Is Donald Trump the new Hitler or a reincarnation of William Jennings Bryan? In a piece on U.S, News and World Report web site Daniel Klinghard, on March 4, 2016, thinks Trump is reminiscent of Bryan. Following is a slightly abridged version of the article.
Pundits and academics toyed for a while with branding Donald Trump with the scarlet H – warning of his rise as a replay of the fall of Weimar Germany and the emergence of Adolf Hitler. Trump’s suggestions that the government surveil mosques, deport undocumented Mexicans and prevent Muslims from entering the U.S. was originally hailed as more Nazi than American, until we reflected on the pervasiveness of NSA surveillance, the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the mass deportations of Operation Wetback in 1954. Indeed, there are enough examples of such Trumpisms in the American tradition for comparisons of demagoguery without having to conjure up Hitler.
Consider William Jennings Bryan, who captured the Democratic presidential nomination 120 years ago in 1896. He made a name for himself as a journalist (both before and after serving as a member of the House of Representatives) and importantly as an orator who toured the country to speak to populist groups and agitate for the abandonment of the gold standard and the adoption of a silver-based currency. In his appeal to lowbrow tastes, his ability to turn politics into popular entertainment and his willingness to play to prejudice against judgment, Bryan was closer to a modern-day reality TV star than Trump is to Hitler.
To secure the nomination, Bryan applied the same rhetorical style that he had honed in prairie schoolhouses and southern convention halls – a popular forum that had been all but ignored by party elites, but through which he generated a “silent majority” that struck the establishment by surprise in 1896.
Among the most popular tools of the Bryan campaign were a series of ill-informed and wildly popular pamphlets featuring a young boy who lectured bankers on the intricacies of global finance. Witty, anti-Semitic and grossly simplistic, they reassured voters that there were solutions to America’s economic woes – solutions so clear that a child could see them. Like Trump, Bryan appealed to what he deemed to be common sense and warned his listeners that anyone preaching moderation only intended to keep the common man in the dark.
Fifteen Democratic candidates received votes for the nomination at the 1896 convention, including six governors, five senators and the sitting vice president of the United States. They never overcame their interpersonal opposition to present a united front against Bryan, a former two-term representative and newspaper editor. Indeed, they hardly considered Bryan a serious contender until the convention met and he delivered his famous “Cross of Gold” speech decrying the gold standard and calling Democrats to an apocalyptic battle against the “Eastern Elites” who dominated both parties.
The elevation of Bryan had long-term implications for his party. His predecessor as Democratic nominee, President Grover Cleveland, had made his career following a formula of running on reform principles and governing pragmatically. After 1896, Cleveland was a man without a party. He refused to support Bryan and retired in despair when Republican nominee William McKinley trounced Bryan and set up the GOP for a thirty-year period of dominance.
Bryan remained the master of what was left of the Democratic Party, despite the clear flaws in his candidacy and his isolation from the party’s establishment – particularly from its traditional major donors, nearly all of whom abandoned the party after 1896.
It is easy to imagine the emergence of an analogous situation under a Republican collapse today, even if it is one with different policy objectives. In fact, if you look at a map of the 1896 electoral college results demonstrating Bryan’s loss, you’re looking at the basic parameters of a Trump loss (with some give and take around the edges, particularly Washington, Virginia and Florida).
If the Republicans of 2016 go the direction Democrats went with Bryan in 1896, it could mean years of wandering in the wilderness. We might look toward such a proposition with hope that the polarized politics of the past fifteen years would at last be broken. But we should also be warned of a democratic deficit, in which the incentives to mobilize in support of Democratic politics would wither along with the possibility of real party competition.