Cheap Seats 2016
The Populist - 05/11
By Rich Trzupek
America elects two types of Presidents: patricians and, much more rarely, populists. The election of a populist has traditionally signaled a wholesale shift in the political sphere and we may be on the verge of such a shift again.
The patrician President is the Chief Executive that Americans of all political persuasions are most comfortable with. The patrician President is wise, benevolent and far-sighted. He is an experienced leader who has proven his worth in the political and/or military sphere. According to his party, he was born and bred to lead the nation and it’s the support of the party elders that whisks him into office.
The populist is different. The populist gives not one damn for the political establishment, be it within his own party of the opposition. The populist is an outgrowth of discontent – grumbling among the populace that turns into an ideological rebellion. If he’s successful at winning a party’s nomination and winning the general election the populist forces his party to change direction. If he’s not, and most populists throughout American history are not, then he joins William Jennings Bryan and Eugene V. Debs as footnote among failed Presidential aspirants.
America has had three, maybe three and a half, populist Presidents. The first was Andrew Jackson, who ended the one-party rule that historians would describe as “the era of good feelings” and fracture the Democrat-Republican party into Democrats and Whigs. Jackson was the first President to get himself elected by calling out the ruling class and appealing directly to the voters’ angst and anger.
Teddy Roosevelt was the next populist President. Yes Teddy came from an aristocratic background, but populism is about attitude, not birthright or bank account. The Republican establishment of the day tucked Teddy safely into the Vice Presidential slot under McKinley where his wild ideas would never see the light of day – which might have been the case had not Leon Czolgosz took McKinley out early in his second term.
Ronald Reagan was an anti-politician as much as he was a master of politics. The “Reagan revolution” truly was, swinging the GOP back to the right after years of Nixon and Ford dancing toward the center.
And the half? That would be FDR. By all outward appearances he was the classic patrician President: a member of the genteel class, a career spent in politics, D.C. connections galore. But, there was that part of Roosevelt that understood how to reach out directly to the people and use that connection to tip the balance when it needed tipping.
It will be noted that Lincoln is not included in this list. While no one admires Abe and what he did more than your humble correspondent, he wasn’t a populist. He was elected by a minority of the voters (owing to the fractures among Democrats) and for most of his terms in office, most people thought he was a buffoon or a villain – sometimes both. His genius lay in working around the establishment and electorate alike, not in tapping into either.
Today, the presumptive Republican nominee has tapped into the power of the populist once more. Whether there is enough power there to defeat Team Hillary remains to be seen, but – as is the case with populists preceding him – Trump’s Rules are far different from what political game-masters and the press are used to.
Take endorsements, for example. Much has been made of the Bush family’s decision not to endorse Trump, along with other big shooters in the GOP like Graham and Ryan. In a typical year, that might be troubling. In a year of the populist, it surely doesn’t make one bit of difference and it might actually do the Donald good. When a huge section of the electorate is revolting against the establishment, then when that establishment won’t go along with the rebel choice, that’s a sure sign for the rebels that they’re on the right track.
It’s the same way with Trump’s undoubted changing positions on issues over the years. His response to that question is easy and will resonate among those who support him: my position on issues has changed depending on what’s best for my businesses and the multitude of people employed by those business. Now, as a candidate for President, my positions are based on what I think is best for the country. That’s the way democracy works people.
Boom. Drop microphone. Exit stage.
None of this is to say that I think the Donald is the best possible candidate. I would have love to have seen Cruz win the nomination, but such is life. The only question for conservative and libertarian voters is not “is Trump the best candidate?”, but rather “is he a better candidate than Hillary?” for any vote for a candidate other than Trump, or any sitting home and pouting in November will be effectively a vote for Hillary.
This may be another, ever so rare, year of the populist. Either way, this one will be fun to watch.