the Republicans as the “party of Lincoln.”
Given the increasing diversity of the US population – including the significant electoral power of Latino voters, who are now the largest minority group in the American electorate – Trump may yet open the way for a return to the political wilderness into which the Republicans were consigned during the 1933 to 1952 FDR-Truman era. It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who forged the political strategy of opening the Democratic Party to Black voters and giving great visibility to Catholic notables, including Joseph Kennedy – the father of the future president, John F. Kennedy. In addition, it was his wife Eleanor Roosevelt who redefined the role of the first lady as a political activist who could advocate for disadvantaged US communities. The United States is ripe for a return to the politics of inclusive democracy, and the Trump campaign has illustrated the importance of that challenge.