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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Astonishment is becoming routine

It’s impossible to follow the news without daily amazement. As more and more voters make it clear that they idolize Donald Trump, my Republican friends look shell-shocked. Their party is coming apart at the seams, with revered leaders openly bad-mouthing fellow Republicans. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham allowed himself to be quoted saying that his party has gone “bat… crazy.” Of course Graham said this at a Washington press club dinner where liquor flows -- but he has not attempted to (as the jargon goes) “walk it back.”

Since then, party leaders have sent out their failed 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, to condemn The Donald as a bankrupt businessman who inherited the beginnings of his fortune. Romney should know something about that, as his own family and business background is very similar. John McCain, who, in 2008, was the first Republican to lose to Barack Obama, responded months ago to Trump’s thoughtless, jingoistic foreign policy. (Please excuse me for dignifying his xenophobic ravings as “policy,” but in another favorite bit of Republican jargon, “it is what it is.”)

Of course, McCain spoke out only after Trump had the temerity to mock McCain for allowing himself to be captured during the Vietnam War. But the flag-waving patriots who usually support anything military did not come to McCain’s defense, and the no-longer fringe element instead kept voting for the guy who never served, or even considered it. What exactly was the 69-year-old Trump doing during those years, when a lot of men his age were drafted? This was an issue with Democrat Bill Clinton, but Republicans of similar age seem to have been exempted from questions. Without thinking about this and other contradictions, wannabe warriors kept their POW/MIA stickers on their pickup trucks right next to the pro-Trump ones.

Meanwhile mainstream Republicans everywhere are taken aback by the Tea Partiers they created. They shouldn’t be. It’s not surprising that some people actually believed the inflammatory rhetoric and empty promises Republican spokesmen have used for years. Their recruitment was successful, and now the intended puppet is becoming the puppeteer. Yet, to me, this evolution has taken longer than it should have. Many years ago, back in the era of Bush the First, I thought the party would split between its traditional supporters – Wall Street, Big Business, and Chambers of Commerce – and its new adherents in both churches and motorcycle clubs.

The 1980 ticket of Reagan/Bush personified this odd-couple merger: Vice President Bush was the epitome of the Ivy League, country club Republicans who really ran the country, while President Reagan was the puppet who used his avuncular style and faux religiosity/patriotism to get the votes of the Archie Bunkers. When Reagan, a divorced Hollywood actor who didn’t speak to his children, defeated Jimmy Carter, a Naval Academy graduate and small town Sunday school teacher – on a platform of family values! – I knew that the party was on its way to “bat… crazy.” It just took longer than expected.

The 1960s and how it got this way

Putting this in context, the current out-of-control rightwing fringe of the Republican Party is the natural and thoroughly predictable result of the “Southern Strategy” that Richard Nixon quietly adopted for his 1968 presidential election. Republicans had reached a nadir in 1964, when their nominee, Senator Barry Goldwater, lost by historic numbers. He flamed down to an electoral college defeat of 486 votes for Democratic incumbent Lyndon Johnson and a mere 52 for Republican Goldwater. All 52 were from his Arizona home, plus a band of states in the Deep South, the heart of the Civil War’s Confederacy. And that is where Richard Nixon reversed the tide of political history.

He had been vice president under Dwight Eisenhower, a genuine World War II hero who was so non-partisan that he hadn’t registered with a political party until shortly before Republicans nominated him in 1952. After eight years as veep, Nixon ran for the top job in 1960 and lost to Democrat John F. Kennedy. As you know, Kennedy was assassinated in 1963; Vice President Johnson became president, and his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, was the 1968 Democratic nominee.

A Minnesotan, Humphrey would have continued the Kennedy/Johnson progressive tradition that brought us Medicare and the major civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965. So in 1968, when Nixon took another shot at an open seat, he studied the geography that gave Goldwater his only votes in 1964 and created the “Southern Strategy.” Using anti-communist rhetoric as code for being anti-civil rights, he won a narrow victory by particularly appealing to white men in the South.

These were guys whose grandfathers lost the Civil War. They had been Democrats ever since, blaming Republicans for the loss of their plutocracy. Yes, children, the original Republicans of 1856 were leftwing radicals: Not only did they promise to free the slaves, they promised to give free land to western homesteaders. Talk about socialism! But the party changed when it faked an electoral victory to gain the White House in 1876. After that, it increasingly became the voice of Northern businessmen, leaving angry white Southerners with no choice except to stick with their old Democratic Party. Indeed, voter registration in the South was so overwhelmingly Democratic that political scientists referred to the former Confederate states as “The Solid South.”

