Previously, I wrote about Donald Trump’s predecessor in U.S.
politics, the mid-19th century entertainer/celebrity/pop culture
figure Dan Rice. Most of my readers understood when I wrote
that Dan Rice was the first modern circus clown that it was not
a pejorative term, but rather an homage to him as an innovating
artist during the nation’s early days. Some Trump partisans
did not get past the word “clown,” and thought I was putting
Trump down. Such is the sad state of political discussion today.
Mr. Trump is, of course, an entertainer and a pop culture figure,
as well as a successful business man and the dominant figure of
the Republican presidential nomination contest in its first stage
(the one before the actual voting). As Dan Rice before him, he is a
master of using the media. Whether his initial success will
continue in the second stage of the campaign, the caucuses and
primaries, will now be revealed by the voters in Iowa, New
Hampshire, South Carolina and beyond.
The big surprise in the Democratic side of the presidential
contest has been Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Openly
a socialist, 75 years old, and only recently a member of the
Democratic Party, Mr. Sanders was given no chance to succeed
in 2016 at the campaign’s outset, but has proven to be a tough
competitor against frontrunner Hillary Clinton who was thought
to have a lock on the nomination from the beginning of the cycle.
In fact, the polls in the first two voting states, Iowa and New
Hampshire, show Mr. Sanders far ahead of Mrs. Clinton in the
latter primary, and either slightly ahead or tied with her in the
former, a caucus. The winner in Iowa, as of this writing two
weeks before the voting, is unknown. But Mrs. Clinton has been
fading, and Mr. Sanders has been surging.
Mr. Sanders’ success so far raises the question: Has there ever
been a presidential campaign like his before in U.S. politics?
The answer is definitely yes, and the proof of it can be found in
Karl Rove’s new book, The Triumph of William McKinley: Why
the election of 1896 still matters. No, Bernie Sanders predecessor
was not Republican McKinley; instead, it was the man he defeated,
William Jennings Bryan.
Of course, there are differences between Bryan and Sanders. The
Nebraska “Boy Orator” was only 36 years old in 1896, the youngest
major party candidate ever to to run for president. Bernie Sanders
would be the oldest if he wins the nomination. Mr. Bryan was a
Protestant religious fundamentalist (his last public act was to be
the lawyer against pro-evolutionist Scopes in the famous trial in
1925), and his campaign (but not he himself) was marred by
anti-semitism. Mr. Sanders is Jewish.
The similarities in their campaigns and their public views, however,
are strikingly similar. As Karl Rove’s book reveals, Bryan was not
even an official candidate only a few hours before he was
nominated. At the 1896 Democratic convention, Bryan delivered
his now legendary “cross of Gold” speech that electrified the
convention, and even with no real organization, stampeded the
delegates to choose him as their nominee. His nomination was so
shocking it divided the party, producing overt opposition from the
gold standard Democrats (including the Democratic incumbent
president Grover Cleveland) against Bryan’s “silver” Democrats.
A third party resulted with northeastern and other gold standard
Democrats running their own presidential ticket. Bryan, now the
official Democratic nominee, also sought the endorsement of the
leftist Populist Party which four years before had drawn more
than a million votes.
The important point to note about Bryan’s 1896 campaign was
that he ran against the rich and big U.S. banks and corporations
with language that is remarkably similar to Bernie Sanders’
language in 2016. William Jennings Bryan political views and
Bernie Sanders’ rhetoric on economic subjects are remarkably
alike. Both can be described as radical populists who broke some
thematic taboos of their eras.
Mr. Bryan lost the 1896 election to a man who had just been the
governor of Ohio, William McKinley. As Karl Rove persuasively
shows, Mr. McKinley (himself an underdog at the outset of the
GOP nomination contest) belatedly but successfully countered
Mr. Bryan’s populist appeal by articulating a brilliant defense of
the gold standard and tariff protectionism, thus winning the
votes of many blue collar workers who usually voted Democratic.
Prior to this year, an avowed socialist like Mr. Sanders would
have no reasonable chance to be nominated for president by the
Democratic Party. Prior to this year, a non-politician like Mr.
Trump would have little chance to win the Republican nomination
(although Wendell Wilkie did do this 75 years ago).
The period leading up to the 1896 election was a remarkable one.
In 1893 there had been one of the severest economic panics in
American history, and a hard depression had followed. Farmers
(who were a much larger proportion of the population than they
are today), small businessmen, and many in the growing industrial
worker class were suffering. The country was significantly divided
on ideological lines. One side argued that the gold standard would
lead the nation back to prosperity. The other side said that gold
was a tool of the plutocrats, and that only bimetallism (making
silver on a par with gold) would the economy recover. These notions
of gold and silver are difficult for us to understand today, but they
become more comprehensible if you, instead of pitting gold against
silver, you contrast the modern contrast of the conservative
platform of lower taxes and lower government spending versus the
liberal platform of raising the taxes of the rich and the
corporations, and spending more public money on entitlements.
(An interesting difference between 1896 and 2016, author Rove points
out, is the one between style of campaigning. Mr. Bryan campaigned
harder than any nominee ever had before, and probably since,
visiting all parts of the nation, giving countless speeches in small
towns, large cities and rural areas. His method was much more like
the campaigns of today. By contrast, Mr. McKinley did not leave
his back porch in his home town of Canton, Ohio. He did invite
about 750,000 persons (one-twentieth of the nation’s eligible voters)
to come to Canton to see him in person and to hear him speak
from his back porch. This strategy would be unthinkable today, but
somehow it worked in 1896.)
Is there a modern equivalent to William McKinley in the Republican
field today? It is not Mr. Trump, though he might win the GOP
nomination. The nearest to McKinley perhaps is another Ohio
governor, John Kasich, or the current governor of New Jersey,
Neither Mr. Sanders nor Mr. Trump, of course, has yet been
nominated, and they might not yet win, but thanks to Karl Rove’s
superb book reexamining an important presidential election of
the past, we can see how, while the names and personalities
change dramatically in our electoral history, the issues and the
rhetoric have remarkably remained so similar.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.