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Ford announcing his decision to grant a pardon to Nixon. By David Hume Kennerly — Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library

The GOP’s Original Sin

How Ford’s pardon of Nixon altered the destiny of the GOP and ultimately led to Trumpism

The Republican party was founded in 1854 as a reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, fearing the law would promote the expansion of slavery to the newly incorporated territories of the Union. Fundamentally anti-slavery, the Republican party also supported the gold standard, high tariffs, and high wages.

The XXIst century’s incarnation of the party hardly resembles its original definition. One could even say it is a perfect opposite of it. The party has moved from a centre-right socially-liberal platform to a staunch far-right, neo-liberal view of the world that promotes social inequality (by opposing taxation, unionisation, and welfare programmes), that preys on the weak and the other, and that hypocritically admonishes for a new form of puritanism.

Pushed to its extremes with the Trump presidency and the 2020 election, the GOP has relinquished any form of moral decency and embraced racism and misogyny. It has forgone its loyalty to factual reasoning and to truth itself, turning lying and deception into an effective communication strategy. For all intents and purposes, the GOP has become a cult.

When did this start? Can we point to one event in history that started the chain of events that led to where we are today? I would argue that it all comes down to a fateful day in September 1974, when Ford pardoned Nixon. To contextualise this event, this original sin, we must go back a bit further, however, to the 50s.

The last of the Republicans

The election of Dwight D. Eisenhower in November 1952 marked the last time a true Republican won the presidency. Eisenhower was the Commander in Chief of the allied forces, the winner of WWII, a paragon of true American heroism. It comes as no surprise that he won and was reelected in two landslide elections.

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Left: 1952. Right: 1956. Source: Wikimedia.

Eisenhower inherited Roosevelt’s and Truman’s New Deal policies and worked towards expanding them. His administration focused on “a balanced budget over tax cuts,” launched massive infrastructure projects (like the Interstate Highway System) and created NASA as a reaction to the Soviet space programme progress.

Eisenhower disagreed with the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v Board of Education. However, being true to his military and presidential oaths to uphold the Constitution, Eisenhower set aside his personal views and enforced the decision with resolve. In 1957, after a staunch senatorial battle led by segregationist South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, he signed into law the most important Civil Rights legislation since Reconstruction.

Protecting the rights of all who wish to be free

In 1960, John F. Kennedy, a Northern Democrat, won what was the closest election since 1916 against Richard Nixon. The divide seen in the 1952 and 56 elections — with a South deeply Democratic — manifested itself somewhat differently through faithless electors: 15 Electors from Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Alabama voted for Virginia segregationist senator Byrd (with Strom Thurmond as his VP).

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1960 Electoral College Map. Wikimedia.

Following Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson, a Southern Democrat from Texas, carried forward on the late president’s agenda by forcing through the Senate the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which once again was filibustered and highly criticised by Southern Democrats, Thurmond and Byrd chief amongst them). This precipitated the divide of the democratic party, the south “seceding” in opposition to a law they considered “unconstitutional, unnecessary, unwise and extend[ing] beyond the realm of reason.

Johnson won the 1964 election against Goldwater in no small part due to the Civil Rights Act, his Great Society social programmes, and the profound division of the Republican party. Goldwater, representing the conservative faction of the GOP, opposed the passage of the Civil Rights Act arguing it violated states’ rights. He failed to win the support of moderate Republicans and was beaten soundly.

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1964 Electoral College Map.

Goldwater’s success in the South as a Republican marked a shift in the country’s political landscape. Many segregationist Democrats left a party they did not feel they belonged to anymore and joined the GOP, among which Strom Thurmond.

South we go!

The election of 1968, following Dr King’s assassination, RFK’s assassination and a slew of protests, saw Richard Nixon winning the presidency amid a level of social unrest and division not seen since Reconstruction. Alabama governor George Wallace carried the Deep South and won 46 Electoral votes on a platform built around segregation and racism.

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1968 Electoral College Map. Wikimedia.

During the campaign, the Republicans in general, and Richard Nixon in particular,

saw the cracks in the Solid South as an opportunity to tap into a group of voters who had historically been beyond the reach of the Republican Party..

