The Corner

Politics & Policy

A Few More Words About Zachary Taylor and Donald Trump

Gil Troy responds to my criticism of his Politico piece comparing Donald Trump to our 12th President, the second and last elected Whig president, Zachary Taylor. I suspect we disagree less than that chain of responses would imply. There is much to recommend in his caution that Trump could do to Republicans what happened to the Whigs after Taylor, and for reasons that are not all that dissimilar: Taylor had few convictions of his own, was nominated and elected on the basis of his war celebrity while papering over the Whigs’ intractable internal contradictions, and he did little enough in office to solve those. My main points of disagreement with his admitted efforts to “Trumpify” Taylor were twofold, one of them being their disparate personalities (a parallel Troy does not really try to sustain) and the other in my view that the real damage from Taylor’s Administration resulted from the actions of his Vice President and successor, Millard Fillmore, and not from Taylor’s earnest efforts to live up to the demands of the office before his death a little over a year into the job. It was Fillmore, not Taylor, who ultimately agreed to the Compromise of 1850, allowing the expansion of slavery in the Southwest; while that compromise may have been necessary to delay the nation’s slide into civil war, it also highlighted the internal tensions over slavery that would implode the Whig Party a few years later. Troy notes, rightly, that Fillmore was a more orthodox Whig before taking office than John Tyler, a Democrat, had been, and I concede that my issues with Fillmore are more about his conduct in and after office.

In the end, though, the Whigs came apart because the party’s factions – united in the 1820s and 1830s – simply had too little in common on the great issues of the 1850s. Taylor’s nomination was more a symptom than a cause of the forces that destroyed the party. If there’s a truly worrisome parallel for today’s Republicans, it’s that Trump may similarly be a symptom of a marriage that can’t be saved. The optimist would note that the Democrats somehow managed to lose Congress in 1854 without any opposition party existing at all (the new majority styled itself simply “the Opposition Party”), and fractured badly enough themselves to elect a Republican president in 1860. The pessimist would note that – as in many areas of American life – the process of creative destruction is much harder with national political parties today for a variety of legal, regulatory and logistical reasons, and thus a fatally wounded Republican Party might take a very long time to replace. As to whether the Democrats’ long, bitter 2016 primary signals their own problems, that’s a question for another day.

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