Trump is an old-fashioned Whig—and I am not referring to his hair.
In an excellent article at Public Discourse, Matthew Franck compared Donald Trump to Stephen Douglas, “the showboat orator, the bulldog debater, the racial demagogue, the slippery character seeking to wriggle free of Lincoln’s grasp, and finally the exhausted boozer losing his voice.” But the historical analogy could be read in a very different way.
As Allen Guelzo points out, “the greatest danger to democracy” in the 1840s “was not an insurrection of discontented laborers but the maneuverings of a pig-eyed aristocracy to strike up a dark alliance with the working classes, whispering that economic mobility was a chimera and that what the workers needed was subsidy and protection from mobility.” Clearly, the Democratic Party has been the demagogue party since its inception. The nineteenth-century Democrats offered slavery—not only racial slavery in the South, but also the slavery of cradle-to-grave socialism, as Orestes Brownson made clear in his essay "On the Laboring Classes." The fact that we can imagine Trump as a new threat of demagoguery demonstrates quite brilliantly Alasdair MacIntyre’s old point: “The barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.”
Donald Trump is such an old style of American politician that, in our general historical oblivion, we imagine he is some new and hideous nightmare. We don’t even remember that there ever was such a thing as an American Whig Party.
Tippecanoe and Tyler Too
The Whigs were not the party of the masses. They were the party of the propertied class, those with the means and leisure for an education. They were an eighteenth-century party with an eighteenth-century name. In the 1840s, Whig senators practically still wore the silk hose-and-breeches and spoke the little-Latin-and-less-Greek of the founding era. They were the party of the founders—the old English families of the eastern seaboard—the Washingtons, the Franklins, and Adamses. They looked with horror on the new upstart Scots-Irish from the West, with names like Jackson and Polk—men who apparently knew nothing of the common law tradition. To Whigs, these men seemed illiterate in every sense of the word: they had no knowledge of either the Logos or the legis. Yet in the election of 1840, the Whigs used the song and slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” in an attempt to defeat the Democrats. They out-popularized the populists, and in so doing they further debased our political speech, perhaps forever.
The Whigs took their name from the parliamentary party in British politics, implying that their political adversaries, President Andrew Jackson and his Democratic successors, had turned the American presidency into a tyrannous monarchy with an overblown bureaucracy. They were the party of the legislature fighting the power of the executive (a fight that will never be the same since the Seventeenth Amendment).
But the Jacksonian Democratic machine was damned hard to defeat. Free-trade Southerners who wanted to exchange their cash-crop cotton on the world market allied themselves with immigrant unskilled labor in the Northern cities to create an unstoppable national party machine. Southern slaveholders and the Irish city bosses created a powerful alliance that lasted all the way to the LBJ-JFK team in 1960. Only by running a vulgar democratic campaign could you defeat the Democrats at their own game.
The demos loves generals who win Western territory for expansion? Give them General Tippecanoe of the Indian wars; give them General Zachary Taylor of the Mexican War. The demos wants a man of the people? Run a log cabin campaign with plenty of whiskey, claiming to have pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps. Was this demagoguery? Out demagogueing the Democratic demagogues?
Well, no, because the Whig party’s platform didn’t offer the same kind of policies that the Democrats offered. Once in office, the Whigs wanted tariff protection for American manufacturing, development of American infrastructure, and limitations on immigration. Demagogue tyrants offer universal healthcare, universal welfare, and state-guaranteed labor for all. That wasn’t what the Whigs had on offer at all.
Economics and Immigration—Not a Social Agenda
The Whigs and the Republicans were the original party of economic protectionism designed to stimulate domestic manufacturing. It was only during the Gilded Age that Republicans moved toward a free trade platform. In the 1880s and 1890s it was unclear which party was the party of the gold standard or free trade. A Democrat, Grover Cleveland, won twice on such a platform and was the first president to mention the threat of Marxist socialism in an inaugural address, even while his own party was transformed by William Jennings Bryan into an agent of progressivism. Even as late as the 1920s and the 1930s, the Republican party was still willing to push for tariff protection for American industries under Coolidge and Hoover. Economic self-help, property rights, and upward mobility was what Republicans meant by “American,” not necessarily the doctrine of free trade.
