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What's happening to the GOP? Nothing that hasn't happened before.

Heather Cox Richardson, historian of the Republican Party, says the party has always gone through cycles of bubbles and backlash.

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    Historian Heather Cox Richardson says it’s routine for the GOP to go through a cycle.
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 We’ve had Democratic and Republican parties for so long in the US that we might assume that it’s always been this way. But even in America, political parties come and go. And more often, they evolve into new forms that would shock anyone who pops in from the past to check out the way we do things.

Now, all eyes are on the Republican Party as it seems ready to crack up amid Trump mania.

What can we learn from past GOP splits? For perspective, I turned to Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson, author of 2014’s well-received To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party.

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In an interview, Richardson says it’s routine for the GOP to go through a cycle. First, it becomes more and more pro-business. Then, in response to a backlash, it retreats. After a while, the cycle begins anew.

Where are we now? She believes we’re in the tumultuous part of the cycle when members of the party challenge their leadership to change course. This time, the party’s emphasis on the wealthy is under fire.

Richardson says a friend who supports Trump puts it well: “The filthy rich have someone to speak for them, and the poor have someone to speak for them, but who speaks for me?” Through Trump, her friend has found a voice.

Here are excerpts from our conversation:

Q: How do these cycles within the GOP work?

The Republicans have an ideology that makes them swing from supporting the idea of equality of opportunity to protecting the wealthy.

When they’re in the beginning of the cycle, they use the federal government to promote equality of opportunity. Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eisenhower each worked to make it possible for every man to have an opportunity to rise.

This means that the federal government does not favor any class: It does not favor the people at the bottom or those at the top. It’s supposed to be moving the ball forward to create equal opportunity for everyone. If you pass legislation that helps wealthy people or poor people, you’ll have thrown a wrench into the spokes of this perfectly oiled machine, and you’ll destroy it.

At the end of the cycle, the party begins to tie itself to big business and becomes a pro-business party.

In every case there’s a moment when voters wake up and say “this is not what we thought we voted for.” When that happens, there’s trauma. 

Q: Where are we now in the cycle?

We’re at that point where it’s clear to the majority of Republican voters that the elites are not protecting them, that they’re protecting business. They’re incredibly angry.

Q: Why do we end up with moments like this when a political party – Democratic or Republican – faces an uprising from within?

It always happens when you have a political party that is no longer operating in reality. They operate in a bubble, and they get further into that bubble, and they’re only speaking to converts.

When that bubble bursts, the backlash sends us flying in the other direction. The party that has so protected itself will be crying in the wilderness for a long time.

Q: It sounds like we’re in for quite a bit of turmoil. Is there a reason to be hopeful?

I’m very bullish on America, which has  come the closest to creating a system to help people have political determination.

But people who believe in America and our values of pluralism and opportunity and equality really have to start taking up some oxygen and taking it away from those who don’t believe those things.

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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