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If Trump and Sanders Are Both Populists, What Does Populist Mean?

Taken at the 09/14 Donald Trump rally at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.

[Crossposted from The American Historian Online.]

Charles Postel is an associate professor of history at San Francisco State University, where he teaches classes on social movements and political thought. He is the author of The Populist Vision (2007).

The headlines tell us that the political campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have opened a new chapter of populist politics. A reporter at the Los Angeles Times writes on “the populist sentiment fueling both the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns.” A pundit at the National Review asks if Sanders and Trump are “two populist peas in a pod?” and answers in the affirmative. His counterpart at the New Yorker analyzes the Sanders and Trump campaigns under the simple heading “The Populists.”[1] These headlines defy ordinary political sense given just how different these two candidates are from each other. Bernie Sanders is one of the longest serving and consistently progressive politicians in the U.S. Congress, and Donald Trump is a reality TV show host and conservative real estate tycoon whose temperamental political compass points towards animosity against immigrants and women. Whether it is policy, style, or temperament, these two candidates make for strange peas in a pod.

Pairing Sanders and Trump indicates just how flexible the term populist has become and poses the question as to whether populist has any useful meaning and if so, what it might be. A good starting point to answer this question would be to trace back to the historical origins of the term. In the early 1890s the People’s party—whose members were known by the quirky nickname Populists, or just Pops—represented a powerful movement against corporate power that demanded solutions to the Gilded Age crisis of inequality. By the measure of this historical legacy, Bernie Sanders looks very much like a populist for the “Second Gilded Age,” both in his diagnosis of and solutions to society’s ills. By the same historical measure, Donald Trump, with his gold-plated jets and mansions, looks very much like the type of plutocrat the Populists held responsible for the injustices and inequities of their time. This suggests that to understand today’s headlines about a populist Trump we need a different historical measure and to examine how some contemporary political commentators have separated the term populist from its origins.

Bernie Sanders CampaignLike Sanders, the Populists called for a political revolution—that is, using the electoral process to create a more humane and equitable society. The Populists believed that corporations held undue influence over elections, the halls of government, and the courts. The resulting injustice meant the destruction of the livelihoods of working people and a rendering of society into a nation of “tramps and millionaires.” As for solutions, much of the Sanders’ campaign webpage reads from the Populist playbook. The Populists proposed electoral reforms to squeeze corruption out of the system and to make government more transparent. They pushed for a progressive income tax to make the wealthy shoulder more of the tax burden. They demanded public control and regulation of banking, railroads, and other key industries. They advocated for government investment and currency expansion to stimulate the economy, create jobs, build infrastructure, and provide relief to debtors. They wanted more public colleges and universities and to have them better serve the needs of working people. The Populists pushed all these issues onto the political agenda more than a century ago—Sanders currently has them at the center of his campaign. And he has even endorsed a Populist classic: turning post offices into banks to make inexpensive and equitable financial services available to those with too little cash to be considered worthy customers by the commercial banks.[2]

In drawing a parallel between Sanders and the Populists it should be kept in mind that the People’s party represented a coalition. Grain and cotton farmers, coal miners, and railroad workers made up its biggest constituencies. The party also attracted a spectrum of middle class activists, from Frances Willard to Clarence Darrow, involved in women’s rights, currency and tax reform, and clean government. Some of these activists called themselves “democratic socialists” much in the same way that Bernie Sanders does today. Henry Demarest Lloyd was such an activist and the similarities between Lloyd and Sanders are striking. Born in New York City and educated at Columbia University, Lloyd became a journalist dedicated to the ethics of social justice. In 1894, the same year he ran as a Populist candidate for Congress, Lloyd published Wealth against Commonwealth, a deeply researched study of how the wealth of Standard Oil and other giant corporations undermined democratic government. Lloyd’s book inspired a generation of “trust busting” reformers who believed that the very size of the corporate giants constituted a threat to the common good.[3] With his refrain about banks being “too big to exist,” Sanders echoes the ethical arguments of Wealth against Commonwealth. But here it should be noted that farm and labor Populists did not fully share Lloyd’s concerns about corporate size. Instead, they often accepted the principle of the economy of scale and focused on building up big institutions—cooperatives, unions, governmental agencies—capable of matching or surpassing the size and power of corporations.

Not everything about the Sanders campaign is a Populist echo. Sanders discusses saving American jobs in ways that suggest a type of protectionism that most Populists viewed as a corporate handout paid for by farmers and consumers. Or consider civil rights. Sanders speaks forcefully about overcoming the country’s history of racial oppression. By contrast, the Populists were silent about this history and complicit in the oppression. At the same time, the People’s party did not rely on white supremacist fervor in the way the Democratic party did in the days of Jim Crow, nor did it traffic in the xenophobic passions that were alive in the Republican party. Much as Sanders has done in his political career, the Populists argued that economic reform was the way to solve racial, ethnic, and sectional friction.

