Published on TheHill.com on May 3, 2016
To understand the incredible political journey of this year, it’s important to go back in history for guidance. And our time machine pulls up in 1952.
That election featured a determined drive by hard-line congressional conservatives to nominate Mr. Republican, as he was called, Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio — a man whose inbred conservative ideology is reminiscent of today’s Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
The right wing was frustrated back then, as now, by consecutive presidential elections in which moderates — Wendell Willkie (1940) and Thomas E. Dewey (1944 and 1948) — won the Republican nomination only to lose to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Conservatives deeply believed the nation was so fed up with 20 years of liberal policies that voters would rally to support a true conservative like Taft if he could only defeat the Eastern establishment and win the party’s nod.
Taft, like Cruz, vanquished the moderates who stood to oppose him. Govs. Earl Warren of California and Harold Stassen of Minnesota, moderates both, were shunted aside, and Taft looked like a sure bet.
Then Dewey and others got Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower into the race. Ike won as a write-in candidate in the New Hampshire primary, still first in the nation, and proceeded to win a cadre of Northeastern states: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Oregon. Meanwhile, Taft cleaned up in the Midwest, taking Nebraska, Wisconsin, Illinois and South Dakota — much like the division between Cruz and Donald Trump this year.
On the first ballot, Eisenhower narrowly beat Taft to secure the nomination, even after Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois angrily pointed at Dewey and accused him of “leading us down the road to defeat.”
Eisenhower’s victory demonstrated that voters were not so much fed up with liberalism as with all ideology. They no more wanted a doctrinaire conservative than a liberal. Ike’s victory was a triumph of nationalism and a victory for someone from outside the political process over a conservative leader from within it.
When Cruz accuses Trump of not being a real conservative, he echoes Taft’s attacks on Eisenhower. But outside of the Midwestern Republican heartland, it seems many primary voters do not want a real conservative. They want a nationalist.
Eisenhower went on to sweep the national elections that year. Might Trump do so as well? Might not his critique of the Republican Party echo a national frustration with rigid Republican conservatism (sometimes called obstructionism)?
Is this not a perfect storm when combined with a nationalism stoked by Barack Obama’s globalism and constant apologies for America?
The Trump candidacy increasingly resembles that of Charles de Gaulle in 1957 France. Confronted with the squabbling of the parties in the Fourth Republic, de Gaulle said that when he assumes power, he will know what to do with it.
Trump has walked this path. His American version of the Gaullist pledge to restore French “grandeur” is that “America will be great, believe me.” Where de Gaulle promised to “know what to do,” Trump proposes to appoint top people and bring his management skills to politics.
Sometimes nationalism can be jingoistic — even fascistic — but it can also be a constructive impetus that helps to unify a nation. Those whose nationalist critique of parties finds resonance with masses of voters can acquire vast power. We can only hope that they know what to do with it.
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