Once upon a time, “republican,” with a small r, was the most revered word in this country—a sacred word. As you probably know, the founders weren’t crazy about democracy. They didn’t trust the people (even in the limited way they defined the term) not to become a mob. They didn’t lean into the label “democrat.” Instead they identified as “republicans.”
What did republican mean back then, in the 1780s? A few different things, but it centered on the idea—and don’t laugh, yet—of virtue. Republican virtue lauded citizenship and civic duty—and citizenship was defined by adherence to a set of principles, not by blood and soil. It hated corruption and excessive concentration of wealth (American society was far less stratified than was British society; George Washington would barely have qualified as rich in England).
Alexander Hamilton formed the country’s first political party, which he called the Federalists. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison formed the other party, which they called the Republican Party (or sometimes the Democratic-Republican Party, but note that democracy is nodded to only in the adjective, while the noun emphasizes republicanism). They called it that for a reason: to promote the above republican virtues and to suggest that Hamilton’s big plans—strong central government, national bank—were anti-republican and reeked of monarchism.
Later, when Jefferson became president, there was a more specific thing called Jeffersonian republicanism. This was more squarely built around the ideas of a limited federal government and the whole “yeoman farmer” thing, the idealization of the agrarian woodsman. These two concepts sound like today’s Republican Party, although of course Jefferson’s party morphed into the Democratic Party, a historical oddity to which we’ll return in due course.
Flash forward to 1854. Congress passes the unconscionable Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allows new states north of the old Missouri Compromise line (basically, the Kentucky-Tennessee border) to decide for themselves whether to be free or slave. It split the Whigs in two and was the last straw that destroyed that party.
In its place arose a new party. It was dedicated in the first instance to the abolition of slavery. But it was also dedicated to something else, as Heather Cox Richardson explains in To Make Men Free, her very good history of the GOP. The problem with the Kansas-Nebraska act wasn’t merely a moral one, though it was surely that. It was also an economic one. Extending slavery to new territories would give Southern oligarchs—as Richardson notes, “a very few large planters… controlled more than 90 percent of the South’s wealth”—dominion over who knew how many more states.
So opposing slavery, for this new group, meant not just opposing the idea of bondage, but also opposing the grotesque economic power of the slaveholders. Newspaperman Horace Greeley among others made this explicitly class-based argument: that giving such power to a small number of planters was a threat to the republic. They called themselves the Republican Party.
For that brief and glorious spell, a decade or so, the last half of it spent under the leadership of a man of extraordinary brilliance and humility and, well, republican virtue, the party was the greatest liberating force the United States had known. Not only did it free the slaves. It expanded opportunity throughout the country on the theory, Richardson writes, that “laborers, not rich men, created wealth.” In July 1862, while prosecuting the war, Abraham Lincoln took time out to sign the Morrill Land-Grant College Act and the Pacific Railroad act—on the same day!
Fade in, fade out. During the Industrial Revolution, the parties chose up sides. The Northern Democrats became the champions of the huddled masses, so the Republicans became the party of Wall Street. The Southern Democrats, of course, were America’s shame. Open racists. A party of vicious, and proud, white supremacy.
Into the 20th century, the Republicans remained the party of big business. Dwight Eisenhower switched them into a New Deal party, and, later, Ronald Reagan switched them back. In between, of course, Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon made them the anti-civil rights party, the party of white backlash.
But even so, they could lay some vague claim to being the party of individual liberty—yes, there were plenty of corporate greed-heads who wanted a weak central government because a strong one cut into profit margins, but there were also plenty of conservatives who believed sincerely that a powerful state won its power at the expense of the individual’s rights. I don’t agree, but it’s a fair argument.
In addition to that, through it all, the Republican Party showed at least enough fealty to the old idea of republican virtue by respecting the Constitution and the rules. Nixon tried to pull a fast one on the Constitution. But he got caught. And once caught, he largely succumbed to the process. He agreed to have John Dean and Alexander Butterfield go tell the Senate Watergate Committee what they knew, which proved his undoing. When the jig was up, it was Republicans who told him so, and he agreed.
In our time, these gangsters have made a sick joke of their party’s name. Virtue? OK, now you can laugh. Citizenship? Seriously? These people are screaming like Nazis at an American citizen to go back to her country. Her country is the United States of America! Ilhan Omar, with whom I disagree on a number of things, is far more an American than anyone who shouted “Send her back!” at Donald Trump’s rally.
Jefferson would be appalled at these people. Yes, they uphold his belief in limited government. But funnily enough, Jefferson’s party came around to supporting the national bank by the 1820s. And anyway, it wasn’t that party’s view of the role of government that came to define it throughout the 19th century. It was its racism, pure and simple. That, too, is something today’s Republican Party upholds.
The parties have completely flipped, in other words, from their roles in the 1850s, when they first became competitors. The Democrats were the racists and oligarchs, the Republicans the believers in tolerance, rights, and using the government to help common people. I’ve literally reached the point where I feel a slight physical revulsion in my stomach when I hear one of these reactionary bobbleheads refer to “the party of Lincoln.” How dare they?
No. In every imaginable way, our Republican Party is at war with the ideals and actions of Lincoln’s party. Setting aside land for colleges and creating a public authority to build a railroad? Socialism! If Grim Reaper McConnell had been around, he’d have made sure that neither of those harebrained schemes would have gotten a red cent. Today’s Democrats are the heirs of Lincoln. You, Republicans, are the heirs of slaveholders.
And as of last week, the GOP is an openly racist party, too. A white supremacist party. Is that too strong? White supremacy is not its official doctrine of course, as it was for the Nationalist Party of South Africa. But in practice, the Republican president who tells American women of color to go back where they came from, and so much more, is a white supremacist. And if the rest of them are going to remain as cowardly as they are now for the 15 months between now and election time—and, of course, they are—then yes, the label will be an absolutely fair one, as Trump continues and intensifies his racist tropes.
And finally, the party no longer recognizes any rules. This isn’t all Trump. Ask Merrick Garland about that. But Trump, of course, has made it worse, and the great fear—an explicitly republican fear, by the way—is that he will do something at election time to subvert or even nullify the Constitution and the rule of law to claim a victory he did not in fact win. And the party will back him. And they’ll take it to the Supreme Court, which today is at best one fragile vote away from itself becoming a mere instrument of the Dear Leader.
They, the Republicans, are the real un-Americans. They are at war with our traditions and with the proud parts of their own party’s history. They have poisoned our politics, quite possibly beyond repair. And they have made a once-sacred word profane.