The political community’s dominant reaction to high-level Republicans like Sen. Jeff Flake and former President George W. Bush denouncing President Donald Trump has been that the attacks only underscore their weakness and the strength of his hold on the party.
That may be true in the near-term. But history sends a very different message.
Almost always when a significant faction within a political party has felt suppressed or marginalized, eventually they have found a way to kick back – typically leaving a dent on their party’s fortunes in the process.
The mechanisms of that resistance have varied, from building cross-party alliances in Congress to mounting an independent presidential campaign or even starting a new party. “Usually when there are people who are dissatisfied with what’s going on in their party they find ways to hurt the party, either by organizing factions within the party or starting a new party,” says Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University historian.
Trump’s defenders correctly note that polls show a preponderant majority of Republicans approve of his job performance. But, from the 19th century anti-slavery Northern Whigs like Abraham Lincoln, to the 20th century segregationist Southern Democrats like Strom Thurmond, dissidents historically haven’t needed to command a majority of their party to have an impact. All that’s been required is that they represent a component of the coalition large enough to cause damage if they defect, either in legislative fights or elections.
The test through history has been that dissidents typically must be willing to accept short-term harm to their party as the price for advancing a direction they believe will strengthen it over the long-term. “The only way to take your party back,” says Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz “is to run against it.”
Trump arguably benefited from this very phenomenon in 2016 when he swept to victory and reshaped the party behind commanding support from its blue-collar wing. But now he is, in record time, in the reverse position, particularly among leaders from the party’s more white-collar, or business establishment, wing.
In recent weeks, a procession of Republican Party leaders has offered the case for such an insurrection. They have accused Trump of fomenting racial division at home; abandoning America’s values abroad; lacking the stability and competence to effectively serve as commander in chief; or all of the above. The list of GOP leaders embracing some version of that critique include the party’s past three presidential nominees (Mitt Romney, John McCain and Bush); several senators (Flake, McCain, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Ben Sasse of Nebraska); Ohio Gov. John Kasich; and a wide array of GOP thinkers and writers.
Pete Wehner, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center and a leading GOP critic of Trump, acknowledges the dissidents have not yet determined the best way to challenge Trump’s direction.
“I don’t know what will work,” says Wehner, formerly the director for strategic initiatives in the George W Bush White House. “You need different figures to make different cases to see what resonates. You need institutions that can make the counter case. You need writers and voters of authority to do it. I think you just need everything to begin to do it. There’s an opening but it’s not clear what emerges from that opening.”
While it’s uncertain what forms of internal resistance might prove most effective for Trump’s GOP critics, experience provides no shortage of alternatives. Since the mid-19th century, party dissidents have employed a wide array of weapons to make their discontent known. Ranging from the least to the most disruptive, they include:
Organizing a new faction: The most straightforward way for party leaders to promote a new direction is to coalesce into an organization that agitates for it. Two recent examples demonstrate the potential of this approach. Though the Conservative Opportunity Society led by young Republican House members began as a clear minority when Newt Gingrich launched it after 1980, within a decade it had won most of the GOP caucus to its vision of a more confrontational and ideologically purist party. Formed a few years later, the Democratic Leadership Council also, for a time, steered the Democratic Party toward a more centrist vision symbolized by the election of Bill Clinton, one of its leaders, to the presidency.
Building a cross-party legislative alliance
House and Senate members have sometimes resisted their party’s direction by systematically allying with legislators from the other party. Legislators from both parties sympathetic to the progressive movement aligned against more conservative voices on each side to help Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, and Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, pass their agendas from 1901 to 1920. Conservative Southern Democrats bonded with Midwestern Republicans to create the so-called Conservative Coalition that usually stymied liberals in Congress (and often the White House) from 1938 through 1964.
