American Populism Through the Ages

Trump's people-first platform is consistent, not inconsistent, with American history

It has been often said the ultimate value of conservatism and populism is to question authority, to question the status quo, and to move away from corrupting “bigness” and move back toward the citizenry. Sometimes the Democratic Party runs against the corrupt status quo, as did FDR, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Other times, the Republican Party does, as with Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan.

This time, Donald J. Trump ran on a platform of anti-corruption, anti-Washington and anti-Bigness.

Good presidents ignore the prattling of the elitist media, from Jefferson right up to Reagan. Trump would be well advised to put down The New York Times and The Washington Post and pick up and read his mail instead.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat said that Trump’s platform and appeal to the people “is like nothing we have seen before — a shatterer of all norms and conventional assumptions, a man more likely to fail catastrophically than other presidents, more constitutionally dangerous than other presidents, but also more likely to carry us into a different political era, a post-neoliberal, post-end-of-history politics, than any other imaginable president.” Douthat is wrong.

In what is perhaps the most upset election of American history, the experts, the media, the pollsters, all were proven wrong by the American people and the American electorate.

Trump represents much — not all but much — that American conservatism had strived for over the years. An outsider who has a skeptical view of not just the government establishment, but the importance of conservative judges and conservative members of the cabinet in order to restrain government. A survey of history shows that Trump is not a detour, but consistent with American presidential tradition.

Are you embarrassed that Joe Biden is our "president"?

Thomas Jefferson
The author of the Declaration of Independence was of course a figure skeptical of the government. The Declaration itself said this. “In the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

This was not a new view for Jefferson, either. His tract, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” published in 1774, stated that “history has informed us that bodies of men, as well as individuals, are susceptible of the spirit of tyranny” and that “there are extraordinary situations which require extraordinary interposition. An exasperated people, who feel that they possess power, are not easily restrained within limits strictly regular.” The tract was instrumental in forming the Declaration, as it flat-out said that Britain cannot and should not rule the Colonies.

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The American Revolution was, first of all, a revolution for the people. It was to establish a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” to quote Abraham Lincoln’s address to Gettysburg in 1863. Only then, with these conditions, would that government “not perish on earth.” Indeed, Jefferson, in a letter in 1790 to Gilbert du Montier, marquis de Lafeyette, said, “We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a featherbed.”

Andrew Jackson
If everything had gone the way he wanted, Andrew Jackson, hero of the War of 1812 who was president for two terms 1829 to 1837, should have been president four years earlier.

The presidential election of 1824 was noted for being one of the biggest upsets in early American history. Running against former Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, former Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford, and Speaker of the House Henry Clay, Jackson was none too pleased at the results. Of the 261 electoral votes in the United States, 131 were needed to secure the required majority to win the presidency. When the results came in, Jackson had 99 electoral votes, Adams had 84, Crawford had 41, and Clay had 37. Though Jackson won the most, all of the candidates came up short of the required needed. In terms of number of states and popular vote, Jackson won both as well, carrying 12 of the total 24 states (Adams received 7), and 41 percent of the popular vote — Adams received 30 percent of the popular vote.

So, as per the Constitution, the election went to the House of Representatives. It seemed obvious that Jackson would win. He received the most electoral votes, the most states, and the most popular votes.

The House elected Adams.

Henry Clay, the failed candidate, was speaker at the time,and used his influence to sway the states to instead vote for Jackson.

Jackson considered it an outright betrayal and the corruption of the insiders. He let it known, too. “So you see,” he wrote in a letter, referring to Clay, he “has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver … Was there ever witnessed such a bare-faced corruption in any country before?”

This went down in history as the “Corrupt Bargain,” and changed Jackson’s view. Ten days after the election, he said, “I weep for the liberty of my country. The rights of the people have been bartered for promises of office.” Adding insult to injury was the fact that some states, such as Kentucky and Ohio, had virtually no popular vote for Adams, yet their electors chose him in the House.

In 1828, running against the monied banking interests and the Corrupt Bargain of four years earlier, Jackson the Democrat won. By the way, Jackson was also vulgar, calling Adams, among other things, a gambler.

Teddy Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt is known to modern culture for his tough and heroic qualities. It’s become an internet trend to reference his hardiness. If any man wants to emulate the pinnacle of presidential masculinity, it’s said, look to Teddy.

“We are standing for the great fundamental rights upon which all successful free government must be based,” said Roosevelt.

And he supported populism. And was an educated, Ivy League and rich elitist, all at the same time.

Teddy supported former House Representative Thomas E. Watson’s vice presidential bid in 1896, saying, “Mr. Watson belongs to that school of southern Populists who honestly believe that the respectable and commonplace people who own banks, railroads, dry goods stores, factories, and the like, are persons of mental and social attributes that unpleasantly distinguish Heliogabalus, Nero, Caligula, and other worthies of later Rome.”

