With Trump’s toxic rise to power, it’s become commonplace to refer to the movement propelling him as populism and his base as populists. Steve Bannon, his erstwhile strategist, positioned Trump as a raging populist, vowing to take down the banks and the bureaucracy and return Washington to the people.
The mainstream press regularly characterizes Trumpism as part of a worldwide movement of populist uprisings: Jair Bolsonaro, the far right former Army captain poised to be Brazil’s next president who believes “a good criminal is a dead criminal”; his Filipino ideological doppelganger, Rodrigo Duterte, responsible for deploying death squads which killed hundreds of drug dealers; Viktor Orban, swept in as Hungary’s prime minister by throttling the press, trumpeting fear of migrant invasions and demonizing Jews in an anti-Semitic smear campaign against philanthropist George Soros; Alternative for Germany, the right wing nativist party that has pushed Angela Merkel to the sidelines; Boris Johnson, the U.K.’s racist answer to Trump and the driving force behind Brexit; France’s Union for a Popular Movement, Union for a French Democracy, National Front and Movement for France, all fueled by immigration backlash; and Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister, who exhorts his followers with outbursts of “Italy First” and threatens to deport tens of thousands of immigrants.
Make no mistake, this international wave of right-wing backlash manifests itself in different ways. It’s nativist, anti-immigrant, nationalist, anti-globalist, autocratic, proto-Fascist, neo-Fascist, racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic. But what it is not, by any definitional stretch, is populist. And by extension, Donald Trump is no populist.
This is not the place to hyperventilate about Trump. But it is the place to explain what Populism — upper case — really is and to refute any notion that what the world is experiencing today is its resurgence.
The Origins of Populism
Populism was a late 19th century ideology which rose to prominence in Russia and in the mid-west, western and southern regions of the United States. Primarily agrarian in origin, it pitted “the people” against the moneyed elites, the banks, railroads and entrenched eastern power interests .
In the United States, the People’s Party played a central role in American politics in the 1890’s, reaching its zenith when it was absorbed by the Democratic Party in 1896 behind William Jennings Bryan as its fiery presidential standard bearer.
In 1892, the People’s Party ran its own presidential ticket of James B. Weaver and James G. Field, winning 8.5 percent of the popular vote and carrying Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada and North Dakota.
Its main constituencies were poor white cotton farmers in the south and wheat farmers in the Plains States. The party opposed the eastern banks, large landowners, the railroads and the Gold Standard. Its arch-enemies were the great Robber Barons of the era, Rockefeller, Harriman and J.P. Morgan, who controlled the banks and railroads. The Populists allied themselves with the labor movement in the north, forming an alliance with the Knights of Labor, a predecessor of the American Federal of Labor and the Congress or Industrial Organizations.
At a 1892 convention of splinter parties that merged into the People’s Party, former congressman Ignatius L. Donnelly closed the gathering by telling the crowd, “We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin...We seek to restore the government to hands of the ‘plain people’ with whom it originated. Our doors are open to all points on the compass…The interests of rural and urban labor are the same; their enemies are identical.” Except for the open doors part, this is a manifesto Bannon might have written.
The People’s Party called for a graduated income tax, direct election of Senators, abolition of national banks, an eight-hour workday, civil service reform and government control of all railroads, telegraph and telephone companies. In the west, Populists demanded that the Gold Standard be abandoned as the currency basis and free silver (which was more plentiful than gold) be adopted to devalue currency and reduce the farmers’ debts to eastern banks.
Although neither the People’s Party in 1892 nor the Democratic Party in 1896 advocated extending suffrage to women, racial integration or welcoming the waves of Irish, Germans and Jews into their ranks, some members of the movement, like Thomas Watson of Georgia, talked about a coalition of poor blacks and whites abandoning their racial enmity because of common economic interests. Notwithstanding Watson’s early advocacy of racial harmony, there was a strong strain of white supremacy embedded in Populism which, if it did not dominate the movement, was a strong force in its direction.
Bryan, focusing on a free silver platform, was soundly defeated in the 1896 presidential election. That year, North Carolina Populists gained control of the state legislature and the governor’s office, only to lose both branches of government two years later. Democrats instigated a race riot in Wilmington two days after the 1898 election, burning homes and buildings, killing blacks and targeting the black newspaper. It is estimated that anywhere from 60 to 300 blacks were killed.