If the Populists of the 1890s shed historical light on the democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders, how do we make sense of the claim that Donald Trump is the other populist in the campaign? Here we need to look at the history of a journalistic practice. In recent years, pundits have promiscuously applied the populist tag to political phenomena that escape easy labels and used populist to describe political appeals that are simply popular. In this regard, Trump can be hard to pin down. His policy positions focus on tax cuts favoring the wealthy and draconic measures against undocumented immigrants and Muslims. Beyond that, he seems to ad lib whatever might prove popular and drive up his poll numbers among Republican primary voters. He trades in racial and ethnic stereotypes, insults against women and the disabled, and opportunistic sniping at various elites among TV personalities, hedge fund managers, and politicians. His targets can seem arbitrary and random. From a historical perspective, however, Trump is continuing a long tradition in American politics—a tradition of appealing for the votes of the “common man” by combining tough talk against malevolent elites with ugly scapegoating of marginalized groups. Andrew Jackson rose to political heights as the slayer of both the “monster bank” and “savage Indians.”  Ronald Reagan demonized both “Hollywood liberals” and “welfare queens.” Trump employs the same political arts to gain popularity and he does so in the scattershot style of the reality TV show host that he is.

Trump’s campaign has drawn comparisons with anti-immigrant and nationalist parties in Europe. Much like Marine Le Pen’s French National Front and Nigel Farage’s U.K. Independence Party, Trump gives voice to xenophobia, anti-Muslim prejudice, and aggrieved nationalism. Such politicians carry the moniker of “right-wing populists” in the European media. Le Pen and Farage are called right-wing because they claim the conservative heritage of the ideological and political right as it has been understood since the days of the French Revolution. And the European media uses the term populist to describe, among other features, how such politicians appeal to the “people” in the face of perceived threats to the nation. By comparison, Trump usually does not speak in the name of the “people” in the same way. He flaunts his billions, sneers at the people who are “losers” and whose wages are “too high,” and promises to make the country “great again” by the sheer power of his wealth and business acumen. Moreover, somewhat ironically, unlike Le Pen and Farage, Trump does not have deep roots in right-wing or conservative politics. But that is changing.[4]

In the course of his campaign, Trump has been steadily moving towards the conservative orthodoxy demanded by many of today’s Republicans. By seeking the Republican nomination, he has had to adhere to most of the conservative principles with which most voters in Republican primaries align. This points to another journalistic practice. In recent years, even when politicians declare themselves conservatives and that easy label fits best, commentators often prefer to use the adjective populist instead. They may do this because the current ambiguity of the term provides a bit of protection from charges of ideological bias. Or the term may have cachet that attracts clicks and sells papers. Whatever the rationale, the pundits who insist that today’s self-described conservatives are really populists are reprising an argument that the historian Richard Hofstadter made sixty years ago. Their likely point of reference is Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform (1955), in which he speculated that the conservative paranoia and witch-hunts of Joseph McCarthy had their roots in the Populist movement of the 1890s. According to Hofstadter, the Populists embraced irrational myths of the past and unreasoned grievances about the present. As a result, he explained, the Populist tradition was unstable, easily shifting from left to right, and thereby “soured” into the intolerance and “cranky pseudo-conservatism” of the 1950s.[5]

In the American context, Hofstadter’s thesis of an unstable Populism of the 1890s going “sour” continues to inform journalistic practice. In a 2015 issue of the New Yorker, George Packer writes that Sanders and Trump fit the pattern of “the volatile nature of populism” that “can ignite reform or reaction, idealism or scapegoating.” He cites as evidence that the Populist Tom Watson of Georgia ended his political career as a racial demagogue. But what if Watson was more of the exception than the rule?[6] What if—as more than half a century of historical scholarship has confirmed and reconfirmed—the great majority of former Populist leaders, activists, and supporters went to their graves committed to their ideals of social justice? Clarence Darrow, like many former Populists, found a political home in the farmer-labor wing of the Democratic party. Others, like Mary Elizabeth Lease, the “Queen of Kansas Populism,” did the same in the progressive wing of the Republican party. Still others took the path of Henry Demarest Lloyd and joined the Socialist movement led by the former labor Populist Eugene V. Debs, the same Debs whose picture hangs on the wall of Bernie Sanders’s Washington office.

As the decades roll along, the journalistic claims about populist volatility and shape-shifting sound increasingly strange. The political thought that motivated the original Populists has proven to be at least as constant as any other school of political ideas. in its proposals for making a more just and equitable society and under a variety of names—antimonopolist, farmer-labor, populist, democratic socialist, nonpartisan, progressive— populism has remained a steady, deep, and broad stream in American political thought. As of this writing, this stream shows no sign of jumping its banks and turning to the far right, any more than Bernie Sanders is about to sport an orange comb-over and campaign for a new round of tax cuts for the “winners” and billionaires.

[1] Kathleen Hennessey, “The Populist Sentiment Fueling Both the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump Campaigns,” Los Angeles Times, August 14, 2015; Johan Goldberg, “Sanders and Trump: Two Populist Peas in a Pod?” National Review, August 19, 2015; George Packer, “The Populists,” New Yorker, September 7, 2015.

[2] Joe Pinsker, “Bernie Sanders’s Highly Sensible Plan to Turn Post Offices into Banks,” The Atlantic, October 20, 2015.

[3] Chester McArthur Destler, “Wealth against Commonwealth, 1894 and 1944,” American Historical Review, 50 (October 1944), 49–72.

[4] Cas Mudde, “The Trump Phenomenon and the European Populist Radical Right,” The Washington Post, August 26, 2015.

[5] Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (New York, 1955), 20.

[6] Walter T. K. Nugent, The Tolerant Populists: Kansas Populism and Nativism (Chicago, 1963); Michael P. Rogin, The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter (Cambridge, Mass., 1967); James R. Green, Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895–1943 (Baton Rouge, 1978).