Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023
Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023. St...
Friday, August 05, 2016
Who is Trump? An historical view
Much of our punditry and political leadership still seems to be in denial about the nomination of Donald Trump. Republicans talk of an "intervention" to turn him into a respectable candidate, and one story after another, all evidently made out of whole cloth, speculates about his withdrawal from the race. While it is beginning to look as though he will in fact be soundly defeated, we must still face the fact that he commands the support of a large majority of our white population and over 40% of the nation as a whole. Meanwhile, people search for analogies to this phenomenon--of which there are, frankly, none. Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate in 1940, was, like Trump, a businessman who had not run for office, but he had been chosen by the Republican eastern establishment as an alternative to conservative candidates from the Midwest. Barry Goldwater comes closer, but he was part of a broad conservative movement in a way that Trump is not. I shall pass over other possible analogies for the moment--except for the one upon which I want to focus. In my opinion, the closest analogy to the Trump phenomenon--with respect to the source of its appeal, the areas of the country in which it is popular, and, very likely, in its impact--is the 1896 campaign of William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat, who was soundly defeated in the balloting by William McKinley of Ohio, a Republican.
There were, to be sure, various ways in which 1896 differed very much from 2016. Bryan, to begin with, belonged to the party in power--but he was the Bernie Sanders of his day, running against establishment Democrats such as President Grover Cleveland, who was then finishing the second of his two non-consecutive terms (1885-1889 and 1893-97.) The country was in the midst of severe economic crisis that had begun three years before, not the kind of long-term stagnation that we face today. Bryan was a very young politician--he turned 36 in 1896, by far the youngest major-party candidate in history--rather than an aging businessman. Yet both of them appealed to the same kinds of class resentments, and both of them stood explicitly as foes of economic orthodoxy and the effects of world trade. And both appealed to the same parts of the country: the South, and the plains and mountain states.
The late nineteenth century was, like the early 21st, a deflationary period in economics. Both prices and wages were falling, driven down by agricultural surpluses and cheap labor, which in those days was entering the United States, not taking away jobs abroad. The vast farm population, still regarded as the backbone of America, was hit especially hard, because it could was finding it harder and harder to afford the credit farmers needed every year in anticipation of the harvest. They were rather in the situation of underwater mortgage holders, although they were far more politically powerful. The radical solution to the nation's ills was the inflation of the currency, to be accomplished by a massive coinage of silver. That, it was thought, would reduce value of debts, while increasing wages and prices. The opposite view, represented by President Cleveland and most of the Republican Party, held to the gold standard and "sound money." That was the establishment position the world over, and especially in the world's financial capital, London. To the Establishment, free silver seemed as subversive and disastrous as Trump's protectionist ideas seem today. It would force the United States inward, taking it away from the world economy, and threaten chaos. The nation's press lined up behind McKinley, just as our punditry is abandoning Trump today.
William Jennings Bryan resembled Donald Trump in one respect: he built up his campaign singlehandedly, coming out of nowhere to become a major party nominee. He did so by rallying free silver forces all over the South and Midwest. There were of course no radio or television debates in those days, but there were national conventions, gatherings of party activists and leading state and national officials who autonomously chose their nominees. When the Democrats met in Chicago, Bryan took the convention by storm, delivering his famous "cross of gold" speech during a debate on the platform. Bryan was helped, like Trump, by a terrible vacuum in the leadership of his party. I consider myself relatively well versed in the history of American politics, but I could not tell you anything about R. P. Bland, Henry M. Teller, David B. Hill, and Henry M. Teller, Bryan's losing opponents in the balloting for the nomination. In another 130 years, I suspect it will be equally hard to find anyone who can identify Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, or Ted Cruz. The political fervor in the South and West was all anti-establishment, and some of it went into other parties, such as the populist People's Party, which endorsed Bryan.
