Richard Nixon, Donald Trump, and the Coming Fourth Republic of the United States
American history, like all history, doesn’t truly repeat itself- but it does rhyme. The rhythmic pattern is, moreover, culturally based. Michael Lind’s and Colin Woodard’s works are useful in understanding these trends.
Great cataclysms- American Revolutions- are exploited by Yankee developmentalists and Borderlander populists to forge new sets of institutions- new “Republics.” Those institutions are broadly accepted by all political power players, but they gradually decay under their own internal contradictions. The coalition of Yankees and Borderlanders decays as each cultural group pursues its particular goals, with the victor of the duel igniting a “Reformation” wherein the Republic’s institutions are reformed, but not fundamentally transformed. Deep Southern laissez-faire oligarchs usually ascend to national power following the Reformation and accelerate the decline of the Republic, precipitating another great cataclysm- another American Revolution- wherein great statesmen fuse the objectives of the developmentalists and the populists and establish a new “Republic” based on combined principles and compromise policies.
There are other cultural groupings, of course, and the reality is more complicated than this. But the contours of these grand bargains can be traced all the way to the First American Revolution itself.
The chief divide during the Revolutionary War, the First American Revolution, was between Tories and Patriots. Tories were more conservative, favoring order and stability and union with the British Empire, while Patriots were radical, favoring not only independence but full-on social transformation. The Tories were disproportionately New England gentry and upper-class folk; the Patriots tended to be small farmers, backcountrymen, and Borderlanders. There was considerable mixing, of course, but the tension was fundamentally between Tories desiring order and Patriots desiring liberty.
The outcome of the Revolution and its institutional vindication, the U.S. Constitution, combined and preserved the best of both into a First Republic based on ordered liberty. America was freed from Britain, but traditional social institutions remained. George Washington’s First Republic set the tone of American political debate for the next several decades.
As the institutions of the First Republic decayed through the 1820s and the 1830s, the American political system was open to a Reformation. The chief contestants for the shape of this Reformation were the Whigs- developmentalists interested in industrialism and infrastructure, alongside social moral progress- and the Jacksonians, populists primarily interested in continental expansion and the provision of land and votes for small farmers. Ultimately it was Andrew Jackson rather than Daniel Webster or John Quincy Adams who led the First Reformation and revitalized the Republic’s institutions in the eyes of the populists, but another statesman- Borderlander-descended Whig Henry Clay- properly fused democratic expansionism and developmentalism in such a way as to provide a blueprint for the Second Republic.
Andrew Jackson’s First Reformation only partly salved the Union; its institutions began to devolve again, and the rise of the Deep Southern planter class and its laissez-faire anti-government ideology in the 1850s brought the Republic to crisis point. The Second American Revolution, the Civil War, was navigated by President Abraham Lincoln, who successfully fused the expansionism and democracy of the Jacksonians with the demand for moral reform and industrial development of the Whigs, expanding on Henry Clay’s model. The Second Republic was based on a new social contract for working people and intensive industrial and infrastructure development across the country, and the institutions laid down in the Civil War and Reconstruction would last decades.
But the Second Republic began to decay a few decades after its birth; throughout the Gilded Age, the excesses of industrialization opened the Republic to Reformation. The two major dueling factions were the developmentalist Progressives, who supported industrial regulation and coordination in the interests of the Yankee elite, and the Western and Southern Populists, who supported federal bailouts for small farmers and small businessmen. Theodore Roosevelt was the iconic Progressive while William Jennings represented the Populists in the duel over the Second Reformation; it would ultimately be Theodore Roosevelt who presided over that Reformation. But another figure, Woodrow Wilson, effectively synthesized industrial collaboration and regulation with populist entitlements in such a way as to provide the blueprint for the Third Republic.
Theodore Roosevelt’s Reformation kept the institutions of the Second Republic going for a few decades longer, but ultimately the laissez-faire of the Deep South won out again in the 1920s and propelled the country towards the financial crisis of 1929. The Great Depression and New Deal, the Third American Revolution, was navigated by President Franklin Roosevelt, who, largely using Woodrow Wilson’s model, synthesized Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressivism and William Jennings Bryan’s populism into a new social contract and American System based on universal entitlements like Social Security and strategic collaboration between business, labor, and government. The Third Republic thereby fused the developmentalist and populist traditions, and would last for decades.
But the Third Republic’ system began to decay a few decades after its birth, as the excesses of big-government bureaucracy and the managerial-bureaucratic class became apparent. The country was ripe for Reformation by the late 60s and early 70s, and two movements dueled to reform the legacy of the New Deal- the Liberals, who focused on government activism and social reform, and the Conservatives, who wanted policy decentralization and traditional values. Lyndon Johnson was the epitome of the Liberals, while Ronald Reagan represented the Conservatives, and ultimately Ronald Reagan prevailed in the duel to dominate the Third Reformation. But it was Richard Nixon who fused the aims of policy decentralization and federal activism, and thus provided the basic blueprint for the Fourth Republic of the United States.
Reagan’s Reformation reinstated the legitimacy of the Third Republic in the eyes of the American people, but the country soon experienced a Deep Southern laissez-faire resurgence throughout the 90s and 2000s. The excesses of this ideology became apparent by the late 2000s and early 2010s, and we appear to be in the early stages of the Fourth American Revolution. What it will be called and what it will entail are anyone’s guess, as is who will lead it. But it is clear that the new governing system will synthesize the goals and policies of the Liberals under Lyndon Johnson and the Conservatives under Ronald Reagan- federal activism and social reform for the Yankee ruling class, and federalist policy decentralization and some moderated, modernized form of traditional values for the Borderlander middle class and working class. In other words, Richard Nixon has provided the basic political and policy blueprint for the next great reformer who will forge the Fourth Republic of the United States.
For all we know, this could be Donald Trump, though I doubt it. He has expressed an interest in federal activism, the darling of Liberals, developmentalists of the day, while appealing to the broad Borderlander working and middle class Conservatives, populists of the day. It’s unclear that he’d support social reform or, more importantly, policy decentralization and federalism. But whoever that great leader is who will lead a movement to unite the Yankees and Borderlanders, crush the laissez-faire Deep South, and synthesize the Liberalism of Lyndon Johnson and the Conservatism of Ronald Reagan via Richard Nixon’s model and forge the Fourth Republic of the United States, will go down with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt as the greatest of statesmen.