The Republicans Are Making a Fatal Mistake That They Have Made Before

AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

The Twitter feud between Trump and DeSantis supporters has heated up of late and has become extraordinarily bitter. Supporters of each one are at each other’s rhetorical throats, with angry accusations and overheated revelations that purportedly prove that one candidate or the other is sold out to the Deep State, and high emotions as old friendships and longtime associations are torn apart.

There is only one beneficiary of all this, and it’s neither Trump nor DeSantis: it’s the authoritarian socialist Democrats that both of them have vowed to challenge and defeat. The unfolding debacle is reminiscent of the underappreciated tragedy that befell the nation in 1912.

As the 1908 campaign season approached, Theodore Roosevelt, an extremely popular “progressive” (that is, big government) Republican, had served as president for nearly two full terms since taking office on Sept. 14, 1901, after the assassination of his smaller-government predecessor, William McKinley. He was only fifty years old and, in those pre-22nd Amendment days, could easily have won a third term.

The great Rough Rider, however, was bored and restless and wanted to get out of Washington. He designated his own successor, the amiable, portly, and decidedly uncharismatic William Howard Taft, who was duly nominated by the Republican party and easily elected over the third presidential run of the Democrats’ great “progressive” populist (and fervent Christian; big-government Leftists were different in those days), William Jennings Bryan.

Four years later, however, Roosevelt was restless again, in the opposite direction. Taft had entered the White House beholden to Roosevelt’s “progressive” wing of the Republican Party, that is, the faction that favored expanded federal control over the economy and other aspects of American life. Taft wanted to give the “progressives” something they had long wanted: lower tariff rates that would in turn lead to lower prices.

However, that would also hurt consumers in the long run by weakening the American businesses that employed them. He threw his support behind a bill that substantially lowered tariffs; it didn’t go as far as the progressives wanted, but Taft explained that it was as good “as we can hope.” The “progressives” felt betrayed. Taft had let down the people who put him in the White House. Roosevelt returned, determined to be their standard-bearer.

What followed was one of the ugliest battles for a major party’s nomination in the nation’s history. Roosevelt mercilessly attacked Taft, who had formerly been his close friend, and not just Roosevelt himself; ten years later, Taft recalled that “Mr. Roosevelt’s friends, whether with his consent or not, have been exceedingly unjust to me in their representations and inferences.” He actually had little love for being president but refused to be intimidated into stepping aside.

Smirking at all the recriminations and mudslinging among the Republicans, the Democrats had nominated an unimaginably bad candidate, New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson. For most of his career, Wilson had been a professor and had an academic’s certainty and a smug assurance about how the nation should be run. Early in his academic career, Wilson displayed impatience with the American system of checks and balances. What America needed, he opined, was a strongman, a dictator.

In his 1885 book Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics, he lamented that “Congress must act through the President and his Cabinet; the President and his Cabinet must wait upon the will of Congress. There is no one supreme, ultimate head—whether magistrate or representative body—which can decide at once and with conclusive authority what shall be done at those times when some decision there must be, and that immediately.” This defect, he wrote, “in times of sudden exigency…might prove fatal.” He was also an early advocate of the welfare state, calling for charitable obligations to be “made the imperative legal duty of the whole.”

Taft won the Republican nomination, whereupon Roosevelt declared that he was running as well, as the candidate of the newly formed Progressive Party. Roosevelt’s new party called for restrictions on campaign contributions, lower tariffs, a social insurance system akin to social security, and other expansions of government regulation and power. Bryan, now the Democratic Party’s kingmaker, charged Roosevelt and the progressives with stealing ideas from the Democrat program. Roosevelt responded cheerfully: “So I have. That is quite true. I have taken every one of them except those suited for the inmates of lunatic asylums.” And maybe some of those as well.

With the Republicans hopelessly split, Wilson was elected president, despite receiving fewer popular votes than Bryan had gotten when he was soundly defeated in 1908. Wilson then proceeded to become one of the worst presidents in American history, as Rating America’s Presidents details. William Gibbs McAdoo, who was Wilson’s treasury secretary when the Federal Reserve came into existence, warned in his 1931 memoir: “The fact is that there is a serious danger of this country becoming a plutodemocracy; that is, a sham republic with the real government in the hands of a small clique of enormously wealthy men, who speak through their money, and whose influence, even today, radiates to every corner of the United States.” For this, he could thank Wilson and the Federal Reserve Act, which he supported after opposing it during his campaign.

Wilson likewise abandoned the interests of the American people in his embrace of racism and segregation, reimposing segregation rules on the federal government and taking other steps that only prolonged the injustices done to black Americans and contributed to making the race issue the national trauma that is now exploited by race hucksters and profiteers.

Related: Woodrow Wilson, the Racist Hero of Progressive Internationalists

Wilson’s foreign interventionism was just as bad. He declared that it was America’s responsibility to teach the South American republics “to elect good men” by use of American military force and set the nation on a path of unwarranted and self-defeating foreign interventions. And World War I was the first war America would fight for principle alone, particularly in order to “make the world safe for democracy,” rather than for self-defense, territorial expansion, or for the benefit of any American interests. It was not fought for the good of America as such; it was instead the first great crusade to defend civilization. It would, unfortunately, not be the last.

All of the damage Wilson did could have been avoided if the Republicans had been able to unite behind a candidate. And now, in this moment of deep national crisis, they’re making the same mistake again. What new and even more destructive Woodrow Wilson, his hour come round at last, now slouches toward Washington to be born?


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