As late as 1972, when I moved to Tampa, there was almost no Republican presence here. I volunteered at the Democratic office, and it was not at all uncommon for new arrivals from the North to call and ask us how they could get in touch with other Republicans. We were kind enough to refer them to Margie Kincaid, who lived near Gandy Boulevard and almost solely built the local party. Not that anyone remembers that, and on every level from local to national, today’s Republican Party is dominated by men.


Another profound Republican change is the switch from stability to trendiness. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bush the First, and others ran over and over again until they finally won, and their supporters stuck with them election after election. After George the First lost his 1992 re-election to newcomer Bill Clinton, however, Republicans never have re-run a guy who didn’t cut it the first time. Those one-shot wonders would be Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and assorted 2016 newbies. At every opportunity, Republican primary voters have chased the latest bandwagon, usually without knowing much about the drummer.

When knowledge and experience is dismissed as irrelevant, it’s no wonder we have come down to Donald Trump and his lowest common denominator message: Knowing nothing about government somehow is a good thing. The Tea Party should change its name to the Know Nothings, a 19th century party that was similarly proud of its ignorance. Would Eisenhower ever have considered putting an inexperienced private in charge of World War II? Of course not, but such dismissal of earned credentials now is seen as an asset. Republicans leaders in Congress and elsewhere are so fearful of being depicted as part of the establishment that even longtime elected officials hypocritically disassociate themselves from government -- even when that has been their life’s work. Go figure.

I can (vaguely) remember listening to the 1952 Republican convention on the radio with my Dad. Conventions mattered then, as relatively few states had presidential primaries. Even though Eisenhower eventually would be a very good and popular choice, it was a contested convention. Ohio Senator Robert Taft had won more primary votes than Eisenhower, and both Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen and California Governor Earl Warren (later chief justice of the Supreme Court) had delegates. Debates were serious policy discussions, not loud rallies featuring insults and interruptions.

The irony of Minnesota and California struck me as I wrote that last paragraph: Jesse Ventura was Minnesota’s latest contribution to the government-as-entertainment trend, while Arnold Schwarzenegger held that place for California. That was only a few years ago, but both states now are thoroughly Democratic. Voters got over their fascination with clowns driving the car off the cliff.

Three-way race, re-run: the 1912 election

If establishment Republicans do manage to broker their convention and nominate someone other than Trump, I am positive that he will run anyway, and we’ll have a three-way election. This happened a bit over a century ago, as the Republican Party also split in 1912. Then, however, it was liberals who broke from the center, not conservatives.

Republicans had held the White House seemingly forever. With the exception of Democrat Grover Cleveland’s two non-consecutive terms in the 1880s, the Grand Old Party won every election from Lincoln in 1860 up to the 1912 split. Cleveland was no liberal, and both parties in this era bowed down to plutocrats in the Age of the Robber Barons. Nothing was illegal, and some “representatives” openly stated how much money they charged to vote for a bill. Monopolistic businesses gained more power in Congress, and so Midwestern farmers, western ranchers and miners, urban workers, and some voteless women created alternatives. The largest was the Progressive Party.

They had little money, though, and probably would have been unsuccessful in getting their issues addressed except that President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. His vice president was Theodore Roosevelt, someone whom establishment Republicans never had intended to be president. They put him on the 1900 ticket as a way to get rid of him because his reforms as governor of New York were alarmingly liberal. The assassin’s bullet changed everything, and Roosevelt pushed through a string of economic reforms – including such regulations on business as the Pure Food & Drug Act, which still governs those vital areas of our lives.

When his two terms were up in 1908, Roosevelt supported fellow Republican William Howard Taft (yes, the same Ohio family I mentioned above). Taft disappointed him, though, and in 1912, Roosevelt chose to break from the Republican Party and run as the nominee of the Progressive or “Bull Moose” party. It was akin to today’s Tea Party, except in reverse: it was liberals, not conservatives, who broke away. The result of the split was the election of the first Democrat in a very long time, Woodrow Wilson, and his internationalism became key to the twentieth century.

So this confirms my belief that there are no ghosts. If there were, Wilson -- a history professor at Princeton prior to becoming governor of New Jersey – would be rising up from his grave to haunt Donald Trump.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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