How did the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, become the party of Donald Trump?

How did the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, become the party of Donald Trump? Historian Dr Tim Galsworthy answers

Join us at 12 noon on Wednesday, 8 March, to hear Dr Tim Galsworthy speak about 'American Civil War memory and the Republican Party'.

Ever since 2016 and Donald Trump’s election, the question I have constantly been asked – by friends, colleagues, people on Twitter – is “how did this happen”? How did the Republican Party which led the United States through its Civil War in the 1860s, altering the country’s constitutional settlement fundamentally, end up nominating a man like Trump? As a historian, my first instinct is always to say, “it’s complicated” and “let’s look to history” – which is what I try to do in my research.

How the Party of Lincoln became the Party of Trump is far from simple. It is the product of short-term processes on the American right, the polarised and partisan nature of the US’s media landscape, and longer term developments in American politics. It is on this final point that my historical research comes in. I would point to the 1960s as a key moment in the transformation of the Grand Old Party. In response to the civil rights movement, a growing number of Republican politicians – including presidential nominees Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon – pursued the votes of disaffected whites and took advantage of a backlash against the Black freedom struggle. Republicans began making inroads in the South – which was formerly hostile territory because of the GOP’s actions during the Civil War and Reconstruction, where Republicans opposed the Confederacy and supported freedom for enslaved people. During the 1960s, African American voters also deserted the Republican Party almost entirely, becoming a steadfast base for the Democrats. Put simply, if you want to understand how the Party of Lincoln became the Party of Trump, you must look at the political realignments of the 1960s civil rights era.

About Dr Tim Galsworthy

Dr Tim GalsworthyMy research provides new insights into the partisan realignments of the civil rights era, illustrating how scholars have overlooked the prominence and importance of American Civil War memory to the 1960s Republican Party.  I show how rival Republican factions – most notably southern conservatives, Black and white progressives, and mainstream politicians – used Civil War memories instrumentally to support, oppose, and ultimately shape its transformation into a racially conservative party. In the context of the Civil War centennial (1961-1965), Republicans sought useable pasts to strengthen their wider intra-party and inter-party strategies. My work offers the historical account to explain how insurrectionists on 6 January 2021 could carry the Confederate battle flag into the US Capitol in support of a Republican president, Donald Trump, a representative of the so-called “Party of Lincoln.” This topic formed the basis of my doctoral research, which I undertook at the University of Sussex – being awarded my PhD in February 2023 (Thesis title: “The Party of Lincoln?: American Civil War memory, civil rights, and the Republican Party, 1960-1968”). I have published a journal article on this subject in the leading journal Presidential Studies Quarterly; I also have a chapter forthcoming analysing modern Republicanism and the Lost Cause. Moreover, I have written for public-facing outlets like the Washington Post and Muster, appeared as an expert guest on podcast and radio shows, and spoken at public events – including in the University of South Wales’ 2022 Black History Month programme. I have presented my research at landmark conferences in the UK and the US.

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