Mounting an Independent presidential candidacy
An even more emphatic expression of discontent has come when a marginalized faction bolts their party to support their own presidential candidate. Progressives did that by rallying behind the independent candidacies of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 (whose insurgency against William Howard Taft, his more conservative successor, helped tip the election to Wilson) and Robert M. La Follette in 1924 (which had less effect.) Similarly, anti-integration Southern Democrats backed the independent candidacies of Thurmond in 1948 (which didn’t prevent Democrat Harry Truman from winning) and George Wallace in 1968 (which did help defeat Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey).
Starting a new party
The nuclear option for party dissidents has been to form a full-scale new party. That happened around 1890 when, as Kazin notes, Southern Democrats and Western Republicans founded the People’s Party (better known as the Populists) after both major parties resisted greater oversight of the new corporate behemoths rapidly reshaping the economy. After initially electing dozens of governors, senators and congressmen, the Populists peaked and faded quickly. But they lastingly converted the Democrats to their agenda of government as a counterweight to business power after William Jennings Bryan, a leader in their cause, captured the Democratic presidential nomination in 1896.
An even more successful example came in the 1850s. As that decade opened, both of the era’s major parties, the Whigs and Democrats, failed to oppose slavery for fear of alienating their Southern factions. That disenfranchised the many Northern voters hostile to slavery.
But after the passage of the inflammatory Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which potentially opened all new territories to slavery, anti-slavery leaders in both parties defected to form the Republican Party. The Republican Party offered Northern voters what neither existing party would: an alternative that was clearly opposed to slavery’s expansion. And behind that message it elected Lincoln as president in 1860, just four years after it ran its first presidential candidate in 1856.
Trump’s current-day Republican critics probably don’t have a Lincoln warming up in the bullpen. And they are highly unlikely to start a new party. But the Republican Party’s emergence in the 1850s underscores the powerful truth that when a significant constituency of voters believe neither party is representing their views, they will demand an alternative that does.
Is there such a disaffected audience inside the GOP coalition?
Though Trump’s overall approval rating among Republicans remains high, polls also suggest that elements of his agenda and especially his style, are straining the party’s hold on the voters who most resemble critics like Flake, Sasse, Kasich, and Romney: college-educated whites in professional or management positions.
Many of those voters share Trump’s support for the traditional Republican goals of less federal taxes, spending and regulation, which complicates the picture. But in recent Pew Research Center polling, college-educated Republicans were less likely than their counterparts without degrees to say they approved of Trump’s personal behavior as president or to endorse his skepticism of immigration and global trade. Other polls have shown white-collar unease with his approach to racial issues.
Trump’s overall approval rating among all college-educated whites has remained mired for months in the mid-30s, well below the usual level for a GOP president. And in one recent University of New Hampshire poll, fewer than 40% of likely GOP primary voters with a four-year college degree or more said they were inclined to vote for Trump again.
It’s easy to imagine a Trump critic targeting those well-educated voters as the foundation of a GOP primary challenge to him or an independent third-party candidacy in 2020. Today it appears either such effort would face long odds of success (although the progress of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation could alter that calculus). But, like earlier rebellions, if such an uprising merely wounded Trump it could allow his critics to warn their party that it cannot succeed without them. And, if that message is ignored, history suggests such a challenge could accelerate the long-term migration away from the GOP of the voters sympathetic to it. In exactly that way, Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 insurgency prefigured Franklin Roosevelt’s later consolidation of progressive voters into his durable New Deal coalition and Wallace’s 1968 revolt foreshadowed the later shift of conservative Southern whites into the GOP under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
The hard price is that any of these alternatives – from voting with the other party to launching a primary challenge– ensures the dissidents will be loudly accused of helping the other party.
Wehner says that’s a risk Trump’s critics must accept. “In normal times that would be a persuasive argument, but it’s not normal times,” Wehner says. “Donald Trump is doing more damage to the Republican Party and traditional conservatism than Hillary Clinton ever could. That doesn’t mean you have to go out of your way to help Democrats. But if you are going to oppose him you have to do that.”
Trump’s Republican critics face many financial, logistical and political obstacles to building a viable alternative. But Abraham Lincoln, during his reluctant transition from Whig to Republican over slavery, might have agreed with every word Wehner said.