Builders or Purgers? Presidents and Parties in American History

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tags: political history, Donald Trump, Parties

Rep. Liz Cheney found out that when it comes to the party leadership presidents exercise, Donald Trump prioritized loyalty (and other Republicans followed). 




While there is no constitutional or statutory authorization for a president to become the leader of a political party, history and common sense have led to a precedent by which the incumbent president is recognized by the party (an extra-constitutional, voluntary association), as the titular head of the party. Even before the new republic had clearly defined political parties, factions of like-minded politicians joined together to better move or lubricate the system of separate institutions and shared powers that the Founders created.

And while most of the Framers feared the rise of parties and factions – President George Washington devoted part of his farewell address to a warning of the “baleful effects of the spirit of party generally” – parties grew organically out of the interests and conflicts of the times, and were as inevitable as they were dangerous. “The spirit of faction,” as James Madison noted in Federalist No. 10, would inevitably emerge as an outgrowth of human nature. So how best to control the mischief of factions and the spirit of party? And how best to bring into sync the separated institutions of the Presidency and the Congress so that the business of government could be conducted?

The Framers deliberately made it difficult to move the system of checks and balances and presented the new government with more roadblocks than avenues to cooperate, and therefore, ways had to be found to join together what the Framers separated. The political party was one such extra-constitutional mechanism. The link between the Congress, located on Jenkins Hill, and the executive housed over a mile down the street on Pennsylvania Avenue, had to be joined if legislation was to be passed, so each institution needed a way to grease the wheels of government and join the separated institutions together. Early presidents such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson used the party; others such as John Adams were more often used by the party. It became clear in the early days of the republic, that parties were important levers of executive power. But these levers had to be made to work; the president had to invest time and capital into making the party a useful tool for leadership.

Today, political parties seem synonymous with democracies. Where there is democracy, where there are open, free, and fair elections, there are parties. Parties help organize the voters, develop coherent policy positions, offer alternatives, channel behavior into constructive avenues, develop organizational as well as financial resources, serve as labels or cues for voters, and help lubricate government action.

And yet, parties can be corrupting agents. They can organize to destroy as well as build. Some parties seek to dismantle democracies and replace them with one-party autocracies. Still others attempt to crush the opposition as a means of political takeover. Some try to put their thumbs on the scale in elections, and others use government resources to buy votes or unfairly influence elections.


Every new president is recognized as the leader of the party. Astute and creative presidents find ways to use the party to help them govern. Some presidents downplay their role as party leader only to find that when push comes to shove, they desperately need party support. Eschewing party leadership is really not an option. But different presidents find different ways to lead the party. Some take a very active role, telling the party organization (which in the U.S. is separate from the executive branch) who will serve as chair of the party, and dictating to the party organization what official party policy shall be. Some actively raise money for the party (money that is often not bound by the same financing laws as a president’s re-election committee, for example), and direct the party to give money to certain candidates for the House and Senate races. If, as former California legislative leader Jesse Unruh said, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics” then whoever has his hand on the money spigot holds vast power. Often a president will dangle money over an errant legislator in an effort to influence their vote on a key piece of legislation the president supports. Just as powerfully, a president may cut funding for a legislator who is too independent of president and party.

President can also do favors for legislators that can range from the mundane (getting a picture taken with a key donor) to the significant (directing that a new military base will be built in Congressman X’s district). Often, a visit to the legislator’s district is enough to persuade a legislator to vote with the president. Even a mention of a particular legislator in a key presidential address (the State of the Union speech is a plum mention) can work wonders. Thus, while many legislators have their own well-developed fundraising systems, and are not dependent on the president to raise money, there are other favors that presidents use to win votes.



It is in a president’s interest to build the party. After all, the single most important factor contributing to presidential success in Congress is the number of members in each chamber of the president’s party. There is a clear correlation between presidential success in Congress and party control of the Congress. That is one of the reasons why presidents tend to do quite well in years one and two of a term, when their party usually commands a majority in Congress but years three and four are more barren of landmark legislation. President Obama had a record-breaking percentage of success in passing his legislation in his first two years in office when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, but when the Democrats got “shellacked” (as the President said after the 2010 mid-term election), his next two years – facing opposition control of the House – were nearly devoid of major legislative victories. This same pattern played out in President Trump’s single term in office. Presidents who have a majority of their party members in Congress win at a higher rate than when there is divided government. Thus there is a powerful incentive for president’s to build the party. Easier said than done.

Presidents often believe that their efforts at party building require too much time, energy and the spending of scarce political capital to get a significant payoff, so they jettison the role of party builder. But they do so at their own peril.  Democrats, as a generalization, spend less time at party building efforts than Republicans. President Obama, for example, did little to build the party, except when his name was on the ballot.

There is really only a limited amount a president can do to build up the party. Consistently sound politics can help, but only at the margins. Party preferences are fairly fixed, and it usually takes a “transformational realignment” to dramatically change party makeup. Often the result of exogenous factors such as the 1929 Great Depression, where the solid Republican nation became majority Democratic as support for the Republican party crumbled and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal drew voters to the Democratic party.  Dramatic events can lead to dramatic party shakeups. This New Deal realignment was fairly stable for forty years.

