William B. Turner
Lots of people refer to Donald Trump as a “populist.” This is rank nonsense.
The Populists were a political party in the late nineteenth century United States. They had a very specific policy platform that you may view here.
They grew out of Farmers’ Alliances in the preceding decades and mostly represented farmers and their interests, but, as their platform explicitly states, they were sympathetic to the demands of industrial workers, especially for an eight hour work day.
The only point on which the Populists would agree with Donald Trump is on restricting immigration, which was actually much higher then as a percentage of the existing population than it is now.
Calling the Donald a populist gives his noxious politics and total lack of discernible policy ideas a veneer of respectability by connecting to a legitimate political movement in our nation’s history.
In the south, the populists organized black and white farmers, creating a potentially powerful political coalition, until white supremacist leaders explicitly invoked racism to encourage white farmers to choose their racial identity over their class identity.
Similarly, the Donald explicitly appeals to “white supremacy” to lure voters into supporting the disastrous Republican platform, which is good for no one but billionaires. This is the opposite of populism.
The Populists’ last gasp came in 1896, when they joined the Democrats in a fusion ticket, jointly nominating William Jennings Bryan as president. Bryan lost to the Republican, William McKinley.
In an interesting twist of political history, however, by the end of World War II, nearly the entire Populist platform was federal law. They wanted a uniform national currency. The creation of the Federal Reserve during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency made that a reality. Of course, many people see the Federal Reserve as nefarious today, but at the time of its creation, it was an important progressive reform.
They wanted a progressive income tax. The Sixteenth Amendment, ratified in 1913, also during Woodrow Wilson’s first term, made that possible.
They wanted direct election of U.S. Senators. Under the Constitution as originally written, state legislatures chose U.S. Senators. The Seventeenth Amendment, also ratified in 1913, provided for direct election of Senators.
They wanted federal subsidies for farmers, which the New Deal created.
They wanted electoral reform, especially secret ballots, which all states eventually adopted.
They wanted to limit the president to a single term in office. That did not happen, but soon after the end of World War II, we did amend the Constitution to limit the president to two terms in office.
They got restrictions on immigration. Congress enacted the first restrictions on immigration to the United States with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, even before the Populists hit their stride. Congress would enact more restrictions on immigration in 1917.
Two big things they did not get were federal control of railroads and an end to all public subsidies to corporations. You may decide for yourself if those were the two most important elements, without which all else is lost.
Regardless, the present point is that the various policy changes they did achieve are almost to an item exactly the opposite of the current Republican/Trump platform.
Trump is no Populist. Stop calling him that.