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In the closing days of 2017, President Donald Trump scored his sole major legislative victory by pushing through Congress a sweeping tax cut. Every objective analysis of the new legislation has found that it overwhelmingly benefits wealthy people and corporations—and adds more than $1 trillion to the national debt—but Trump sold the tax cut as a “Christmas gift” to average, middle-class Americans.
It was a pitch that revealed the enduring power of populism in American politics.
Trump clearly sees himself as a man of the people, but he and his allies should be aware that throughout American history populism has been a double-edged sword: While it has inspired great political-reform movements, it has also been manipulated by demagogues to promote fear, divide the nation and infringe on individual rights.
The populist tradition is nearly as old as the republic itself, but it was a farmers’ revolt in the late 19th century that broadened its appeal and codified a language and style of politics that would endure long after the formal movement ended. A combination of forces had conspired against farmers: declining prices for their crops, rising debt and a railroad monopoly that controlled the cost of shipping to the growing cities on the East Coast. Things got so bad that corn farmers in Kansas burned their crops for fuel because corn was cheaper than coal. In response, farmers banded together, organized their own political party and advocated for federal intervention to regulate the railroads and inflate the money supply. William Jennings Bryan, the most revered populist leader of his age, declared that the money issue represented a clash between “the common people” and “the encroachments of organized wealth.”
Populists disagreed about the best strategy for addressing their grievances, but they all shared a common worldview. They romanticized “the people,” convinced that all Americans embraced the same agenda and spoke with one voice. When government failed to follow the will of the people, they suggested, it was because powerful interests had intervened and corrupted the institutions of government.
To explain how a small group could attain so much power, populists often turned to conspiracy theories. The Populist party platform of 1892 stated bluntly that “a vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized on two continents,” which, if “not met and overthrown at once,” would lead “to the destruction of civilization, or the establishment of an absolute despotism.” In the populist mind, there were two groups: the people and the special interests. As the historian Richard Hofstadter has noted, the agrarian uprising also exposed a dark side to populism: a penchant for oversimplifying problems and scapegoating “elites,” which in this case included Jewish bankers and legitimate businessmen.
In 1896, Republicans led by William McKinley crushed populists’ electoral hopes, but 20th-century progressive politicians would adopt their style and implement much of their agenda. In 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt borrowed from the populist playbook when he defended his ambitious New Deal agenda by attacking the “unjust concentration of wealth and economic power.” He assailed the “economic royalists” who took “other people’s money” to impose a “new industrial dictatorship.” The forces of “organized money are unanimous in their hate for me,” he told a cheering crowd in New York’s Madison Square Garden, “and I welcome their hatred.”
Harry Truman tied himself to Roosevelt’s legacy, peppering his speeches with references to “Republican gluttons of privilege,” who had “stuck a pitchfork in the farmer’s back” and “begun to nail the American consumer to the wall with spikes of greed.” His speeches pictured politics as a struggle between the “people,” represented by the Democrats, and the “special interests,” represented by Republicans. Enthusiastic crowds shouted, “Give ’em hell, Harry!” Truman responded, “I don’t give ’em hell. I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.”
Roosevelt and Truman used populism to expand government power, but in the 1980s Republican President Ronald Reagan employed the same approach to dismantle regulations and limit federal power. Reagan turned his predecessors’ populist message on its head. Instead of calling for greater government power to protect individual rights, Reagan’s attacked the government for limiting economic opportunity. “In this present crisis,” Reagan said in his inaugural address, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” After delivering on his promises of deep tax cuts and looser regulations, Reagan rejoiced: “The people have been heard,” he said. Reagan also forged a new relationship between protestant fundamentalism and the Republican Party, paving the way for the GOP to assume a new role: as guardians of public morality.
By the 1980s, politicians in both parties routinely declared themselves populists, but they pursued conflicting agendas and identified different enemies. Since the days of FDR, Democrats articulated a message of economic populism, railing against big business, Wall Street and the wealthy for failing to understand the economic plight of average Americans. After the social turmoil of the 1960s, Republicans built a powerful political base using a language of cultural populism, charging that Hollywood producers, intellectuals and liberals were out of touch with the cultural values of mainstream Americans.