They devised a plan that became known as the Southern Strategy. It relied on white supremacy and racism, two themes the Republicans were not yet comfortable addressing frontally. They needed a new message that would hint at them without using the terms outright. It is reported that Nixon:

“emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognized this while not appearing to.” With the aid of Harry Dent and South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who had switched to the Republican Party in 1964, Nixon ran his 1968 campaign on states’ rights and “law and order.” Source

Interviewed by the New York Times in 1970, Nixon’s political strategist Kevin Phillips described the Southern Strategy in a way that cannot be misconstrued (warning, offensive language):

From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that… but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats. NYTimes.com

Stoking white supremacist feeling, racist resentments, and social fears were at the heart of the Republican strategy to conquer Southern voters, and it worked.

The Original Sin

Nixon didn’t only bring white supremacy into the Republican agenda to win the 1968 election, he also sabotaged Johnson’s efforts towards a peaceful resolution to the Vietnam War to ruin Humphrey’s chances, and it worked.

It wasn’t Nixon’s only lie in his long political career, as we all know. The Watergate scandal and the constant obfuscating by his administration brought his downfall in 1974. Gerald Ford — the only Vice-President and President to never be elected by the Electoral College —took office following Nixon’s resignation and, one month into his presidency, granted Nixon a full and unconditional pardon.

Nixon betrayed his country by delaying peace talks that could have saved the lives of thousands of Americans; he betrayed Democracy and the ideals of his nation for his own political gain; he promulgated a political strategy based on white supremacy and racism that reaffirmed Confederate heritage. For all these crimes, he was pardoned.

In an editorial, the New York Times called Ford’s decision:

a profoundly unwise, divisive and unjust act” [… .] A nation in which the law applies equally to rich and poor, the meek and the powerful, cannot exempt anyone, least of all a president, from the requirements of justice.

By letting Nixon off the hook, Ford committed the original sin. Much like Adam’s transgression shaped the fate of Humanity, Ford’s fashioned the destiny of the GOP until today.

In time, Republican leaders would realise that

  • whatever the outrage, they would never be held accountable for it;
  • more importantly, they discovered that whatever the disgrace brought upon them by their elected officials, Republican voters would be back to the voting booth, motivated by deep-rooted racism, social conservatism, and baseless hopes that one day, wealth would eventually trickle down;
  • they could govern by surprise, hiding their intentions and actions and, should they become public, claim a greater good for lying.

Abandoning truth

Ronald Reagan’s accession to power in 1980 consecrated a surprising alliance between a Californian divorcé and the evangelical right. It also marked a shift away from reality and transparency.

The Iran-Contra scandal, the perpetrators of which were pardoned by Bush Sr under the supervision of then AG William Barr, should have ended Reagan and Bush careers, but it barely hit them.

Asked about the scandal in 1987, Reagan answered with this Trumpian quote:

A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true. But the facts and evidence tell me it is not.

The AIDS crisis, the failure of trickle-down economics and the disastrous war on drugs have not prevented Reagan from becoming an icon for the GOP. Respectively affecting in a disproportionate manner the LGBT community, the lower classes, and minorities, we can easily understand why none of it mattered to the voting base.

With each subsequent administration, as a majority or minority party, the GOP abandoned truth and facts and opened the door to the fringes of the party. Gingrich transformed politics into a fist-fight, weaponising government shutdowns and propagandizing C-SPAN.

Bush & Cheney sold the party to industrial interests, lying blatantly to the American people and starting useless wars that would cost the American people thousands of lives, trillions of dollars, and would end up killing hundreds of thousands of Iraq’s, Afghanistan’s, and other nation’s civilians.

From the 2008 election, the GOP opened its doors to the tea party and the conspiracy theories they were peddling (birtherism and others).

Finally, in 2016, it all coalesced into Trumpism, a messianic cult with Trump as its saviour. While Christ redeemed the original sin on the cross, Trump would fulfil the GOP’s destiny started by Nixon and Ford 50 years earlier.

Embodying all the worst traits of the previous administrations and all the party leaders since 1974, Trump gave the Republican voters what they were craving for.

As Adam Serwer brilliantly put it in his must-read piece from 2018, The Cruelty Is the Point,

Trump and his supporters find community by rejoicing in the suffering of those they hate and fear.

Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright.

Written by

I write about politics, business, society and culture on Medium. For startup/business content, check my newsletter: fundraisedd.substack.com

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