The Trump Before Trump
Underfinanced, thinly organized and reviled in the media, the Trump campaign has nonetheless apparently pulled even in some recent polls with Hillary Clinton. Every pundit can itemize the long list of things that Donald Trump has done all wrong throughout this election season—and yet here he is, poised to overcome all dissent at the Republican convention in Cleveland and to run a competitive race afterward.
Trump’s first and strongest advocate in conservative media, the columnist Ann Coulter, has vividly described the radicalism of what has happened: “Trump isn’t a standard-issue GOP, trying to balance the ticket to get his party into power. He’s starting a new party! He’s just blown up the old GOP.”
Dazed and baffled, the old GOP is still struggling to understand how it has reached this point. One way to understand the situation is to look at an unexpected historical parallel: the populist insurgency led by William Jennings Bryan, who was three times—in 1896, 1900 and 1908—the Democratic Party’s candidate for president.
As individuals, the gaudy businessman from New York City and the Great Commoner from the prairies don’t have much in common. But the political movements that they have championed do share much in common—both on the way up and, perhaps, on the way down.
Both men championed constituencies that formerly occupied a position of cultural and political dominance: small farmers in Bryan’s case, the white working class in Trump’s. Both of those constituencies had been economically ravaged for years beforehand: by 20 years of price deflation for the small farmers, by a generation of declining wages for the white working class.
Both men used their communication skills to upend well-established political hierarchies. In 1896, when Bryan won his first presidential nomination, he had just lost a Senate race after serving a mere two terms in the House of Representatives. He was only 36, but his gorgeously theatrical oratory captured the imagination of Democratic audiences, who seethed against the conservative economic policies imposed by a Democratic president, Grover Cleveland. Likewise for Trump, who has defied his party’s consensus on foreign and domestic policy and profited from rank-and-file disgust with an outdated party leadership.
Both candidates came to prominence in times of anger and anxiety. In 1893, the U.S. had plunged into the worst depression in its history to date. In 2016, the U.S. is still struggling to recover from a financial crisis almost a decade old.
Both articulated a critique of an economic system that seemed to favor a powerful and influential few against the exploited many. Both offered exciting, easy-to-understand solutions: in Bryan’s case, replacing the country’s de facto gold standard with the bimetallic silver and gold standard of pre-Civil War days; in Trump’s, immigration restriction plus trade protection. (Bryan also urged freer trade, with an income tax to replace the revenues from tariffs, and stricter regulation of railways and other corporations.)
Both men joined their economic ideas to a cultural message that appalled and frightened their political opponents. Bryan disdained the new urban America: “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms, and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.” Bryan led a party that defined and applied its Jeffersonian ideals for white people only. Trump—well, we all know about that.
Both men horrified elites. Bryan’s advocacy of an income tax appalled the Republicans of the 1890s, who equated “Bryanism” with anarchism and communism. The rising New York politician Theodore Roosevelt earned a job in the next Republican administration by his bloodcurdling denunciations of Bryan’s radicalism. As for Trump’s perceived dangerousness, just consider the world-historical malefactors to whom he is routinely compared.
Both men sought the leadership of political parties on the decline. Democrats had won six of the nine presidential elections from 1828 until the Civil War, but only two of the seven between Appomattox and Bryan’s rise. The Republicans—well, again, we all know about their recent failures at the presidential level.
Both men promised to renew their party by deepening its hold on its core constituency. In the depression of the 1890s, the worst in American history until the 1930s, farmers across the South and West had been lured to new populist third parties and independent political movements. Bryan promised to re-establish Democratic ascendancy by winning them back. Trump has prophesied that he would win “millions and millions” of new voters, including blacks and Latinos, with his “make America great again” message.
Bryan actually kept his promise, recovering for the Democrats more than a million voters who had opted for the Populist and Prohibition parties in 1892. But his achievement came at the price of writing off the industrial states, including traditional Democratic strongholds like New Jersey and Indiana. Trump—well, that one none of us knows, but this week’s more promising polls represent a rare deviation from a long string of ominous survey results for a Trump-led GOP.
In the aftermath of Bryan’s defeat is found the most urgently relevant comparison between the two candidacies. Bryan personally emerged from 1896 a party hero and martyr. He would win two more Democratic nominations and serve as secretary of state in the first Wilson administration, ending his career as a pitchman for Florida real estate.
But the small farmers who looked to him for rescue were politically ruined by his candidacy. Their party would turn its back on their issues, desperately retooling itself in an effort to appeal to voters in the industrial Midwest and North. The post-1896 Democrats made their peace with the gold standard, which was enacted into law in 1900. Henceforth, it would be the factory worker—not the small farmer—whom they most strenuously sought to protect from the excesses of industrial capitalism.
