Of all the misguided clichés applied to President Donald Trump, maybe the most egregious is the term “populist.” Whether or not the president even has a coherent worldview beyond toggling between hedonism and resentment, it’s easy to see how consciously and consistently crass, petty, ignorant, and arrogant he is, which makes him seem more like your everyday barroom blowhard than a dignified statesman. Yet millions of voters consistently assume that his faults are actually what make him relatable, a man of the people.
There’s a certain snobbery in calling a boob like Trump a populist, because it not so subtly implies that self-governance is wasted on people who vote for him. If this is the people’s champion, so the reasoning goes, then maybe we the people aren’t really meant to call the shots after all. Be honest—who among us hasn’t felt that way, at one time or another, in the last four years?
There’s certainly no denying that the term populism has taken a beating lately, its definition so mauled and devalued that the word is now barely more than a synonym for bottom-feeding.
And that really pisses off Thomas Frank, the journalist and political historian. “Populism and fake populism have been the themes of my entire writing career,” Frank said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “When the word started being used as a synonym for ‘racist authoritarianism’ it really ticked me off. I had to investigate how that happened.”
Frank is best known for his 2004 bestseller What’s the Matter With Kansas? There he analyzed one of the biggest and most persistent ironies in modern politics: why the very people who have so little to gain from Republican policies keep resolutely voting Republican politicians into office. Frank suggests that the answer is a case of identity politics gone awry: rail against those out-of-touch Washington elites or East coast sophisticates and end up with tax cuts for the fantastically wealthy and crumbling public schools.
Frank, a proud progressive hailing from the Midwest, argues that there are in fact deeply progressive traditions that go overlooked amid the latest culture war kerfuffle. In his latest book The People, No, Frank examines what grassroots prairie populism was and what it was not, how it was thwarted at the ballot box, and why it’s worth saving today.
Contradicting the accusations from elites both then and now, Frank demonstrates that the 19th century Populists (he refers to them as the Pops) were often people who understood economics from lived experience. He broke down for me what the Pops understood that their contemporaries didn’t: “Number one, that economic rules are not handed down by God. Number two, that ordinary people have as much right to make demands on the government as do, say, railroad corporations. Number three, that concentration of wealth and political corruption go hand in hand.”
Evidently, a century later, even those fairly simple but potent observations are lost, or more likely ignored, by a majority in Congress.
The original Pops were largely rural farmers, tradesmen, and small business owners who started seriously discussing how to make their concerns heard. It wasn’t all crazy talk, either. As Frank points out, “Many of Populism’s causes are familiar to us today: the regulation of monopolies, the income tax, the initiative and referendum, the direct election of senators.”
If these ideas sound pretty commonsensical now, then credit is due to the egalitarian, community-minded Populists. A footnote in The People, No explains that “before the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, senators were chosen by state legislatures.” It’s good to be reminded of this slightly disturbing fact, especially when issues of proportional representation are being hotly debated. Some of the other items on the agenda might be a little dated in today’s terms, such as the demand for “free silver” over the gold standard, but insisting on government control of currency and the railroads, as well as rooting out political corruption, are notions that don’t sound that far out today, when otherwise arcane terms like Late Capitalism are getting traction.
Far from being no more than a case of “the great unwashed” getting unruly, the Pops were deeply concerned with economic justice, internationalism, and accessible education for its own sake. The goal was to lift otherwise neglected communities through improving the material and intellectual living standards whenever possible. They were far less concerned with hot-button, culture war issues of their time like Prohibition and took an open-minded perspective on social policy—“for the most part they refrained from denouncing ordinary people for their bad values” Frank points out. “They regarded many of the controversies of the day as traps or distractions.” This might be a useful thing for activists and organizers to keep in mind, as it often seems like the left wastes energy painstakingly debating the next hot button issue.
Naturally, this assertion of equal rights and equal worth rankled the well-heeled. “To prosperous Americans of the Gilded Age,” Frank writes, “it was inconceivable that intelligent human beings would wish to crack down on banks or ditch the gold standard… populist grievances were irrational by definition.”
