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Trump and the Populists: Historical Parallels and Opportunities for the Modern Left?

As progressive folks continue to despair at the election of Trump, it’s important to put his upset victory over Clinton into historical context. Ironically, Trump’s win reflects a particular cycle in American history that can be characterized as “reform moments,” or historical eras when social movements arose in response to the excesses of capitalism to demand government action to rectify or compensate for market failures. The Trump presidency may in hindsight be viewed as an echo of this cycle, and represents an opportunity for progressives to shape the forthcoming reform moment.

Prior reform cycles in American history include the Populists (1890-1912), the Progressives (1912-1938) and the New Deal (1938-1945). Of these cycles, the one most similar to now is the collection of social movements and political campaigns broadly referred to as the Populist movement of the late 19th century. Driven largely by farmers in the mid-West and South, Populism was an agrarian revolt against the emerging corporate state of the gilded age and its creed of progress, and had the following characteristics similar to Trump’s campaign for the President:

1) Economic crisis as antecedent

2) Conspiracy as diagnosis (with racist overtones)

3) Nostalgia as solution (through the exercise of state power)

Economic Crises as Antecedent

The period after the Civil War was marked by the expansion of industrialization, the creation of a national market, and the commercialization of the agriculture sector. Most farmers did enjoy a higher standard of living as a result of these changes, but often at the price of becoming heavily indebted to bankers, and farmers soon lost income and livelihood to the vagaries of the natural business cycle. This despondency reached its peak with the silver panic of 1893 when a crash in wheat prices led to a run on gold and then collapse of the financial sector. Thousands of businesses and banks closed, with upwards of 20% unemployment nationwide, and a significant number of farm and home foreclosures (Hicks 1988).

One need not look too hard to see the parallels with the Great Recession of 2008 when an overextended credit market combined with malfeasance led to another collapse of the financial system, followed by 10% unemployment, millions of home foreclosures, and a general downgrade in the standard of living for those most vulnerable to a credit crunch.

Conspiracy as Diagnosis

For those most directly affected by the economic crises of the late 19th century, the reason for the crises was a conspiracy of monied interests (railroads, banks, and trusts) over the common man, leading to “a struggle between the robbers and the robbed.” An unfortunate and often overlooked aspect (Hofstadter 1988) of the Populist’s conspiracy theory was an overtone of anti-Semitism, with many allusions to “greedy Jews” determined to take away the hard-earned income of a struggling working class.

For the downtrodden of today, it is a conspiracy of East-coast elites and the media shoving trade pacts, open borders, and other neoliberal policies down the throats of those least able to withstand the negative effects of globalization. The apparent threat posed by immigrants gives the current conspiracy theory its racist overtones, as displayed in both Trump’s claim of Mexican rapists overwhelming the border or the explicit endorsement of his presidency by white supremacists.

Nostalgia as Solution

The Populists were generally not looking to the future, but to a past that seemed to be fading away, an agrarian utopia founded on Jefferson’s myth of the moral superiority of the yeoman, and a value system that saw commercialism as a polluting influence on civic society. To get back to this idyllic past, the Populists called for an expansion of government powers to protect the right of laborers to organize, to mandate an 8-hour workday, and to restrict immigration. Populists also called for the adoption of a progressive income tax, initiative and referendum mechanisms, direct election of senators, term limits on the President, and abolishing corporate subsidies.

Trump’s frequent promises to “bring the jobs back” by withdrawing from trade pacts, brow-beating corporations, and other protectionist and anti-market policies are driven by nostalgia for a time after the second world war when most anyone without a college degree could secure nearly lifetime employment in the manufacturing sector, providing a comfortable if not prosperous standard of living. It is believed this “manufacturing utopia” can be brought back through state power to restrict immigration and otherwise disengage from the global marketplace.

The Populists Legacy and Looking Ahead

Though the Populists did not succeed as an independent political force, many of the reforms that originated with them were later enacted, taming some of the excesses of the gilded age. More importantly, the Populists laid the groundwork of a “movement culture” (Goodwyn 1988) that later-day activists across the ideological spectrum would build upon to push for political and social change. On the flip side, the racist parallels between the Populists and the Trump campaign demonstrates that there is still work to be done to overcome structural racism.

The take-home message for progressives today is that all is not bleak. The grievances that propelled Trump to the presidency are real, and even if his proposed solutions are mostly counter-intuitive to progressives, there is an opportunity here to harness these grievances to push for sustainable and effective change that will serve to correct the current imbalances in the system. And as recently pointed out elsewhere, the fight for racial justice can and should be considered a compatible goal with economic and political reforms.


Goodwyn L. “Populism: Democratic Promise.” Conflicts and Consensus in Modern American History. Ed Davis A and Woodman H. 7th edition. DC Heath and Company, 1988. Lexington, MA

Hicks J. “The Farmer’s Grievances.” Conflicts and Consensus in Modern American History. Ed Davis A and Woodman H. 7th edition. DC Heath and Company, 1988. Lexington, MA.

Hofstadter R. “Populism: Nostalgic Agrarianism.” Conflicts and Consensus in Modern American History. Ed Davis A and Woodman H. 7th edition. DC Heath and Company, 1988. Lexington, MA.

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