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Brannon R.


Cynthia Mazzant

Rhetoric and Civil Life

March 9, 2017

A Paradigm Shift in Populist American Politics

The crowd roared as he finished his stirring speech, eventually going so far as to hoist the

man on its shoulders and parade him around the venue. Atop these shoulders sat none other than

William Jennings Bryan, the famous orator, politician, and perhaps most importantly: crusader

for the common man. Having been fighting a long and arduous battle against what was seen as

an overwhelmingly oppressive elite class for years, the thousands of men and women present

at the speech and the countless others that shared in a common ideology were ready to make

history. Having found power in a whirlwind of recent years of political chess, the common

man was ready to finally claim victory once and for all by propelling William Jennings Bryan as

its nominee for President of the United States of America. Officially representing the Democratic

Party in its race against Republican frontrunner William McKinley, to many William Jennings

Bryan was a beacon of light shining through the darkness of an oppression forced upon the

average American. Bryan and his supporters rallied; ready to defeat those who had oppressed

them for years.

Yet, they failed. William Jennings Bryan lost that race, and two more presidential

elections after it. Like many before him and many more to follow, Bryan traversed a long-

standing trail of populists losing in United States presidential politics. Although Bryans political

platform varies from the populists before him and the populists to come for the next 120 years,
something common can be found in his populist classification. Populist leaders such as those in

the last century and a fifth of American history have stood for a multitude of eclectic platforms

and ideologies, yet have always used the same tactics of polarization, fear mongering, and false

representation of the common man or average American and his needs. Although gaining some

minor ground at various times, the notable populist leaders on the fringe of American politics

have failed to win or failed to even reach every single election until 2016, when Donald J. Trump

was elected President. The election of Donald Trump shows a major shift in American politics in

that what was once practically impossible for a populist leader has now become our reality, while

at the same time this very reality creates a paradox for the idea of populism itself. Donald Trump

has shifted populism from the failing outskirts of presidential politics with a cast of historical

failures to a viable political strategy due a mix of age-old tactics (such as railing against the

elite) and new (such as the advent and mass accessibility of social media). In short, Donald

Trumps election has ushered in a new age of American politics in which a strategy that has been

tried for decades to no avail is now a successful tactic that can be used by the very people it

seeks to fight against.

For the purposes of this paper we will define populist leaders as those that have used a

similar strategy consisting primarily of polarizing rhetoric, anti-elitism, and representation of the

common man to gain support by fighting against the Democratic and Republican

establishments within Americas two-party system, no matter their individual political beliefs or

ideologies. Although populists can and commonly do use a political partys infrastructure and

organization as a platform with which to garner more support (i.e. Trump using the Republican

party to become its nominee), they identify primarily as an outsider. To clarify, what we

commonly think of as a populist may utilize a party yet does not primarily identify with the
establishment of said party. Politicians relying on populism either as a foundation or a

supplement of their electability while purposely maintaining distinction from their affiliated

party have always lost. Before Donald Trump, no populist matching our definition had since

managed to fight that battle and win. Famous figures, both historical and contemporary, have

consistently maintained the status quo that populists are unsuccessful in American presidential


Our aforementioned historical character William Jennings Bryan is perhaps the most

well-known and studied example of a losing populist. Having ran in the 1896, 1900, and 1908

Presidential Elections and having lost every single time, his best efforts could not defeat the

monstrosity of an elite political machine that he faced. Although he consistently ran as the

nominee for the Democratic Party, his foundation and basis of support was only possible and

existent due to the populist rhetoric and strategy that earned him his following. Much like future

populists later would, Bryan simply utilized the convenience of claiming the Democratic Partys

nomination without sacrificing the principles of anti-elitism that he embodied for hundreds of

thousands of Americas poor farmers and other groups attracted to populism in that time period.

Bryan was first and foremost a populist, spitting fire against the gold standard, the elite, and all

others that he and his followers deemed guilty for their sorrows. However, as is previously

mentioned, Bryan still lost all three times. Despite this, his losses would not dishearten one of the

next major populist movements to appear in a presidential race, that of George Wallace.

