Politics & Policy

Is Donald Trump Doing to Republicans What Zachary Taylor Did to the Whigs?

Detail of Taylor’s official presidential portrait (Joseph Henry Bush, 1848)
There are some interesting historical parallels, and they contain a warning.

Dan McLaughlin is distressed that poor Zachary Taylor “deserves better” than my Politico article paralleling his nomination to Donald Trump’s. I warned in that piece that back in 1848, when a wealthy, loutish, celebrity outsider only intermittently loyal to his party’s principles seized the nomination, his party, the Whigs, never recovered. Clearly, historical analogizing is tricky, susceptible to charges of round-peg-into-square-hole-shoving. Still, I stand by my analysis.

For starters, I reject McLaughlin’s characterization of Millard Fillmore as one of the Whig vice presidents “who had been selected recklessly without an effort to pair the celebrity generals with professional politicians of more ideological loyalty.” Fillmore’s biographer Paul Finkelman calls Fillmore “a real Whig and committed to Whig policies.”   

Historians have a love-hate relationship with that word often used when discussing Donald Trump’s ascent, “unprecedented.” We relish every detail emphasizing each historical moment’s uniqueness, while delighting in connecting particular moments to sweeping historical phenomena. Donald Trump’s populism echoes other anti-establishment campaigns, including Andrew Jackson’s 1828 run against John Quincy Adams’s “corrupt bargain,” William Jennings Bryan’s 1896 silver crusade, Bill Clinton’s 1992 “Putting People First” call, and even Barack Obama’s “Hope and Change” 2008 love-in.

The Taylor-Trump comparison is more novel — and intriguing. The main parallel begins with Zachary Taylor’s converting his fame as a Mexican-American War hero into commandeering the Whig Party — despite boasting about never having voted before. As the spontaneous calls for drafting this 19th-century celebrity built momentum in 1847, Taylor, increasingly hungry for the presidency, inched toward the Whig party to which he had never belonged. Nevertheless, he insisted he would not be bound by any “pledges.” Once nominated, he ran with no party platform.

Here, then, are the three strongest pillars on which my article stands. First, from George Washington to Donald Trump, and including Taylor, many Americans have long considered the famous as somehow qualified to lead our democracy, and have assumed that success in one arena, be it the military or business, is transferrable to politics.

Admittedly, in some ways, a citizen amateur like Donald Trump approximates the Founders’ dream candidate more than does any professional politician. The Framers imagined wise, virtuous, elites wafting into the presidency, and resisting the creation of a greedy, grubby, untrustworthy permanent class of professional politicians.

Moreover, Trump and Taylor both exploited a traditional American political trope — our political anti-politics suited to a nation conceived in revolution against executive authority, i.e., King George. Taylor’s pose of benign disinterest and willingness to serve only if drafted, fulfilled the Founders’ dream of a virtuous man called by the people to rule. Today, Trump surged, thanks to an updated all-American frustration with politics and politicians.

Simultaneously, Trump also represents what the Founders most feared, a fast-talking demagogue, who roils the mob, pitting one group of Americans against the other. In Federalist No. 71, Alexander Hamilton hoped the constitutional system would protect Americans and their candidates from following “every sudden breeze of passion,” or “every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests.”

Mea culpa. I threw in Taylor’s wealth to Trumpify the general, using the fact that as a slaveholder with plantations in three states he would have made the 19th-century “Forbes 400.” Nevertheless, the source of Taylor’s wealth — his slaves — is relevant. Just as Trump benefits from many assumptions people make based on many non-political facts and impressions they have formed of him, Taylor’s slaveholding reassured southerners of his loyalty to their cause. Their antebellum version of identity politics depended on who he was not what he said.

We end with the article’s three warnings. Americans beware: In 1848, as in 2016, both nominees’ “high negatives” demoralized citizens. In 1848, it depressed voter turnout. While more broadly popular, Taylor was hated by “true Whig” regulars. They doubted his loyalty to Whig principles and felt betrayed that those seeking a cheap win dumped their hero Henry Clay for Taylor.

The Democratic nominee and eventual loser, Lewis Cass, was more of a Democratic regular, and — Democrats beware — far more experienced, having served as a senator and a Cabinet member in a long but contentious career.

Finally, Republicans beware, the internal Whig civil war was so intense, the choosing of Taylor despite the betrayal of Whig principles and Whig loyalists like Henry Clay so blatant, that the party never recovered. Taylor was the last Whig president as the party soon imploded.

Party break ups are messy and multi-dimensional — like all break ups. But my Politico article humbly suggests that Democrats and Republicans should study the past — in this case the raucous, fascinating 1848 campaign, to understand some present political dynamics, and brace for the future, by realizing how damaging Taylor’s candidacy — and ultimately his presidency — was for the Whig party and the nation. 

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