For half a century, most presidential campaigns have featured one or more “populists” from the right, the left or somewhere in between. In 1968, reporters and academics pasted the label on George Wallace, whose campaign literature asked, “Can a former truck driver married to a dime-store clerk and son of a dirt farmer be elected president?” In 1972, Time dubbed George McGovern a “prairie populist” because he had a modest plan to redistribute wealth and hailed from the rural heartland. In 1996, The Atlantic observed that Pat Buchanan’s “hard-right-wing populism … may be the shape of politics to come.” In 2012, The Hill announced, “Obama cranks up populist pitch” after the president, who previously shied away from us-versus-them talk, called for higher taxes on the rich.
There was a time when “populist” meant something more specific. The word originated with the decidedly left-wing People’s Party that emerged in the Midwest and the South amid the economic turmoil and rampant inequality of the 1890s. Journalists who knew some Latin started calling them “Populists” as a shorthand, and the name stuck. Those uppercase Populists championed small farmers and wage-earners who thought “the money power” — banks and industrial corporations — had seized control of both America’s economy and its government. The party called for nationalizing the railroads, breaking up the trusts and strengthening labor unions. At times, their leftism toppled over into paranoia; to explain society’s ills, they invoked “a vast conspiracy against mankind,” engineered by a plutocratic cabal.
The Populists joined forces with the Democrats for the 1896 election and collapsed soon afterward. The word “populist” mostly disappeared into academic studies until the 1950s, when Joseph McCarthy, a previously obscure Republican senator from Wisconsin, rose to prominence with his claims that Communists had infiltrated positions of power in the American government and military. Many targets of his rants were members of the East Coast liberal intelligentsia.
Millions of Americans cheered on McCarthy’s crusade — horrifying liberal intellectuals like the historian Richard Hofstadter and the sociologist Daniel Bell, who reached back to the precedent of the Populists to understand the roots of the new anti-elitist fervor. In McCarthy, they heard echoes of the original Populists’ conspiracy theorizing — only this time, the perpetrators were well-born “pinkos” or “reds.”
Other scholars dismissed the comparison as deeply unfair, but Hofstadter’s effort to link the Populists to what he called “the paranoid style” of the new right resonated. And so “populism” began to morph into a handy tool of journalistic discourse.
Like Trump and Sanders today, ’60s “populists” chose to blame elites for what ailed the nation. For Nader, it was greedy corporations and enabling politicians. For Wallace and Ronald Reagan, it was the federal state. These habits live on today. From the Tea Party to the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, Americans keep turning their ire against institutions that appear to betray the promise of fair and equitable treatment of ordinary workers, homeowners or taxpayers. Sometimes, it seems, “populism” is just a synonym for widespread unhappiness with the status quo.
Yet differences of language matter; they suggest what a candidate will seek to accomplish if he or she takes power. The 19th-century antecedent that Trump evokes in his nativist appeals to white working- and middle-class Americans is not the populism of the People’s Party but rather that of the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s, which similarly argued that immigrants were taking Americans’ jobs and breaking the nation’s laws. Trump’s “populism” is a brilliant specimen of performance art but one that bears little resemblance, even in style, to the capital-P kind. The earnest activists from the People’s Party of old brandished a lengthy blueprint for reform; Trump’s personality overshadows his program. His canny lack of finesse finesses us all.
Critics of Sanders and Trump often condemn them with the same pejorative. The conservative National Review, for instance, recently scorned both as “demagogues” who exploit public alarm and peddle impossible solutions to difficult problems. But as that word has been applied to everyone from Andrew Jackson to Joe McCarthy to President Obama, it has lost much of its sting. The “populist” whose politics you abhor is always a demagogue disguised as a hero of the masses.
And those who disparage “populism” in general neglect its salutary function. When populist talkers direct their outrage at elites, in government or business, who neglect the needs and betray the trust of ordinary citizens, they can perform a service to the nation. They train their language of discontent on those accused of betraying the core ideal of American democracy — one that is no less powerful because it can never be fully realized.
In their own fashion, Sanders and Trump are protesting inequalities and the corruption of public life without calling the entire system into question. (Sanders may speak of “revolution,” but he still chose to run for president within the two-party system.) You may love such upheavals or loathe them. Trump’s hostility toward undocumented immigrants and Muslims is certainly reprehensible. But every major “populist” insurgency is a warning about serious problems festering in our politics. To simply blame the messenger is an exercise in denial.
Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent. He is the author of “War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918,” which will be published in January 2017 by Simon & Schuster.