President Donald Trump was elected by running on a campaign of populism—that is, promising to empower middle America. Yet, despite some significant accomplishments of populists, it is necessary to remember the long—and sometimes dark—history of populism in America.
In the final decade of the 1800s, the People’s Party—a prominent populist political party—drew support from both sides of the political spectrum and carried five states in the 1892 presidential election.
Perhaps the most famous member of the People’s Party was William Jennings Bryan, a politician from Nebraska who would later become famous for serving as secretary of state and his role in the Scopes Monkey Trial, a court battle over the role of evolution in American public education.
Despite Bryan being considered the standard of American populism, it is necessary to remember the political views of other prominent members of the People’s Party.
Bryan’s running mate in the 1896 election, Thomas E. Watson, stated a desire for all Americans to toss aside any differences and come together to fight for a common cause, much like Trump did in his inaugural address.
Yet, after the turn of the century, it became clear that Watson was a nativist who held some particularly astounding racist views.
In Watson’s 1908 presidential bid, he espoused views that were anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and generally white supremacist in nature.
These would pale in comparison to Watson’s support for the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager in Georgia. In fact, Watson called for Frank’s lynching in his magazine, The Jeffersonian.
Of course, populism has its place in politics. Politicians should respond to the concerns of their constituents. But there is a reason our Founding Fathers chose a representative democracy rather than a direct democracy.
“It has been observed by an honorable gentleman that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this,” said Alexander Hamilton at the New York Ratifying Convention. “The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure, deformity.”
In the 2016 election, it became clear that having a plebiscite for every major issue would be disastrous for the U.S.
Politifact scored 17 percent of 359 statements made by Trump as “pants on fire,” which they say is false and a “ridiculous claim.” Only 4 percent were “true,” meaning that they were accurate and not missing any significant facts.
Not only were many of his statements “ridiculous” claims, many of Trump’s campaign promises—including the 2,000-mile-long wall along the U.S.-Mexico border—were based on falsehoods, or “alternative facts,” if you would rather a spade not be called a spade.
Thus, Trump not only lied, but he also intentionally misled the people into voting for him by inciting the most powerful human emotions—anger and fear. He made middle America angry at immigrants—not just the ones who crossed a border illegally or overstayed a visa—for “taking our jobs.” Trump perpetuated fear of any person from the Middle East, or any Muslim, in the hearts of Americans.
Trump’s campaign promises targeted the people who hold the true power of government—the people. But, to quote the father of the Constitution, James Madison, the majority of America is the true danger to the rights of minority of America.
“In our Governments the real power lies in the majority of the Community, and the invasion of private rights is cheifly [sic] to be apprehended, not from acts of Government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents,” Madison wrote in a 1788 letter to Thomas Jefferson.
By inciting anger and fear in the majority, Trump has made it possible to take executive action against minority Americans. In the first 14 days of his presidency, Trump has taken action against Mexican-Americans who have overstayed visas or entered the country illegally, those seeking to enter the country due to a humanitarian crisis in their home nation and foreign nationals who otherwise hope to immigrate to the U.S.
These people are not citizens of the U.S. Yet it is important to examine his rhetoric.
Throughout Trump’s campaign, he singled out Muslims as an enemy of the U.S., an argument which is simply untrue.
“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on,” Trump’s campaign said in a Dec. 7, 2015, statement.
While the president would later retreat from that comment, it shows his xenophobic viewpoints. Furthermore, Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from specific parts of the Middle East targets seven countries that are majority-Muslim, citing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as justification. Yet none of the terrorists who committed those attacks were from any of the seven banned nations.
This is the same man who claimed Barack Obama was not born in the U.S., claiming instead that the 44th president was born in Kenya. He gained popular support behind his absurd claim that the former president was not born in America.
More appallingly, Trump repeatedly claimed that Obama was Muslim. By doing so, Trump implicitly argued that Islam and the U.S. are incompatible, and that being a member of one religion means it is impossible to be a true “American.”
With Trump’s Electoral College victory, he has tried becoming America’s Leviathan. Yet there is a reason the Constitution has checks and balances, and a reason the Founders did not choose a pure democracy. Trump’s form of populism is not only xenophobic, it is a danger to American republicanism.