The shadow of 1912: history points to a GOP split

The shadow of 1912 hangs heavily over today’s Republican party. The Republicans lost out to the Democrats after Theodore Roosevelt continued to campaign on a 'Progressive' ticket although he had been beaten in the primaries by incumbent President William Howard Taft.

Theodore Roosevelt sitting in a chair
Theodore Roosevelt sitting in a chair with a bull moose who is crying and looking up at him. In the background the vision shows crowds cheering as Roosevelt is sworn in as president by Chief Justice Edward D. White, while an old and beaten William H. Taft looks on. Credit: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

‘I will personally work to defeat every single Republican senator/ congressman who doesn’t stand up against this fraud’, tweeted Eric Trump earlier this week. ‘They will be primaried in their next election and they will lose.’

As if the appalling scenes in Washington’s Capitol this week were not bad enough for the Republican Party, the President’s son is threatening a purge of any legislator who does not support Donald Trump’s campaign to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election. Of course, the Trump family has every right to stand supporters in the seats of Republicans who have put their loyalty to the Constitution before their loyalty to Donald Trump, but the problem for the Republicans is that winning primaries over the Trumpites will be nothing like enough.

The shadow of 1912 hangs heavily over today’s Republican party. That was when former President Theodore Roosevelt, having failed to become its presidential candidate in the primaries against the incumbent President William Howard Taft, stood anyhow on the Progressive ticket, thereby splitting the Republican vote disastrously. (Although ‘Progressive’ was the party’s official title, they were universally known as the ‘Bull Moose’ party, after a nickname of Roosevelt’s.)

The Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, who would almost certainly have lost to Taft had Roosevelt not split the vote, was elected on 41.8% of the ballot, the lowest for any presidential candidate since 1860. Here is the doleful precedent facing any Republican candidate in the next election: to have a vengeful Donald Trump taking enough votes from the Republican candidate to allow President Biden, or possibly Kamala Harris, or indeed virtually any mainstream Democrat, to win with ease in November 2024.

The prospect of the 1912 debacle must be running through the minds of Republican lawmakers when they consider invoking the 25th Amendment to the Constitution to impeach President Trump for inciting the mob to attack the Capitol, an extraordinarily irresponsible thing to have done and which led to the deaths of five people. Were they successfully to impeach the President in the thirteen days remaining before Joe Biden’s inauguration, Trump would not be allowed to stand in November 2024.

Of course, that does not mean that the Trumpites would meekly return to the Republican fold: they would not. They would probably become even more infuriated by the political system that prevented their hero from reprising the last four years. But there are plenty of other people bearing the Trump name – even Eric himself – who might stand under a Bull Moose style ticket in the hope of splitting the vote. He would do it in a spirit of vengeance against the Republican Party, one that is evident in his tweet. Yet without Donald J. Trump on the ballot, the threat might at least be blunted.

One has to go back to London’s Gordon Riots of June 1780 to find a British precedent for a mob violently forcing itself into the chamber of the legislature. Spain saw shots fired into the ceiling of its parliament, the Cortes, during Colonel Antonio Tejero’s attempted fascist coup d’etat in February 1981. But in both cases, the heads of state – George III and King Juan Carlos – were adamantly opposed to the incursions. What makes this event so unprecedented is that they were clearly incited by the American head of state himself.

The Capitol building itself is iconic of American democracy, and thus of the Free World, but Washington DC is not the only capital that is outrageously under-defended from rioters. Last June, the statue of Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square in London and the Cenotaph itself – the monument to Britain’s dead of the two world wars – were daubed with paint by Black Lives Matter demonstrators. In 2018, the Arc de Triomphe – where France’s Unknown Warrior is buried – was vandalised by gilet jaune protesters in Paris. But, once again, Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron denounced this monstrous vandalism of their sacred national sites, rather than actively encouraging it as Trump did. 

One struggles for historical precedents in the face of Donald Trump’s deliberately incendiary remarks as he sent his protesters up Pennsylvania Avenue with the claims of a ‘stolen’ election ringing in their ears. Even if one believes that there were significant irregularities in the conduct of the 2020 election – which I don’t, but some do – it was still wrong to ignore the courts’ multiple judgments on the matter, and to indulge in such foul iconoclasm, especially if it predictably leads to wholly-foreseeable violence and loss of life.

The enemies of democracy from Moscow to Riyadh and from Hong Kong to Teheran will be enjoying this. They cannot believe that they have been handed such a superb propaganda coup, which will be used to slap down anyone who tries to assert that American democracy is admirable. Spare a thought for the poor would-be democrats of Minsk and Caracas and Pyongyang, whose lifelong political role model nation has besmirched itself in this way, strengthening the anti-democracy arguments of their despotic oppressors.

President Trump has not been without successes in his presidency – the economy was reviving strongly pre-Covid thanks to his tax cuts, Israel now has several states which recognise her diplomatically, Qasem Soleimani is not destabilizing the Middle East any more – but the past few days have blackened his record indelibly. In Macbeth, Malcolm says of the Thane of Cawdor, ‘Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.’ Nothing in Donald Trump’s presidency has so ill-become him like the leaving it. Which is saying a good deal.


Andrew Roberts