Election 1896: Donald Trump as William Jennings Bryan

From the podium at Cleveland, he was proclaimed his party's populist candidate for president.  The general election campaign stretched through August, September, and October.  With his message of national prosperity and restoring the place of the common man, he appeared on the cusp of victory.  Then his opponent, a candidate with deep ties to Wall Street and the political establishment, stole the election with the backing of the media and a last-minute infusion of cash.

The similarities are striking – not just because it was Cleveland where William Jennings Bryan was nominated in 1896.  Politics in America repeats itself in weird ways – not because of some arcane force at work, but because the political forces at play in our democracy do not change.  From the time of Hamilton and Adams to our own, a privileged elite has striven to enslave ordinary Americans and to deny them a voice in government.  In response, the people have turned to great conservative leaders like Andrew Jackson, Calvin Coolidge, and Ronald Reagan who have restored the dignity and rights of the common man.

What Donald Trump stands for today echoes the platform populist Bryan adopted in 1896.  The central message is that the little man has been assaulted by the forces of a political elite, and a savior has come to restore democracy to what it was intended to be.  In Bryan's day, the lackey serving the elite was William McKinley; in ours, it is Hillary Clinton.  In both cases, their unspoken message is that ordinary Americans – that vast majority of working Americans residing in the flyover states between Manhattan and L.A. – simply don't matter.  Their views on jobs and the economy, the environment, and national defense, as on moral issues such as the use of bathrooms by members of the opposite sex, are immaterial.  What matters is the interest of the political and cultural elite. 

As Vachel Lindsay wrote in his great poem "Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan," William Jennings Bryan promised to make America great again by expanding the money supply with an infusion of silver currency.  His pro-growth policies would have stripped power from the East Coast banks, increased domestic trade and industry, and expanded opportunities for the common man.  Most of all, Bryan listened to the voices of the silent majority of working Americans, especially those from the heartland and the South who had been excluded for decades by a political establishment centered in the East and the Upper Midwest.  Long before pundits spoke of the division between red and blue states, the 1896 election epitomized it.

As Lindsay put it, "There were real lines drawn" in that 1896 election.  Bryan, the Nebraskan promising a "silver Zion," faced off against William McKinley, the hand-picked instrument of party boss Mark Hanna.  The heartland, all those "by the dour East oppressed," as Lindsay put it, rose up in support of Bryan.

In Lindsay's view, Bryan gave voice to the hopes of the common man – indeed, to the "Hopes of all mankind, / Made rare, resistless, thrice refined."  More refined, in other words, than an administration full of lawyers, academics, and lifetime politicians – the political elite who ruled Washington in Lindsay's day as in our own.  It was not just the chokehold that gold currency had on the money supply – it was the moral values of the ordinary American that had been mocked and derided by decades of corrupt plutocracy.  It was the corporatism and graft that controlled politics under Presidents Grant, Hayes, Arthur, and Harrison – those forgettable cyphers of business as usual.

Now there appeared a giant among men, a candidate whose very presence seemed to turn the streets to silver and the grass to fire.  When Bryan spoke, he cast a spell with his cross of gold speech.  "The people have a right to make their own mistakes / You shall not crucify mankind / Upon a cross of gold," he roared.  When he spoke, Lindsay wrote, the entire world "danced upon its axis / And like a darling broncho whirled."

As Bryan's numbers rose in the campaign, Wall Street and the East panicked, driven "down like a wind-smashed fence."  In response, Boss Hanna rallied the banks, the unions, the trusts, and the big-city papers, and he poured out "the long green to a million workers."  That same phenomenon is in play today as unions join together to create a pro-Hillary super-PAC working alongside Democratic billionaire donor Tom Steyer.  Along with spending from SEIU, the union operation may spend over $200 million on the 2016 election, much of it in an effort to defeat Donald Trump.  A crucial factor in the 1896 election was the support for McKinley among skilled factory workers, who believed that their interests were opposed to those of agrarian voters in the South and West.

History repeats itself.  The same combine of party bosses, big money donors, and organized labor that opposed Bryan in 1896 have surfaced again, as they have so many times, in opposition to the interests of ordinary Americans.

In the end, Bryan was defeated.  It was the victory of the plutocrats, the "custodians," and "all that inbred landlord stock."  As Lindsay wrote, it was

Defeat of the young by the old and silly.
Defeat of tornadoes by the poison vats supreme,
Defeat of my boyhood, defeat of my dream.

That was the election of 1896, as reconstructed by Vachel Lindsay in 1919 after most of the principles (except for Bryan) had passed away, and after Lindsay himself had become thoroughly disillusioned with the progressives who had commandeered the Democratic Party under Woodrow Wilson.

As for the victor in that 1896 election, he went on to lead the country through another four years of corporatism with even greater wealth for the Morgans, Carnegies, and Rockefellers of the world.  Wall Street prospered; the country won its war against Spain, taking control of vast new territories; and McKinley, trusting to his universal popularity, met his end at the hands of a crazed anarchist in an unguarded reception line in Buffalo.  Ironically, farm prices under McKinley improved, partly as a result of McKinley's adoption of Bryan's pro-growth policy of monetary stimulus, including the issuance of larger amounts of paper and silver currency.

