Tracing the Roots of a Modern Populism

Tracing the Roots of a Modern Populism
AP Photo/Matt York, File
Story Stream
recent articles

VIENNA, Ohio - Frank Bellamy didn't realize he was getting caught up in a populist movement when he started paying attention last July to what Donald Trump said.

“I just knew that I felt as though he was speaking to me, about my pursuit of the American dream,” Bellamy said.

The black businessman, 62, stood in a crowd of several thousand people at a Mahoning Valley airport hangar with daughter Francesca, 11, waiting to hear the billionaire businessman speak.

All around him, very happy Trump supporters shared his enthusiasm. The anger that became a hallmark of recent Trump events infiltrated by protesters was absent. But that clearly was not true of this crowd's populist fervor.

Populism has been part of American politics almost since the country's beginnings.

In fact, it was a common characteristic of Democratic Party politics for ages. President Andrew Jackson famously invited a mob of supporters into the White House to celebrate his inauguration in 1829; table china was broken, furniture ruined and a huge block of cheese eaten (really).

Certainly, this represents a kind of populism.

The heyday of the Democrats' populism occurred at the turn of the 20th century when William Jennings Bryan co-opted the People's Party platform. Bryan's fiery “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democrats' 1896 convention in Chicago was populist to the core; it propelled Bryan to the top of the party's presidential ticket that year. He lost that election, just as he lost the elections of 1900 and 1908 when he again was the Democrats' standard-bearer.

So, populists have been nominated for president before by major political parties. They've just never won. Not yet.

Political scientist John Gerring suggests that Democrats did not shift away from their historic populist orientation until 1952. This, of course, followed the “Dixiecrat” populist rebellion of 1948 and preceded George Wallace's populist-oriented revolt from the party in 1968.

Given that politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, the Republican Party began integrating populist themes into its anti-statist worldview in the 1970s, according to Baylor University political science professor Curt Nichols: “This was a time when the Supreme Court was ruling against school prayer and for abortion. As one adviser of the time noted, ‘All things Catholic are good politics for Republicans.' ”

The outcome was unavoidable: Populist-based appeals ensued.

One can see populist anti-intellectualism seeping into GOP politics during Nixon's presidency, as his administration railed against its critics in “ivory towers,” the mainstream press and other “nattering nabobs of negativity,” Nichols recalled.

When the Democratic Party abandoned blue-collar workers during the Clinton administration, through its championing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the stage was set for Republicans to capture that constituency.

Yet, nothing really happened. Until Donald Trump.

It would have been bizarre for Republicans not to have become more populist in seeking the full support of working-class whites as Trump has done, Nichols said. “This does not, however, mean that Trump's particular brand of populism was inevitable.”

By refusing to alter its governing philosophy and to give the country a moderate, principled populist vision, as Andrew Jackson did, the Republican Party has unwittingly contributed to the making of Trump's alternative form of populism.

At the Mahoning Valley airport rally, Frank Bellamy said Trump's message was absorbed by so many of the people he knows but he understands others might be turned off by it.

“Look, we've listened to flowery speeches that have no meaning from politicians for years,” he said. “Certainly, it is worth understanding that the opposite would become appealing if the pretty speeches are just that — pretty, but they don't deliver.”

And as for reporters and pundits and the political class all making fun of Trump, well, Bellamy said what they are doing in reality is making fun of the people who support them — “and they scratch their heads and wonder why folks have had enough.”

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at
Show commentsHide Comments