Donald Trump is the first true demagogue to have been president of the United States. But politicians who claim to be tribunes of the powerless against corrupt establishments have historically been common in America at the state and local levels. As a form of politics, demagogic populism tends to flourish when large groups of citizens feel that conventional politicians are ignoring their interests and values.
Following the end of the post-Civil War era known as Reconstruction, so-called Bourbon Democrats, the elite descendants of antebellum slave-owners and their allies, dominated Southern state governments from Virginia to Texas. The Bourbon oligarchy disenfranchised all black southerners and many poor white ones by means of the poll tax, literacy tests, and other devices designed to suppress the vote. As a result, the Republican Party was nearly eliminated from the South. The Democratic monopoly on political power served to maintain an oppressive version of the plantation economy, based on forms of labor – such as sharecropping and the convict-leasing system (renting out prisoners to employers) – that trapped white and black people alike.
Southern oligarchic politics produced its nemesis in the form of demagogic populists whose political base was among small farmers and working-class whites. Although many southern demagogues came from elite backgrounds, they distinguished themselves from the genteel ruling class with crude language and entertaining campaigns. In South Carolina, Governor Benjamin R. Tillman got his nickname, “Pitchfork Ben,” when he denounced President Grover Cleveland: “I’ll stick my pitchfork into his old fat ribs!” In Texas, 300-pound (136-kilogram) James Stephen Hogg made the hog the symbol of his successful campaign to become governor.
Many Southern demagogues used racism to appeal to non-elite whites who feared black competition. In Mississippi, governor and later US Senator James K. Vardaman dubbed himself “the Great White Chief’ and symbolized his commitment to white supremacy by dressing in white and riding in a wagon drawn by white oxen. But others were opportunists. At the turn of the twentieth century, Georgia’s Tom Watson first welcomed black support, then championed white supremacy. Generations later, Alabama Governor George Wallace did the reverse, making his name as a segregationist before appealing late in his career to black voters from a wheelchair, having survived an assassination attempt.
In addition, many demagogic populists denounced urban merchant and banking establishments, as well as the corporations, often based in the North, that dominated their states’ economies. Other demagogues, like W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel of Texas, a hillbilly music radio star who went on to become governor of Texas and a US Senator, were figureheads for corporations and the wealthy.
Once they won power, southern demagogues typically abandoned their followers and joined the establishment. Sometimes they founded family dynasties in state politics. Louisiana’s Huey P. Long, “the Kingfish,” whose slogan was “Every Man a King,” became governor and then a US Senator. Assassinated in 1935, Long was later succeeded as governor by his brother, Earl, and in the US Senate by his son, Russell.
Outside of the twentieth-century South, American demagogues could be found in northern US cities where European-American immigrant diasporas were frozen out of power by local white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) elites. Representing low-income Irish-Americans, James Michael Curley called himself “mayor of the poor.” He served four terms as mayor of Boston and a single term as governor of Massachusetts, spending five months of his fourth mayoral term in jail for corruption before being pardoned by President Harry Truman.
During and after the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, working-class “white ethnics” felt threatened from below by black competition for jobs and housing, and from above by the managerial and professional elite. This group provided the constituents for Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Trump has seemed unusual as an American president, but as a German-Scottish arriviste, it is easy to imagine him as a flamboyant mayor of New York, mobilizing other “white ethnics” from the outer boroughs against Manhattan.
But comparing Trump to fascist dictators like Hitler and Mussolini shows a profound ignorance of history. Both Hitler and Mussolini were backed by military, bureaucratic, and academic elites who despised democracy and feared communism. In contrast, America’s military, bureaucratic, and academic elites, and much of its corporate and financial establishment, closed ranks against Trump. Moreover, the joking, vulgar, back-slapping style of classic American populist demagogues like Trump, and their European equivalents such as Britain’s Nigel Farage and Italy’s Matteo Salvini, could not be more different from the solemn public personae of Mussolini, Hitler, and Spain’s longtime dictator, Francisco Franco.
Equally implausible have been attempts to reduce Trumpian populism to “white nationalism.” Despite Trump’s history of bigoted remarks, his share of the white vote shrank and his support among non-white voters increased in 2020 compared to 2016. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, between a quarter and a third of black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) voters supported Brexit in the 2016 referendum, discrediting attempts to portray British populism as merely white backlash politics.
As a political style, populism emerges when conventional politicians and party establishments ignore large groups of a country’s population. Examples include white farmers and workers in the antebellum US South, Midwestern farmers in the late nineteenth century, Euro-American “white ethnics” in the twentieth-century Northeast, and working-class whites in the industrial Midwest and northern Britain in the twenty-first century.
To be sure, populist demagogues frequently promote crackpot measures to solve real problems. William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic presidential nominee, pushed monetary bimetallism (back the dollar with silver, in addition to gold) as a panacea for suffering farmers. But even if their colorful champions are crooks or charlatans, desperate voters often have legitimate grievances.
Today, industrial offshoring and immigration produce losers as well as winners. The US establishment taboo against acknowledging the downsides of free trade and immigration gave Trump issues he could exploit, just as the bipartisan orthodoxy in favor of the deflationary gold standard did for Bryan in the 1890s. But Trump’s wall along the US-Mexico border and his slapdash use of tariffs, like Bryan’s promotion of silver coinage, have been gimmicks rather than credible policies.
American history shows that the best way to eliminate populism is to incorporate alienated constituencies into mainstream politics and address their legitimate grievances by sophisticated means. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal achieved many of the goals of Bryan’s agrarian populist movement. But it did so by bringing farmers and workers into politics and policymaking in an institutionalized way, through farm organizations and labor unions. During the Great Depression, Roosevelt achieved one populist goal by abandoning the gold standard, a system that most economists today agree was economically harmful. But this and other legitimate populist grievances were addressed by New Deal reformers inside the two-party system and the national establishment, not by inflammatory outsiders.
Populists are often scoundrels, but their followers deserve to be respected and heard. Demagogic populism is a disease of representative democracy. Curing it requires democracy to be truly representative.
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