Despite their differences, each of these leaders—FDR, Truman and Reagan—used populist appeals to build coalitions and to achieve meaningful reform. Many demagogues, however, have employed the same style of politics for less noble objectives.
During the 1930s, Huey Long, a charismatic, ambitious and shrewd politician who had won election to the Senate in 1932, fashioned himself as a modern-day Robin Hood. His “Share Our Wealth” plan promised to “soak” the rich and make “every man a king.” Long’s impractical scheme appealed to the aspirations of poor people during the Great Depression, to their resentment of the rich and to their disappointment with Roosevelt’s New Deal efforts. Long’s message also had special appeal to middle-class Americans who had enjoyed a degree of independence and autonomy in the past, but who now felt threatened by the many changes around them. They lashed out at those groups—bankers, Jews, communists and Washington bureaucrats—who they blamed for the Depression. Long planned to challenge FDR for the presidency in 1936, but an assassin ended those dreams, and his movement died with him.
Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy proved the most dangerous populist demagogue of the 20th century. During the Red Scare following World War II, McCarthy boasted he had proof that communist spies had infiltrated the federal government. “I have here in my hand,” he blustered, “a list of names that were known to the secretary of state and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.” McCarthy called Dean Acheson, Truman’s secretary of state who promoted the formation of NATO, a “pompous diplomat in striped pants, with a phony British accent.” He denounced the “egg-sucking phony liberals” who defended “communists and queers.” In focusing on liberal thinkers, homosexuals and others who did not fit with Americans’ traditional view of themselves, McCarthy exploited the nation’s unease with its new global stature and its discomfort with alien ideas and lifestyles. By 1950, McCarthy dominated headlines and was the most feared man in America.
George Wallace, the pugnacious Alabama governor who once stood in the schoolhouse door to prevent integration of his state’s flagship university, adopted most of McCarthy’s language and tactics when he ran for president on a third-party ticket in 1968. Wallace’s anti-establishment populism appealed to many northern Democrats angry over the party’s association with Vietnam war protests and racial integration. Wallace rose in the polls by catering to the resentments of his followers: “If a demonstrator ever lays down in front of my car,” Wallace told large and enthusiastic crowds, “it’ll be the last car he’ll ever lay down in front of.” Wallace’s appeal was blatantly racist and anti-intellectual. One survey showed that more than half the nation shared Wallace’s view that “liberals, intellectuals and long-hairs have run the country for too long.”
In 2016, Donald Trump rode a unique wave of populist sentiment into the White House. Trump’s populism, which included a strange alchemy of narcissism and megalomania, shocked the political establishment. The billionaire businessman sold himself as the savior of the “forgotten American,” even though most of his policy proposals embraced traditional conservative thinking. He focused his populist ire on immigrants, calling them rapists and drug dealers, before moving on to Muslims, who he wanted banned from entering the United States. Like most populists, Trump divided the nation into two groups: “real” Americans who supported him, and a disgraced economic and cultural elite who backed his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
His victory underscored that the populist tradition remained as strong in the 21st century as it had been in the 19th. Trump’s surprising victory resulted from the pent-up anger of a white working class that believed the traditional parties had failed to respond to their legitimate economic grievances. Most of all, Trump tapped into the fears of many white voters living in declining industrial towns and rural areas who worried that cultural change and the influx of new immigrants were eroding old norms and threatened their status in society. For example, Trump won by a 2-1 margin those voters who claimed that immigration was the most important problem facing the nation. Clinton won by 11 points among voters who ranked the economy as the top issue.
Trump has shown no signs of abandoning his populist posturing as president. His rhetoric shares the same passion, outrage and sense of grievance that animated the original populists. And, like them, his version oversimplifies problems and demonizes opponents. The vast impersonal forces of urbanization and industrialization that farmers confronted in the 1890s were just as perplexing to them as globalization, growing wealth disparities and massive immigration are to many Americans today.
So far, however, Trump has more in common with the likes of Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace than he does with Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan. Instead of tapping into populism’s powerful language and rich tradition to inspire and motivate people to be part of a movement that is larger than themselves, he has used it to demonize opponents and manipulate public fear for personal aggrandizement. And he has used it to advocate for policies—like his massive tax cut—that do little to benefit the “forgotten” Americans he claims to represent.