The late 1960s were an obviously turbulent time in United States history. With the Civil

Rights Movement, the escalation and constant disagreement over the war in Vietnam, and many

other social issues defining the American political climate at the time, many Americans felt

disheartened, scared, let down, and unrepresented. Their fear eventually gave way to anger and
resentment towards those they believed were causing this strife. In place to capitalize upon this

growing anxiety and resentment was George Wallace, the openly racist and pro-segregation

governor of Alabama. Tactfully playing off of the fears of many Americans, Wallace managed to

perpetuate the us vs. them attitude that is a foundation of populism. Wallace ran his campaign

on a message of being vehemently against those that were ruining the lifestyle that him and his

followers enjoyed. His hatred, fear mongering, and polarization were an all too familiar way of

gathering the support he needed for a third-party presidential run in 1968. Despite being mildly

successful, Wallaces bid for the presidency ultimately failed. He became yet another example of

a failing populist, joining the likes of William Jennings Bryan. It would still be over half a

century before Trump would break this mold, and more populists in between would fail. The

stories of William Jennings Bryan and George Wallace are just two examples of populism failing

in a run for the presidency. Populists that rose and fell in these years are neither few nor far

between. Each candidacy resulted in a failure, further proving that populists simply stood no

chance in an actual election. However in November of 2016, Donald Trump broke what seemed

to be this general rule of thumb. Just how did he do it?

It goes without saying that politicians must adapt to the current climate and sentiments of

a vastly diverse and quickly changing United States in order to be successful. As years go by,

new doors of electoral opportunity open while others close. The public can be reached and won

over in newer ways, while the older ways die out. The people change, the issues change, and how

to be the most electable candidate changes. Donald Trump broke this pattern of populists losing

by capitalizing upon the most effective facets of populist support, while at the same time most

effectively utilizing the newest advents and advantages of our current time period. Through

nearly all aspects of modern media, Trump has implanted himself in the mind of nearly every
American. Through traditional populist technique, Trump has claimed control of those who feel

marginalized by a changing society. In mastering strategies both old and new, Trump maximized

his appeal in a political divided America.

Trump ran at odds with the Republican Party, showing his clear disdain for the elite of the

establishment while at the same time establishing himself as an outsider more aligned with the

common man than with the ruling class. Trump successfully capitalized on the fear many in our

nation sadly still hold in their hearts, as he spoke against immigration and basic civil rights for

many. Just as the populists and demagogues had before him, Trump managed to gather his

foundational support from a group of Americans that were scared and resentful of the change

occurring around them. Those that sensed they were falling out of power in what was always a

country advantageous to them saw their savior in Trump, a man who promised to Make

America Great Again. No longer would your Average Joes feel played and taken advantage of

by the massively indestructible Democratic and Republican parties because here stood a man

promising to represent them and to quell the fears of those resisting an increasingly progressive

society that no longer placed them above everyone else. Donald Trump was the perfect populist

candidate, and he had a strategy unlike anything else previously seen.

Before his controversial run for the presidency, Donald Trump was already a household

name in the modern age of the United States. From being a billionaire real estate mogul to a

reality television star to the owner of multiple clothing brands, the man was already impossible

to ignore. His fame along with his eccentricity were both broadcast even more vocally through

the invention and widespread use of social media such as Twitter. Trumps opinions could

immediately be broadcast to the millions of Americans eager for more. In fact, Trumps tweets

have even become a cultural trend due to the erratic style and pure oddness with which he writes
directly to the people. The ability to see and hear Trumps thoughts on television, on the Internet,

and on nearly every other form of media instantaneously is a distinct advantage that he has over

his populist predecessors. He had the means to stay relevant to a much broader audience than any

candidate before him had. Although he represented and stood for fringe ideas, Trump managed to

put himself into the thoughts and minds of nearly every American, not just those that already

agreed with him. While his opposition failed to stay relevant to key voter groups, Trump used his

mastery of public manipulation in order to be heard everywhere all at once. No populist before

has been able to do this partially due to the fact that such technology simply has not existed until

now. Trump blended the strategies of the past with the possibilities of the present, and it is a

major factor as to why he is now President when other populists never stood a chance.

