As of now, the majority of the Republican Party opposes big government, is socially and economically conservative, has its strongest demographic support among white voters, and usually dominates elections in the Deep South of the United States, and the party’s 2020 presidential nominee, Donald Trumps, firmly adheres to these values. But things weren’t always this way; over the past 160 years, the Republican Party has undergone a remarkable transformation, from the party of Abraham Lincoln to the party of Donald Trump. To understand how the Republican Party came to be what it is today, one has to go back to when it first came into existence in 1854, seven years before the Civil War.
During that time two parties existed: the Whigs and the Democrats. America was quickly expanding westward due to the expansionist doctrine of Manifest Destiny, sparking intense debate on whether these new states should adopt slavery or not. The Democratic Party, with strong support in the South, were increasingly pro-slavery, but the Whigs were divided on the issue; their northern supporters were afraid that the growing number of slave states would have too much political influence, which they feared would financially hurt free white workers. In 1854, the country debated whether or not the new states of Kansas and Nebraska should allow slavery. The Whigs could not agree on a solution, resulting in the collapse of the party. The former Whigs in the North formed a new party that would fight against the spread of slavery; the Republican Party.
By 1860, the Republican Party had become increasingly powerful, enough so that a relatively unknown Republican named Abraham Lincoln took the Oval Office in 1860. Even though Lincoln promised that he would not interfere with slavery in the states that already had it, he and his party were still too anti-slavery for the South to tolerate. Because of this, eleven Southern states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. The Northern States decided to fight to keep the Union together, resulting in the Civil War, one of the deadliest wars in American History. The result of the war was a Northern victory and the abolition of slavery nationwide. After the war, Republicans began to fight to ensure the recently freed slaves in the South had their rights. A year after Lincoln’s assassination, the party passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, stating that all races have equal rights in America. They also fought for African-American male suffrage with new laws and constitutional amendments.
While the Republican Party was pushing this new reform, something ensued that began to change the young Republican Party; government spending during the war made many Northern businessmen rich. Gradually these wealthy financiers and industrialists started taking more and more of a leadership role in the Republican Party. These wealthy businessmen wanted to hold on to power, and they didn’t think that fighting for African-American rights was the best way to do that. Meanwhile, the South was resisting these new racial reforms, often violently. Additionally, most white Republican voters and leaders felt that the reforms had done enough for black citizens in the South and that it was time to focus on other issues. So in the 1870s, the party began to drop its stance on Southern reformation, even if that meant black citizens were oppressed and deprived of their rights. The trend of the Republican Party focusing less on race and more on the deregulation of big businesses had ultimately been increasing from the Industrial Revolution to the end of World War I.
By the 1920s, the Republican Party had become the party of big business. This ideology worked well for them because the 1920s was a period of huge, rapid economic growth. But when the economy crashed in 1929, marking the start of the Great Depression, the ideology did not work so well. Franklin D. Roosevelt and other Democrats were swept into power and began to dramatically expand the size and role of the federal government, in an attempt to fight the Great Depression. Republicans opposed this rapid expansion, defining themselves an anti-big government, an identity the party still holds today. From then on, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party had been quarreling over how big of a role the federal government should play in the economy. In times of crises, like World War II, the Democrats controlled the presidency because there needs to be mass government regulation at times like these, and when no crisis existed, the Republican Party took the presidency.
In the 1950s and 60s, race and the South returned to the forefront of national politics, with the Civil Rights Movement attempting to end segregation and ensure that black citizens truly have the right to vote. The Civil Rights debate wasn’t a purely partisan issue, but more regional, with Northerners from both parties supporting it and Southerners from both parties opposing it. In 1964, Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, while Republican Presidential Nominee Barry Goldwater opposed it, arguing that it expanded government power too much. A massive switch-up took place in American Politics; black voters, some of whom had already been shifting from the Republican Party, converted almost entirely to their new advocates, the Democrats. On the other hand, the white voters in the South, who had been staunch Democrats, started to resent the “big government” interference in Civil Rights and other matters, like abortion and school prayer. Over the next three decades, whites in the Deep South switched to the GOP, making the South an overwhelmingly Republican region. By the 1980s, the Republican Party began to resemble the GOP of today. During that time, Republicans elected Ronald Reagan, who advocated for business interests, lower taxes, and traditional family values.
As the 21st century began, America was going through a major demographic shift in the form of Hispanic immigration, both legal and illegal. Democrats and business elites tended to support the reform of immigration laws so that millions of unauthorized immigrants in the US would get legal status. On the Republican side, “tough on immigration” policies and rhetoric became popular. This anti-immigration stance ended up costing the Republicans an election in 2012 when Republican candidate Mitt Romney lost his bid for the presidency. He was blown out among Hispanic voters - exit polls show that 71% of Hispanic voters voted for Barack Obama. This made the Republican Party look more like a party for white voters in an increasingly non-white country. Given these demographic trends, Republican leaders worried that if they kept losing the Hispanic vote, they would lose their chances of winning the presidency. In 2013, key Republicans in the Senate, including rising star Marco Rubio, collaborated with Democrats on an immigration reform bill that would give unauthorized immigrants a path to legal status. But there was a huge backlash from the rest of the Republican Party’s predominantly white base, which viewed the bill as “amnesty” for immigrants who broke the rules, exacerbating GOP voters’ mistrust of their party leaders which had been growing for some time. This made the political landscape of 2015 fertile ground for a presidential candidate like Donald Trump; an outsider businessman who wanted to build a border wall with Mexico and would do it at any cost. Trump is not a traditional conservative, but he had appealed to Republican primary voters’ resentment and mistrust of party elites, as well as their strong opposition to growing immigration trends. Even though he was loathed by the party establishment, he won enough support to win the party nomination and the presidency.
Now, the Republican Party is once again at major crossroads as it tries to meet the political challenges of the 21st century. It is possible that the turn toward Trump and his ideas will be remembered as a rarity, and that a new generation of Republican politicians will find a way to be more of a party of white resentment - rediscovering their roots as the party of Abraham Lincoln. However, it is also possible that Trump is just the beginning and that the party will increasingly appeal to white voters by inflaming racial tension. It is up to Republican voters and leaders to decide just what they want their party to be.