A realignment that was the result of non-exogenous forces can be seen in Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” where in the late 1960s, Nixon recognized that the Democrats had orchestrated a self-inflicted wound when they openly supported the Civil Rights Movement. President Lyndon Johnson fully realized that in supporting civil rights legislation he was championing a worthy cause but a political deal-breaker. Southern Senators – hoping to extend the life of the Solid Democratic South - went to the White House to plead with LBJ, warning him that if he continued with his whole-hearted support for civil rights legislation, it would doom the party in the South. Johnson openly acknowledged that what he was doing was political suicide for Democrats in the South, but nonetheless believed it was the right thing to do for the nation. Johnson’s commitment to racial justice was Nixon’s opening to exploit racism in the South, and over the next twenty years, the once solid Democratic South became the solidly Republican South. The racial divide in the United States led to a major party realignment.



If you can’t beat them, defeat them. If a legislator is too independent of party and not loyal to the incumbent and his legislative agenda, there is very little a president can do. Legislators often have their own base of support, and usually their own sources of financing campaigns.

Ambitious presidents, those who have grand legislative schemes or self-aggrandizing motives, may then search for other ways to gain compliance. One way is to purge the party of members who do not exhibit sufficient loyalty to president and party.

In 1918, Woodrow Wilson tried to defeat several Southern senators who voted against his declaration of war as well as Wilson’s efforts to implement war policy. Wilson was effective in several cases, in part because Wilson’s effort to persuade voters that support for the president and the country in times of war was so important that the selected legislators were weakening the war effort. Plus, Wilson appealed to southern voters as one southerner to another. This undermined efforts to claim “outside interference” and made it easier for southern Democrats to go against their local politicians. Wilson invested a good deal of political capital into his purge effort, and while he got some favorable results, the overall impact on presidential legislative success was marginal.

FDR tried to do this in the 1930s as well, and while Roosevelt was a gifted politician, he was unable to get rid of errant legislators and actually hurt himself with many party faithful who thought FDR was going too far and demanding too much. He devoted one of his Fireside Chats (June 24, 1938) to efforts to highlight the lack of support some Southern Democrats had been giving him, and he tried to remake the party candidate-by-candidate. But voters in the South liked it that their Senators were putting the brakes on FDR, and Roosevelt’s efforts failed miserably (see; Susan Dunn, THE PURGE, 2012).

Another effective effort at party purging can be seen in Donald Trump’s efforts to remake the Republican Party in his image. While Wilson and FDR had clear policy disagreements in mind as they tried to purge legislators who were voting against the president’s policies, Trump’s was an almost completely personal appeal.  Most presidents seek party support to pass legislation, Trump tried to realign the Republican Party to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. As president, Trump was obsessed with loyalty to himself personally, as Jonathan Karl makes clear in his 2021 book, BETRAYAL. Trump had few policy priorities, but craved personal devotion. A number of Republicans – with Liz Cheney being but the most prominent – bucked Trump, both during and after his presidency. Trump would have no part of it. He set out to punish disloyal Republicans and mete out revenge for slights and insults.

Trump’s key means for purging the party were 1) Tweet Blasts; and 2) “primarying” (or threatening to primary) those who were not devoted to Trump. Because Trump had a loyal base, mainstream Republicans lived in fear that in crossing Trump in even the smallest of ways, they would face a tweet storm from Trump blasting and insulting them. Also effective was Trump’s using his primary endorsement as a tool of control. Anyone who crossed Trump knew they were likely to face a well-financed rival in the Republican primary, and also face the wrath of angry members of the party whom Trump encouraged to back a rival. As long as Trump held sway over a significant portion of the party, with enough voters who would follow his directions and vote against an incumbent, Trump held the party in fear of crossing him. For Trump, the cult of personality was more important than the future of the party, and so all efforts were made to personalize the party and make loyalty to Trump the requirement.

Machiavelli, in THE PRINCE, asked if it was better for the Prince to be loved or feared. Better both, if possible, but if you had to choose one, it was better to be feared.  Within the Republican Party, Trump was loved by a portion of the party (his base) and feared by the mainstream members of the party. These factors proved to be powerful tools in the hands of Trump. This did not add to the overall support of the Republican Party, and probably hurt more that it helped in general elections and with voters who were moderates or independents, but that was not the point. Trump wanted loyalty – at any and all costs.

Trump’s hostile takeover of the party in 2016 was followed by a bold attempt to make the party an extension of Trump himself as he personalized politics to a degree rarely found in America. It is as yet unclear what the long-term consequences of personalizing the party will be, and what a post-Trump Republican party will look like, but what is clear is that Trump thoroughly remade the party in his image, and he did so in a relatively short period of time. But while he was successful in the 2022 mid-terms at primarying several errant legislators, the long-range effect of getting rid of moderate Republicans was that in several of the races in the general election, Trump-selected candidates proved too extreme for non-Republican voters, and the effort may have backfired on Trump.



All presidents have to navigate the complex world of party politics. Some employ an “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it” approach, but the more effective presidents approached party management with a clear strategic orientation. Both party-building and party-purging can be costly and risky. Blame-averse leaders tend to take a hands off approach; ambitious presidents sometimes roll the dice. Are the rewards worth the risks?

From the start, political parties played a significant role in the governing of America. And presidents have found that while the care and feeding of the party may be frustrating, time-consuming, and at times counter-productive, at their best parties can dramatically increase a president’s chances of success. All great presidents were in one way or another, masters of party politics. Over sixty years ago Clinton Rossiter summed up the importance of parties in governing a complex democracy, when he wrote in PARTY AND POLITICS IN AMERICA (1960):

            No America without democracy, no democracy without politics, no

            politics without parties, no parties without compromise and moderation.

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