We now have something like consensus: The rise of Donald Trump portends the end of the Republican Party as we know it. As longtime GOP operative and commentator Steve Schmidt said last week, “The Republican Party has an outstanding chance of fracturing.” Trump’s opponents, inside and outside the party, are united in the belief that he has almost single-handedly undone an institution founded on the eve of the Civil War that has lasted for more than 150 years and has immeasurably shaped the United States.
But this gives Trump too much credit — credit that he might of course welcome and relish, but too much nonetheless. Several times in American history, political parties have collapsed or radically realigned. And while prominent individuals hastened those developments, in each case it was the product of dramatic changes over the previous years. The “Trump did it” view is classic Great Man History — the idea that human events are driven by pivotal men (yes, usually men till only recently) steering society. It’s also wrong. Previous examples of party crackups show why.
The Whig Party is long-forgotten, yet for two decades before the Civil War it was one of the major forces in American political life. Founded in part by the towering Kentucky senator Henry Clay to counter the spreading influence of Andrew Jackson and his new brand of popular democracy, the Whigs brought two elected presidents (William Henry Harrison in 1840 and Zachary Taylor in 1848) to the Oval Office and many members to Congress. For a time, the Whigs were a potent alliance of moderate Northerners and Southerners determined not to let the issue of slavery divide them or the country. But while that center held in the 1830s and 1840s, it proved too fragile to contain the irrepressible conflict of a nation half free and half slave, and its moderate leaders were no match for the passions of Southern Democrats and the insurgent new Republican Party that arose in the mid-1850s.
You could write the story of the Whigs’ rise and fall as the story of Henry Clay, with all of his magnificent limitations. You could also cite mediocre and self-serving politicos such as John Tyler (who assumed the presidency after William Henry Harrison died only 32 days into his term), Zachary Taylor and his much maligned vice president and successor Millard Fillmore. But to do so would be to miss the larger societal forces that led to the party’s ascendance and then demise.
The Whig coalition worked as long as western expansion and competition and war with Mexico distracted attention from the irresolvable stain of slavery. Once western expansion upset whatever delicate balance had existed between North and South, the Whigs were left as a status-quo party during a fundamental shift in American demographics, social mores and economic systems. No individual could have made a party founded on weak alliances cohere in the face of the roiling of the 1850s, and the Whigs disappeared with astonishing swiftness as their voters defected to other parties.
The Republican Party nearly ended once before, in 1912, leading to a generational realignment. The story is often told as a classic tale of great-man politics. At the end of his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt had thrown his support to his vice president, William Howard Taft, who duly won the election of 1908. But T.R soon tired of Taft’s cozy relationship with big business, and of being absent from the spotlight. He broke with the Republicans and led a rump progressive “Bull Moose” Party to gain 25 percent of the popular vote in 1912, preventing Taft from winning and propelling Woodrow Wilson into the White House.
But none of that would have been possible if Americans hadn’t been debating the newly expansive role of the federal government and the rise of populist progressivism as a deep force in American life. That in turn was spurred by the closing of the American frontier at the end of the 19th century, and by the rapid shift from farming to industry and cities. Millions of new industrial workers, immigrants to new and burgeoning cities, and a push toward the enfranchisement of women combined to create a volatile political atmosphere that threatened the Republican Party establishment of the post-Civil War era, which had become comfortable and lazy with power. Sound familiar?
Another party upheaval took place in the 1960s, and this time it was the Democratic Party. Here as well, you could tell the tale in great-man terms: a president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, comes off a tragic ascendency to the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and then wins a landslide victory in 1964, having engineered one of the most epochal pieces of legislation in the 20th century, the Civil Rights Act. He follows that with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 along with a slew of social welfare policies collectively known as the Great Society to fight a “war on poverty.”
But misguided strategy in Vietnam fractures the country, hobbles Johnson, and leads to his decision not to run for office in 1968. That in turn leads to the nail-biting election of Richard Nixon, who leverages massive Southern Democratic Party resistance to the civil rights initiatives to return the Republican Party to prominence in the South for the first time since the end of reconstruction in the late 1870s. And within a generation, the once-powerful coalition of Northern and Southern Democrats had all but disintegrated, leaving the South a bastion of the Republicans, and the Northeast a stronghold of Democrats.
While the individuals mattered, structural forces mattered even more. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act upset whatever delicate balance had existed south of the Mason-Dixon line since the late 19th century, while the war in Vietnam and tumult in Northern cities similarly undermined party legitimacy. Between 1968 and the mid-1970s, violence skyrocketed in major metropolises. Bombings and murders were shockingly commonplace, and traditional elites and authorities were no longer trusted after the quagmire of Vietnam, the scandals of Watergate and the stagflation of the 1970s.
In this election, too, we have wrongly focused on the personalities at the expense of social forces. The decline and fall of the American Republican Party cannot be laid at the feet and hands, small or large, of Donald Trump. The GOP’s demise is the product of structural shifts: The modern Republican Party was the child of the 1970s and 1980s, a merger of small-government ideology and big-government success, a flourishing of suburban and primarily white voters throughout the country combined with what had been the Southern wing of the pre-Civil Rights Democratic Party.
That coalition is fracturing badly, after decades of demographic shifts, the permanent transformation of manufacturing from high employment and high output to technology-fueled high output and low employment, and the relative flourishing of once-languishing cities. These forces have almost nothing to do with Donald Trump.
No matter what happens in November, the mighty 20th century industrial economic system that brought America such power and prosperity is giving way to something else — at best an economy of technology and services that meets the needs and wants of hundreds of millions of people at lower cost to wallets and the planet, but not immediately, not evenly and not smoothly. At worst, our best days are receding, and no amount of wall-building will stop it.
Either way, this election has ended our collective ability to pretend that we are one president or one new set of policies away from returning to a magical mythical past. The obsession over who causes structural change is a waste of time, because the answer is: All of us.
[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly cited the realignment of Northern and Southern Republicans beginning the 1960s. It was Democrats whose coalition unraveled.]