This article is the third in a series on how President Donald Trump changed history—reviving historical debates that have simmered on low heat for years, and altering how historians think about them. See the other articles in the series here and here.
Imagine, if you will, that millions of hard-working Americans finally reached their boiling point. Roiled by an unsettling pattern of economic booms and busts; powerless before a haughty coastal elite that in recent decades had effectively arrogated the nation’s banks, means of production and distribution, and even its information highway; burdened by the toll that open borders and free trade imposed on their communities; incensed by rising economic inequality and the concentration of political power—what if these Americans registered their disgust by forging a new political movement with a distinctly backward-looking, even revanchist, outlook? What if they rose up as one and tried to make America great again?
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Would you regard such a movement as worthy of support and nurture—as keeping with the democratic tradition of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson? Or would you mainly dread the ugly tone it would inevitably assume—its fear of the immigrant and the Jew, its frequent lapse into white supremacy, its slipshod grasp of political economy and its potentially destabilizing effect on longstanding institutions and norms?
To clarify: This scenario has nothing whatsoever to do with Donald Trump and the modern Republican Party. Rather, it is a question that consumed social and political historians for the better part of a century. They clashed sharply in assessing the essential character of the Populist movement of the late 1800s—a political and economic uprising that briefly drew under one tent a ragtag coalition of Southern and Western farmers (both black and white), urban workers, and utopian newspapermen and polemicists.
That debate pitted “progressive” historians of the early 20th century and their latter-day successors who viewed Populism as a fundamentally constructive political movement, against Richard Hofstadter, one of the most influential American historians then or since. Writing in 1955, Hofstadter theorized that the Populists were cranks—backward-looking losers who blamed their misfortune on a raft of conspiracy theories.
Hofstadter lost that debate: Historians generally view Populism as a grassroots movement that fought against steep odds to correct many of the economic injustices associated with the Gilded Age. They write off the movement’s ornerier tendancies by pointing out—with some justification—that Populism was a product of its time, and inasmuch as its supporters sometimes expressed exaggerated fear of “the secret plot and the conspiratorial meeting,” so did many Americans who did not share their politics.
But does that point of view hold up after 2016? The populist demons Trump has unleashed—revanchist in outlook, conspiratorial in the extreme, given to frequent expressions of white nationalism and antisemitism—bear uncanny resemblance to the Populist movement that Hofstadter described as bearing a fascination with “militancy and nationalism … apocalyptic forebodings … hatred of big businessmen, bankers, and trusts … fears of immigrants … even [the] occasional toying with anti-Semitic rhetoric.”
A year into Trump’s presidency, the time is right to ask whether Hofstadter might have been right after all about Populism, and what that possibly tells us about the broader heritage of such movements across the ages.
The roots of the American populist movement go back to the Civil War, when aggressive borrowing and spending to fund the Union war effort catalyzed economic development throughout the North and Northwest. A new industrial class also grew rich off government contracts—men like Philip Armour, who revolutionized the canned-meat industry; John D. Rockefeller, who conceived new processes for oil refinement; and Thomas Scott, a wartime innovator in railroad management. Congress enacted a sweeping legislative agenda that fundamentally transformed the country, including the Homestead Act, which bequeathed 160 acres of federal land to any western settler who lived for five years on his allotment and made requisite improvements to the land, and the Pacific Railroad Act, granting private railroad companies land and loans to construct new lines that would span the continent.
The postwar boom was like nothing before in American history: Between 1865 and 1873, industrial production increased by 75 percent, allowing the United States to leapfrog ahead of every other country, save Britain, in manufacturing output. The burgeoning railroad system unified the inhabitants of a sprawling continent and created new opportunities for large ranching, mining and, especially, railroad concerns to exploit and merchandise the vast resources of the trans-Mississippi West.
But while the boom proved lucrative to the small number of men who controlled access to local resources, it was much less profitable for the hundreds of thousands of ranchers, farmers, factory workers, miners and railroad laborers who supplied the muscle—especially after the federal government turned away from the easy money policy that underwrote wartime expansion, much to the disadvantage of indebted farmers and workers.
While some Democrats supported an inflationary policy of redeeming war bonds with greenbacks, Republicans and conservative Democrats insisted on a hard-money policy that benefited bondholders. As a result, many of the North’s once-sturdy independent farmers—including hundreds of thousands who trekked westward, only to fall victim to declining crop prices (partly due to currency contraction) and land speculation on the part of railroad interests—now found it more expensive to pay back loans they had taken out to purchase land and equipment.