In a sense, my comparison of Bryan to Trump is unfair to Bryan. He had both a coherent program--whether or not it might have worked--and a sincere feeling for the less well off members of American society. Trump has neither. But both are appealing to southerners and westerners who feel profoundly alienated from our economic establishment, and with good reason. Bryan, like Trump, argued for the adoption of his policies no matter what the rest of the world thought--he argued that Britain would have to adopt some form of "free silver" too, if the United States did so. Trump is the first candidate to have come to popular attention through television; Bryan became the first to run a national campaign tour. Both came out of nowhere, and threw a terrible scare into the establishment, both of the other party and their own. The Democrats had a substantial cadre of northeastern poltiicians who remained committed to conservative politics and the gold standard, and many of them--like more and more northeastern Republicans today--refused to back their candidate.
William McKinley, the Governor of Ohio and former Congressman who secured the Republican nomination, was, like Hillary Clinton, a devoted party loyalist and a pillar of the establishment, represented by his patron and campaign manager, Mark Hanna. Just as Clinton essentially endorses the economic course we have been on for the last 25 years or so--while promising, of course, to alleviate some of the hardship it has created--McKinley stood for sound money and good establishment principles. Cheap money and inflation, he argued, would hurt everyone, especially workers--and apparently, most workers agreed with him. McKinley successfully painted Bryan as a wild, fringe candidate in both the north and the midwest--and, crucially, brought about a major political realignment as a result.
In 1896, national politics had been balanced on a knife edge for 20 years. After the disputed election of 1876--in which the Republicans had managed to maneuver Rutherford B. Hayes, the real loser in the voting, into office--three extremely close elections had followed, one won by the Democrats and two by the Republicans. Every election result from 1876 through 1888 depended on the votes of one state, hotly contested New York. In 1892, Cleveland, running for the third time in a row, had won a more impressive victory, adding most of the Midwest to New York and the entire Democratic South. We too live in an era of relatively close elections. George Bush also would have been defeated in either 2000 or 2004 if a single state had gone the other way, Barack Obama won re-election in 2012 with just 51.1% of the vote.
As it turned out, Bryan's campaign was a disaster for the Democratic Party in both the short run and the long. In November 1896, the states of New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin all shifted from the Democrats to the Republicans. McKinley won with 271 electoral votes to 176. And thus began an era of four consecutive presidential elections in which the Republican Party was never seriously challenged. Bryan remained a hero to the party faithful throughout, running again in 1900 and 1908, but without ever coming close to victory. Only its split, in 1912, into Taft and Roosevelt factions, allowed Woodrow Wilson to win the White House with a substantial minority of the popular vote. After Wilson was re-elected by the narrowest of margins in 1916, the Republicans won three more landslide victories from 1920 through 1928. By 1932, when FDR won the first of four terms, the Democrats had a whole new constituency--the immigrant masses of northern cities--to add to their southern base.
Will Trump, in this respect, mirror Bryan's impact on national politics? The political establishment, now represented by Hillary Clinton, is weaker today than in 1896. The Republicans had no trouble picking a safe, uncontroversial candidate then--and Clinton remains very controversial and disliked by many. But Clinton, like McKinley, may well combine the centrist wing of the opposition party with her own base and win a smashing victory. The Republican party's base of disaffected white voters will continue to shrink.
To Democrats like myself who favored Bernie Sanders, this would be a welcome, but not inspiring outcome. The economic grievances of Trump's voters are very real, and the establishment--including Clinton--is disconnected from the public at large. Yet to compare Trump to Bryan also reveals how low American politics have sunk. Bryan was a brilliant wordsmith and orator, a highly intelligent man, and--despite the reputation he earned fighting against evolution--a serious and principled thinker. Trump is none of these things. The 1890s were still an age of print, and politicians needed literary skills that have become quite unnecessary. In the coming weeks we shall find whether Trump is destined to share Bryan's fate--and whether we are destined to continue for decades more in our age of inequality.