For much of last year, Donald Trump was under pressure to pledge that, should he fail in his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, he would endorse and support the actual nominee. Trump has made the pledge, but some Republicans don't trust him to keep it. The other candidates have made similar pledges, presumably assuming with egoistic confidence that they won't have to support Trump, but what of Republican voters? One of them, the columnist Michael Gerson, raises the specter of a conservative anti-Trump third party should the billionaire win the nomination. Even while conceding that such a move probably would throw the election to the Democratic candidate, most likely the hated Hillary Clinton, Gerson argues that a third party may be necessary to "preserve something of conservatism ... in the hopes of better days." Trump is unacceptable to Gerson as a Republican presidential candidate because Trump "would make the GOP the party of racial and religious exclusion." Trump's opportunistic "ethno-nationalism" is contrary to the Republican tradition going all the way back to Abraham Lincoln, he argues. Gerson is right and wrong about this. The Republican party became one of the country's two major parties by defeating a more explicitly "ethno-nationalist" movement, but has also courted that movement's constituency for much of its history.
The collapse of the Whig Party ended what historians call the Second American party system. The Republicans, dedicated mainly to keeping slavery out of the territory conquered from Mexico, hoped to take the Whigs' place in a new party system. They were challenged by the American or "Know-Nothing" party, which argued that the real threat to America came from Catholic immigrants. The Republicans prevailed, of course, but it looked like a near thing for a few years. Lincoln himself despised the Know-Nothings, but so long as Democrats remained the party of immigrants, Republicans were tempted to pander to anti-immigrant (and particularly anti-Catholic) feeling. While "nativist" sentiment had other causes, including inter-ethnic competition for jobs, the long-enduring political argument was that Catholics were subservient by upbringing in a way Protestants were not, and thus were handicapped when it came to democratic-republican citizenship. The great fear was that Catholics would be told whom to vote for in elections by their priests, and would vote en bloc to advance a Catholic political agenda, presumably including an eventual overturning of the First Amendment so that Catholicism could become a state church, taxing the other denominations for its support and possibly handicapping the others in the public sector. While there was no reason not to believe that Protestant pastors were as eager to instruct their congregations on voting, that temptation was neatly projected onto Catholics. Leaving conspiracy theories aside, Republicans were bound to resent Democratic success among immigrants and probably were as susceptible then as they are now to the secular conspiracy theory according to which Democrats encourage mass immigration, legal and illegal, in order to win elections by fair means or foul. As late as 1928, anti-Catholic sentiment could be credited with defeating the first Catholic presidential candidate, Al Smith of New York. Smith lost several states in the "Solid" Democratic south, in part due to his faith and his related opposition to Protestant-driven Prohibition. I suspect there was less breast-beating back then than we see today from Republicans like Gerson.
It's also strange to see Gerson emphasize Republican inclusiveness when the story of the last fifty years has been the Grand Old Party's repudiation of its historic defense of blacks in favor of a "Southern strategy" that veiled race prejudice behind a law-and-order facade. Gerson himself may not be guilty of such strategizing, however. I'd guess that many ideological Republicans really believe that anyone -- any individual -- has the potential to become a useful part of the economy and a responsible citizen, no matter where he or she comes from. Such a faith goes with their notions of human nature -- of what people want, how they value themselves, and how a society of such people should work. Republican repudiation of the "nativism" or "populism" or "ethno-nationalism" -- we could as easily say "tribalism" -- to which Trump seems to appeal is in keeping with, though not equivalent to, their disdain for any sort of solidarity. It should be remembered that in Lincoln's free-labor utopia, if people were unable to advance up the economic ladder, if they could never transition from employee to employer or self-employed, it was probably their own fault. Trump and his more populist Republican rivals appeal to a sense of "us" that may be deplorably exclusive but also comes with a sense, howevermuch Trump might betray it in practice, of all of "us" looking out for and having our first loyalty to each other. Mainstream Republican patriotism isn't quite the same thing; their sense of loyalty to "us" often seems tenuous, as their eagerness to bring in immigrants seems to prove to the dissidents favoring Trump. Democrats, of course, try to have it both ways by arguing that "us" is really limitless in scope and thus limitlessly inclusive. That's an admirable ideal, but history is proving a little more complicated, as both major parties are starting to learn to their alarm.