Singlehandedly, Donald J. Trump broke everything we thought we knew about American

politics, therefore signaling a massive shift in the concept itself. Populism has now shifted from

an unsuccessful tactic of the outside to a winning strategy.

As is known, populism has always been partially defined by an attitude against the elite

and against the ruling class. Its leaders have always taken pride in being against those oppressing

the people, which usually is characterized as the Democratic and Republican Party

establishments. However, this logic only ever managed to work due to the fact that populism had

never won the election. Now that both the Democrats and Republicans have been forced to sit

back and watch an outsider effectively overpower them, they can simply use the strategy for

themselves. Although it is too early to tell, it is completely possible and even likely that both

parties will adopt the strategies of Donald Trump and his predecessors. The Republican Party

knows that it only won this election because it was strong-armed by Trump, just as the

Democratic Party knows it lost this election by choosing a nominee that was not quite populist
enough. The solution for both is obviously to find a balance between management and restrain in

order to mold the perfect candidate. Donald Trumps victory changed American populism forever

by transforming it from a fringe movement to a legitimate strategy.

Populism has shifted in such a way that the very characteristics that define it are being

used by those it seeks to rally against. The heart and soul of what has characterized populism for

over a century is now its antithesis. The political doctrine that defined itself by standing apart

from the establishment has handed that very establishment a convenient victory. The Republican

and Democratic Parties are composed of thousands of elite strategists and seasoned political

veterans with one goal in mind: victory. They would have to be blind, deaf, or plainly stupid to

ignore the prospects and possibilities now ahead of them. The Democratic Party is already dazed

and confused about the fact that it lost this most recent election to somebody that was widely

considered a joke and a nonfactor until it was too late. The candidate they selected to run against

Trump was clearly a member of the political elite that struggled every day in the election season

to relate to a majority of Americans. Although it can be argued that Trump does not truly relate to

the average American either, that fact is arbitrary in the world of politics because he convinced

Americans otherwise, whilst Hillary Clinton did not. Political victory is not about truly standing

for anything, it is about convincing others that you believe in what they believe in, that you stand

for what they stand for, and that you will fight for them in your name for those core beliefs in

order to make your name more appealing, relatable, and therefore electable. On this front,

Donald Trump easily defeated Hillary Clinton.

Trumps billions of dollars, privileged upbringing, and lifestyle of fame and luxury were

all conveniently masked behind the populist strategy he and his advisers (such as Steve Bannon)

worked so effectively to their advantage. Donald Trump knew without mainstream political
support in the name of the Republican Party, he would lose the election. Likewise, Reince

Priebus and the rest of the elite of the Republican Party knew they would lose without the

populist support Trump had already gathered for them through his previously mentioned hybrid

of old and new personal marketing to the common man.

In conclusion, the history of populism is riddled with literal losers and is the host of a

pathetically unsuccessful track record in American politics. However, Donald Trumps

unprecedented victory in the 2016 presidential election has marked a change for populism. What

was once a generally out of touch and fringe set of political doctrine rallying for the common

man and against a perceived elite class with no specific political leanings has now become a

winning strategy. From William Jennings Bryan to Donald Trump, populism has shifted from the

edge to the mainstream.

Works Cited

"A Brief History of Populism." The Week - All You Need to Know about Everything That Matters. N.p.,
26 Sept. 2015. Web. 09 Mar. 2017.

"The Growth of Populism." Independence Hall Association, n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2017.

"Historical Presidential Elections." Historical U.S. Presidential Elections 1789-2016. N.p., n.d. Web.
09 Mar. 2017. Staff. "William Jennings Bryan." A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 09
Mar. 2017.