Mark Hanna, a Republican strategist who happens to be Karl Rove’s political hero, believed that “some men must rule; the great mass of men must be ruled.” Hanna took it upon himself to thwart the Populist candidate William Jennings Bryan’s chances in the 1896 presidential election by “crushing Bryan under a mountain of money.”
Not unlike today’s world of dark money and unaccountable mega-donors, the Republicans got to work raising fear and alarm nationwide and putting their money behind the hysteria. Hanna raised gobs of cash anywhere he could find and spread fear and misinformation whenever possible. As one historian put it, “moral enthusiasm was to be beaten at every point in the line by a machinelike domination of the actual polling.” It worked; William McKinley won by a solid margin.
It’s so much easier to assume that ordinary people don’t have what it takes to govern themselves when you see them as caricatures. The People, No includes a vivid and amusing gallery of anti-populist cartoons from the period which appeared in popular journals, depicting the Pops as demented rabble-rousers bent on utter destruction. In one, the Pops are portrayed as a gaunt, wild-eyed ruffian who wears a tattered cape with “populism” on the side, glaring threateningly at the swells in top hats and tails, clenching a knife labeled “murder” in one hand and a flaming torch labeled “ruin” in the other. On his head is a French Revolution-style stocking cap (red, of course) that reads “anarchy.” Some things never change.
Another more explicitly xenophobic cartoon ties the Pops to the fear of the lethal immigrant: a white-clad American lady lies dead after being stabbed by a swarthy “assassin” who is clearly intended to be a dangerous Other. William Jennings Bryan is depicted as Satan himself—an especially ironic insult given that Bryan was actually a devout Christian who famously argued the prosecution’s fundamentalist position in the infamous 1925 Scopes “monkey“ trial. The connection between Christian piety and progressive values has been overshadowed these days, but it doesn’t have to be—another unnecessary victim of the culture wars.
Frank connects historical dots between the Populists’ fervor for equality and FDR’s New Deal and forward to the civil fights movement, another important link in the populist tradition. Martin Luther King Jr. is often hailed for his commitment to racial equality and pacifism, but his commitment to economic equality was every bit as fierce. King’s mantra that “all labor has dignity” is described as “an expression that could have come straight out of a Populist manifesto circa 1891.”
The great civil Rights organizer Bayard Rustin believed that lower-middle-class whites can go either way politically, depending on how issues are framed. Frank thinks that in today’s political landscape “this is the real swing vote in America, even though the opinion cartel doesn’t want to discuss it (for the usual self-interested reasons). Talk to these people and you’ll find they can be downright radical on economic issues.”
In recent decades, the left has turned inward. The politics of identity, endorsed by the New Left emphasis on race, gender, and sexuality—creating the motto “the personal is political”—began to replace the more class-based solidarity of yesteryear. Experts and managers and academics became the new liberal vanguard. This caused, Frank says, a historical backlash: “Elitist was the word used to describe emerging centrist liberalism; a stylish politics for people bedazzled by experts but contemptuous toward their blue-collar countrymen.”
Frank cites the end of Easy Rider, where Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s freewheeling young hippies are shot dead in cold blood by two rednecks in a pick-up truck, as an example of the cultural gap that began to widen in the ’60s. Those palookas didn’t necessarily need to be the enemy—their working-class dads had probably voted for FDR four times in a row. The same could be said of the famous scene in Five Easy Pieces where Jack Nicholson berates the diner waitress, who was probably living on tips and just trying to get through a long shift. Not exactly sticking it to The Man.
The right hasn’t changed its general economic policy much since the Gilded Age. When asked why they seem to be better at playing pretend populism, Frank points out that “they are totally cynical. They have seen their opportunities and they have taken them.” We are all still reeling from how faux folksy types like Reagan and George W. Bush aped the Populist style while legislating the opposite way.
As for today’s Democratic Party, Frank thinks it “needs to focus on bringing together working people across the board. With the right issues you could easily assemble massive coalitions that would easily overwhelm the GOP. Make it easy to form labor unions again. You can’t have a left without a mass movement behind it.” Certainly the issues that animated the Populist tradition over a century ago are still as urgently relevant as ever. Maybe that urgency has reached a breakthrough point thanks to the perpetual incompetence and venality of Washington’s status quo. But if so, it will be up to the voters, otherwise known as the People, to make it happen.