Heather Cox Richardson
When asked at a town hall on Wednesday to identify the cause of the United States Civil War, presidential candidate and former governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley answered that the cause “was basically how government was going to run, the freedoms, and what people could and couldn’t do…. I think it always comes down to the role of government and what the rights of the people are…. And I will always stand by the fact that, I think, government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people.”
Haley has correctly been lambasted for her rewriting of history. The vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens of Georgia, was quite clear about the cause of the Civil War. Stephens explicitly rejected the idea embraced by U.S. politicians from the revolutionary period onward that human enslavement was “wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.” Instead, he declared: “Our new government is founded upon…the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.”
President Joe Biden put the cause of the Civil War even more succinctly: “It was about slavery.”
Haley has been backpedaling ever since—as well as suggesting that the question was somehow a “gotcha” question from a Democrat, as if it was a difficult question to answer—but her answer was not simply bad history or an unwillingness to offend potential voters, as some have suggested. It was the death knell of the Republican Party.
That party formed in the 1850s to stand against what was known as the Slave Power, a small group of elite enslavers who had come to dominate first the Democratic Party and then, through it, the presidency, Supreme Court, and Senate. When northern Democrats in the House of Representatives caved to pressure to allow enslavement into western lands from which it had been prohibited since 1820, northerners of all political stripes recognized that it was only a question of time until elite enslavers took over the West, joined with lawmakers from southern slave states, overwhelmed the northern free states in the House of Representatives, and made enslavement national.
So in 1854, after Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act that allowed the spread of enslavement into previously protected western lands, northerners abandoned their old parties and came together first as “anti-Nebraska” coalitions and then, by 1856, as the Republican Party.
At first their only goal was to stop the Slave Power, but in 1859, Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln articulated an ideology for the new party. In contrast to southern Democrats, who insisted that a successful society required leaders to dominate workers and that the government must limit itself to defending those leaders because its only domestic role was the protection of property, Lincoln envisioned a new kind of government, based on a new economy.
Lincoln saw a society that moved forward thanks not to rich people, but to the innovation of men just starting out. Such men produced more than they and their families could consume, and their accumulated capital would employ shoemakers and storekeepers. Those businessmen, in turn, would support a few industrialists, who would begin the cycle again by hiring other men just starting out. Rather than remaining small and simply protecting property, Lincoln and his fellow Republicans argued, the government should clear the way for those at the bottom of the economy, making sure they had access to resources, education, and the internal improvements that would enable them to reach markets.
When the leaders of the Confederacy seceded to start their own nation based in their own hierarchical society, the Republicans in charge of the United States government were free to put their theory into practice. For a nominal fee, they sold farmers land that the government in the past would have sold to speculators; created state colleges, railroads, national money, and income taxes; and promoted immigration.
Finally, with the Civil War over and the Union restored on their terms, in 1865 they ended the institution of human enslavement except as punishment for crime (an important exception) and in 1868 they added the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution to make clear that the federal government had power to override state laws that enforced inequality among different Americans. In 1870 they created the Department of Justice to ensure that all American citizens enjoyed the equal protection of the laws.
In the years after the Civil War, the Republican vision of a harmony of economic interest among all Americans quickly swung toward the idea of protecting those at the top of society, with the argument that industrial leaders were the ones who created jobs for urban workers. Ever since, the party has alternated between Lincoln’s theory that the government must work for those at the bottom and the theory of the so-called robber barons, who echoed the elite enslavers’ idea that the government must protect the wealthy.
During the Progressive Era, Theodore Roosevelt reclaimed Lincoln’s philosophy and argued for a strong government to rein in the industrialists and financiers who dominated society; a half-century later, Dwight Eisenhower followed the lead of Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt and used the government to regulate business, provide a basic social safety net, promote infrastructure, and protect civil rights.
After each progressive president, the party swung toward protecting property. In the modern era the swing begun under Richard Nixon gained momentum with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Since then the party has focused on deregulation, tax cuts, privatization, and taking power away from the federal government and turning it back over to the states, while maintaining that market forces, rather than government policies, should drive society.
But those ideas were not generally popular, so to win elections, the party welcomed white evangelical Christians into a coalition, promising them legislation that would restore traditional society, relegating women and people of color back to the subservience the law enforced before the 1950s. But it seems they never really intended for that party base to gain control.
The small-government idea was the party’s philosophy when Donald Trump came down the escalator in June 2015 to announce he was running for president, and his 2017 tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy indicated he would follow in that vein. But his presidency quickly turned the Republican base into a right-wing movement loyal to Trump himself, and he was both eager to get away from legal trouble and impeachments and determined to exact revenge on those who did not do his bidding. The power in the party shifted from those trying to protect wealthy Americans to Trump, who increasingly aligned with foreign autocrats.
That realignment has taken off since Trump left office in 2021 and his base wrested power from the party’s former leaders. Leaders in Trump’s right-wing movement have increasingly embraced the concept of “illiberal democracy” or “Christian democracy” as articulated by Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin or Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán, who has demolished Hungary’s democracy and replaced it with a dictatorship. On the campaign trail lately, Trump has taken to echoing Putin and Orbán directly.
Those leaders insist that the equality at the heart of democracy destroys a nation by welcoming immigrants, which undermines national purity, and by treating women, minorities, and LGBTQ+ people as equal to white, heteronormative men. Their focus on what they call “traditional values” has won staunch supporters among the right-wing white evangelical community in the U.S.
Ironically, MAGA Republicans, whose name comes from Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again,” want the United States of America, one of the world’s great superpowers, to sign onto the program of a landlocked country of fewer than 10 million people in central Europe.
MAGA’s determination to impose white Christian nationalism on the United States of America is a rejection of the ideology of the Republican Party in all its phases. Rather than either an active government that defends equal rights and opportunity or a small government that protects property and relies on market forces, which Republicans stood for as recently as eight years ago, today’s Republicans advocate a strong government that imposes religious rules on society.
They back strict abortion bans, book bans, and attacks on minorities and LGBTQ+ people. Last year, Florida governor Ron DeSantis directly used the state government to threaten Disney into complying with his anti-LGBTQ+ stance rather than reacting to popular support for LGBTQ+ rights. Missouri attorney general Andrew Bailey early this month used the government to go after political opposition, launching an investigation into Media Matters for America after the watchdog organization reported that the social media platform X was placing advertising next to antisemitic content. “I’m fighting to ensure progressive tyrants masquerading as news outlets cannot manipulate the marketplace in order to wipe out free speech,” Bailey said.
Domestically, the new ideology of MAGA means forcing the majority to live under the rules of a small minority; internationally, it means support for a global authoritarian movement. MAGA Republicans’ current refusal to fund Ukraine’s war against Russian aggression until the administration agrees to draconian immigration laws—which they are also refusing to participate in crafting—is not only a gift to Putin. It also suggests to any foreign government that U.S. foreign policy is changeable so long as a foreign government succeeds in influencing U.S. lawmakers. Under this system, American global leadership will no longer be viable.
When Nikki Haley said the cause of the Civil War “was how government was going to run, the freedoms, and what people could and couldn’t do,” she did more than avoid the word “slavery” to pander to MAGA Republicans who refuse to recognize the role of race in shaping our history. She rejected the long and once grand history of the Republican Party and announced its death to the world.