past is prologue

How Feasible Is a MAGA Third Party?

Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images/2020 - The Boston Globe

It’s unclear whether Donald Trump’s serial threats to form a third party — a “Patriot Party” — if Republicans don’t rally to his defense in his upcoming second impeachment trial are serious. He’s certainly talked about it a lot to the people in his orbit. My colleague Eric Levitz argues persuasively that launching a new party would require more work than Trump is likely to undertake. And at the moment, the ex-president has too much residual power within the Republican Party to abandon it. The third-party threat may simply be his way of intimidating Senate Republicans who have any thoughts of voting to convict him at the end of his Senate trial.

But if Republican senators do unexpectedly throw Trump into the dustbin of history by barring him from future office, or if the GOP begins to drift away from his legacy, a new Trump-centric party could become more feasible. For an idea of what that party might look like, and its potential impact on the existing political system, it’s worth looking at the various types of third parties throughout U.S. history. It’s clear that many of these old models won’t work for Trumpists, but a few could provide a blueprint — or a warning for those eager to see his brand of politics fade.

Single-Issue Parties

Trumpism is to a significant extent an attitude that has a bearing on but doesn’t entirely depend on issue positions, or certainly any one issue position. That separates it from classic single-issue groups like the anti-Masonic Party of the 1820s and 1830s, the abolitionist Liberty Party of 1840, or the Prohibition Party formed in 1869 (and still around in a diminished form).

Perhaps the closest single-issue party to one that Trump’s fans might have joined is the American Party of the 1850s, better known as the Know-Nothings, based on a pledge of secrecy its adherents were supposed to honor. This nativist party was momentarily powerful but soon faded, its ranks largely absorbed by the Republican Party or the Whig successor the Constitutional Union Party of 1860.

Generally speaking, MAGA isn’t a sufficiently issue-oriented movement to be well served by a single-issue party.

Ideological Parties

Some minor parties have represented strong ideological groups with no clear relationship to the major parties. Those would include the Socialist and Communist Parties of the 20th century and the Green and Libertarian Parties of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

One less durable but significant variant was the People’s Party (or Populists) of the late 19th century, which drew votes from both major parties and arguably pushed both (and particularly the Democrats) to the left. Since many Trump supporters consider themselves latter-day Populists, focused on denying power to both Democratic and Republican elites, they may follow this influential but short-lived model. Though he was a Democrat who only appropriated Populist policy positions, William Jennings Bryan remained a national political power for decades based on a Populist message and following, much as the Trump family might aspire to do as a force remaining within the GOP but hostile to some of its elements.

Splinter Parties

A number of parties were formed to represent minority factions in one of the major parties that felt strongly enough about certain issues to break away. Sometimes these splits were temporary, but at other points they served as a way station from one major party to another.

The Free Soil Party of 1848, which nominated former Democratic president Martin Van Buren for a return to the White House, was mostly a vehicle for the anti-slavery Democrats who later joined the new Republican Party — though some (including Van Buren himself) returned to their old party.

A century later, in 1948, two splinter parties broke from Harry Truman’s Democrats: the anti–Cold War Progressive Party and the segregationist States Rights Democratic Party. This latter party, better known as the Dixiecrats, actually won the Democratic ballot line in several southern states, and most of its supporters returned to the major party in the short term. Its younger cousin, the American Independent Party, was a stopover for many racist southern Democrats in transit to the Republican Party, as well as a personal vehicle for George C. Wallace’s 1968 presidential bid.

Another and even bigger splinter party that was also a personal vehicle was the Progressive Party of 1912. This Progressive grouping was colloquially known known as the “Bull Moose Party,” formed when Theodore Roosevelt was denied a comeback presidential nomination by the GOP, which utilized what TR’s supporters regarded as corrupt tactics on behalf of incumbent president William Howard Taft. The Bull Moose Progressives had a broad-based left-bent platform, and Roosevelt won more popular and Electoral College votes than did Taft. But in 1916 most of the 1912 dissidents (including Roosevelt) rejoined the Republicans.

