In the three decades from 1989 up to 2009, the Grand Ole Party was clearly having an identity crisis, after largely celebrating itself as the party of Reagan ever since he left office in 1989. Yet both of the Bushes, despite promising to be spiritual successors to the 40th President, ultimately fell short of living up to his legacy. Forbes described George H.W. Bush as a “pale copy” of Reagan’s platform, citing this as one of the major reasons he was defeated by Clinton in 1992, and even argued that Clinton was more of a successor to Reagan’s economic policies than his own vice president. Even the Republican landslides in the 1994 midterm elections still left them ultimately incapable of winning the most important election of all, and instead saw them relegated to the local and Congressional party, while the Democrats continued to dominate the national vote in 1996 and 2000.
George W. Bush’s first term was a brief reprieve for the GOP, with the economy doing well and his strong leadership post-9/11 ultimately rewarding him with a second term (albeit very narrowly) in 2004. Nevertheless, the second term exacerbated every possible problem with the major issues of his presidency. After initially seeming like noble crusades, the hawkish prolonging of the two wars eventually highlighted their overall ineffectiveness in ending global terrorism, and instead became a Democratic talking point as a waste of American lives, money, and resources in a Vietnam-esque quagmire. This talking point was enough to flip both houses of Congress, as well as many state legislatures and governorships in 2006, politically kneecapping the president for the remainder of his term.
Then, as if the foreign policy blues weren’t enough, the economy crashed in 2007, taking away the one other high point of Bush’s presidency. With a country in shambles both domestically and overseas, it was all but universally guaranteed that a Democrat would win in 2008, and reinforce the Democratic majorities in Congress. Both came true, leaving the Republican Party nearly irrelevant as the Democrats increased their majorities at the federal and local level. Bush had left office with some of the lowest approval ratings in history, while the glowing young Barack Obama entered office with some of the highest numbers, and the promise of change like never before.
All of this combined together left the Republican Party in a sort of political wilderness at the start of the new decade, in the immediate aftermath of Bush Jr.’s two terms and the ascendance of Obama. Not only were they condemned to being a minority in every level of government, but they were now caught between refusing to let go of an identity it had known for almost three decades, and being forced to move on so as to adjust to the new political climate of the 21st Century. Democratic strategist and former Clinton adviser James Carville declared that the Republican Party was doomed to be “the minority party for the next 40 years” after Obama’s election.
However, as we now know, things were destined to get much better for the Republican Party, and even better than the brightest of optimists could have hoped. Over the course of the next eight years, the midterm election cycles of 2010 and 2014 saw the Republicans gain over 1,000 total seats from the Democrats at every level. The 63-seat swing in the House elections of 2010 was the largest swing for a midterm since 1938, and the largest overall since 1948. The 9-seat swing in the Senate in 2014 was the largest such swing for a midterm since 1958, and the largest overall since 1980. Their initial landslide of over 680 state legislative seats in 2010, compounded with further victories in 2014, saw the GOP control a final total of 68 state legislative houses – the highest total since before the Civil War. All totaled, this produced the largest Republican majority in the country since 1929. Only after winning this historic majority did the Republicans finally reclaim the final prize by winning the Presidency in 2016.
So just like that, the Republicans were able to rise to the largest majority in the country in nearly a century. But unlike the Reagan Revolution, where the entirety of the Republican wave depended on one man and one ideology, this multi-phase Republican wave of the 2010’s was the culmination of two separate ideologies – Tea Party conservatism and Trump’s national populism – intellectually founded by two men who would ultimately never share in the success of their own movements.
We all know pretty much all there is to know about these two sects in their current form, but what do we know about their origins? Both can easily be understood even further by taking a good look at both of their respective “intellectual godfathers:” Ron Paul, who gave rise to the Tea Party, and Pat Buchanan, who gave rise to the Trump movement.
Ron Paul’s Libertarianism and the Tea Party
Ron Paul has definitely made a name for himself, even if it’s not exactly a household name. Since he first stormed into Congress in 1976, he quickly built a reputation as a contrarian who was even blocked on many occasions by his own party. His actions – including voting against an award for Mother Teresa – were almost always based on his objections to what he perceived as an overreach of the federal government. A longtime acolyte of the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, Paul repeatedly protested against Keynesian policies of federal intervention in the economy, particularly the New Deal and Great Society policies that have been a cornerstone of federal economic policy since the Great Depression. He insisted that only a severe reduction of federal intervention, and such reversions as drastic as restoring the Gold Standard, was the best method for restoring true economic prosperity. He even predicted that a major economic collapse would come about as a result of these policies.
A foreshadowing of Paul’s destiny in the conservative movement came in 1984, when he became the first chairman of the Koch Brothers’ Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE). Long after Paul’s tenure as chair, this group went on to organize the first few protests under the “Tea Party” name in 2002, long before the movement gained national traction.