There are obvious differences between 1896 and 2016, the largest being that the Democratic Party long ago ceased to be the party of the common man – it now represents those same special interests that hampered ordinary Americans in Bryan's day.  But the similarities are striking.  Ordinary Americans still exist at the mercy of the plutocrats – the Washington establishment with its close-knit circle of career politicians, rich bundlers, well-funded lobbyists, and elite academics and media types, all of them preying on and contemptuous of what Obama once labelled those from Palookaville.  That web of exploitation operates by awarding privileges and redistributing tax revenues in return for votes, and it perpetuates itself by manipulating public opinion via the media, the unions, the universities, and the established political parties.  And the candidate who now leads in the Democratic race is as much implicated in this web of influence and greed as was McKinley in 1896.  Recent revelations about the role of the Clinton Global Initiative's support for Energy Pioneer Solutions, a for-profit corporation owned in part by long-time Clinton associates, suggest a tangled web of donors, public officials, and favored corporate interests.

Donald Trump is not riding out of the West like a wild prairie bronco – not exactly – but he is a sort of wild man assaulting the entrenched interests and political correctness of the plutocrats and the cultural elite.  Like Bryan before him, he is the idol and delight of the common man because he gives voice to their sense of exclusion and humiliation.  He battles the smug superiority of the calculating donor class and the self-righteous hypocrisy of the liberal elite.  Like Bryan, he dares to stand against the "crucifixion" of the ordinary American at the hands of a thousand party leaders, a hundred thousand bureaucrats, and a million academics and journalists.  Like Bryan, he speaks from the heart, and the people listen.

No one can predict whether Trump, like Bryan, will go down to defeat in November.  I believe that the 2016 campaign will replay the great battle of 1896 between a political elite and a surging populist movement.  After 24 years of corporatism in American politics, it is high time for a populist conservative to restore democracy.  That is what 2016 is all about, as it was in 1896.  A mounting swell of anger and resentment has won Donald Trump the nomination.  The vested interests are furious and afraid.  They have already deployed their media attack dogs with their accusations of racism and sexism and homophobia.

The 2016 campaign will be bitter, just as it was in 1896, and the outcome will determine whether the political elite expand their influence or whether democracy will be restored to ordinary citizens in this, as it was intended to be, the greatest republic on earth.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).

From the podium at Cleveland, he was proclaimed his party's populist candidate for president.  The general election campaign stretched through August, September, and October.  With his message of national prosperity and restoring the place of the common man, he appeared on the cusp of victory.  Then his opponent, a candidate with deep ties to Wall Street and the political establishment, stole the election with the backing of the media and a last-minute infusion of cash.

The similarities are striking – not just because it was Cleveland where William Jennings Bryan was nominated in 1896.  Politics in America repeats itself in weird ways – not because of some arcane force at work, but because the political forces at play in our democracy do not change.  From the time of Hamilton and Adams to our own, a privileged elite has striven to enslave ordinary Americans and to deny them a voice in government.  In response, the people have turned to great conservative leaders like Andrew Jackson, Calvin Coolidge, and Ronald Reagan who have restored the dignity and rights of the common man.

What Donald Trump stands for today echoes the platform populist Bryan adopted in 1896.  The central message is that the little man has been assaulted by the forces of a political elite, and a savior has come to restore democracy to what it was intended to be.  In Bryan's day, the lackey serving the elite was William McKinley; in ours, it is Hillary Clinton.  In both cases, their unspoken message is that ordinary Americans – that vast majority of working Americans residing in the flyover states between Manhattan and L.A. – simply don't matter.  Their views on jobs and the economy, the environment, and national defense, as on moral issues such as the use of bathrooms by members of the opposite sex, are immaterial.  What matters is the interest of the political and cultural elite. 

As Vachel Lindsay wrote in his great poem "Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan," William Jennings Bryan promised to make America great again by expanding the money supply with an infusion of silver currency.  His pro-growth policies would have stripped power from the East Coast banks, increased domestic trade and industry, and expanded opportunities for the common man.  Most of all, Bryan listened to the voices of the silent majority of working Americans, especially those from the heartland and the South who had been excluded for decades by a political establishment centered in the East and the Upper Midwest.  Long before pundits spoke of the division between red and blue states, the 1896 election epitomized it.

As Lindsay put it, "There were real lines drawn" in that 1896 election.  Bryan, the Nebraskan promising a "silver Zion," faced off against William McKinley, the hand-picked instrument of party boss Mark Hanna.  The heartland, all those "by the dour East oppressed," as Lindsay put it, rose up in support of Bryan.

