Donald Trump may have won the American presidency by promoting himself as the candidate for the common people to overthrow the Washington establishment, but this recent populist surge is certainly not the country’s first. Populists originally threatened to overwhelm American politics in the late 19th century in reaction to changes brought about by industrialisation. They became widely known as the Populist Party.
Concentrated primarily in midwestern farming communities, starting in Kansas in the 1880s, the Populist Party sought to assert the rights of the farmer. They challenged the railroad companies, bankers and East Coast businessmen who kept agricultural prices low and freight costs high and insisted America remain on the gold standard.
The gold standard had kept interest rates high and caused deflation, combining with the other problems to push farmers into debt. The Populists wanted silver coins to become legal tender to expand the money supply and counteract the deflation. Led by one of America’s greatest orators, William Jennings Bryan, the party became a viable force in American politics in the 1890s, and attracted some urban workers to their movement by promoting an eight-hour work day and restrictions on immigration.
In the congressional elections of 1894, the Populists secured nearly 40% of the votes. Bryan ran in the 1896 presidential election, representing both the Populists and the Democrats and made a famous speech in which he accused the banks of crucifying the farmer on a “cross of gold”. In the end he lost to the Republican candidate, William McKinley, by 95 electoral votes. McKinley’s campaign spent five times as much on the election.
Not in Kansas anymore
The story of this original American populist movement is well told through The Wizard of Oz, written by Lyman Frank Baum in 1900. While the musical and 1939 Hollywood movie ensured it became one of the best-known children’s stories ever written, many people may not be aware of the political allegory behind it.
Oz is a reference to gold, as the abbreviation for “ounce”. Dorothy represents Everyman, the Scarecrow the farmer, the Tin Woodman the industrial worker and the Cowardly Lion is William Jennings Bryan. The Wizard is the president, the Munchkins the “little people” of America and the Yellow Brick Road the gold standard.
The story begins with Dorothy and her house being swept away from Kansas to the Land of Oz by a tornado, landing on and killing the Wicked Witch of the East (the coastal bankers and capitalists), who had kept the munchkin people in bondage. Dorothy begins her journey along the Yellow Brick Road wearing magical silver slippers to represent the desire for silver coinage (note that the ruby slippers were introduced for the movie).
Dorothy meets the Tin Woodman who was “rusted solid”, in reference to industrial factories closed during the 1893 depression. But the Tin Woodman’s real problem was he did not have a heart, having been dehumanised by factory work that turned men into machines.
Later Dorothy meets the Scarecrow who is without a brain. Baum believed the farmer lacked the brains to recognise his political interests. While midwestern farmers backed the Populists, many southern rural people did not out of traditional loyalty to the Democrats and racism – this was only decades after the effective end of Reconstruction in 1877. Next Dorothy meets the Cowardly Lion, who needs courage – Baum is saying William Jennings Bryan had to offer the party more than his loud roar.
Together these friends head for the Emerald City (Washington, DC) in the hope the Wizard of Oz (the president) might be able to help them. But like all politicians, the Wizard plays on their fears – appearing in different forms to each character. To Dorothy he is a disembodied head, to the Woodman a bright ball of fire, to the Lion a predatory beast.
Soon they discover the Wizard to be a fake – a little old man who likes “making believe”. In other words, the president is only powerful so long as he fools people – and corrupt leaders cannot do this for long. The core of Baum’s message comes when the Scarecrow shouts: “You’re a humbug!”
After Dorothy melts the Wicked Witch of the West, who is just as evil as her counterpart in the East, the Wizard flies away in a hot-air balloon to a new life. The Scarecrow is left in charge of Oz and the Tin Woodman rules the East. Yet Baum seems to realise that the Populist dream of farmer and worker gaining power would never materialise because the Cowardly Lion goes back into the forest. And when Dorothy returns to Kansas, she has lost her magical silver shoes – representing the end of the fight for silver coinage.
The Populists recede
The Populists of the 1890s quickly faded after economic prosperity returned under President McKinley. Their anti-immigrant policy was recognised as anti-American, while increasing numbers of people moved to cities and embraced industrialisation. Bryan’s involvement with the Democrats in 1896, who shared the Populists’ views on silver, also saw the parties increasingly become one. Bryan ran again under both nominations in 1900, but by then the Populists were rapidly fading from America’s political scene.
We shouldn’t miss the parallels between the near-miss of the Populists in the 1890s and Trump’s 2016 campaign. Trump pushed for economic, social and political change against the elites, despite running on the Republican ticket. Both movements also played on people’s fears of immigration.
The big difference, of course, is that Trump will make it to the White House. He certainly had a loud roar, but it is hard to know what he will now do. He has not yet offered any substantial plans for the future and his message regularly changed during the campaign. In particular it will be interesting to see if he carries out his immigration policies, especially if they too come to be seen as anti-American in the years ahead.
Either way he would do well to remember the message of the Wizard of Oz. If he was merely fooling the people and does not represent those who voted for him, he may not remain powerful for long. Some other group of friends will be on their way to the Emerald City to declare him a humbug. Some things change, but others stay the same.