The presidential election of 1896 was by no means a placid one.
Civil War issues still lingered in a continuing sense of economic and civil unease.
These tensions were not allayed by rapid westward expansion, made possible by the Industrial Revolution. Not only was small town America seemingly destined for extinction under this revolutionary connection, but it ramped up economic competition, divorcing supply and demand from the business cycle and putting small farmers and craftsmen in competition with people they couldn’t even see.
Nor did the economic woes end there. Immigrants pouring in from all over the world threatened employment. A Treasury act that changed the ratio of gold to silver in the dollar from 15:1 to 16:1 led to a currency crisis that was further exacerbated by runs on the bank in 1873, 1884, 1890 and 1893.
As a result, support for greenback-based monetary policy became prevalent amongst farmers and was adopted into a broader culture of anti-trust agrarianism that culminated with the Populist Party.
Fast forward to 2015.
Civil and economic unrest resonates in endless Middle Eastern campaigns against terrorists who grow stronger and bolder. The Internet has allowed people from across the world to be connected. But it has also changed commerce, utterly destroying the Industrial Revolution’s infrastructure, as production floods to countries where the cost of doing business is substantially less.
The entire world seems to hover on the precipice of a debt crisis. Once one nation falls, the reckless loose money policies of others will surely follow. There have been avoidable housing bubbles and government manipulation of money through inflationary quantitative easing.
And cheap labor in the form of illegal immigrants threatens to flood the labor market and depress wages.
In short, 2015 and 1896 are almost exactly the same, technological capabilities excepted, even in certain rhetoricians.
Donald Trump occupies the same space as William Jennings Bryan. Both are populists, advocating strongly and bluntly for a position, but doing so with more rhetorical style than substance.
Where Bryan railed against the perennial liquidity crises resulting from the nonflexibility of the gold standard, focusing on their deleterious effects for farmers and workers, and stoked fears of big bankers exploiting the disconnected everyman, Trump lays current economic woes on the backs of illegal immigrants, painting them as dangerous criminals who inherently stand a threat.
Both are emotionally frenetic. Bryan somewhat hyperbolically exclaimed, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Trump accused a heckler at his FreedomFest speech of being an agent of Mexico’s governor.
Both are didactic. They cast society into two classes: the connected elites, always the oppressors, and the common man, usually agrarian and always an innocent victim, who must contend with the problems caused by the rich city man.
But neither present real answers. Though the Populist Party platform, drafted by socialist Ignatius Donnelly, called for a bimetallic standard among other positions, it was as didactic in its demands as its oratorical champions, calling for a graduated income tax then demanding that as much money be left in the hands of the people as possible.
Trump may make fiery speeches about securing the border immediately. He may even raise cogent points regarding the violence and criminality of illegals. But he has presented no solutions, only denigrated Mexicans.
While the Populist Party was successful in the 1894 midterm election, it waned in 1896 and utterly collapsed by 1900. This is because it now had a record to which it could be held accountable. And it was not a successful one, as it could speak, but not legislate.
Trump is somewhat unique in that, unlike Bryan, he did not begin as a third party candidate and end up receiving the nomination of a major party that blatantly rejected many of his stated positions.
Trump, however, has flip-flopped between parties, holding positions, such as advocating a path to citizenship, that directly contradict his current rhetoric as shortly as one year ago.
At the moment, the facts, as they often are when populism is concerned, have been overlooked in favor of emotionally powerful and gratifying rhetoric. To what degree American voters will see through this and at what point in the election they do so remains to be seen.
Regardless of the personal success of his candidacy, like the populists who come before him, Trump possesses almost limitless power to influence the issues central to the election. 1896 became about the makeup of currency. A confluence of events related to Trump’s somewhat nativist views on immigration, as well as his bombastic quips, have led to an immense amount of media coverage, which, especially in the digital age, can be even more important than merit.