the national interest

Conservatives Excommunicated the Last Republican President Who Lost

Photo: Dirck Halstead/The LIFE Images Collection via G

One of the rationalizations Republicans have made for their party’s refusal to disavow Donald Trump’s authoritarianism is that asking a party to renounce a former president is categorically unreasonable. “He’s an ex-president. You can’t just excommunicate him,” pleads Representative Dan Crenshaw. “People in their parties would also have thrown out people openly critical of Obama and Bush,” says Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini.

Parties don’t just disown their former presidents, right? Actually, it has happened. The Republican Party excommunicated George H.W. Bush after his 1992 defeat. That episode was a seminal moment in the formation of the party’s modern identity, and the contrast between its gleeful abandonment of the 41st president and continued fealty to the 45th one reveals a great deal.

In 1990, Bush faced a rising budget deficit that was pushing up interest rates and threatening the recovery. Democrats, who controlled Congress, insisted that any deficit deal impose shared sacrifice on the rich (who had disproportionately benefited from the Reagan tax cuts that had largely caused the deficit). Bush had campaigned against any new taxes but had no choice but to compromise. The price he paid — a tiny increase in the top tax rate, from 28 percent to 31 percent — was small in comparison with the spending cuts he secured, which were in fact one of the toughest austerity measures ever enacted.

But Bush’s deal violated conservative-movement canon, which abhorred any tax increase for any reason. Conservatives in Congress revolted against the deal, and that revolt drove the mainstream conservative leadership out of power and brought a right-wing faction led by Newt Gingrich into ascendancy. The budget official who had advised Bush on his budget deal, Richard Darman, was driven out of Republican politics. Since Bush still had to run for reelection, conservatives temporarily patched things up with him for the purpose of his campaign, during which he apologized for his apostasy and vowed never to repeat it again.

After Bush lost to Bill Clinton, conservatives wrote him out of the party. In conservative mythology, he became the Great Apostate. For years afterward, right-wing propaganda repeated a simple fable in which Ronald Reagan won because he was the good, loyal conservative, and Bush had justly lost because he strayed from the Reaganite path. “He ran as Ronald Reagan ’88,” Grover Norquist explained later. “The problem was he didn’t govern as Reagan. He raised taxes. He betrayed the people who elected him.”

The purge was so thorough that when George W. Bush sought the nomination eight years later, the central message he used to woo conservative elites was that he would not repeat the mistakes of his banished father. In a series of interviews, Bush disavowed his father’s tax-hiking apostasy. “A George W. Bush presidency, he signaled, will be Reagan III, not Bush II,” noted one conservative columnist.

George Bush had been a popular president with the Republican base, which lionized him for his role in leading the Gulf War. They turned against him in part because the party’s leaders hammered the message that he was an ideological traitor and used his defeat to discredit him.

When a Republican president had actually violated a core tenet of conservative belief, his fellow partisans knew what to do about it. They shunned him, turned his name into a synonym for “loser,” and forced even his children to denounce him. The difference is that Bush had committed a truly unforgivable sin: agreeing to increase the top tax rate by three percentage points. Trump won’t be purged because he committed what is, in the eyes of the conservative movement, a more forgivable sin: fomenting the violent overthrow of the government in order to seize an unelected second term.

The Last Republican President Who Lost Was Excommunicated