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Presidential historian: After hostile takeover, GOP could become the "Trump Party"

Mar 7, 2016

Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

This isn’t your grandparents’, or even your parents’ Republican Party. Some might even argue this may not be the Republican Party of four years ago.
 
You may love it, or you may hate it, but there’s few that would debate that there’s never been a Republican primary race like this. Insults and rancor have largely overpowered debates on policy and governing. The headlines, more often than not, have focused on the fighting and the verbal zingers between the candidates rather than who would make a better Commander in Chief.

Gleaves Whitney, the director of Grand Valley State University's Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, joined Stateside to give his analysis and to put some historical perspective on the 2016 presidential campaign.

It's really playing to our worst fears ... I think that people have got to wake up from this and somehow realize they're ultimately in control. We the people can reign this back in.

“Something is different now and Americans sense it,” said Whitney. “It’s really playing to our worst fears and the very worst instincts in the American people. And I think that people have got to wake up from this and somehow realize they’re ultimately in control. We the people can reign this back in. We better do something though, fast.”

According to Whitney, it’s not as simple as groups of people disagreeing on the issues ahead of an election.

“This is not just a political problem we face, it’s just not an economic problem we face, it’s cultural, it’s a social problem,” said Whitney.

It’s been said many times by the candidates and the pundits over the last year or so, that the reason for this new political tone has been fueled by anger. Whitney said people feel like they’ve been betrayed by our institutions from top to bottom. Between the decision to go to war in Iraq, and with no one going to jail as a result of the financial crisis of 2008, there has been plenty to be angry about.
 

We've never had anything in American history where a demagogue has been able to rise to the top of the pack like this ... essentially thumbed his nose at the establishment, taken over a ... once great party

“[Americans] have every right to be angry, and I think all of us get that,” said Whitney. “The next step then is which candidate can translate that anger into really constructively working with people with whom they disagree so they can get us out of this place."

“Unfortunately, Donald Trump has been a channel for this anger in ways that are unspeakably bad,” he added. “We’ve never had anything in American history where a demagogue has been able to rise to the top of the pack like this ... essentially thumbed his nose at the establishment, taken over a … once great party. And it’s been this hostile takeover. And it’s been with the cooperation with a lot of angry people."

Whitney said Trump supporters come from all sides of the political spectrum, but the focus should be on fixing our country’s problems.

“People are hurting. We need to hear them. But we need to find a more constructive way to solve the problem and not run to Trump’s way of just aggrandizing himself,” said Whitney.    
 

What if the other delegates after that first round of voting [at the convention] ... en masse say, no, we are not going to allow Donald Trump to re-brand the Republican Party into the Trump Party?

Whitney is concerned that the establishment and the delegates at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland could find themselves so embarrassed by what has transpired that they could choose not to submit Trump as the nominee. It could lead to a chaotic convention that could ultimately hurt the party in the general election.

“He goes to Cleveland … with fewer than half the delegates,” said Whitney. “What if the other delegates after that first round of voting … en masse, say, no, we are not going to allow Donald Trump to re-brand the Republican Party into the Trump Party? That’s something that could happen.”

As turbulent as the process has been for the GOP, Whitney wouldn’t be surprised to see a contested convention or possibly another candidate parachute into the process in the late stages. He hopes the party and the people who run it can find their way before the process is derailed at the convention.  

“This is a time where we need to have a mirror and a lamp,” said Whitney. “We need to have a mirror to hold that up to what we are as Americans. What is the American soul? Is the American soul one that is inclusive, has welcomed the refugee, has brought in the immigrant to share the dream with us who are already lucky enough to be here. If it’s not, why are re-defining it in such a radically different direction?"

“We also need a lamp,” he added. “We need the best, wisest, smartest people to take us forward at this point. We need elected leaders who have that virtue of prudence who know how to get different factions in our society to work together. To have the emotional intelligence to bring people together because politics has to work by addition, not by subtraction … We need people, who in their public persona, really bring out the better angels of our nature. We are at a moment of truth … what kind of country are we going to be? What is our character as Americans? How do we move forward in an increasingly diverse, globalized society? And it ain’t getting easier.”

Listen to the full interview on Stateside at 3 p.m. to learn more about the origins of the Republican party and how it relates to what is happening in 2016.