If Trump’s following is decisively out-maneuvered for control of the GOP, it’s possible they could form a splinter party to wrest it back, though the record of success for such parties is pretty weak.

Cults of Personality

Wallace’s American Independent Party and TR’s Progressive Party were splinter parties that thrived only so long as their creators needed them. When Roosevelt went back to the GOP in 1916 and Wallace returned to the Democratic Party in 1972, their old parties quickly faded to insignificance (though the AIP has persisted in California as a sort of zombie ballot line until this very day thanks to the hundreds of thousands of independent voters who mistakenly think the far-right party is a home for nonpartisan centrists).

A more straightforward cult of personality party was H. Ross Perot’s Reform Party, formed in 1995 between his two independent presidential bids. While the party had certain distinctive issue emphases (notably fiscal discipline, political reform, and a bit of protectionism), and did survive to elect Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota in 1998, it was mostly Perot’s personal vehicle, financed with his personal fortune. Without him and his checkbook, it became insignificant, though it should be noted that its 2000 presidential nominating process attracted Pat Buchanan — and for a while (until he withdrew from the contest) none other than Donald J. Trump.

Obviously any political party led by Trump is going to be a cult of personality to a great extent. What’s less clear is whether he represents a major political tradition that can become persistent beyond his own active career — like, say, Peronism in Argentina — or might shrink into the kind of small and eccentric following that former Marxist Lyndon Larouche led into the right-wing fever swamps.

A Replacement Party

The most successful third party in U.S. history is in fact the Republican Party, which appeared nearly out of nowhere in the mid-1850s and soon became a northern regional party that absorbed Democratic, Whig, and Know-Nothing voters and destroyed the major party system that had dominated national and state politics since at least 1828. The Know-Nothings and Whigs went belly-up, while the Democrats maintained their major-party status by absorbing former southern Whigs and Know-Nothings and hanging on to a significant portion of their older northern following.

The ideal route for a MAGA movement, perhaps even if it could control the Republican Party, would be to replace the GOP with a new grouping that didn’t suffer from some of the “brand problems” of the old party while maintaining most of its popular support.

This isn’t the first time the possibility has arisen on the right. In 1975, as Republicans struggled with the aftermath of Watergate, the Nixon resignation, and a 1974 Democratic victory, National Review publisher William Rusher wrote an entire book arguing for a “new majority party” that would abandon the GOP for a new coalition of “producers,” as the New York Times reported way back then:

It is Mr. Rusher’s view that “the basic economic division in this country is no longer (if it ever was) between the haves and have‐nots; instead, a new economic division pits the producers—businessmen, manufacturers, hard hats, blue collar workers and farmers—against a new and powerful class of nonproducers comprised of a liberal verbalist elite (the dominant media, the major foundations and research institutions, the educational establishment, the Federal and state bureaucracies) and a semi‐permanent welfare constituency, all co‐existing in a state of mutually sustaining symbiosis.”

It’s a persistent fantasy of conservatives to build a GOP that is no longer associated with the wealthiest and most powerful people in America, and it’s true that since 1975 a majority of the white working class has moved slowly into an alliance with Big Business even as the leaders of certain segments of Big Business have drifted left. As it happens, Ronald Reagan rejected Rusher’s implicit plea for him to lead a new party and instead led the conquest of his old one — nearly in 1976, when he came close to denying Gerald Ford renomination, and completely in 1980 when he won the Republican nomination and defeated Jimmy Carter by a landslide.

Trump is by no means in the same situation today as Reagan was in back then. His big Republican breakthrough is in the past, not the future. There is not some obvious constituency out there that Trump attracts but the GOP brand repels. And for the moment, at least, the 45th president’s most important power base is among regular, straight-ticket Republican voters who may dislike RINO Establishment elites but have nowhere else to go. So rationally speaking, Trump is a less likely convert to a third-party crusade than was the Gipper 46 years ago.

But we are talking about a destroyer and a disrupter, not a builder and a consolidator. So if Trump does want to go out with a bang and punish his recent friends for his own failings, he’ll keep the third-party threat alive. There’s nothing he enjoys more than proving his fans will follow him anywhere.

How Feasible Is a MAGA Third Party?