The Long, Sad, Corrupted Devolution of the GOP, From Eisenhower to Donald Trump

The Republican Party of the past at least showed itself capable of coherently responding to domestic and global issues.

President Eisenhower (left) and his Vice-President Richard Nixon, drinking tea at the President's second Inauguration, Washington DC, January 1957. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
President Eisenhower (left) and his Vice-President Richard Nixon, drinking tea at the President's second Inauguration, Washington DC, January 1957. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) Photo: Keyston/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Intercept and our partners at AJ+ produced the video above documenting the GOP’s 60-year devolution.

The Republican Party is poised to nominate a presidential candidate who has built his platform on promises to ban a billion people from entering the United States based on their religious faith and to build a gigantic wall south of the border.

But Donald J. Trump is not an accident. The GOP has in the last 40 years relentlessly devolved away from addressing the needs of ordinary people, catering instead to extreme ideologies and the wealthiest donors.

Rather than addressing pressing problems like income inequality and climate change, the modern GOP focuses instead on cutting taxes for the super-wealthy, expanding earth-killing carbon extraction, and endless war.

But it wasn’t always this way. Sixty years ago, the Republican Party was advocating for civil rights and gender equality, a stronger welfare state, and environmental protection. This is the story of the Republican Party that once was.

A More Social Democratic Republican Party — in 1956

In August 1956, the Republican Party gathered in San Francisco to re-nominate President Dwight D. Eisenhower as its candidate in the upcoming presidential election.

The party that year adopted a platform that emphasized that the GOP was “proud of and shall continue our far-reaching and sound advances in matters of basic human needs.”

This included boasting that Eisenhower had overseen a hike in the federal minimum wage that raised incomes for 2 million Americans while expanding Social Security to 10 million more people and increasing benefits for 6.5 million others.

Today’s Republican Party has made weakening labor unions a priority, but the 1956 platform noted that under Eisenhower, “workers have gained and unions have grown in strength and responsibility, and have increased their membership by 2 millions.”

A Labor Day flyer used by the Republican Party in 1956.

It also touted an increase in federal funding for hospital construction and expanded federal aid for health care for the poor and public housing. The platform also pointed out that Eisenhower had asked for “the largest increase in research funds ever sought in one year” to tackle ailments like cancer and heart disease.

Rather than opposing self-governance for Washington, D.C., 1956’s Republicans encouraged it, saying they “favor self-government national suffrage and representation in the Congress of the United States” for those living there. The platform also asked Congress to submit a constitutional amendment establishing “equal rights for men and women.”

The platform boasted proudly of the African-Americans who had been appointed to positions in Eisenhower’s administration, and of ending racial discrimination in federal employment. At no point did the document call for any restrictions on immigration; rather, by contrast, it asked Congress to consider an extension of the 1953 Refugee Act, which brought tens of thousands of war-weary European refugees to American shores.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was the face of the Republican Party in the 1950s. He had served as the supreme commander of the Allied forces as they retook Europe from fascist militaries in the decade before. Experiencing two global wars shaped Eisenhower’s worldview, turning him into an advocate of peace.

Eisenhower cut the military budget by 27 percent following the Korean War, and used his bully pulpit to highlight the trade-offs of military spending. “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed,” he said in a 1953 speech.

In his farewell address on January 17, 1961, he highlighted the rise of what he called a “military-industrial complex” — a war industry that he cautioned could exert “undue influence” on the government.

Four decades later, when President George W. Bush submitted his defense spending request in 2002, he bragged to Congress, “My budget includes the largest increase in defense spending in two decades — because while the price of freedom and security is high, it is never too high. Whatever it costs to defend our country, we will pay.”

Nixon Confronts Hunger, Protects the Environment

Richard Nixon is hardly remembered as a progressive, but he was much more aggressive in tackling issues like hunger and environmental protection than the Republicans in power today.

Nixon, acting under pressure from antipoverty activists, asked Congress to improve and expand the food stamp program, saying that the fact that “hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable.” His administration sponsored the first and only White House conference on hunger. He increased funding for both food stamps and school lunch programs.

The Environmental Protection Agency was a Nixon creation. Nixon used his 1970 State of the Union address to present the country with a choice: “The great question of the ’70s is, ‘Shall we surrender to our surroundings or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water.’”

Three decades later, George W. Bush began his presidency by sitting out the landmark Kyoto climate treaty and opening up millions of acres of land and sea to carbon extraction. Faced with opposition over nominating a former mining executive as head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, he used a recess appointment to get around Senate accountability.

Meanwhile, humiliating America’s hungry has become a sport for the GOP. Lawmakers regularly propose onerous and offensive restrictions on public assistance, such as drug testing recipients, something that has proven to be little more than a waste of money.

Reagan’s Amnesty

When Ronald Reagan signed the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act into law, he did something none of the 18 Republican presidential candidates who ran this year endorsed: He granted amnesty to 2.9 million undocumented immigrants.

