(Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

The Trump days are over

History shows that Third Party tilts at the presidency don’t work

Artillery Row

In a message to his followers as he departed the White House for the final time, Donald Trump – like General Douglas MacArthur as he fled the Philippines in World War Two – told them: “I will return!” Before darkly adding: “In some form”.

Exactly what form that return or resurrection will take has been the subject of much speculation. Will the Donald emulate King Arthur and arise from a mystic Camelot beyond our ken when his country is most in need of his help? Or, more prosaically, will he ditch the Republicans who have so grievously failed to come to his aid and form a Third Party to take another tilt at the presidency in 2024?

The latter idea is by no means an outlandish one. If Trump survives his second impeachment in the Senate, his vanity and egotism might well tempt him into a second attempt to “make America great again” – especially if Democrat rule proves as bad as he predicts. Three previous presidents have tried it, and Trump’s narcissistic personality may deceive him into thinking that he can succeed where they failed.

The first president to try his luck at having a second crack at the job without the backing of his former party was Martin Van Buren, a Dutch speaking Democrat who held the presidency from 1837 to 1840. Van Buren’s lacklustre term in the White House saw him lose the 1840 election to William Henry Harrison of the Whigs – before the rise of the Republicans as the second party in US politics.

The Republicans must become the party of Trumpism without the orange man himself

Harrison died of a fever only a month after taking over, leaving his vice president, John Tyler, to complete his term. Tyler, too, failed to impress, managing to fall out with both the Whigs and the Democrats, whose candidate, James Polk, won the presidency in 1844. The great issue of slavery was increasingly dominating and dividing US politics, and for the 1848 election, Martin Van Buren arose again from the political dead to stand on behalf of the Free Soil party – an abolitionist group opposed to adding new slave-owning states like Texas to the Union.

With both parties split over slavery, the Whigs chose General Zachary Taylor, a popular hero of the recent US/Mexican War, as their candidate against Lewis Cass of the Democrats. Van Buren’s intervention, upholding the anti-slavery cause, netted him just 10 per cent of the vote – but it was enough to deny victory to Cass, the candidate of his old party, and hand the presidency to General Taylor.

Like Harrison, Taylor failed to complete his term. On 4 July 1850, a sweltering Independence Day, the president paused on his way home from opening the Washington Monument, and brought a glass of iced milk and some cherries from a roadside stall. Back at the White House he gulped down several glasses of water and was gripped by agonising abdominal pains. Within a week the General was dead from a gastrointestinal infection – probably cholera – and his vice president, Millard Fillmore, was sworn in.

Theodore Roosevelt was the only Third-Party candidate to have beaten one of the two main parties in a presidential race

Fillmore was the second former president to try his hand at a Third-Party term. When his presidency ended in 1852, the divided Whigs plumped for another Mexican War hero, General Winfield Scott, rather than Fillmore; but Scott lost to the Democrats’ Franklin Pierce. As the Civil War clouds gathered, the Whigs finally split into their pro- and anti-slavery factions. Fillmore formed a new party, the Native Americans, derisively called the Know Nothings who adopted a nativist, populist, xenophobic, and anti-immigration position not dissimilar to that of Trump’s more extreme supporters.

The Know Nothings were opposed not only by the Democrats, but by a powerful new anti-slavery party led by former Whigs called the Republicans. In the 1856 election, a three-horse race, the Democrats fielded James Buchanan, the Republicans John C. Fremont, and Fillmore flew the flag for the Know Nothings. Fillmore gained a respectable 21 per cent, but Fremont netted 33 per cent, gifting Buchanan the presidency: once again a former president had split the vote – and lost.

The slavery issue was only resolved by the bloody 1861-65 Civil War, and at the end only two parties were left standing: the Republicans, the party of Lincoln, and the Democrats. Victory in the Civil War left the Republicans – with a short interval in the 1880s – holding the presidency for the rest of the nineteenth century. The third former president to try for the role under a Third-Party banner was the dynamic and charismatic reformist Republican Theodore Roosevelt.

The two-party US system makes it near impossible for an independent Third Party to win

Vice president Roosevelt came to the presidency aged just 42, courtesy of an anarchist assassin’s bullet which killed President William McKinley in 1901, catapulting the vice president into the Oval Office. Unlike Van Buren and Fillmore, Roosevelt proved a popular and effective president, combining progressive policies at home with muscular imperialism abroad. He won a second term in 1904, but declined to stand again in 1908, instead successfully grooming his conservative Republican friend William Taft for the role.

Roosevelt became increasingly disillusioned with Taft’s lazy style and reactionary policies and tried to win back the Republican presidential nomination in 1912. Failing to do so, he decided to run himself on a Progressive party ticket. The Progressives were dubbed the “Bull Moose” party after Roosevelt survived another would be assassin’s bullet in his chest and made a 90-minute speech in his blood-soaked shirt, proclaiming it would “take more than that to kill a bull moose like me”.

Roosevelt’s combative personality and popular policies won him second place in a four-horse race – beating his Republican rival Taft into third place and the Socialist candidate, Eugene Debs, into a distant fourth. Victory, however, went to the Democrats’ Woodrow Wilson, ending his party’s long years in the wilderness. Roosevelt’s run makes him the only Third-Party candidate to have beaten one of the two main parties in a presidential race.

Though there have been other significant Third-Party runners in subsequent elections – notably the segregationist George Wallace in the 1960s and the businessman Ross Perot in the 1980s – no former president since Theodore Roosevelt has ever tried the trick. The lesson for Trump is therefore crystal clear: the two-party US system – like that in the UK – makes it near impossible for an independent Third Party to win and will only result in handing victory to the Democrats in 2024.

Even if ex-president Trump avoids impeachment – which would bar him from standing – thanks to Republican votes in the Senate, he would be well advised not to split his party’s support and run again. As for the Republicans, their best hope must lie in mobilising the millions of American have nots who Trump so successfully enthused and lead them into battle again. They must, in other words, become the party of Trumpism without the orange man himself.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover