Former president Donald Trump has again raised the spectre of a schism in the Republican Party. Last Thursday, he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that he wouldn’t commit to backing the party’s nominee. This will strike many observers as a redux of 2016, when Trump made waves during the primaries for refusing to make such a commitment. Then, he teased a third-party run. Indeed, Trump has repeatedly hinted at running as an independent — and even did so briefly in 2000, when he competed for the Reform Party nomination. In the wake of the 2020 election, Trump floated the idea of launching a “MAGA Party” or “Patriot Party” — and last December shared an article on his Truth Social platform that urged him to do just that. 

It’s easy to argue that Trump is merely ginning up interest for a Republican rerun by threatening to leave, along with the quarter of would-be Republican voters who a recent Bulwark poll found would follow him. But that same poll also found that a considerable majority of Republicans want new leadership. Trump, for all his bluster, knows it. Perhaps he’s decided that if he can’t be a Republican president, no one can. If enough defectors remain committed to him, he will surely cost the Republicans the next presidential election.

History offers a fairly direct parallel. A similar Republican split occurred in 1912, when former president Theodore Roosevelt — unhappy with what he perceived as the unduly pro-business policies of his handpicked successor William Howard Taft — returned to challenge him. After losing the nomination to Taft at the Republican convention, despite outperforming him in the then-minority of state primaries in which registered Republicans participated, Roosevelt launched his own Progressive Party. Despite Taft’s considerable incumbency advantage, Roosevelt outpolled him in the general election, launching a characteristically vigorous campaign that saw him not only survive an assassination attempt but finish the speech he was giving with the assassin’s bullet lodged in his chest. Roosevelt siphoned enough support from Taft that Democrat Woodrow Wilson triumphed in an electoral-vote landslide, while winning a mere 42% of the popular vote.

The United States is uniquely vulnerable to this sort of third-party disruption, due to the first-past-the-post voting system that awards all of a state’s electoral votes to the highest-polling candidate, regardless of how close the popular vote is in those states. In 1912, Roosevelt and Taft received a combined 51% of the popular vote — yet carried only eight states between them. Owing to this all-or-nothing system, America offers perhaps the finest representation of French theorist Jean Baudrillard’s formula of bipartite alternation: “The one-party totalitarian regime is an unstable form — it defuses the political scene, it no longer assures the feed-back of public opinion…[but] alternation is the end of the end of representation.” In any particular presidential election, a third party — even a well-supported one such as Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party — has little chance of achieving any kind of representation. However, in the longer term, a third party can be truly disruptive. 

Here, then, is the crux of the threat presented by Trump, roughly akin to the “nuclear option” in America’s political duopoly: he could wreck the Republican Party in this election and perhaps even destroy it for good, while creating a new second party to take its place. It would be a fate that hadn’t befallen an American political party since the Republican Party emerged in 1854 out of the ashes of the Whig Party, the latter badly fractured by insoluble arguments over slavery. Before that, it hadn’t happened since the Federalist Party — America’s first true political party — had essentially imploded during the War of 1812. It lost its legislative majorities forever to the Democratic-Republican Party, the precursor of today’s Democratic Party.  

But for the most part, American third-party insurgencies have merely cost one or the other party the general election. American Independent Party candidate George Wallace wrestled five states in the Deep South from Democratic control in 1968. Reform Party nominee Ross Perot syphoned millions of economic-nationalist voters from the Republican Party in 1992 and 1996. These were damaging moments, occurring at times of acute national crisis — Wallace polled well with Southern voters seeking to preserve aspects of racial apartheid systems, while Perot appealed to anti-interventionist, anti-free trade Republicans.

Still, though these insurgent campaigns might have led to galling defeats, neither fundamentally reshaped American politics in the way the disappearance of the Federalists or Whigs had. In fact, Republicans, through the shrewd electoral strategising of Richard Nixon, found a way to claim those dispossessed Southern voters in 1972. And since the Nineties, ostensible isolationists and anti-interventionists in both parties — including, perhaps most successfully, Donald Trump in 2016 — have found ways to exploit what had briefly been Perot’s support base. Given their sprawling constituencies, it’s easier for both parties to integrate these aggrieved voters into their ranks — to “sheepdog” these wayward sons and daughters into the established parties using co-opted outsiders to bridge the gap. 