Despite being a libertarian at heart – even being that party’s presidential nominee in 1988 – Paul knew enough that only by being in one of the two major parties could he actually effect a change. After his efforts in Congress failed time and time again, Paul finally sought to make a change by taking a leap into the biggest political game of them all: A run for the Presidency. He ran in 2008, at the dawn of social media’s role in modern politics, and was one of only two candidates to truly utilize this new outlet to its full potential; the other was Barack Obama.
His preaching of hands-off economic policies, the eventual fruition of his predictions of an economic collapse, and his subsequent condemnation of the government’s response via “bailouts” and other overreaching policies that seemed to favor the wealthy few over the common people, guaranteed him a strong base of support. Through this and his aforementioned affinity for social media, he gained an especially strong following among the youth, who subsequently formed groups such as Students for Ron Paul, which eventually became the national organization Young Americans for Liberty.
However, Paul was always destined to fail in Republican presidential politics due to his Achilles’ Heel: Foreign policy. An admitted isolationist in an ever-globalized world where America is clearly the world hegemony, Paul was easily dismissed by his fellow candidates as an idealist longing for an impossible return to the isolationism of the pre-World War II era. He even infamously suggested, in a 2007 Republican primary debate, that American involvement in the Middle East prompted the 9/11 attacks, which instantly drew condemnation from all other candidates and many conservative pundits.
Thus, Paul’s only sensible strategy – and what laid the foundation for the Tea Party – was to focus strictly on the economy, not on foreign policy. Even after the 2008 election, Paul continued to rail against the ever-increasing utilization of such Keynesian policies, including Obama’s $1 trillion stimulus package. What sealed the deal was the fact that, although some economists claim that these measures ultimately prevented a total collapse or Second Great Depression, these measures still did not cause an immediate recovery as promised. Unemployment still hovered just under 10%, and the economy was stagnant at best. This convinced many Americans – including those who had loyally followed Paul’s presidential run – that these policies were destined to fail, and destined to continue being used by the government unless the people revolted.
And thus, the Tea Party was born. Focusing widely on the economy, and other overreaching domestic policies such as the impending Affordable Care Act – while inconspicuously ignoring the realm of foreign policy – the Tea Party protests took the country by storm from 2009 to 2010. By the time the midterms came around, most Republicans saw the wave that was coming and took full advantage of it. They hopped aboard the Tea Party Express and rode it to one of the biggest nationwide election victories in history.
As Joshua Green of The Atlantic notes, Paul may not technically be the actual founder of the Tea Party, but he is undoubtedly “its brain, its Marx or Madison…its intellectual godfather.” He would try for the Presidency one last time in 2012, with better results than before – though a still-distant fourth in popular votes, and a distant second in delegate votes by the time the convention took place. But nevertheless, his movement had taken over the Republican Party, propelled it to a historic majority, and began the process of saving the GOP from Carville’s predicted “minority party” status.
But while Ron Paul’s brainchild did give the GOP a historic level of congressional, state, and local power from 2010 to 2014, it was not enough to swing the overall national vote back to the Republicans, as evident by the shocking loss of Mitt Romney in 2012. With the specter of Hillary Clinton’s nomination for the Democrats looming, it was clear that something else, focused on much more than mere domestic economics, was necessary to give the Republicans a fighting chance in the most important race of all.
Pat Buchanan’s Paleoconservatism and Donald Trump
Whereas Ron Paul was a political outsider from the start and eventually worked his way into the mainstream, Pat Buchanan started as a political insider whose views eventually led to many politicians shunning him as a “fringe” figure. But nevertheless, his views also undoubtedly set the groundwork for the second phase of the Republican takeover of the 2010’s: Donald Trump’s successful run for the presidency in 2016.
Buchanan first came into politics a decade before Paul, when in 1966 he was hired as the first adviser for Richard Nixon’s campaign for the presidential race two years away. After Nixon’s election, he continued as an adviser and speechwriter for the President. Among other accomplishments, Buchanan was the one who coined the famous “Silent Majority” catchphrase that came to define Nixon’s presidency, and later Trump’s, as he emphasized an anti-establishment appeal to the masses. As a close adviser to President Nixon, Buchanan witnessed firsthand the onslaught of abuse and bias that Nixon faced from the press, which he feels is eerily echoed by the same press’s treatment of President Trump.
Buchanan was one of many who faded out of the spotlight after Nixon’s resignation in August of 1974. Although he briefly served as the White House Communications Director for two years under President Reagan (1985 – 1987), he was mostly relegated to a new role as a media commentator in the years between Nixon and Reagan, and after he left Reagan’s White House.
Although he was initially reluctant to throw his hat into the presidential ring, he eventually decided to do just that, in the most unusual of ways: Challenging an incumbent President of his own party in 1992. His two primary reasons, above all else, were the same two issue that would come to define Trump’s campaign nearly 25 years later: Globalism’s threat to America via free trade, and immigration’s threat to American culture. Buchanan came to see Bush Sr. as “the embodiment of globalism” and described himself as “a full-fledged economic nationalist.” He warned that only economic protectionism could protect the American economy from globalist forces, and insisted that a reduction in immigration was essential to preserving American culture.