In Lindsay's view, Bryan gave voice to the hopes of the common man – indeed, to the "Hopes of all mankind, / Made rare, resistless, thrice refined."  More refined, in other words, than an administration full of lawyers, academics, and lifetime politicians – the political elite who ruled Washington in Lindsay's day as in our own.  It was not just the chokehold that gold currency had on the money supply – it was the moral values of the ordinary American that had been mocked and derided by decades of corrupt plutocracy.  It was the corporatism and graft that controlled politics under Presidents Grant, Hayes, Arthur, and Harrison – those forgettable cyphers of business as usual.

Now there appeared a giant among men, a candidate whose very presence seemed to turn the streets to silver and the grass to fire.  When Bryan spoke, he cast a spell with his cross of gold speech.  "The people have a right to make their own mistakes / You shall not crucify mankind / Upon a cross of gold," he roared.  When he spoke, Lindsay wrote, the entire world "danced upon its axis / And like a darling broncho whirled."

As Bryan's numbers rose in the campaign, Wall Street and the East panicked, driven "down like a wind-smashed fence."  In response, Boss Hanna rallied the banks, the unions, the trusts, and the big-city papers, and he poured out "the long green to a million workers."  That same phenomenon is in play today as unions join together to create a pro-Hillary super-PAC working alongside Democratic billionaire donor Tom Steyer.  Along with spending from SEIU, the union operation may spend over $200 million on the 2016 election, much of it in an effort to defeat Donald Trump.  A crucial factor in the 1896 election was the support for McKinley among skilled factory workers, who believed that their interests were opposed to those of agrarian voters in the South and West.

History repeats itself.  The same combine of party bosses, big money donors, and organized labor that opposed Bryan in 1896 have surfaced again, as they have so many times, in opposition to the interests of ordinary Americans.

In the end, Bryan was defeated.  It was the victory of the plutocrats, the "custodians," and "all that inbred landlord stock."  As Lindsay wrote, it was

Defeat of the young by the old and silly.
Defeat of tornadoes by the poison vats supreme,
Defeat of my boyhood, defeat of my dream.

That was the election of 1896, as reconstructed by Vachel Lindsay in 1919 after most of the principles (except for Bryan) had passed away, and after Lindsay himself had become thoroughly disillusioned with the progressives who had commandeered the Democratic Party under Woodrow Wilson.

As for the victor in that 1896 election, he went on to lead the country through another four years of corporatism with even greater wealth for the Morgans, Carnegies, and Rockefellers of the world.  Wall Street prospered; the country won its war against Spain, taking control of vast new territories; and McKinley, trusting to his universal popularity, met his end at the hands of a crazed anarchist in an unguarded reception line in Buffalo.  Ironically, farm prices under McKinley improved, partly as a result of McKinley's adoption of Bryan's pro-growth policy of monetary stimulus, including the issuance of larger amounts of paper and silver currency.

There are obvious differences between 1896 and 2016, the largest being that the Democratic Party long ago ceased to be the party of the common man – it now represents those same special interests that hampered ordinary Americans in Bryan's day.  But the similarities are striking.  Ordinary Americans still exist at the mercy of the plutocrats – the Washington establishment with its close-knit circle of career politicians, rich bundlers, well-funded lobbyists, and elite academics and media types, all of them preying on and contemptuous of what Obama once labelled those from Palookaville.  That web of exploitation operates by awarding privileges and redistributing tax revenues in return for votes, and it perpetuates itself by manipulating public opinion via the media, the unions, the universities, and the established political parties.  And the candidate who now leads in the Democratic race is as much implicated in this web of influence and greed as was McKinley in 1896.  Recent revelations about the role of the Clinton Global Initiative's support for Energy Pioneer Solutions, a for-profit corporation owned in part by long-time Clinton associates, suggest a tangled web of donors, public officials, and favored corporate interests.

Donald Trump is not riding out of the West like a wild prairie bronco – not exactly – but he is a sort of wild man assaulting the entrenched interests and political correctness of the plutocrats and the cultural elite.  Like Bryan before him, he is the idol and delight of the common man because he gives voice to their sense of exclusion and humiliation.  He battles the smug superiority of the calculating donor class and the self-righteous hypocrisy of the liberal elite.  Like Bryan, he dares to stand against the "crucifixion" of the ordinary American at the hands of a thousand party leaders, a hundred thousand bureaucrats, and a million academics and journalists.  Like Bryan, he speaks from the heart, and the people listen.

No one can predict whether Trump, like Bryan, will go down to defeat in November.  I believe that the 2016 campaign will replay the great battle of 1896 between a political elite and a surging populist movement.  After 24 years of corporatism in American politics, it is high time for a populist conservative to restore democracy.  That is what 2016 is all about, as it was in 1896.  A mounting swell of anger and resentment has won Donald Trump the nomination.  The vested interests are furious and afraid.  They have already deployed their media attack dogs with their accusations of racism and sexism and homophobia.

The 2016 campaign will be bitter, just as it was in 1896, and the outcome will determine whether the political elite expand their influence or whether democracy will be restored to ordinary citizens in this, as it was intended to be, the greatest republic on earth.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).