Speaking at one of the 1984 presidential debates, Reagan explained that he believes “in the idea of amnesty for those who have lived here for some time and put down roots even though sometime back they may have entered illegally”:

Under Trump, demagoguery about immigration has risen to new heights, but it was a path laid out for the real estate mogul by years of politically opportunistic nativism. Whether it was 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s plan to encourage “self-deportation” or Ben Carson’s comparison between Syrian refugees and rabid dogs, the party has scapegoated vulnerable migrants and refugees for political points.

What Happened to the Republican Party?

None of this is to argue that Republicans of the past were progress peaceniks. Eisenhower overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran; Nixon began the drug war and prosecuted an unnecessary war in Cambodia; Ronald Reagan helped dismantle America’s labor movement and bloodied Central America.

But the Republican Party of the past at least showed itself capable of responding to domestic and global issues, offering and implementing successful policies to deal with pressing problems like poverty, environmental degradation, and a refugee crisis.

So what happened?

There is no easy explanation, but there are a few key catalysts for the party’s slide into extremism.

One is the role that labor organizing and public activism played in pushing the Republican Party of the past to endorse progressive policy.

Eisenhower’s more social democratic Republican Party did not exist in a vacuum. In 1954, 28.3 percent of employed workers were in labor unions, the highest in American history (today the number is just over 11 percent).

The 1950s are often portrayed as an idyllic and stable period in American history, but they were also a time of raucous labor actions. The first year of Eisenhower’s presidency saw 437 work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers; altogether, 1.6 million workers took part in strikes aimed at increasing wages and reducing inequality. By comparison, 2015 saw a paltry dozen strikes of the same size, involving only 47,000 workers.

Richard Nixon’s establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency was preceded by an explosion of environmental activism. Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson went around the country in 1970 urging activists to engage in a massive environmental demonstration that would match the energy of antiwar and civil rights protests during the prior decade. During the nation’s first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, an estimated 20 million Americans took part in protests, teach-ins, and other educational events aimed at building political will to push the government to protect the environment.

The outpouring of support changed public dialogue in the country. “Conservatives were for it. Liberals were for it. Democrats, Republicans and Independents were for it,” the New York Times noted after the protests. “So were the ins, the outs, the executive and legislative branches of the government. It was Earth Day, and, like Mother Nature’s Day, no man in public office could be against it.”

Alongside the decline of these populist forces that in the past helped shape the Republican Party’s agenda, the country has seen an explosion of capital into the nation’s public elections — funds Republican Party officials have chased as they seek higher office.

Writing to his brother in 1954, President Eisenhower said that the factions in the Republican Party who would seek to eliminate Social Security and other New Deal reforms are comprised of “a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

Decades later, Eisenhower’s “negligible” oligarchs emerged in the visage of David and Charles Koch, right-wing oil and gas billionaires. The former actually ran for the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential ticket in 1980 on a platform of completely eliminating the Social Security and Medicare programs.

The election in 2012 was America’s most expensive ever, with $6 billion spent in federal elections. The Kochs spent over $400 million backing GOP candidates, more than the top 10 labor unions combined. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson spent over $100 million during the year, dragging Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney far to the right.

Just 18 percent of Romney’s funding came from small donors — those giving $200 or less. And that doesn’t count various outside groups making independent expenditures, which exploded that year. A Demos report on the election’s spending found that “just 61 large donors to Super PACs giving an average of $4.7 million each matched the $285.2 million in grassroots contributions from more than 1,425,500 small donors to the major party presidential candidates.”

This system of political financing from a handful of millionaires and billionaires has corrupted both major parties, but its influence is almost total in the Republican Party. Of the 161 co-sponsors of legislation in the House of Representatives to create a public financing system for congressional candidates, only one, North Carolina’s Walter Jones, is a Republican.

This leaves the party out of step with even the more progressive instincts of its own partisans. For example, a majority of self-identified Republicans in America want to see an increase in the minimum wage. No congressional Republicans have signed onto the current bill in Congress to raise the wage to $12 an hour over a period of time.

Eisenhower’s Party of the Future

In his address to delegates at the 1956 Republican National Convention, Eisenhower boasted of a political party that “attracted minority groups, scholars and writers, not to mention reformers of all kinds, Free-Soilers, Independent Democrats, Conscience Whigs, Barnburners, ‘soft Hunkers,’ teetotalers, vegetarians, and transcendentalists!”

He laid out the vision of a political party that “detests the technique of pitting group against group for cheap political advantage,” calling the Republicans the “Party of the Future.”

Today, the GOP may be facing its worst demographic threat in its modern iteration. Among Latino voters, for instance, the party saw a decline from winning 40 percent of that demographic in the 2004 presidential election to 27 percent with Mitt Romney in 2012. A Univision poll released in mid-July estimated that current presidential nominee Donald Trump is netting just 19 percent of the registered Latino vote.

Ultimately, the Republican Party’s drift away from inclusion and the public interest and toward a coterie of extreme donors and ideologies does have an electoral cost, one that could force reformation or perhaps the birth of a new political party — just ask the Whigs.

Top photo: President Dwight Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon in 1952.

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