Is Donald Trump shredding the Republican Party?

Some commentators marvel at the statist implications of Trump’s vow to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure projects — a vow that echoes both Obama’s stimulus package and FDR’s New Deal.

Pundits tirelessly debate whether or not Trump is representative of the party he claims to lead, and the degree to which his policies are, or are not, Republican.

Tacit in all this debate is the assumption that parties and their platforms ought somehow to be set in stone. But unlike ideological notions like conservative or progressive, which are relatively fixed, political parties have always been flexible and even disposable.

I often use the analogy of a flimsy plastic shopping bag to explain how parties function: a political party is nothing more than a shopping bag designed to carry a set of ideas, coherent or otherwise, forward and into practice.

So, even though many people think the Republican bag carries the liberty-friendly ideas of states’ rights and limited national government, that doesn’t mean that Trump or the Republican Party in the future will follow through on those ideas.

The ideas can come out of the bag.

In fact, US parties have already flip-flopped repeatedly about how activist our federal government should be.

The First Flip-Flop

The party known as the Jeffersonian Republicans began in the 1790s by resisting national government activism. The key point of contention was Alexander Hamilton’s four-point financial plan, the cornerstone of which was the creation of the first central bank.

But after the War of 1812, that party dropped its opposition to the national government directing economic growth, embraced the creation of a second central bank, and jettisoned states’ rights.

Eventually, these Jeffersonian Republicans brought on other national-government activists and changed their party name to the Whigs.

Democrats for Limited Government

For almost two decades after 1812, enough of an equilibrium existed between the national government and the states that there was little impetus for those espousing the ideas of states’ rights and limited national government to assert themselves in the form of a party. But when Andrew Jackson became president in 1829, he began endorsing those ideas very forcefully, and many of those who believed as he did began to coalesce into a formal party structure called Democrats. Meanwhile those who continued to support government activism fell in line as Whigs.

By the 1850s, though, the Whig party had ceased to be an effective way of holding a set of political ideas together. Fatal to Whig unity was that the southern wing of the party endorsed slavery, while many in the northern wing wanted to contain its expansion if not abolish it outright.

So southern Whigs moved into the Democrat party while northern Whigs became politically homeless. But the Whig party’s various ideas — abolition, national government activism, protective tariffs, etc., all still existed. They just needed a new bag.

Republicans for Bigger Government

The Republican Party quickly formed to pick up some of those ideas (most centrally opposition to slavery and the embrace of national government activism). And in the late 1800s after the Civil War, the Republican Party endorsed national government activism to a degree scarcely seen before in the United States. The Republicans used that activism to expand individual civil and political rights, while at the same time taking numerous powers away from the states.

When I explain all this in my US history survey course, sometimes a student will raise a hand and hesitantly say “This isn’t in line with the parties today,” and my response is always “You’re right.”

The label on the outside of the bag (“Republican,” “Democrat,” “Whig,” etc.) doesn’t matter much. What matters are the ideas inside the bag at any given time.

After the Civil War ended, the Republican Party — now christened the “Grand Old Party” — became more national in scope, and while the Democrat Party suffered nationally from its association with secession and treason it did not completely lose its connection with states’ rights.

The Second Flip-Flop

In the last decades of the 1800s, new issues and new ideas arose to fill the bags. Popular concerns about industrialization became more clamorous, and Democrats began to reshape their identity. They became the party standing against pro-business legislation. Farmers and immigrants who felt powerless against the economic forces of Wall Street began to respond to the Democrat message.

At the turn of the century, the interventionist impulse called Progressivism naturally adhered to the Republican Party because of its dedication to government activism. But divisions in the party over issues like reform and regulation widened — most obviously in the election of 1912 when Progressive and conservative Republicans supported different candidates.

Meanwhile, reform-minded Democrats like Woodrow Wilson began to pick up Progressive ideas and endorsed a national activism that didn’t fit well with their party’s other positions.

By 1918, the crusading interventionist Democrat administration — seeking to bring all war to an end — was hardly recognizable as the somewhat-limited-government party of the 1800s.

In the 1920s, the slide to Progressivism abated briefly. In the election of 1924, both the Republican incumbent Calvin Coolidge and the Democrat challenger John W. Davis espoused lower taxes and less regulation. Without a major-party bag in which to carry forward their ideas, the Progressive activists temporarily rallied behind third-party candidate Robert LaFollette.

Finally, under the strain of the Great Depression and the aegis of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” those Progressives gained control of the Democrat party. They entirely abandoned the idea of states’ rights, replacing it with a concept of national government activism that was similar, but far greater in degree, to the central idea held by the Republican Party since its inception.

Suddenly the Republicans found that rather than being opposed by a states’ rights party, they themselves were now the party opposing the contemporary understanding of national government activism. As FDR’s legacy of national authority grew larger and more central to his party, the ideas of states’ rights and smaller government were left without a party, and the Republicans absorbed them. It was an astonishing reversal of position.

Back to the Future

So, with Republicans taking the Oval Office on a ticket of massive government intervention, are we on the verge of seeing another massive change to the current party system? Not likely in a dramatic thunderclap sort of way.

Major party transformations usually happen slowly, requiring a decade or so to settle, because as one group abandons certain ideas, other groups have to respond and readjust.

But Donald Trump has more potential of rearranging the ideas in the Republican bag than any other president in a long time, due to his celebrity and the fact that he’s only nominally a Republican. Trump, moreover, like Andrew Jackson — and to a lesser extent Woodrow Wilson — is an outlier, and those are the figures who tend to trigger party transformations. And, as with Andrew Jackson, personal opposition to Trump may be enough on its own to influence the development of the opposing party.

Remember: parties are just shopping bags for ideas. It ought not to be particularly surprising when a shopping bag breaks — when the handles wear out or the bottom of the bag tears.

There’s little historical reason to believe that past Republican tendencies will rein in Trump’s apparent embrace of massive stimulus spending and personal intervention in businesses’ affairs. Instead, Trump’s rise may herald a long realignment — or the slow destruction — of the Republican Party.