Not until the New Deal would Democrats again put agricultural issues at the center of their program. By then, the small farmers were a broken and bankrupt social class, recipients of compassion and charity from a Democratic Party now strongly based in the ethnically and religiously heterogeneous urban America that had so frightened William Jennings Bryan.
The great irony of 1896 was that Bryan was more right than wrong about his central issues. Milton Friedman convincingly argued in his 1992 book “Money Mischief” that a bimetallic silver-gold standard would have mitigated or even prevented the post-Civil War price deflation. The deflation crushed farm incomes even as farm debt weighed more onerously. Bryan’s other great issue, freer trade, would have enhanced consumer purchasing power at a time when wages were growing slowly.
Instead, Bryan’s repeated political defeats locked the gold standard and protectionism into place for most of the next 35 years. Though no politician could have preserved the farm society of the 19th century, different policies might have eased the hardships of the transition for rural America. A different champion might have secured different policies.
Likewise, Donald Trump is making powerful points, increasingly confirmed by economic research, about the shock to working-class Americans of the trade and immigration policies of the past two decades. Trump has accepted social-insurance programs like Medicare and Social Security more wholeheartedly than any other national Republican in a generation.
But Trump has made those winning points in an aggressively inflammatory language that has repelled women, nonwhites and the college-educated. If Trump should go down to the epic defeat that even many in his own party seem to expect, the outcome could reverberate down the ballot. What then would happen to Trump’s issues—and to the concerns of the white working-class voters who put their faith in him?
Republican senators are itching to revive the bipartisan Gang of Eight immigration approach of 2013, with its various accommodations of the status quo. The congressional Republican Party remains committed to a fiscal agenda that would cut social insurance to finance big upper-income tax cuts. Though more Republicans are making Trump-like noises about opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the party has shown insufficient interest in what can be done to retrain and re-employ those manufacturing workers who have already lost jobs—aside, that is, from offering tax cuts to potential employers.
In the case of a Trump defeat, surviving Republican officeholders and party leaders will find themselves next year absorbing an amazing result: Their historic base among the better-off and better-educated will have overwhelmingly deserted them. Their yearned-for growth in support among more affluent and ambitious nonwhites will have receded still further away. And their newly expanded base among angry and alienated downscale whites will have cast votes for a set of policies repugnant to those theoretically tasked with trying to implement them.
After November, the outlook of the Republican elite may well be captured by the grim joke told by Bertolt Brecht after the 1953 Berlin uprising: “Would it not be simpler if the government simply dissolved the people and elected another?” Like the post-Bryan Democrats who turned for support from Bryan’s Protestant countryside to Al Smith’s Catholic big cities, the post-Trump Republicans may focus their attention on their lost upmarket and hoped-for minority votes and turn their backs on a working-class base that would be assigned the blame for the 2016 debacle.
There would be some fairness in this, but many other culprits are equally or more blameworthy: the right-wing talk-radio hosts and broadcast-media outlets that worked so hard to promote Trump; the self-seeking mainstream candidates who declined to combine against him; the lobbyists and operatives who visibly preferred Trump to Ted Cruz, the last available Republican alternative; the party leaders who invented the orthodoxy of more immigration and less social insurance that has defined the congressional GOP throughout the Obama years—and so many more. But they are too powerful or too central to the party’s institutional identity to be fingered. It will be the voters who take the blame.
It is fascinating now to read the legendarily vicious obituary of Bryan written by H.L. Mencken in 1925. In many ways, Mencken’s politics aligned with Bryan’s. Both had opposed U.S. entry into World War I, for example. But none of that could offset Mencken’s contempt for Bryan’s voters and Bryan himself for representing them: “There was something peculiarly fitting in the fact that his last days were spent in a one-horse Tennessee village, beating off the flies and gnats, and that death found him there. The man felt at home in such simple and Christian scenes. He liked people who sweated freely, and were not debauched by the refinements of the toilet.”
Mencken’s sneers do not make for pleasant reading now. But in 1925, they had members of the self-consciously clever class laughing in much the same smug way that John Oliver makes their moral descendants laugh today at very similar targets.
And perhaps the Trump voters set themselves up for it. Trump has duped them with claims so thin and preposterous that it is hard for the unduped to imagine how it could have been done.
But do they deserve it? Like Bryan’s hard-pressed farmers, the Trump voters are the Americans selected to pay the heaviest cost for the transition from one economic order to another. Not only the heaviest economic cost but the most onerous social cost too: family crackup, addiction, suicide, lost cultural standing, lost political respect, lost deference to their norms and expectations. They have fallen down the stairs. Must the people at the top throw a kick after them?
Bryan’s first defeat coincided with a surge of internecine conflict in the U.S.: lynchings in the South, murderous labor strife in factory and mining towns, the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, a nearly successful attempt on former President Roosevelt in 1912. Great social and economic transitions are dangerous. Generous and inspired leadership can ease them. We’re still waiting for that.