When it came to Teddy’s own attempt at reelection in 1912 — he lost the nomination to President William Howard Taft the Republican Party — he did a huge “screw you” to the collective establishment and formed his own party, called the Progressive Party and nicknamed the Bull Moose Party. Roosevelt brought to the election an anti-establishment policy. His speech at the Progressive Party convention in Chicago, in June of 1912, opened with that very theme:

My friends and fellow citizens:
I address you as my fellow Republicans, but I also and primarily address you as fellow Americans, fellow citizens, for this has now become much more than an ordinary party fight. The issue is both simpler and larger than that involved in the personality of any man, or than that involved in any factional or in any ordinary party contest. We are standing for the great fundamental rights upon which all successful free government must be based. We are standing for elementary decency in politics. We are fighting for honesty against naked robbery; and where robbery is concerned the all-important question is not the identity of the man robbed, but the crime itself.

The policy and platform worked: Come election night, the brand new party of populism received more popular votes, more states, and more electoral votes than the establishment of the Republican Party. Because of the split, however, Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson won the election.

Ronald Reagan
Ronald Wilson Reagan, the Republican President who presided over the defeat of Soviet communism, also ran on a populist, anti-corruption, anti-bigness message.

Winning the presidential election against incumbent president Jimmy Carter of Georgia was no easy feat. He had to show his age was not a defeating issue, his conservatism was a good issue, his experience was an enabling issue. But the American people looked past all of that, in the end, and looked at his policies.

During the single debate with Carter, a week before the election, Reagan ended with a message that reverberated in many American households: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago? … if you don’t think that this course that we’ve been on for the last four years is what you would like to see us follow for the next four, then I could suggest another choice that you have.” It worked; according to Gallup polling, before the debate, Carter was ahead by 8 percent; immediately after the debate on October 28, 1980, the Gipper received an 11 percent surge in support, putting him ahead by 3 percent. By the next week, the official numbers showed that Reagan beat Carter by nearly 10 percent in the popular vote.

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Reagan, two months into his presidency, speaking at a dinner to the Conservative Political Action Committee on March 20, said how much Frank Meyer, political philosopher most known for his libertarianism, inspired his own view: “robust individualism of the American experience was part of the deeper current of Western learning and culture.”

Reagan defined the conservative movement, turning a dying party into a party of American liberties, American freedom, and American individualism, away from big government dependency and bureaucratic red tape and corruption. After all, he really was a man of the Midwest.

Donald Trump
Now comes President-Elect Donald J. Trump. The 2016 presidential race is being called the Brexit of America, both for the shocking results and for the similarity in tone and of platforms.

While his background is not like an everyday American, Trump certainly speaks like one. His entire platform, and indeed his slogan “Make America Great Again,” appeals to the everyday man and woman who had been disenfranchised or affected by the Administration under President Obama and the collusion between big government and big corporations. The factory workers of Michigan who had jobs taken to Mexico or China, the coal workers in West Virginia, who have seen elitist solar subsidies make their jobs obsolete, the policemen all across who have had to deal with an increasingly divisive president on race issues: all these groups, and more, have looked to Trump as the ultimate Anti-Establishment Candidate. Trump is perhaps the first major candidate in American history to use Twitter — a normal, everyday social media program — to run his campaign. We would see more tweets than official press releases from him during any given time.

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His tweet about needing “to #DrainTheSwamp in DC” struck a chord with many. They recognized that the past eight years — some would say the past 16 years — were nothing but bureaucratic after bureaucratic, corrupt after corrupt, hateful after hateful policies coming from the nation’s capital. What should be the people leading the government instead became the government leading themselves. And so, Trump promised to “drain the swamp.” While the phrase for American politics did not originate with the Republican candidate, it certainly appealed to the working, everyday American.

Good presidents ignore the prattling of the elitist media, from Jefferson right up to Reagan. Trump would be well advised to put down The New York Times and The Washington Post and pick up and read his mail instead. He will gain a greater insight into this country reading just one day’s batch of letters than he will in all the issues of these left-wing, elitist and anti-citizen rags.

Ultimately, the first rule of the bureaucracy is to defend the bureaucracy, and the odds for Trump to drain the swamp are low. Nonetheless, sunlight is the best disinfectant, and at the very least, centralized corrupt oligarchies are on trial again — just as the Founders and Framers intended.

Craig Shirley is a New York Times bestselling author and a leading Ronald Reagan biographer, having written four books on the 40th president. Scott Mauer, Mr. Shirley’s research aide, assisted with this article.

Craig Shirley
meet the author

Craig Shirley is a presidential historian and Reagan biographer. He's written four books on Ronald Reagan, is working on several more, and is the author of the New York Times best-seller, "December 1941." His newest book is "Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington’s Mother," just published in December 2019. He is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College in Illinois and has taught courses on Reagan at the University of Virginia.

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