The idea of a President Donald J. Trump was once so facially absurd that it was little more than a punchline in an episode of The Simpsons. Now, as some of us struggle to make sense of a world in which this casino-magnate-turned-reality-TV-star could very well lead the party of Lincoln, many are casting about looking for a historical analogue to the phenomenon that is Trump.
Here at National Review, he has been compared to George Wallace and Ross Perot. Pat Buchanan views him as a successor of sorts. A recent Weekly Standard cover story cast him as a modern-day Aaron Burr.
With the GOP looking at the possibility of an open convention — complete with floor fights, riots, and the threat that the party will tear itself in two — the best historical analogue seems clear: Donald Trump is Teddy Roosevelt, and this is 1912 all over again.
The 1912 Republican National Convention was a battle for the soul of the party.
Though President William Howard Taft had been Theodore Roosevelt’s chosen successor in 1908, by 1912, the increasingly radical Roosevelt was dissatisfied with Taft’s relative conservatism in office. In violation of an earlier pledge not to run for a second full term, Roosevelt chose to challenge the president for the Republican nomination.
Much like Donald Trump, the progressive Roosevelt was a post-constitutional candidate. There are parallels between Trump’s defense of eminent domain abuse and Roosevelt’s contempt for property rights, and Trump’s strongman tendencies have antecedents in TR’s impatience with the machinery of constitutional government.
In the early 20th century, only a handful of states held popular primaries to choose presidential nominees, and the results weren’t even binding. But Roosevelt was a popular figure, and he took advantage of these contests, carrying nine out of twelve primaries. President Taft, however, still controlled the machinery of the party, and in states where convention delegates were chosen by party regulars, Taft’s forces dominated.
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This didn’t stop Roosevelt from crying foul. “I believe in pure democracy,” he had proclaimed at the Ohio Constitutional Convention in February of that year. As the forces of his era’s Republican establishment stood arrayed against him, Roosevelt, in the words of historian Lewis Gould, remained “firm in his conviction that the nomination was being stolen from him.” One can almost imagine the outrage of Trump boosters, such as Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich and others, at the notion that the “will of the people” could be so successfully thwarted by the party apparatus. Unlike Trump, Roosevelt didn’t promise riots if he failed to secure the nomination, but the convention organizers were prepared for them. A thousand policemen patrolled the aisles of the convention, and barbed wire was hidden beneath the bunting of the speaker’s platform in order to prevent assaults. For Roosevelt had cast his battle for the nomination in apocalyptic language, proclaiming to his followers that: “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.”
None of these protests stopped the conservative forces of President Taft from denying Roosevelt the nomination. Taft’s ally Elihu Root defeated Roosevelt’s chosen candidate for convention chairman. Roosevelt’s forces lost important votes on the floor, and the convention awarded contested delegates to Taft. Roosevelt had won more primaries and had entered the convention with a plurality of delegates, but Taft easily wrapped up the nomination on the first ballot.
Taft and Root knew that denying Roosevelt the nomination would likely lead him and his supporters to bolt the convention and run on a third-party ticket, splitting the GOP vote and virtually guaranteeing a Democratic victory in November. Of course, this is precisely what happened. Combined, Roosevelt and Taft won over 50 percent of the popular vote, but Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the election with just over 40 percent.
What Taft, Root, and their allies understood was that, as Root would later put it, “worse things can happen to a party than to be defeated.” In fact, as Root understood the situation before the party, “the result of the convention was more important than the question of the election.”
In 1912, America’s very system of constitutional government was under attack. Woodrow Wilson, the man who would become the Democratic candidate, had spent his prior academic career attacking the Constitution as outdated and dismissing the eternal truths of the Declaration of Independence as passé. Roosevelt’s progressivism led him to support a variety of radical measures — such as popular recall elections for judges and judicial decisions — that also threatened America’s constitutional order. Had Roosevelt captured the party in 1912, America would have been without a constitutionalist, conservative party.
Root and Taft insisted that the party of Lincoln should be maintained as “a nucleus about which the conservative people who are in favor of maintaining constitutional government can gather.” And even though they lost the election, ushering in Wilson’s disastrous presidency, history has proven their wisdom. It is hard to imagine a President Coolidge, a candidate Goldwater, or a “Reagan Revolution” had the Republican party become the vehicle for promoting Roosevelt’s proto-welfare state. In the face of defeat, the losers of the election of 1912 could rest in the knowledge that they had ensured constitutionalism would continue to find a home in one of America’s major parties.
The relevance of 1912 to the 2016 GOP primary race should be obvious.
Most of the leaders of the Republican party and the conservative movement are busy figuring out the best way to capitulate to Donald Trump’s takeover of their party.
At present, most of the leaders of the Republican party and the conservative movement are busy figuring out the best way to capitulate to Donald Trump’s takeover of their party. The Republican National Committee’s communications director, Sean Spicer, has pledged that the party will “100 percent” support Trump should he win the nomination. Republican leadership in Congress alternates between heaping praise on the party’s front-runner to offering tepid rebukes while still pledging to support him as the nominee. Media figures such as Sean Hannity excoriate Republicans for floating the possibility of an open convention, and many are arguing that the convention must hand the nomination to whomever wins the most delegates, even if he fails to secure a majority.
The chasm between the cowardice and fecklessness of today’s Republican leaders and the courage and foresight the party’s leaders showed in 1912 couldn’t be wider. If Roosevelt, a former president and lifelong Republican, was a threat to our constitutional order, Trump — a former Democratic party donor who is hideously unprepared for the office he seeks — could prove an unmitigated disaster. At least TR had a legislative program to back up his cult of personality. Trump offers voters little more than his own authoritarian pretensions. Roosevelt had considered the strictures of our Constitution and found them wanting; Trump gives the impression of having never given our founding documents a passing thought.The Grand Old Party recently turned 162 years old. Though it may seem to be on the verge of destruction, the party has been in this position before. The last time a populist figure with celebrity appeal attempted to use a wave of popular support to stage a hostile takeover, the party’s leaders had the wisdom and foresight to deny him the Republican imprimatur. They did this knowing they were overturning the will of many voters, dividing the party, and losing the general election. They understood the challenge history had placed at their feet and chose the long-term survival of constitutional conservatism over a single fleeting victory.
Will the leaders of today’s Republican party and the conservative movement be able to meet today’s Trumpist challenge to their party as well as their predecessors met theirs? I sure hope so.
But I wouldn’t hold my breath.
— Avi Snyder is director of digital communications at the Claremont Institute. The views expressed here are his alone and do not represent the views of the Claremont Institute.