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If you’re a liberal Democrat who believes the government should help the common person, you are the ideological child of William Jennings Bryan. His 1896 presidential campaign took the then laissez-faire Democrats (championed by Democratic President Grover Cleveland, who declared, in 1887, “I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering”) and put them behind unions, progressive taxation and easy money to help debtors. That year, both the Democrats and the Populist party nominated Bryan.
This political DNA may discomfort progressives who know their history, however. Bryan was not only an evolution-denying fundamentalist, but his losing campaign coddled Southern racists. Many of those common men in Dixie were white supremacists, and Bryan needed their votes.
Donald Trump and too many of his legions continue populism’s bigoted heritage; the thinly camouflaged discrimination that led courts to halt his first travel ban is just the latest example. But where Bryan at least touted policies to help the needy, Trump represents the dregs of populism, adding plutocratic preferences to prejudice. And that may prove to be his undoing.
Donald Trump and too many of his legions continue populism’s bigoted heritage; the thinly camouflaged discrimination that led courts to halt his first travel ban is just the latest example.
No question, the president talks a good game. “For too long,” he preached in his inaugural address, “a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished — but the people did not share in its wealth... The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”
Except in the rooms where they write laws, that is. Trump mostly supports House Republicans’ Obamacare replacement that would benefit the well-off more than the needy, 24 million of whom would be punted off the insurance rolls. Don’t take my word for it: At least four Republican senators agree.
Or take taxes. Trump’s reform plan offers standard-issue cuts for the wealthy, which smart conservatives know are irrelevant today. As conservative commentator David Brooks put in in The New York Times, “You’ve got millions of people growing up in social and cultural chaos and not getting the skills they need to thrive in a technological society. This is not a problem you can solve with tax cuts."
The one Trump idea that could generate jobs, a massive infrastructure upgrade, seems to be on hold until next year.
Bryan isn’t the only Trump forebear who wouldn’t recognize plutocratic populism. In the 20th century, Huey Long donned and doffed racism as easily as underwear, but he was pretty consistent in wanting to soak the rich. Thirty years later, George Wallace pimped segregation, but as Alabama governor, he invested in schools and assistance for the poor.
Trump is more in the vein of Andrew Jackson, our first populist president, who married racism (exemplified by his forced death march of 15,000 Cherokees off their lands) to economics that screwed commoners. Jackson’s closing of the national bank, forerunner of the Federal Reserve, left the government unable to pump out credit during depressions.
Populists like Trump and like-minded Republicans also reject the legacy of conservatives. In Europe and the United States, men who were non-socialists or virulent anti-socialists — such as Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Disraeli and Otto von Bismarck -- pioneered the welfare state.
Some analysts think that by letting his working-class base eat cake, the president may steer the GOP into a political ditch. “Not surprisingly,” writes conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, “when Americans see how [populism] works in practice, they recoil against the mean-spirited anti-immigrant measures, an alliance with anti-democratic kleptocrats” — read: Vladimir Putin — "and the reverse Robin Hood schemes that widen the inequality gap.”
If Trump’s promise to help the forgotten people falls victim to amnesia, it may take more than a popular-vote minority and the idiosyncrasies of the Electoral College to keep his brand of populism in power.
Republican fractures, including over health care and tax plans, remind one political scientist of how the Whig Party died before the Civil War. The Whigs sundered over slavery, which seems a more primal matter than the GOP’s current divisions, important as those are. It’s also true that elite pundits didn’t see Trump’s election coming, so it’s fair to take any of their crystal-balling skeptically, especially with some Trump diehards standing by their man. According to a December poll, more than half of Republicans believe Trump won last November’s popular vote.
But are those supporters a more reliable barometer of public opinion? Such willful denial of reality can drive elections now and then, but not the arc of history. If Trump’s promise to help the forgotten people falls victim to amnesia, it may take more than a popular-vote minority and the idiosyncrasies of the Electoral College to keep his brand of populism in power.