Nevertheless, though unlikely, the kind of “clean break” Trump could trigger does have the potential to fracture the Republican Party forever. And that is because, ever since Richard Nixon permanently enlarged the party by annexing the “Solid South” long critical to Democratic electoral success, the GOP has had a fundamental flaw. It originated in the 19th century as a Northern-centred, pro-business party opposed to both slavery and, eventually, labour unions; post-Nixon, the Republican Party has been permanently struggling with the challenge of uniting small businesspeople, evangelicals, foreign-policy hawks, isolationists, anti-tax libertarians, anti-government libertarians, localists, and economic nationalists. Various leaders, from Ronald Reagan to Trump himself, have fashioned uneasy alliances among these groups — but each settlement has seemed shakier than the previous. Trump, in particular, saw precisely how difficult this challenge could be: he entered Washington with a team of advisors that adhered more closely to the “America-First” principles of his campaign and left with a cabinet full of corporate Republicans, some of whom hurriedly denounced him shortly after he left office.

At the end of Trump’s presidency, the Republicans were indeed a “house divided”. And if the examples of the Federalists and Whigs offer anything of value for political observers today, it’s that divided parties might cease to be divided simply by ceasing to be at all. In the case of the Whigs, the newly-formed Republican Party addressed the main issues that had split them — free labour and opposition to slavery in the American territories — so there was simply no reason to keep such a large, fractious coalition alive. A more streamlined alternative had presented itself.  Now, the “big-tent” Republican Party may be faced with a challenge analogous to the Whig Party’s in the years immediately preceding the American Civil War. Is the future of the Right to be an interventionist, low-tax party still able to work with Wall Street and Nato? Or do the voters on this side want “America-First”, “MAGA”, and all of Trump’s unifying slogans?

While it is certainly possible to do all of these things — as the Whigs managed to maintain a balance from 1833 to 1856 — it may not be sustainable to do so. Republican politicians and voters who favour free trade and free movement of cheap labour may find themselves, like the Southern “Cotton Whigs” of the American antebellum period, unable to coexist with a MAGA base insistent on tighter border controls, tariffs, and heavier investment in internal industry. If so, Trump — by virtue of being the right person in the right place at the right time — may be able to bring about a permanent separation, likely forcing many Republicans in favour of free trade and free movement into the Democratic fold, just as “Cotton Whigs” joined the ranks of the Democrats.

All of this, however, will depend on the creation of a party that can step out of the shadow of its charismatic founder. Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, which outpolled the Republican Party 27% to 23% in 1912, offers an instructive example here. Roosevelt’s party shared certain overall policy goals with those American reformers dubbed lower-case “progressives”, such as a desire to more efficiently regulate large corporations and establish certain social welfare programmes. But its electoral fortunes waned significantly following that strong 1912 showing, disappearing by 1920. Its nickname, the “Bull Moose Party” — so acquired because Theodore Roosevelt had left the 1912 Republican convention claiming he felt “strong as a bull moose” — was apt, because its electoral performance depended to a considerable extent on the personal magnetism of one of the 20th century’s first great “cult of personality” figures, a personality who died in 1919 at the age of 61. 

A Trump-led party would be at risk of going the way of Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” party, simply because he, like Roosevelt, is a sort of electoral ne plus ultra. Who would want to follow either act? Trump has, perhaps, a number of possible successors waiting in the wings, ranging from duelling Congresswomen Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert to his own sons, but this is akin to comparing a votive candle to the bright orange sun around which so much media commentary has turned.

Not only that, but the Trump of 2024 is not the insurgent social media star of 2016. He is still quite dove-ish on foreign policy but has lost considerable far-Right goodwill through his association with the era of lockdowns, which he at times supported, and mRNA vaccines, the development of which he considers a major achievement of his regime. The majority of those who identify as Republicans are looking for post-Trump alternatives. Though the former president holds double-digit leads over chief rival Florida governor Ron DeSantis in most polls, that lead vanishes if the single-digit support for various other mainstream candidates, a large hypothetical field ranging from former vice president Mike Pence to former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, is aggregated and assigned to DeSantis. In other words, in the race of “Trump and every other Republican”, the contest is neck and neck and likely only to tighten as the name recognition of other candidates continues to grow.   

Given Trump’s status as an influencer himself, it would be instructive to watch which candidates the rising “based” or far-Right influencers choose to align themselves with. So far, rising stars such as “Libs of TikTok” account operator Chaya Raichik have managed to stay mum when it comes to choosing between Trump and Ron DeSantis. But it is these people whose considerable soft power could meme not just a movement but an entire party into existence. If Trump cannot win their support, his efforts to construct a party that will overthrow the Republicans and outlast him is likely to be no more successful than his effort to dethrone Twitter with a rival social media platform.

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