Matters were worse in the South, a region where most capital had previously been invested in land and slaves. Much of the land now lay in ruins, and emancipation erased trillions of dollars (in today’s money) of value overnight. Confederate currency was worthless, and the federal government required that all Confederate debts be repudiated. As a consequence, in the years following the end of Reconstruction, millions of Southerners fell into various states of economic dependency, ranging from the crop-lien system to full-fledged tenancy.
Politics in this era were in many ways tribal—a holdover from the Civil War. Conservative “Bourbon” Democrats controlled most of the South, while Republicans remained firmly in command in the North and Midwest. But with notable exceptions, both parties largely supported the same economic policies. The ruling class in each party advocated a return to the gold standard, a policy that benefited wealthy investors and creditors but drove down commodity prices and created an existential crisis for indebted farmers. Republicans and Bourbon Democrats also aligned themselves with railroad companies that swept up the best public lands and resold them at a steep premium to westward settlers; the same railroads charged variable rates to small and large producers, thus placing family farms at a sharp disadvantage.
In response to these hardships, farmers in the South and Midwest formed a wide variety of self-help organizations, like the Grange, to pool capital and farm output and exert pressure on railroads. They created third-party organizations, like the short-lived Greenback Party, to advocate an expansion of paper currency and silver specie. Ultimately, they coalesced in 1892 under the banner of the People’s Party—aka, the Populist Party—and adopted a wide-ranging platform advocating progressive tax reform; free coinage of silver; government-backed credit facilities for small farmers; limitations on public subsidies to corporations; and the nationalization of railroads, to ensure equal freight rates for all producers. They forged wobbly but, for a time, effective coalitions with urban labor organizations.
As most students of American history know, the Populists did not break through the nation’s entrenched two-party system. That’s another topic altogether.
But the parallels between then and now are striking. Ordinary citizens chaffed at growing economic inequality and identified powerful interests—railroads, banks, financial speculators—that seemed to control the levers of power. Many came to believe that the two major political parties, despite certain differences, were fundamentally in the pockets of the same interests and equally unresponsive to popular concerns.
The 19th-century economy was of course different than today’s, but the issues were in many respects the same. A convention of farmers in the late 1860s demanded that railroad land be assessed at “the full nominal value of the stock on which the railroad seeks to declare dividends,” rather than watered-down stock, much in the same way that today’s populists demand regulations that make it difficult for corporations to diminish or defray their tax bills. The same convention called for a new interstate commerce law that would “secure the same rates of freight to all persons for the same kind of commodities,” and an end to pricing preferences that “shut off competition.” Substitute “internet service provider” for railroad, and fast forward to a 21st information economy, and the problem—freight pricing or net neutrality—is essentially the same.
In our own day, we suffer no dearth of would-be working-class heroes and charlatans. So too did the Populist era of the late 19th century give rise to colorful figures like “Sockless” Jerry Simpson, the three-term congressman from Kansas, so-called because he famously excoriated a wealthy political opponent for being “encased in fine silk hosiery”; Mary Elizabeth Lease, the famed Populist orator who exhorted farmers to “raise less corn and more hell”; and William Jennings Bryan, the boy congressman, thundering orator and three-time presidential candidate.
So there’s good reason in the age of Trump to look to the Populist era for earlier examples of what happens when a citizenry believes that the system no longer works.
Early students of Populism—notably, the progressive historian John Hicks, who wrote in the 1920s and 1930s—admired the movement’s supporters for practicing a hard-nosed version of interest-group politics. Legitimately besieged by a rigged political and economic system, farmers and other working people demanded policies that would remediate their condition and help them reestablish control over their lives.
Studying the Populists from the vantage point of the mid-1950s, Hofstadter saw something different. The Civil War, he noted, had catalyzed a global information revolution: By the 1870s, railroads spanned the American continent and submerged oceanic telegraph lines bound Europe, North America and South America in real time, allowing them to integrate their markets for agricultural, mineral and finished goods. The era saw a massive movement of internal migrants from farms to cities, and immigrants from one continent to another. To invoke a more modern term, globalization was drawing people in closer proximity. It also bound markets together, compelled a global drop in commodity prices and created a boom and bust cycle that was normally outside the ability of local or even national governments to control.