The Populist movement in the United States was over before the 1900 presidential elections. It had been absorbed into the Democratic Party. Bryan ran against McKinley again in 1900, largely on a platform opposing America’s war against Spain, all but abandoning the domestic reform issues that dominated the 1896 campaign. He lost by an even greater margin than in 1896. Bryan ran again in 1908, this time on a platform limiting campaign contributions, tariff and trust reform, regulatory authority over the railroads, labor’s right to organize, an eight-hour workday and an employers’ liability law.
He abandoned free silver and government ownership of railroads, moving closer to the center. The problem for Bryan, who was no longer a Populist but now a Progressive, was that the Republicans had already co-opted and embraced the same issues. As president, Theodore Roosevelt went after the monopolies and supported organized labor. His successor, William Howard Taft, somewhat more conservative than Roosevelt, largely took the same positions his predecessor did. Bryan lost again, the only major party nominee, three-time-loser in American history.
Many of the Populist reform planks found their way into the platforms of the Democrats, Republicans and the Socialist parties during the presidential campaigns of 1912, 1916 and 1920. But the party itself was gone. In the preface to his 1913 book, A Preface to Politics, Walter Lippmann wrote “As I write, a convention of the Populist Party has taken place. Eight delegates attended the meeting, which was held in a parlor.”
Populism and Progressivism
The leading progressives of the early 20th century opposed Populism and were elitists in their world views. Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, George A. Norris, Robert La Follette Jr. all said they were not Populists. The architects of the New Deal also denied that its reforms were Populist.
Among some historians, American Populism is regarded as a last gasp of Jeffersonian agrarianism, backward-looking farmers and western individualism and, for that reason, a reactionary ideology. The great historian Richard Hofstadter argued that Populism was conspiratorial, nativist, anti-Semitic, anti-intellectual and racist.
In that case, what we are experiencing today would rightly be labeled as Populism, Steve Bannon’s doctrinal successor to the proto-Fascist rantings of Father Coughlin in the 1930’s and the white supremacist racist candidacy of George Wallace in the 1960’s. But while nativist and racist strains were evident in the Populist Movement, its more mainstream impulses were reformist. The People’s Party was not all-inclusive in its reach, but it did take positions that included more people in its tent.
The People’s Party’s farmer cooperatives anticipated the organized labor movement. It opposed the concentration of wealth and the ownership of railroads before the Progressives and Theodore Roosevelt began attacking the big monopolies. It supported the broad expansion of public education. Many Populists embraced white supremacy, Chinese exclusion, Anti-Semitism, and separate-but-(not really) equal public education and accommodations, but others within the movement believed in and advocated for universal suffrage, regulated but fair immigration and equality among the races.
In that regard, American Populism was a pre-cursor of the Progressive Movement, the New Deal and later on, The Great Society. It was the anti-thesis of the racist, nativist, exclusionary, inward-and-backward worldview that Trump and his minions believe is America’s legacy. If anything, Trumpism is a mean distillation of all that was reactionary in the Populist movement, incorporating none of its reformist impulses that served as a springboard for the domestic reforms of Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.
Trump likes to say that everything you read in the mainstream media is fake news, a way of telling the gullible that he is the only source of truth. This is a page torn from Hitler’s Mein Kampf. You can choose what to believe based upon your point of view and the facts placed before you. But the events that comprise our history, while open to interpretation, either occurred or they did not. Do not believe that what passes today for populism is Populism. To paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan, you are entitled to your own point of view, but not to your own history. Do not believe that Trumpism has the best interests of the great majority of Americans at heart. It doesn’t.
Populism is not labeling policies that reward the super rich by reducing their tax burden and raiding the treasury. It is not enacting regulations which pollute our land, water and air. It is not disenfranchising millions of people or unconstitutionally diminishing the power of their vote. It is not crippling public education by directing funds to private education charlatans. It is not crippling oversight of potential corporate abuses, defanging government enforcement and allowing entrenched power to take advantage of ordinary people. And it is not packing the courts with judges who would allow abusers of power and privilege to get away with evading the law or molding it to suit their corrupt purposes.
Disabuse yourself from the notion that this is Populism and Trump is cutting down the bureaucracy, draining the swamp and returning power to the people. Trumpism is not Populism. It is just the opposite and believing that Trumpism is true Populism is nothing more than fake history .