Of course, Buchanan’s views were widely dismissed at the time. When combined with his socially conservative views such as abortion and gay rights, it was all too easy for most Democrats to condemn him as a bigot – using many of the same terms they would later use against Trump – and for many Republicans to distance themselves from Buchanan. Despite a surprisingly strong showing in the New Hampshire primary (with 38%), and garnering roughly three million total votes, Buchanan still easily lost to Bush and eventually endorsed the President, thus making it appear that his message did not resonate with as many people as he hoped it would.
Buchanan performed even stronger in the following cycle four years later, with no incumbent Republican to challenge. He was even able to focus his rhetoric on a very specific policy to target: The North American Free Trade Agreement. He came in a narrow second in the Iowa Caucus and won the New Hampshire primary, along with three other states. Buchanan solidified his populist, anti-establishment rhetoric with the famous “peasants with pitchforks” speech, and his slogan was also a taste of what was yet to come: “Make America First Again.” However, the nomination was eventually locked up by former vice presidential nominee Bob Dole.
Buchanan would then mount an even more infamous run for the presidency for the third consecutive time, at the turn of the millennium. In 2000, he went the Ross Perot route and ran with the party that Perot founded in 1996, the Reform Party. This contest would once again mark an eerie parallel, as Buchanan briefly competed with none other than Donald Trump for the party’s nomination, before Trump withdrew due to the party’s dysfunction.
As the nominee, Buchanan continued to rail against globalism, expanding from NAFTA to the UN, as well as government programs such as the Departments of Education and Energy; the latter two would return as a subject of contention from Governor Rick Perry’s campaign in 2012. Buchanan’s continued anti-free trade stance would even earn him the support of that year’s Socialist Party nominee, Brian Moore – foreshadowing the fact that, in 2016, Donald Trump would find similar support for his anti-free trade stances from another prominent American socialist named Bernie Sanders. Buchanan would ultimately have his poorest performance in 2000, garnering less than half a million votes nationwide – about 0.4% of the popular vote.
Although Buchanan would never again run for public office, it is clear to see the strong influence of his unique policy positions and rhetoric on Donald Trump, built up over the course of half a century. In an interview with Politico, Buchanan remarked that “The ideas made it, but I didn’t.” A major reason for the dramatic shift from the rejection of Buchanan to the acceptance of Trump was the fact that NAFTA had taken effect, and its toll on American manufacturing jobs was painfully clear by the time of the 2016 election. Thus, where Buchanan, Perot, and others in the 1990’s failed, Trump finally succeeded.
This was especially significant not only because it allowed Trump to win the strongest Republican electoral victory since 1988, but because of which states it swung to the GOP. The emphasis on free trade and its effects on manufacturing jobs appealed especially to the Rust Belt – a swath of the American electorate that had been mostly blue since the 1980’s. As we know, this culminated in three previously deep-blue states – Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania – all switching from blue to red, thus giving Trump a substantial victory even as he lost a handful of other swing states. Such is the power of the message of economic nationalism, originally championed by Pat Buchanan. Therefore, Buchanan’s views were able to expand from Ron Paul’s focus on domestic economics to a broader focus on the international economy, while also adding in the culture war for a more emotional appeal to the inherently American way of life.
But even beyond that, one final way in which Buchanan was able to succeed where Paul failed – and influence President Trump to adopt the same line of thinking – was his approach to foreign policy. Like Paul, Buchanan has always been extremely skeptical of neoconservative approaches to regions like the Middle East, arguing that such over-involvement drains American resources and can lead to an eventual downfall of American hegemony.
However, unlike Paul, Buchanan did reserve some support for certain American intervention, mostly in the various Cold War efforts to fight Communism such as Korea and Vietnam. This more withdrawn, but still firm, approach to America’s role in the international community would also be reflected in the Trump Doctrine – a policy of caution towards continued military involvement in other countries, but still a willingness to get involved if Buchanan’s criteria was met: If “American honor, vital interests, or citizens were at risk or have been attacked.” This blend all too perfectly allowed Trump to appeal to many Americans who were ready to change from the extremely over-involved policies of Bush and Obama, while at the same time determined to restore American strength on the international stage.
While the GOP enjoyed historic success electorally and economically as the Party of Reagan, such a prolonged dependency on the legacy of one man ultimately did leave them struggling to survive by the dawn of the millennium. In the end, only an alignment of two separate ideologies – just as old as Reaganism, even if led by men who weren’t nearly as successful or charismatic – would be enough to create the kind of perfect political storm that the party needed to stage the turnaround of a lifetime. Only time will tell now whether or not this blend of concurrent ideologies will be enough to maintain this newfound Republican strength, or if this too will eventually fade with another swing of the pendulum.