But Hofstadter—who believed there was “indeed much that is good and usable in our Populist past,” and who acknowledged that it was the “first modern political movement of practical importance in the United States to insist that the federal government had some responsibility for the common weal”—viewed Populists as fundamentally revanchist. “The utopia of the Populists was in the past, not the future,” he observed. They were unwilling to acknowledge that the world was changing—that local markets were being swallowed up by global commerce, and that the early republic of small, yeoman farmers was a thing of the past. Millions of Americans gambled that they could take out loans, purchase or settle on cheap land, buy equipment, and thrive as independent farmers, just as the global economy was rendering that way of life obsolete. “I am not trying to deny the difficulties of [the farmer’s] position or the reality and seriousness of his grievances,” he wrote in The Age of Reform. But these same farmers knowingly mimicked the “acquisitive goals” and “speculative temper” of big business without absorbing any of the “marketing devices, strategies of combination, or skills of self-defense and self-advancement through pressure politics” that large corporations practiced.
What especially turned Hofstadter off to Populism was its shrill anger and conspiratorial view of the world. Sockless Jerry Simpson called politics a “struggle between the robbers and the robbed,” a rhetorical construction that Hofstadter viewed as almost paranoiac. This very ethos was pervasive in Populist tracts. In the preamble to the 1892 Populist party platform, Ignatius Donnelly, who began his political career as a radical anti-slavery Republican, warned that a “vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized on two continents, and it is rapidly taking possession of the world. If not met and overthrown at once, it forebodes terrible social convulsions and the destruction of civilization, or the establishment of an absolute despotism.”
Who was behind that conspiracy? Bankers, to begin with. In her popular treatise, Seven Financial Conspiracies which have Enslaved the American People, the Populist writer Mrs. S. E. V. Emery focused her ire on the “money kings of Wall Street” who had manipulated currency and strangled the self-sufficient farmer into submission. Gordon Clark, another polemicist for the cause, was more direct. His most important contribution was entitled, Shylock: as Banker, Bondholder, Corruptionist, Conspirator.
Based on his reading of wide-circulation Populist literature, Hofstadter concluded that the agrarian revolt was obsessed with Jews. A century before George Soros became the bête noire of Trumpian populism, the insidious English banker, “Baron Rothe”—the central character in fictional novel, A Tale of Two Nations, and clearly patterned after Nathan Rothschild, the prominent British financier and politician—plotted against silver coinage in the United States, largely to preserve British economy hegemony. At a meeting of the National Silver Convention of 1892, a representative of the New Jersey Grange warned against the perfidious influence of “Wall Street, and the Jews of Europe.” When she censured conservative Democrat Grover Cleveland, Mary Elizabeth Lease naturally wrote him down as “the agent of Jewish bankers and British gold.” Donnelly, the onetime crusader for the rights of freedmen, wrote a polemical novel in which Baron James Rothschild (Nathan’s cousin and successor in Parliament) plunged both Britain and the United States “into the hands of … Jews.” On site at the Populist national convention, a reporter for the Associated Press was struck by “the extraordinary hatred of the Jewish race.”
Populists also showed antipathy toward immigrants, Jewish and otherwise. “We have become the world’s melting pot,” wrote Tom Watson, a leading Georgia populist. “The scum of creation has been dumped on us. Some of our principal cities are more foreign than American. The most dangerous and corrupting horde of the Old World have invaded us. The vice and crime they planted in our midst are sickening and terrifying. What brought these Goths and Vandals to our shores? The manufacturers are mainly to blame. They wanted cheap labor; and they didn’t care a curse how much harm to our future might be the consequence of their heartless policy.”
Hofstadter’s problem wasn’t with Populism (capital P) as much as it was with populist movements (small p), more generally. Like many mid-century liberal intellectuals who believed in progressive but incremental change of the variety that the Democratic Party then offered, he looked askance at mass politics, specifically in the form of an anti-communist frenzy—McCarthyism—that seemed eerily parallel to the fascist wave that had overwhelmed Europe in very recent memory. To be clear, he did not argue that fascism, McCarthyism and Populism were the same movement or that they shared a similar agenda or ideology. But he believed they shared a dispositional kinship—a style and way of representing grievances. They were unthinking, conspiratorial and deeply prejudiced. When he thumbed through Populist tracts, Hofstadter saw both the crowds at Nuremberg and ordinary Americans frothing at the mouth about a dark and shadowy communist conspiracy.
Hofstadter was not quite alone among liberal scholars of his age in evincing disdain for mass political movements. Sociologists David Riesman and Nathan Glazer captured this paradox neatly in 1960 when they observed that many intellectuals felt a closer kinship with Wall Street, which was tolerant of “civil rights and civil liberties”—two post-war liberal priorities—than with their “former allies … the farmers and lower classes of the city.”
