Can the Republican Party Survive Trump?
Political scientist Philip Wallach, a resident senior fellow at the R Street Institute, published a 2017 paper on the parallels between Taylor and Trump.
“Taylor was a very disruptive force for the Whig Party,” says Wallach. “His victory was, of course, something they were very excited about, but he didn’t govern in exactly the ways they would have preferred.”
While Trump raised his profile by projecting a bellicose demeanor on primetime television, Taylor was a celebrated general who won a key battle in the Mexican-American War. And like Trump, he tried to redefine his party in his own image and refused to pledge fealty to party principles.
Taylor “even thought about rebranding [Whiggism] as ‘Taylor Republicanism,'” says Wallach.
But Taylor’s efforts at redefining Whig principles were doomed by a preexisting divide over whether slavery would be allowed in new territories. Both the Whigs and their primary competitors, the Democrats, waffled, which created an opening for single-issue third-parties such as the anti-slavery Liberty Party and Free Soil Party, as well as the nativist Know-Nothing Party.
But in the 19th century, there were fewer obstacles to challenging the major parties.
“For a third party to be able to get some votes was much easier,” says Wallach. “It just had to be able to print ballots and distribute them to a network of supporters….Nineteenth-century politics were just much more open and fluid than our politics today.”
“People are realizing that they don’t have the choices that they used to have. And I think they’re getting fed up with government telling them at every turn what they can do,” says Jorgensen.
But Wallach is skeptical that a third party can disrupt our modern duopoly.
In the 19th century, minor parties like the Free Soilers won local and state elections and congressional seats, which the Libertarian Party has mostly failed to achieve. In 2016, after getting more attention than any Libertarian candidate in history, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson won just over 3 percent of the popular vote when going up against Trump and Clinton, two historically unpopular candidates.
A third party or independent candidate has never triumphed in a modern presidential election, with the strongest contender being former President Teddy Roosevelt’s 1912 campaign under the Progressive Party banner. The self-funded billionaire Ross Perot’s run in 1992 eventually spun off the Reform Party, which never won a national election but did become the site of Donald Trump’s first foray into presidential politics.
“That leaves us wondering, where would [a successful] a third party come from?” says Wallach.
He believes that, based on the death of the Whigs, to be successful the Libertarian Party would need to win in statewide races and then merge with defectors from a collapsed Democratic or Republican Party.