One hundred and sixty years after the founding of the Republican Party, Donald Trump has evoked Abraham Lincoln as a standard for his branding. “I can be more presidential, if I want to be,” he said. “I can be more presidential than anybody … more presidential than anybody other than the great Abe Lincoln. He was very presidential, right?” But Lincoln became “presidential” by resisting not only slavery but also isolating nativism. While some Republicans decry defining “the party of Lincoln” down to the vulgarity of Trump, others in their nostalgic longing to make their unraveling party great again, have forgotten their own origins and how Lincoln forged the Republican Party. The Republicans are now going the way of the Whigs by embracing the politics that helped destroy them.
Lincoln served in the House of Representatives for a single term as a stalwart Whig. In 1849, he returned to his law practice in Springfield and entered the political wilderness. After the Whig presidential candidate, the apolitical General Winfield Scott, was defeated in a landslide in 1852, the identity of the Whig Party shattered.
Suddenly, a new party emerged on its ruins—the Know Nothings, or the American Party. Between 1845 and 1854, 3 million immigrants arrived in the country. About 40 percent were poor Irish Catholics fleeing the ravages of the potato famine. About another 40 percent were Germans escaping from the failed revolution of 1848. Conservative Protestants viewed the Irish especially as a source of crime, corruption, and poverty. Both the Irish and Germans were beer drinkers, a habit that aroused temperance crusaders who condemned them as drunken, lazy, and sinful.