Hofstadter’s influence being what it was, he provoked a historical debate that lasted well into the 20th century, though in the years after his death in 1970, at the age of 54, his interpretation of Populism fell mostly out of favor. A new generation of historians that came of age with the civil rights, anti-war and second-wave feminist movements looked more kindly on mass politics and saw in the Populists an earlier version of their own reform wave. Lawrence Goodwyn, who replaced Hofstadter as the most prominent scholar of Populism, revived the progressive historians’ understanding of the agrarian plight but provided new focus to the Populists’ establishment of a vibrant “movement culture.” Unlike Hofstadter, who came dangerously close to characterizing them as unsophisticated rubes—deplorables, perhaps—Goodwyn saw hard-headed political pragmatists who defied all odds to upend an entrenched American political system.
In dozens of micro-studies focusing on specific states or communities, doctoral students drilled down, bypassing the nationally prominent voices that Hofstadter studied in favor of local newspapers, tracts and conventions. Some, like, Walter Nugent, who as early as 1963 wrote The Tolerant Populists: Kansas Populism and Nativism, found in his subjects a noticeable absence of paranoia, anti-Semitism and nativism. Others focused on local politics and economics to recover at a granular level the very real ways in which the system was indeed rigged.
For these scholars, Populism was of a piece with America’s sunnier grassroots tradition—a heritage that included first and second-wave feminism, the post-war Civil Rights movement, organized labor and the environmental and consumer rights movements. It was about ordinary people banding together to make a difference. They weren’t all perfect; not every activist was a paragon of tolerance. But in the main, they represented some of the best instincts in American political culture.
It’s a point of view that took hold. Today, most historians preparing a lecture on Populism would likely gravitate more closely to Goodwyn and his disciples. With the perspective of time, Hofstadter seems too indifferent to the very real problems ordinary Americans in the late 19th century faced. Even if he was sort of right about the Populist tone, he overstated his case.
So what to make of the contemporary movement that has coalesced, improbably, around a certain gilded billionaire? Many of Trump’s supporters evince the same feeling of powerlessness in the face of powerful institutions as their Populist forbearers, and they aren’t wrong about that by any stretch of the imagination. They view both parties as under the thumb of the same donor class. Nor are they wrong about that.
But if a historian 100 years hence were to read in its entirety Trump’s Twitter feed—or watch five years’ worth of Fox News and comb through a full run of Infowars and Breitbart—it seems likely he or she would want to take a second look at Hofstadter.
Judging by the media they produce and consume, today’s conservative populists aren’t just searching for economic justice in an unequal world. They are also in the thrall of unhinged conspiracy theories (Pizzagate, Benghazi, Uranium-gate, pretty much anything involving the Clintons) and a little more obsessed with Jews than is healthy. They harbor deep antipathy toward non-Christians, Latinos and African Americans. They want to wind the clock back to 1950, much as Hofstadter’s Populists wanted to wind it back to 1850. Does that describe every Trump voter? Not by a stretch. But it is a fair representation of the media and propaganda machine that fuels the movement. And it’s hard to argue that it showcases the best of American politics.
Should that move us to reconsider other populist movements? Looking back on Huey Long and Father Coughlin, George Wallace and Pat Buchanan through the lens of Trumpian politics, the ugly, unhinged strain to American populism that meets at the intersection of the far right and far left appears in sharp relief. Hofstadter observed this underbelly of mass politics and warned against it.
But Hofstadter is most useful when we scratch below that surface. His goal wasn’t to establish that populists, who over time have pursued a wide variety of ideological and policy ends, are bad people. His larger point was that populist eyes are often cast in the wrong direction—backwards. At critical junctures in history, they prove unreconciled to economic and cultural change and to globalization, both in the form of open markets and open borders. They endeavor to reestablish lost worlds—a Jeffersonian republic of small farms and independent shops, or a latter-day utopia of tidy suburbs and unionized factories and mines, that have no hope of survival in a changing world. They bitterly but understandably resist acknowledgment that the country in which they grew up has irrevocably changed.
“The Populists wanted a restoration of agrarian profits and popular government,” Hofstadter concluded. But they found themselves “impotent and deprived in an industrial culture.” Throughout American history, movements that only know how to look backward—like the Populists of the 1890s—rarely endured. But they often leave a lasting mark on the larger culture—sometimes for good, as when establishment politicians recognize the need to blunt their force by addressing some of their legitimate complaints. And sometimes for bad, when they encourage citizens to castigate strangers, real and imagined, for problems that have no simple solution.