U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Trump, the GOP, and the Bloody Shirt

[Editor’s note: the following is a guest post from Jeremy C. Young]

Trump, the GOP, and the Bloody Shirt

by Jeremy C. Young

After the events of the past few days, it now seems likely that Donald Trump will not be the next president of the United States.  It seems likely, too, that Republican congressional candidates may suffer some electoral damage from sharing a ticket with Trump.  The question now becomes, what will be the long-term damage to the Republican Party?  Will leading Republicans who endorsed Trump, such as Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Mike Pence, be punished by voters for enabling the reality TV star to come as close to the presidency as he has?  Will Democrats attempt to tie Trump around the necks of Republican candidates in 2018 and 2020, and if they do so, for how long will such efforts continue?

There’s precedent for this sort of thing in American politics.  It’s called “waving the bloody shirt.”  The phrase originates from a false story spread by anti-Reconstruction Southerners about the Radical Republican congressman Benjamin F. Butler, who supposedly waved a literal bloody shirt, worn by a Northerner beaten by the Ku Klux Klan, aloft during a speech in Congress.  The shirt itself was apocryphal, but the principle was very real: for decades after the Civil War, Republicans argued that Democratic candidates were unfit for office because a portion of their party had supported the Confederacy.  “Every man that shot Union soldiers was a Democrat,” bellowed Robert Ingersoll in 1876.  “Every man that loved slavery better than liberty was a Democrat. … Soldiers, every scar you have on your heroic bodies was given you by a Democrat.  Every scar, every arm that is lacking, every limb that was gone, is a souvenir of a Democrat.”  (Democrats, too, were no stranger to such Civil War analogies.  In 1880, Wade Hampton confidently asserted that Democratic nominee Winfield Scott Hancock, a former Union general who had fought Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson on the battlefield, stood for “THE SAME PRINCIPLES FOR WHICH [Lee and Jackson] FOUGHT FOR FOUR YEARS.”)

This bloody shirt-waving began to abate in the 1880s, as more politicians came of age who had not fought in the Civil War.  As late as 1884, however, James Blaine’s presidential hopes were undone by a Republican speaker who branded Democrats the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.”  Bloody shirt oratory did not totally disappear until the turn of the century, when American soldiers committed atrocities in the Philippine-American War under two Republican presidents.  “No Republican leader will now dare to wave the bloody shirt and preach a crusade against the South’s treatment of the negro,” proclaimed South Carolina politician “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman.  “The North has a bloody shirt of its own.  Many thousands of them have been made into shrouds for murdered Filipinos, done to death because they were fighting for liberty.”  Tillman was an odious segregationist who had once handed over an African American man to a lynch mob inside the state capitol, but he was right: Republicans dropped the bloody shirt, never to reclaim it.

Can Democrats succeed in waving the bloody shirt against Republicans for their prior support for Trump?  Probably not, for the simple reason that backing Trump isn’t the same thing as backing secession.  Throughout American history, voters have been intolerant of politicians who oppose the vital interests of the nation.  Most Loyalists had to flee the country after the American Revolution, and the Federalists never recovered from the revelation that they had considered concluding a separate peace with the British during the War of 1812.

Beyond obvious acts of treason, however, voters tend to forgive leaders who simply make bad political choices.  Republicans who backed Barry Goldwater in 1964, such as Ronald Reagan, faced little political backlash despite Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act and his disturbing views on nuclear weapons.  The Atlantic found Goldwater’s candidacy so terrifying that it violated its policy of non-endorsement – just as it has this year – and supported Lyndon Johnson.  Nevertheless, nobody was talking about Goldwater in 1966, when Reagan romped to victory in the California gubernatorial election, or in 1968, when Republicans captured the White House.  Similarly, most of the Republican House managers who prosecuted the unpopular articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton in 1999 easily won reelection the next year; nearly two decades later, one (F. Jim Sensenbrenner) remains in Congress, one (Lindsey Graham) serves in the Senate, and a third (Asa Hutchinson) holds a governorship.  Most recently, critics on both the left and the right have tried to damage Hillary Clinton for her 2003 Senate vote against the now-unpopular Iraq War.  Nevertheless, most indicators suggest that voters simply don’t care about a decade-old error in political judgment.

Donald Trump’s candidacy is in some respects a unique historical event, and it’s possible that Republicans who support him today are indeed weakening their prospects for reelection.  But history’s lesson here is simple: bloody shirt-waving is effective for cases of treason, and for not much else.  A few politicians whose embrace of Trump has been particularly full-throated, such as Chris Christie, may find themselves diminished going forward.  But Republicans who don’t really like Trump, but who tepidly supported him or who stood by while he consumed their party, are probably going to get away with it.


Jeremy C. Young is an assistant professor of history at Dixie State University. His book, The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

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  1. Doesn’t the bloody shirt cut both ways? From 1992 on, the name “Clinton” has been the bloody shirt for the GOP.

    As a Green voter, I’d call both “dirty toilet paper” rather than a bloody shirt, but that’s a different matter.

    • I’m not convinced attacks on Bill Clinton have been effective, perhaps ever. After all, he continues to be more popular than both presidential candidates in this race, and was more popular than Gore in 2000, even though Gore ran away from his legacy. I’m no fan of Bill Clinton, but most Americans are.

    • Right, I think one of the key differences is that whatever damage Trump might do as president, probably isn’t going to be done now. So it’s easier to dismiss Trump supportt as unimportant than it would be if Trump actually won the election. There were plenty of secessionists in the Democratic Party before 1860, but nobody cared until they actually succeeded.

  2. Speaking of “treason”, what about Republicans waving the bloody shirt at Trump supporters if Trump loses? Democrats are still whining about Ralph Nader, sixteen years later.

    • I’m not referring to politicians—I agree that whatever they do or say will be forgotten. What is more interesting is how party ideology adapts, or fails to adapt, to changes among constituents.

  3. “to damage Hillary Clinton for her 2003 Senate vote against the now-unpopular Iraq War”.
    “Nevertheless, most indicators suggest that readers simply don’t care about” a typo error.
    Thanks for this interesting post. As a foreigner, I did not know about the bloody shirt symbol.

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