The Whigs weren’t as viciously anti-immigration as the Know-Nothings, but they sure shaded off in that direction. No poor Irish or German immigrants wanted to vote Whig. Whigs believed that all these damned Irish would blight our republican experiment, and they could sound like cultural Neanderthals on the Indian Question. They were the party of property owners, entrepreneurs, and skilled laborers—the party of those who had once made it in the American economy, who wanted to retain what they had, and felt that their interests constituted American self-interest.
Perhaps our historical memory need not stretch as far back as the Whigs to recall that these policies have been a part of the Republican Party’s history. Patrick Buchanan supports Trump. Trump’s most consistently voiced issues are building up American manufacturing and securing our borders against illegal immigration. Trump and Buchanan don’t agree on the social and moral issues that were an important part of the National Review fusionism. However, they do agree on economic issues and on the importance of reasserting America’s (and European countries’) right to national sovereignty and the integrity of their borders.
Whether or not one agrees with Trump and Buchanan’s economic agenda, whether one thinks that four years of Trump even could actually change the direction of the American economy, one has to recognize that Trump simply does not primarily offer a social and moral agenda.
And in the face of Hillary Cinton’s consistently and rigorously pursued social and moral agenda, it is better to have a Trump who has no such social and moral agenda. Hillary Clinton will use all the immense firepower of the federal government and the courts to torch the pro-life, pro-family conservative movement. The Republican party establishment has proven singularly incapable of stopping the Democratic regime’s ideological agenda from permeating the healthcare, education, and foreign aid arenas. Every nook and cranny of our cultural life is being inflamed with that agenda. We have even begun to police ourselves in our speech in private forums for fear of the federal government’s speech codes.
Trump Offers Room for Grassroots Revival
A lot of folks are experiencing “lesser of two evils” angst with regard to Trump. Gauging whether or not Trump is the “lesser of two evils” requires looking at both terms in the comparison. It requires that we ask ourselves what we mean when we say a Clinton regime is an evil. How evil is evil?
Trump’s style of evil is all out there on the surface. It is all in the externals—the wives, the gilded lifestyle, the blustering vanity, the crassness, the pornographic vulgarity, the off-the-cuff horrors. But what is all this, really, in comparison with Hillary Clinton’s evil? It seems to me that Trump’s moral gaucheries are the mere trappings and suits of evil compared to the continuance of a leftist administration with a systematic agenda of destroying the very notion of “nature” and any notion of restraint on federal power.
Social conservatives should not be looking for a hero on a white horse or a savior in the federal executive. If America is going to be rebuilt it will be rebuilt at the grassroots level, and that grassroots effort is actually going remarkably well. The grassroots simply need an umbrella to ward off the federal government’s ubiquitous efforts to shut them down. While the grassroots don't absolutely require a president with a conservative social and moral agenda—we could benefit from the absence of a federally mandated sexual agenda for four years. If Trump nominates a Supreme Court justice from his recently announced list of possible candidates, signs legislation passed by a Republican Congress on pro-life and religious freedom measures, and advances policies that undo Obamacare and roll back federal regulations, we could be looking at a considerable reprieve.
Some people might think that by not voting, voting for a third party candidate, or writing in someone else entirely they are keeping their lily-white hands clean. They think of it as the “Benedict option.” These people have apparently failed to recognize that under a Clinton regime there will be no refuge in the small communities Alasdair MacIntyre calls for at the end of After Virtue, “within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive.” Such small moral and intellectual communities are the target of the leftist administration’s destructive agenda. The new dark age would be darker by far than the old.
Susan Hanssen is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas.