Grove City College historian Gillis Harp asks this question and provides some historical context today at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Here is a taste:
Is Donald Trump’s “MAGA” movement real populism? Is it a genuinely democratic movement that truly works to benefit common people, or a political cause that uses the average American’s concerns to gain power?
It might seem truly populist. Trump sought to appeal to non-college educated, lower middle-class Americans whose incomes had flatlined since the early 1980s. He and his advisers shrewdly perceived the deep political alienation of many working-class whites.
The candidate told blue-collar voters that globalists in both parties had not defended their interests as they pursued their neo-liberal economic policies. Accordingly, Trump made sweeping promises to bring back domestic manufacturing, end job outsourcing, and erect tariff barriers to protect American farmers from foreign competition.
Knowing the history of American populism can help us distinguish authentic populists from the fakes. The original populists of the 1890s conducted America’s first great experiment in mass insurgent politics. Beginning as a radically egalitarian movement composed mostly of farmers, the populism of the 1890s became a third political party at a convention in Cincinnati in 1891.
The People’s Party (their official name) protested that America’s “producing classes” had not shared in their era’s robust economic growth. Spokesman Ignatius Donnelly lamented that “the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes, unprecedented in the history of the world, while their possessors despise the republic and endanger liberty.”
Kansas firebrand Mary Elizabeth Lease declared that the nation was ruled by “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street.” “The great common people of this country are slaves,” she cried, “and monopoly is the master.”
A year later, the party gathered in Omaha, Nebraska, to nominate a presidential ticket and draft a party platform (something Republicans notably declined to do in 2020).
The Populists, as they were known, envisaged an expanded role for government to level the playing field and to promote and protect the interests of the dispossessed. The platform called for nationalizing the railroads and for the government to own and operate the telegraph and telephone systems “in the interest of the people.” Populists demanded a graduated income tax and tough legal restrictions to prevent land speculation.
In short, in the “Omaha Platform,” they pushed sweeping measures designed to alleviate economic inequality and the marginalization of farmers and urban factory workers. (As it happened, they never had much luck winning urban labor to their side.)
What does their example tell us about how populist Trump and the MAGA movement are? The record of Congressional Republicans during the Trump administration stands in dramatic contrast with the platform of the original Populists.
The Trump campaign populism of 2016 was mostly rhetorical. Trump did help American farmers with agricultural tariffs aimed at China, but his administration’s policies neither spurred domestic manufacturing nor elevated sagging blue collar incomes. The Economic Policy Institute reported that nearly 1,800 factories disappeared between 2016 and 2018.
Read the rest here.
If you are interested in populism, I encourage you to listen to our interviews with historians Michael Kazin and Eric Miller.