Populism in American Politics

A Definition and History of the Term in the Age of Donald Trump

Donald Trump Victory Party
Donald Trump holds an election night victory party in New York City early on the morning of Nov. 9, 2016. Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

President Donald Trump was repeatedly described as a populist during the 2016 presidential race. "Trump styled himself as a populist during his flamboyantly provocative campaign," The New York Times wrote, "claiming to hear, understand and channel the working-class Americans so wrongly ignored by other leaders." Asked Politico: "Is Donald Trump the Perfect Populist, one with broader appeal to the right and the center than his predecessors in recent American political history?" The Christian Science Monitor opined that Trump's "unique populism promises a change in governance perhaps equal to parts of the New Deal or the early years of the Reagan revolution."

But what, exactly, is populism? And what does it mean to be a populist? There are many definitions.

Definition of Populism

Populism is generally defined as a way of speaking and campaigning on behalf of the needs of "the people" or "the little man" as opposed to the well-to-do elite. Populist rhetoric frames issues such as the economy, for example, as the angry, aggrieved and neglected struggling to overcome a corrupt oppressor, whoever that oppressor may be. George Packer, a veteran political journalist for The New Yorker, described populism as a "stance and a rhetoric more than an ideology or a set of positions. It speaks of a battle of good against evil, demanding simple answers to difficult problems." 

History of Populism

Populism has its roots in the grassroots formation of the People's and Populist parties in the late 1800s. The People's Party was founded in Kansas in 1890 amid depression and a widespread belief among farmers and laborers that the government was "dominated by large money interests," the political historian William Safire wrote.

A national party with similar interests, the Populist Party, was founded a year later, in 1891. The national party fought for public ownership of railroads, the telephone system, and an income tax that would demand more from wealthier Americans. The latter idea is a common populist idea used in modern elections. It is similar to the Buffett Rule, which would raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. The Populist Party died in 1908 but many of its ideals linger on today.

The national party's platform read, in part:

"We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized; most of the States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling places to prevent universal intimidation and bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages, a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down, and they are rapidly degenerating into European conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of those, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires."

Populist Ideas

Modern populism typically is sympathetic to the struggles of white, middle-class Americans and portrays Wall Street bankers, undocumented workers, and U.S. trade partners including China as evil. Populist ideas including heavily taxing the wealthiest Americans, tightening security along the U.S. border with Mexico, raising the minimum wage, expanding Social Security and imposing stiff tariffs on trade with other countries in an attempt to keep American jobs from going overseas. 

Populist Politicians

The first real populist presidential candidate was the Populist Party's nominee for president in the 1892 election. The nominee, General James B. Weaver, won 22 electoral votes and more than 1 million actual votes. In modern times, Weaver's campaign would have been considered a great success; independents typically garner only a small share of the vote.

William Jennings Bryan is perhaps the most famous populist in American history. The Wall Street Journal once described Bryan as "the Trump before Trump." His speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1896, which was said to have "roused the crowd to a frenzy," aimed to advance the interests of small Midwestern farmers who felt they were being taken advantage of by the banks. Bryan wanted to move to a bimetallic gold-silver standard

Huey Long, who served as the governor of Louisiana and a U.S. senator, was also considered a populist. He railed against "wealthy plutocrats" and their "bloated fortunes" and proposed to impose steep taxes on the richest Americans and distribute the revenue to the poor still suffering from the effects of the Great Depression. Long, who had presidential aspirations, wanted to set a minimum annual income of $2,500.

Robert M. La Follette Sr. was a congressman and governor of Wisconsin who took on corrupt politicians and big business, which he believed had a dangerously oversized influence on matters of public interest. 

Thomas E. Watson of Georgia was an early populist and the party's vice presidential hopeful in 1896. Watson had won a seat in Congress by supporting the reclamation of large tracts of land granted to corporations, abolishing national banks, eliminating paper money, and cutting taxes on low-income citizens, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia. He was also a southern demagogue and bigot, according to the Encyclopedia. Watson wrote of the threat of immigrants to America:

"The scum of creation has been dumped on us. Some of our principal cities are more foreign than American. The most dangerous and corrupting hordes of the Old World have invaded us. The vice and crime which they have 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."

Trump routinely inveighed against the establishment in his successful presidential campaign. He regularly promised to "drain the swamp" in Washington, D.C., an unflattering portrayal of the Capitol as a corrupt playground for plutocrats, special interests, lobbyists and fat, out-of-touch lawmakers. "Decades of failure in Washington, and decades of special interest dealing must come to an end. We have to break the cycle of corruption, and we have to give new voices a chance to go into government service," Trump stated. 

The independent presidential candidate Ross Perot was similar in style and rhetoric to Trump. Perot fared well by building his campaign on voter resentment of the establishment, or the political elite, in 1992. He won a startling 19 percent of the popular vote that year.

Donald Trump and Populism

So is Donald Trump a populist? He certainly used populist expressions during his campaign, portraying his supporters as American workers who have not seen their financial status improve since the end of the Great Recession and those neglected by the political and societal elite. Trump, and for that matter Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, spoke to a class of blue-collar, struggling middle-class voters who believe the economy was rigged.

Michael Kazin, the author of The Populist Persuasion, told Slate in 2016:

"Trump expresses one aspect of populism, which is anger at the establishment and various elites. He believes Americans have been betrayed by those elites. But the other side of populism is a sense of a moral people, people who’ve been betrayed for some reason and have a distinct identity, whether they are workers, farmers, or taxpayers. Whereas with Trump, I don’t really get much of a sense of who the people are. Of course journalists say he’s talking mostly to white working-class people, but he doesn’t say that."

Wrote Politico:

"Trump’s platform combines positions that are shared by many populists but are anathema to movement conservatives—a defense of Social Security, a guarantee of universal health care, economic nationalist trade policies."

President Barack Obama, who Trump succeeded in the White House, took issue with labeling Trump a populist, however. Said Obama:

“Somebody else who has never shown any regard for workers, has never fought on behalf of social justice issues or making sure that poor kids are getting a decent shot at life or have health care — in fact, have worked against economic opportunity for workers and ordinary people, they don’t suddenly become a populist because they say something controversial in order to win votes."

Indeed, some of Trump's critics accused him of phony populism, of using populist rhetoric during the campaign but of wanting to abandon his populist platform once in office. Analyses of Trump's tax proposals found that the biggest benefactors would be the wealthiest Americans. Trump, after winning the election, also recruited fellow billionaires and lobbyists to play roles in his White House. He also walked back some of his fiery campaign rhetoric on cracking down on Wall Street and rounding up and deporting immigrants who are living in the United States illegally.

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Murse, Tom. "Populism in American Politics." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/populism-in-american-politics-4121051. Murse, Tom. (2021, February 16). Populism in American Politics. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/populism-in-american-politics-4121051 Murse, Tom. "Populism in American Politics." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/populism-in-american-politics-4121051 (accessed October 16, 2021).