Many commentators are saying that the election of Donald Trump, a novice who has never held political office, to the presidency of the United States is unprecedented. There have been others who went directly to the White House without first having held other elective office. But the only ones I can think of were previously generals and war heroes; among them were Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
|Tyler & Trump: More alike than different?|
The presidential comparison that strikes me as most apt, however, is between Donald Trump and the nation’s 10th president, John Tyler. Like Tyler, Trump’s party affiliation changed over time. Trump had given most of his political contributions–prior to his presidential run in 2012–to Democrats before joining the Republican Party and running in the 2012 presidential primaries.
Tyler was a Democrat who defected to the Whig Party and eventually ended up on the Whig ticket as vice president in 1840 with presidential victor William Henry Harrison. The campaign was famous for the phrase "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too." Harrison died within one month of entering office elevating Tyler to the presidency.
Tyler rejected the Whig platform and vetoed many of the bills his party sent him. Trump has yet to take office, but we already know that he and Congressional Republicans do not agree on Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure spending proposal, his desire to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, or his stand against existing and pending trade agreements. On the other hand, Democrats are already trying to forge an alliance with Trump on infrastructure spending and trade.
After Tyler’s vetoes, the Whigs expelled him from the party. Then, almost all of Tyler’s cabinet resigned. Trump is still awaiting his turn at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but already there is intraparty turmoil at his transition headquarters in New York City’s Trump Tower. Trump has purged some Republican party stalwarts in favor of outsiders and family members as his suspicion grows.
The Whig Party leadership never contemplated that Tyler might become president just as the Republican Party leadership never believed that Trump had a chance at the nomination. Once he had won the nomination, they believed he could not win the presidency.
Tyler was recruited to be Harrison’s running mate to balance the ticket by attracting Southern voters. But Tyler’s states’ rights views ran counter to the Whigs’ desire to use to the federal government to modernize the economy and the infrastructure, a program known as the American System. Hence, Tyler’s disagreement with the plans of Congressional Whigs. He felt the states should remain responsible for infrastructure.
Of course, in contrast, Trump wants the federal government to engage in a long and costly program of infrastructure improvements, a program not favored by Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan. On the other hand, Trump’s focus in a globalized economy on "making America great again" is reminiscent of Tyler’s focus on states in the era of an emerging national economy.
Those hostile to Tyler nicknamed him "His Accidency." It is fairly clear from the reaction to Trump’s victory that few people expected him to become president. While it wasn’t an accident, it may have seemed that way to a Republican establishment whose primary system was supposed to crown an establishment choice early on and make that candidate impossible to catch.
In fact, it’s possible that Trump did not at first intend to run a serious campaign. In that respect his success may have seemed like an accident to him. Trump may have started out intending only to raise his public profile in order to enhance the Trump brand. Trump nemesis Michael Moore claimed that he had direct confirmation (though the source remained anonymous) that Trump was merely trying to get more money for his reality television show, "The Apprentice." And, an insider from the nominally independent pro-Trump Make America Great Again PAC (which was eventually closed down) said that she was told Trump was merely trying to make a good showing. But then Trump became enamored with his own success.
In the end even statements and actions by Trump which Moore and others characterized as self-destructive only seemed to draw more supporters to him. Was Trump intentionally trying to self-destruct only to be caught off guard by the appeal of his supposedly self-destructive words and behaviors? Only he can tell us.
There is already talk that Trump could be impeached based on possible illegal activities that surface from his past. The standard response to such an assertion is that Republicans control both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. But the claim is that Congressional Republicans will soon tire of having someone in the presidency who though nominally Republican cannot be counted upon to enact their agenda. The successful removal of Trump from office would, of course, make Vice President Mike Pence president. Pence is a seasoned politician who is aligned with the Republican agenda.
Tyler differs from Trump, of course, in key ways. Tyler was a lawyer who came from a political family and held several elective offices before ascending to the vice presidency and then the presidency. But it’s worth noting that the fractiousness of the Tyler presidency was a prelude to the dissolution of the Whigs–which by the early 1850s had disintegrated due not only to internal disagreements over slavery, but also lack of a coherent, unified message.
Republicans face internal divisions among those who voted for them as well. The traditional Republican coalition of business interests, libertarians, and social conservatives was augmented this year by an influx of white working-class voters feeling besieged by economic globalization. Of course, many white working-class voters had already been voting Republican for a long time because of their discomfort with what they perceived as the liberal social agenda of the Democratic Party. But it was the new and crossover working-class voters who proved decisive.
Those voters oppose the free trade agenda of the Republican Party and are skeptical of the party’s corporate ties. Moreover, social conservatives can hardly find Trump’s embrace of same-sex marriage comforting. And, the business lobby hates Trump’s opposition to so-called H-1B visas, the kind that allow foreign high-tech workers to work in the United States. Scarier yet for the business-oriented globalist Republicans, Steve Bannon, Trump’s closest advisor, is calling for what he dubs "an economic nationalist movement."
Will these internal tensions cause the Republican Party to go the way of Whigs? At the very least, the road ahead for the Republican Party and Donald Trump does not look like a smooth one, and Trump’s unpredictable style is likely to keep the public and the pundits guessing every step of the way about what comes next.
Images of John Tyler and Donald Trump sourced from Wikimedia Commons.