Scholars, pundits, and opposition alike have said Donald Trump “shocked the world,” with his “unprecedented” win. And though the Trump presidency felt impossible to predict, the victory was not so surprising when taking similar historical figures into account. By looking at waves of populism throughout the 19th and 20th century, we can better understand the environment for which a President Trump could happen.
19th century populism is characterized by an anti-elitist rhetoric and the heightened involvement of disaffected Americans, most notably characterized in President Andrew Jackson. Trump uses this in his “drain the swamp,” and “people’s politician,” campaign strategies. On the other hand, 20th century populism evolved from 19th century populism to not only use economic disillusionment but also cultural disillusionment. Important figures in this movement; including William Jennings Bryan, George Wallace, Huey Long, and Barry Goldwater, appealed to morality in mechanisms such as the southern strategy or rage politics. Trump uses not only the coded language of the southern strategy but also takes exact quotes such as the “silent majority for Trump.”
The Populism of the Businessman
In the early-20th century, the businessman entered the scene as a political force, Henry Ford being the most notable. He had a plethora of quotable phrases, and those that supported him believed that his business and innovative achievements made him suitable for politics. Ford was not the only business and political figure in this period, people like Andrew Carnegie and Vanderbilt family figures had significant support to run for office because of their business and philanthropic successes. Though Ford and the others never ran for President, his persona and presence as a political figure closely mirrors that of Trump.
History and President Trump
Trump uses both the appeals to the economically disaffected and the tactics of cultural politics just as the figures of the 19th and 20th century populist movements did, while at the same time using his persona as the businessman to appeal to his constituency in that his charismatic personality and achievements seemed to make him better for office that career politicians.