The fledgling Populist Party made a fateful decision 120 years ago to join forces with Democrats in supporting William Jennings Bryan for president. Populists and Democrats did not agree on many issues, but they shared a common enthusiasm for the free coinage of silver to boost the money supply. That was sufficient to persuade Populist leaders not to field their own candidate (as they had in 1892) but to throw in with Bryan. When the Democrats suffered a crushing defeat, the Populist Party was virtually obliterated as a significant entity in American politics.
Both contemporary observers and historians have questioned the wisdom of the Populist decision, a strategy of opportunism that linked the party to a dubious issue and subsequent campaign disaster. Henry Demerest Lloyd, the muckraking journalist who was sympathetic to the Populists, faulted party leaders for allowing themselves to be lured into their fatal political alliance. Lloyd called “free silver” the “cowbird of the Populist movement” after the fowl that lays its eggs in the nests of others and often fouls the host’s brood.
One question emanating from the shocking 2016 election is whether Donald Trump is the cowbird of the Republican Party. Historically, Trump is neither a Republican nor a conservative in the contemporary sense of those terms: Trump is a party unto himself, with positions on issues from immigration to LGBT rights to trade to tax policy that have distinguished him from Republican conservative orthodoxy. He abandoned central tenets of conservative thought dating back a half century.
After an initial hesitation (doubtless mingled with dread), most of the Republican establishment has opportunistically lined up behind Trump. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan realized that withholding support from the party’s nominee was inconsistent with their obligations as Republican leaders and might also jeopardize their own candidates if Trump supporters sought payback at the polls.
Much of the Washington Republican community has loyally lined up behind the president-elect. He named the Republican National Committee chairman to be his chief of staff and he has tapped into the deep reserves of K Street lobbyists to staff his transition and likely his administration as well. Indeed, by the time Inauguration Day arrives, it is likely the distinction between Trump and the GOP will seem indistinguishable.
Which is where that cowbird analogy comes in.
Trump, whose conservative credentials are suspect, successfully bullied his way into the Republican roost, but how beneficial will his presence be for the other residents of the nest? After all, for better or worse, Trump’s misfortunes and setbacks will inevitably become those of the Republican Party, which has embraced him. But the GOP may well come to rue the day it invited such an unpredictable and volatile leader into its midst. A
s Trump pursues policies that clash with longtime Republican dogma and interests, will conservatives revolt? When he agrees to defer deportations and sanctions only a partial fence paid for by U.S. taxpayers, how will the wall proponents respond? If he declines to repeal the Affordable Care Act — “Obamacare” — entirely or reverse President Barack Obama’s executive orders on LGBT rights or rescind the Iran arms agreement or the Paris climate treaty, will conservative stalwarts suspect they have been duped?
We are only a week into the Trump pre-presidency, and there already are signs that this could be a fecund administration for intrigue and scandal. The reports of bloodletting within the transition team already are legendary, with the abrupt firing of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as transition chief along with several top deputies, reportedly as retribution for Christie’s prosecution of the father of Trump’s son-in-law. The appointment of Breitbart’s Steve Bannon to a top West Wing position stunned and worried observers on all sides of the political divide, including the oddly repentant Glenn Beck. And this is just the beginning.
Historians never like to make predictions, especially in circumstances as unprecedented as Trump preparing to occupy the Oval Office. But the early indications suggest that major embarrassments and scandals could easily overwhelm this amateur political operation that is rife with financial conflicts of interest, inflicting deep damage not only on Trump but on his fellow Republicans.
Is Trump the cowbird of the Republicans? It’s too early to say, but one fact is beyond doubt: It’s too late to kick him out of the nest without likely bringing the whole flock down with him.