In The New Republic, Jeet Heer says that Donald Trump is not a populist, he’s “the voice of aggrieved privilege—of those who already are doing well but feel threatened by social change from below, whether in the form of Hispanic immigrants or uppity women.” Or the voice of the white American man enraged at the possibility he might lose his ill-gotten privilege. Heer doesn’t use the f-word, but it’s the elephant in the room.
For the alleged misunderstanding of Trumpism as “populism,” Heer blames the historian Richard Hofstadter, who in the middle 1950s explained he was interested in “that side of Populism” that sounded to Hofstadter a lot like McCarthyism. Hofstadter was right: there was a side of Populism, and not a trivial side, that sounded like McCarthyism—and Trumpism too.
The Populists, or People’s Party, of the US supported nationalization of railroads and a progressive income tax in the 1890s. You can read about it in the Omaha Platform they composed—where you can also read that the Populists supported keeping out immigrants who competed with American workers for jobs:
we condemn the fallacy of protecting American labor under the present system, which opens our ports to the pauper and criminal classes of the world and crowds out our wage-earners; and we denounce the present ineffective laws against contract labor, and demand the further restriction of undesirable emigration.
Note, please: “criminal classes of the world.” A lot of the historiography (which Heer cites) pointing out that the Populists weren’t solely a party of bigotry would today on Twitter be summed up, uncharitably if not entirely unpithily, as #NotAllPopulists.
I am not trying to say that the Populists were fascists. But they were aggrieved white folks who thought they were entitled to something that they then did not get. The party was strongest in the West, where white people went to farm land taken from the Indians, which the US government gave white people for free, which was supposed to be well served by railroad lines subsidized by the US government… and which turned out to be full of wolves, locusts, and monopolists, and not nearly full enough of rainfall.1
Loans the settlers had taken, to improve the land or efficiently to plow it, became burdensome in bad years. As the railroads consolidated, the cost of shipping products out of the prairies soared.
Promised an Eden and delivered a desert, the pioneers rebelled. They blamed railroad monopolies, international capitalists (not always a code for Jews), and international labor, or immigrants.
The Populists were also strong in the South, where the prewar plantation class was once more in the ascendant, slave labor had been restored in all but name, and the poorer to middling sort of white voters felt themselves similarly oppressed. They could be picked off, though, by an appeal to race—which is a major reason the southern states started disfranchising black folks in the early 1890s. The Democratic Parties of the South, by making legal disfranchisement of black voters their cause and appealing to white racial solidarity, could bring white voters back from the Populist Party.
None of which is to say that the Populists—who eventually came under the leadership of William Jennings Bryan in 1896 and joined with the Democratic Party, where they lost, and lost, and lost—were fascists. But the discontent that led to Populism could easily have become fascism, or something like it: and that is what Hofstadter correctly sensed.2 Without the Christian Bryan at their head—with, say, a figure more like P. T. Barnum, or William Randolph Hearst in the saddle of the party… who knows.
1There was an effort to get homesteads for freedpeople under the 1866 amendments to the Homestead Act, or the Southern Homestead Act—but it did not produce a lot of black homesteaders. So I’m referring to white ones, as they were the large majority.
2Now, “status anxiety” as an explanation for Progressivism—that’s another thing.