The Taylor-Trump comparison is more novel — and intriguing. The main parallel begins with Zachary Taylor’s converting his fame as a Mexican-American War hero into commandeering the Whig Party — despite boasting about never having voted before. As the spontaneous calls for drafting this 19th-century celebrity built momentum in 1847, Taylor, increasingly hungry for the presidency, inched toward the Whig party to which he had never belonged. Nevertheless, he insisted he would not be bound by any “pledges.” Once nominated, he ran with no party platform.
Here, then, are the three strongest pillars on which my article stands. First, from George Washington to Donald Trump, and including Taylor, many Americans have long considered the famous as somehow qualified to lead our democracy, and have assumed that success in one arena, be it the military or business, is transferrable to politics.
Admittedly, in some ways, a citizen amateur like Donald Trump approximates the Founders’ dream candidate more than does any professional politician. The Framers imagined wise, virtuous, elites wafting into the presidency, and resisting the creation of a greedy, grubby, untrustworthy permanent class of professional politicians.
Moreover, Trump and Taylor both exploited a traditional American political trope — our political anti-politics suited to a nation conceived in revolution against executive authority, i.e., King George. Taylor’s pose of benign disinterest and willingness to serve only if drafted, fulfilled the Founders’ dream of a virtuous man called by the people to rule. Today, Trump surged, thanks to an updated all-American frustration with politics and politicians.
Simultaneously, Trump also represents what the Founders most feared, a fast-talking demagogue, who roils the mob, pitting one group of Americans against the other. In Federalist No. 71, Alexander Hamilton hoped the constitutional system would protect Americans and their candidates from following “every sudden breeze of passion,” or “every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests.”
We end with the article’s three warnings. Americans beware: In 1848, as in 2016, both nominees’ “high negatives” demoralized citizens. In 1848, it depressed voter turnout. While more broadly popular, Taylor was hated by “true Whig” regulars. They doubted his loyalty to Whig principles and felt betrayed that those seeking a cheap win dumped their hero Henry Clay for Taylor.
Finally, Republicans beware, the internal Whig civil war was so intense, the choosing of Taylor despite the betrayal of Whig principles and Whig loyalists like Henry Clay so blatant, that the party never recovered. Taylor was the last Whig president as the party soon imploded.
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