An insurrectionist presidential candidate stuns his party's establishment by pocketing the party's nomination. His views do not line up with mainstream figures in his party. He is charismatic and taps into the undercurrent of populist indignation against the corporate and political elite from rank-and-file party members. Many elected members of the party bolt and form a third party or transfer their support to the nominee of the other major party in protest. The result: the candidate alters the façade of his political party.
Although this scenario occurred in 1896 in the Democratic Party, it now seems plausible that this scenario could repeat itself in 2016 within the Republican Party.
The Democratic Party was founded on the principles of state sovereignty, free markets, a decentralized federal government, and an originalist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. In fact, during the Economic Panic of 1837, Democratic President Martin Van Buren refused to use the power of the Federal Government to stimulate economic activity. He actually sold the federal government's tool supply so that the government could not use the tools for public works projects.
A Democratic descendent of Van Buren, President Grover Cleveland was a true disciple of the laissez faire school of limited government action even with respect to sending government aid after natural disasters. Cleveland maintained that providing federal government assistance "encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character." During Cleveland's Second term in office (1893-1897) (he was the only President elected to two non consecutive terms), the nation was mired in an economic depression. The unemployment rate reached 18% just one year into his second term in office.
Unemployed workers marched from the Midwest to Washington D.C. to highlight their plight and demand that Cleveland support public works programs. In addition, a populist revolt was percolating within the party against its continued support for the Gold Standard. Grassroots Democrats advocated a policy of bimetallism, where both gold and silver would be certified as legal tender. They believed that with more money in circulation, the Depression would end. Cleveland supported the Gold Standard and was a steadfast opponent of bimetallism. Cleveland would not budge, sticking to his support of restricted federal government.
In a scathing electoral indictment unleashed both against the Cleveland Administration and against the Democratically-controlled Congress, the Democrats lost a startling 127 U.S. House seats in the 1894 mid-term elections. No party before or since has ever lost that many seats in any House election.
At the 1896 Democratic National Convention (Presidential primaries were not yet instituted), insurrectionists, disaffected with the continued ideology of their party, flocked to 36-year-old firebrand William Jennings Bryan. Nicknamed "The Great Commoner," Bryan's views were recreant to Party orthodoxy. The Bryan nomination was a repudiation of Cleveland's policies of fiscal austerity and the continuation of the Gold Standard. Bryan favored dramatic action by the federal government to stimulate the nation's economy, favored the U.S. leaving the Gold Standard and instituting a graduated federal income tax.
Bryan's nomination sparked outrage among party sachems. Some defected to Republican nominee William McKinley because he supported the Gold Standard. Consequently, the old guard establishment of the party, including Cleveland himself (who did not seek a third term as President), refused to support their own party's nominee. Instead, they hastily formed the National Democratic Party, and nominated 79-year-old U.S. Senator John M. Palmer of Illinois for President.
Speaking at the National Democratic Party Convention, U.S. Senator Bourke Cockran (D-NY) averred: "We must raise our hands against the nominee of our party, and we must do it to preserve the future of that party itself." Accordingly, the National Democratic Party was not meant to be a long-term vehicle for disenchanted Democrats. Old-line Democrats expected to flock back to the party and wrest back control. The platform supported: "sound money; and it is opposed to paternalism and all class legislation."
Palmer earned the coveted endorsement of The New York Times, which urged Democrats to "show that the division within their ranks does not mean the abandonment of their party and a conversion to the party which they have always opposed." The newspaper excoriated Bryan and the new party's platform as "a radical departure from Democratic doctrines."
Perhaps no candidate with the support of a litany of elected officials, including the incumbent President, and the endorsement of The New York Times, fared so poorly in the General Election. Palmer mustered less than 1% of the popular vote. The National Democratic Party became a footnote in the pages of American political history.
This series of events caused the Democratic Party to become a two-headed donkey. An internecine struggle between the old guard conservative bloodline and the newly formed populist wing permeated the party. Essentially, two countervailing ideologies were domiciled in one party.
Bryan won the nomination again in 1900, but the old guard wrested back control in 1904, nominating the staunch conservative New York Appeals Court Judge Alton B. Parker, who had the support of Cleveland. Bryan was incensed by this development, declaring: "No self-respecting Democrat would vote for him."
This conservative/populist chasm in the party remained for much of the Twentieth Century.
This brings us to the contemporary electoral environment. The preponderant frontrunner for the Republican Party nomination is Real Estate mogul Donald Trump. The last Republican President, George W. Bush, spent much of his second term calling for comprehensive immigration reform, contending: "It is neither wise, nor realistic to round up millions of people, many with deep roots in the United States, and send them across the border." Contrariwise, Trump calls for the construction of a "great and beautiful wall" along the U.S-Mexican border, and pledges to "round up" illegal immigrants and deport them back to their country of origin. Furthermore, Trump calls for a temporary "shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." This position is unpalatable to the party poobahs and had been roundly condemned by Republican elected officials, including U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
In addition, Bush was a steadfast exponent of free trade. He supported NAFTA and pledged as President to: "end tariffs and break down barriers everywhere, entirely, so the whole world trades in freedom." In sharp contrast, Trump calls for the elimination of NAFTA and favors a 45-percent tariff on Chinese imports to the U.S.
Moreover, Bush, with near unanimous support from Republicans in the U.S. Congress, ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He believed the U.S. should promote Democratic governments in the Middle East, ambitiously declaring: "The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution." Trump maintains the invasion was "one of the worst decisions ever made," and bemoans that it "destabilized the Middle East."
Should Trump garner the GOP nomination, a similar situation could develop as happened with Bryan in 1896. Some Republicans, like former New Jersey Governor Christy Todd Whitman, have stated they will support likely Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton over Trump. Citing irreconcilable differences with Trump, some Republican leaders could flee the party and form their own political party or support the nominee of the Libertarian or Constitution Party. We are already seeing murmurs of this. U.S. Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) tweeted: "If Trump becomes the Republican nominee, my expectation is that I'll look for some third candidate - a conservative option, a Constitutionalist." Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, asked followers to "name the new party we'll have to start if Trump wins the nomination." U.S. Representative Reid Ribble (R-WI) and Massachusetts Republican Governor Charlie Baker have both proclaimed they will not support Trump if he is the GOP nominee.
If Trump should muster his party's Presidential nomination, we may be witness to a mirror image of 1896, where a schism will spawn within the Republican Party between the Old Guard who support what had been the prevailing views in the Party and a new populist insurrectionist bloodline seeking to remake the party in its own image. Like the Bryan nomination in 1896, a Trump nomination could effectuate an internecine ideological clash in the party that could manifest itself for decades. As author Mark Twain opined: "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme." In this case, Democratic Party history could be the rhyme in the Republican Party.