By Kaleena Fraga
Donald Trump’s apparent willingness to negotiate with Democrats has sent shockwaves through Washington. Conservatives are alarmed, Trump’s base are burning their MAGA hats, and many in the country are wondering if the party will move towards a schism between conservative and moderate Republicans.
The truth is, however, that there has long been tension between moderates and conservatives in the Republican Party. This tension most often becomes apparent during a Republican presidency, when the president must wrangle with more conservative members of his own party.
Perhaps the starkest example in modern American history comes from the Eisenhower administration. Ike had faced Robert Taft during a tough presidential primary (Taft, the son of a president literally went by the nickname Mr. Republican). Now as president, Ike needed to work with Taft and the GOP coalition known as the “Old Guard.” This group of conservatives protested the country’s swing to the left during the Roosevelt years and the emerging international world order. Ike, on the other hand, aimed to govern from within the parameters of the New Deal and believed in the importance of NATO. Ike then faced resistance both from Democrats mourning their loss of power and conservatives members of his own party.
Eisenhower is famous for scolding this wing of his party, saying that any political group that sought to abolish New Deal benefits was “…a tiny splinter group, of course…their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
Still, Eisenhower’s Republican credentials weren’t impeccable. Before he ran, no one knew if Eisenhower was a Republican. Truman once even tried to get him to run on the Democratic ticket. Thus rose the frustration from conservatives who’d supported Taft as a “true” conservative.
A study of the recent history of the GOP—from Eisenhower on—will reveal a similar pattern. In the 1960s, there was Barry Goldwater and there was Nelson Rockefeller. In the 1970s, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. In the 1990s, George HW Bush and the conservative speaker of the house, Newt Gingrich. A Republican president, it seems, must always face a wing of his party that is more conservative, more stubborn, and more aghast at the idea of bipartisanship.
It may seem like a modern phenomenon, but this tension has existed in American conservatism since the early days of the country. Thomas Jefferson, who supported states’ rights and feared the reach of a powerful central government, would probably identify more with today’s Republicans than the Democrats who claim his legacy. Before he came to power in 1800, Jefferson was content to criticize the Washington and Adams presidencies and to defend the rights of states against the federal government. But once he became president, Jefferson had no qualms about exerting executive power himself, much to the chagrin of the conservative wing of his party.
The revolt was led by Jefferson’s distant relative John Randolph in March of 1806. Randolph was alarmed by Jefferson’s use of executive power, and he wasn’t alone. He and his faction believed that Jefferson was no longer Republican enough. This should be a familiar refrain to anyone who follows today’s politics, where GOP nominees like John McCain and Mitt Romney faced criticism for lacking in conservative credentials.
Randolph’s faction was called the Quids, named for “tertium quid” which means “third something” in Latin. They were also called the “Old Republicans”—sound familiar? Randolph accused Jefferson of compromising with Federalist ideals. Moderation, he declared, was the mask which ambition has worn. In 1964, Barry Goldwater echoed this idea when he claimed that: “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue, and extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” For today’s conservatives, like yesteryear’s, principle is everything and compromise is a dirty word.
Enter Donald J. Trump
Trump was a controversial candidate but an effective one. He successfully wielded conservative discontent in order to cut down more traditional and more moderate Republican rivals. In doing so, in bringing the conservative wing of the party to the presidency, it seemed that Trump may have irrevocably changed the face of the Republican Party. It seemed that, finally, a “true” conservative had come to the White House, unwilling to compromise, and determined to force through principled, conservative ideas.
Yet it’s become clear that Trump will face the same ancient tensions as his Republican predecessors. He struggled to gather votes for health care because of the opposition of the Freedom Caucus, the most conservative group in Congress. Trump, in what may be a predictable move to observers of this phenomenon, reached across the aisle instead to the Democrats.
Trump’s presidency initially seemed that it would bring far right ideas to the forefront of American political conversation. Today, as he works with Democrats to find a solution to DACA, it seems instead that Trump may trigger a true war within the party, between conservatives and moderates. Conservatives have waited generations to see one of their own to rise to the presidency, someone who advocated for immigration restrictions, border security, traditional marriage, and strict abortion legislation. Yet now that he is in office, they are facing again that same, old disappointment—Trump is willing to abandon principle and make deals. As the GOP navigates the Trump presidency, and the growing tension between wings of the party, it should be aware that today’s battles are the product of an unrest as old as the country itself.