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What American Populism Really Means by David Smith

The people had finally found their leader, a champion for those who had built the country with their hard work and yet now believed themselves to be silenced and ignored—left behind by the artificial currents of contemporary life. He would make their voices heard again. They didn’t think of themselves as angry—at least not without a good cause—but they were no longer going to go gently into that political good night.

The year was 1896, and a new century loomed just four years away. They believed they had one last chance to change the errant course on which the country was set, and William Jennings Bryan was ready to lead them.

Man the Barricades

With the triumph of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, magazines from Vanity Fair to The Economist suddenly began writing about populism and trying to analyze that amorphous identity that periodically returns to American politics. Far less defined than a political movement or agenda, American populism is an impulse, rooted in Jeffersonian individualism and animated by a conviction that something essential in our culture is under siege by powerful currents in the wider world.

While politicians may choose to use populist rhetoric to rally their voters, it’s not an identity that many would choose on their own because it’s borne of crisis, understood by those who take it up as being nothing less than a state of emergency. Populism amounts to a last desperate manning of the barricades, when all others have decided to jettison something that, in a significant number of hearts, is still worth fighting for.

The populism of the 1890s came at a crucial moment of transition from one economic framework to the next, as an America of farmers and craftsmen was giving way to an America of industrial workers, leviathan corporations, and new immigrants.

Today, the country faces another transition to a more interconnected and, some say, post-national world, and populists have again reappeared, fearful of rocky shoals along the passage. The impulse is no longer tied to the agrarian identity and way of life that was so tenaciously defended by populists at the close of the 19th century, but it is now expressed by those for whom something just as sacred is at stake.

Cultural Power

More than economic or political power, cultural power—the power to define what ought to be the true iconic representation of America, from which comes ideas of right and wrong—has always lain at the heart of populism, even if more specific economic concerns are easier to identify. This is why the emergence of a multi-billionaire as populist champion isn’t as baffling as it would be if the primary engine was class-based resentment of the wealthy (and it’s why Bernie Sanders is actually less of a populist than Trump).

As historian Alan Brinkley showed in his book Voices of Protest, despite the ways that the populist impulse has varied among its adherents throughout the decades, its “central, animating spirit” remained the determination to restore “to the individual the control of his life and livelihood.” Brinkley notes that Depression-era rousers like Huey Long and Charles Coughlin connected “their messages so clearly with the residual appeal of the populist tradition,” and future historians will undoubtedly note the same about Donald Trump.

But his current success shows that its appeal is not merely residual but continues to animate millions of people. The lesson of Trump’s surprise victory is that populism remains at its core an evergreen cultural force that is as intertwined with our ideas about democracy as notions about voting, representation, civil rights, or economic fairness.

Today’s drive toward populism is not primarily because of big business or big banking, but because of a perceived threat of similar size and danger to the concept of Jeffersonian individualism. Now it is the cultural triumph of identity politics that’s pushing people toward populism, as surely as monopoly and industrialization did 120 years ago. Ascendant globalism is another: just as the farmers of the 1890s felt displaced from what they considered their time-honored position within the country’s culture and economy, those who recently rallied to the populist tone of the current president felt much the same.

In his 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Age of Reform, Richard Hofstadter mused that,

While its special association with agrarian reforms has now become attenuated, I believe that populist thinking has survived in our own time, partly as an undercurrent of provincial resentments, popular and ‘democratic’ rebelliousness and suspiciousness, and nativism.”

Indeed, Hofstadter’s account of those who flocked to William Jennings Bryan in 1896 is a caustic one and caused an outcry among historians who had long looked upon the populists as virtuous Jeffersonian Democrats. But Hofstadter substantially changed the way the mainstream thinks about our periodic outbursts of populism, and today, charges of nativism, provincialism, and intolerance are even more commonly attributed to Trump’s supporters than to Bryan’s.

Canary in the Coal Mine

I don’t believe populism is inevitably as xenophobic as that, but I do believe the impulse is inherently defensive. The Economist recently reported that populism in Alabama “has not always been driven by prejudice, as might be supposed.” Rather, explained the former director of the Alabama state archives, populism is always and everywhere fired by fears of “the rise of a new aristocracy,” and Alabamans who turned to populism were “not simply emotional victims of demagogues.”

Contemporary ideologies that divide people into grievance groups are a cultural echo of the process of industrialization that once divided people into competing economic classes. In both, the deck is stacked against the individual.

The proper response to populism isn’t to dismiss it as fringe, bigoted, or anti-intellectual, but to remember that threats to individualism come from every angle, sometimes in unexpected ways. Populism is the canary in our political coal mine—a warning that individual liberty may be having its oxygen drained away. Those who are concerned about freedom should pay attention to it.

Reprinted from Learn Liberty.

David Smith

David Smith

Dr. David A. Smith is a senior lecturer in American history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He received his undergraduate degree from what is now Texas State University in San Marcos, and his Ph.D. in modern American history from the University of Missouri.

USSR ISLAM RIP

Relegating Radical Islam to the ‘Ash Heap of History’

On June 8th, 1982 in a speech before the British Parliament President Ronald Reagan blazed forth with his belief that ”[T]he march of freedom and democracy . . . will leave Marxist Leninism on the ash heap of history.” Nine years later, on Christmas Day 1991, the Soviet flag flew over the Kremlin in Moscow for the last time.

Fast forward to February 15th, 2017 and the meeting between President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington, D.C.

During a press conference Prime Minister Netanyahu said to President Trump,

“Under your leadership, I believe we can reverse the rising tide of radical Islam, and in this great task, as in so many others, Israel stands with you and I stand with you. Mr. President, in rolling back militant Islam, we can seize an historic opportunity because for the first time in my lifetime and for the first time in the life of my country, Arab countries in the region do not see Israel as an enemy, but increasingly as an ally.”

Breitbart’s Edwin Mora reports:

President Donald Trump’s deputies intend to overhaul President Barack Obama’s “Countering Violent Extremism” program to focus only on Islamist extremism, says Reuters.

The shift is not finalized, but is expected to reduce federal focus on non-Islamic extremism, reports Reuters, citing five unnamed people briefed on the matter. The shift may also cut off pending federal funding for Islamic groups.

The pending reorganization comes after widespread reports that Obama’s program has already failed, largely because of opposition by resident Muslim activists and groups, say some Republican lawmakers and news outlets.

Reuters notes:

The program, ‘Countering Violent Extremism,’ or CVE, would be changed to ‘Countering Islamic Extremism’ or ‘Countering Radical Islamic Extremism,’ the sources said, and would no longer target groups such as white supremacists who have also carried out bombings and shootings in the United States.

The news outlet cites Hoda Hawa, director of policy for the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), who said she learned of the push to refocus the CVE program “from tackling all violent ideology to only Islamist extremism” from unnamed U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials last week.

MPAC has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and has previously advocated for the removal of Hamas, Hezbollah, and the group Palestinian Islamic Jihad from the U.S. State Department list of designated terrorist groups.

Read more…

President Trump has now named the evil empire bent on stopping the march of freedom and democracy in the world. That neo-evil empire is lead by radical Islamic supremacists. It is called “the Caliphate.” The restoring of the caliphate has been and remains the ultimate goal of radical Islamists.

Marxism, Leninism and radical Islam share a common ideal, the replacement of freedom with subjugation and replacing democracy with a totalitarian ideology based upon a fanatical world view.

President Trump understands this, others do not. The others are the followers of Marx, Lenin and Mohammed.

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