For those elements of the GOP who hope to push their party in a more populist direction, there’s already a platform preamble that’s ready to go.
“We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin,” the document declares. “Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislature, the Congress…The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced …The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind…A vast conspiracy has been organized on two continents, and it is rapidly taking possession of the world. If not met and overthrown at once, it forebodes terrible social convulsions, the destruction of civilization, or the establishment of an absolute despotism.”
Despite its distinctly Trumpian overtones (“Corruption dominates the ballot box”; “the newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled”) the melodramatic warning actually predates the 45th president by more than a century.
History of populism
Ignatius Donnelly, a former Republican Congressman from Minnesota, wrote the celebrated preamble for the 1892 platform of the surging Populist, or “People’s Party,” just as the farmer-based political movement reached the peak of its power and prospects.
Surprisingly, the old populist resentments, once aimed squarely at railroads and banks, continue to flourish in the twentieth first century. Even more unexpected: that American populism should now make its home in the Republican Party.
From its inception in the 1850’s, the GOP has functioned as a pro-business faction, encouraging economic expansion, and financial success, rather than deriding wealth creation as the product of nefarious conspiracies. Populist attitudes may play a role in leftist movements around the world, but they have seldom connected with the free-market emphasis of American conservatism. The preferred definition of “populism” in the Oxford Dictionary describes it as “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.” Donald Trump’s tireless attacks on “Fake news” as “the enemy of the people,” and his promises to “drain the swamp” and obliterate the “deep state” echo the capital “P” Populists, whose nineteenth century insurgent party upended American politics from the left.
Ryan Streeter, of the pro-business think tank The American Enterprise Institute writes that “these themes – abuse by elites, the end of America, conspiratorial usurpation – recur over and again among Trumpian purveyors of grievance politics.” He cites the former president’s initial Twitter reaction to the Capitol riot on Jan. 6: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”
Such commentary may rouse a portion of the populace but hardly qualifies as conservative. In the United States, right of center thinking has consistently stressed individual accountability and shunned the cult of victimization. Elevating gratitude over grievance can empower individuals to change themselves, their circumstances and society at large, while the focus on all-powerful cabals generates fear, frustration and helplessness.
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For most Americans, conspiratorial thinking not only bears scant relation to lived reality but seldom generates political success. Since Tocqueville’s visit in the 1830’s, apt observers of the American scene have characterized our populace as incurably optimistic and consistently confident.
‘Conservative’ and ‘populist’ are contradictory
It’s therefore no surprise that the Populist candidacy in which Ignatius Donnelly identified a “vast conspiracy” presaging “absolute despotism” led to absolute disaster at the polls in 1892. General James B. Weaver, a Civil War hero expected to compete forcefully against Democrat Grover Cleveland and the Republican incumbent Benjamin Harrison, underperformed with less than 10% of the popular vote and a scattering of electoral votes from six states.
While the People’s Party might win local victories with colorful personalities like “Sockless Jerry” Simpson in Kansas and “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman in South Carolina, they never gained traction on the national level. Merger with the Democrats in 1896 (to support William Jennings Bryan) meant damage, not deliverance. Bryan lost three Presidential races by ever-widening margins, before a Republican split and a distinctly elitist Democrat (Woodrow Wilson, President of Princeton) rescued the downtrodden Dems in 1912.
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As today’s GOP seeks rejuvenating leadership in a post-Trump era, an aimless drift toward angry and outdated populism remains a conspicuous danger. Viability as a dynamic opposition party requires recognition that the term “conservative populist” remains, as always, a glaring contradiction in terms.
Michael Medved, a member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors, hosts a daily, syndicated talk radio show and is author, most recently, of “God’s Hand On America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era.” Follow him on Twitter: @MedvedSHOW