2016: Populism revisited and the Cross of Gold speech
By Robert Bradley | September 7, 2016, 6:15 EDT
You have to go back to the 1896 presidential race between William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley to find an historical parallel to the contest in 2016 between the three finalists: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Unfortunately, the great majority of American citizens know virtually nothing about President McKinley, who was an excellent president and a man of substance and integrity. If they do know anything about McKinley, most likely it is that he was assassinated in 1901 and that, upon his death, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt became the youngest president ever at the age of 42.
William Jennings Bryan is now remembered primarily for his role in the play and movie about evolution, Inherit the Wind. In it, Bryan was wrongly portrayed as a bumbling fundamentalist prosecutor in the Scopes Monkey Trial who lost the case and his reputation battling the renowned defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow. Most people do not know that Bryan was a Democratic congressman from Nebraska who ran for president three times – in 1896, 1900 and 1908, and later served as Secretary of State in the administration of President Woodrow Wilson.
In “The Triumph of William McKinley,” Karl Rove recounts the dramatic McKinley victory over Bryan in 1896. At the Democratic National Convention, Bryan – a young, handsome and gifted populist orator – gave one of the most famous speeches in American political history. The issue which divided the country at that time was whether our currency should be tied to gold (and therefore continue circulate as a hard currency) or to silver, which could cause the dollar to depreciate and bring about an inflationary economic upturn. It is hard to imagine today the passions that this issue aroused between rural citizens and the middle class in the cities, between farmers and merchant, between the borrowers and the savers. Bryan was a free silver man, and free silver was the political cause of many working Americans.
At the close of his powerful and brilliant speech, he delivered the lines that were to become famous throughout the land for decades to come: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.” Based largely upon this speech he was nominated as the Democratic candidate for President.
Bryan’s brand of populism energized a broad swath of the American electorate, and in the 1890s, over 75 percent of the citizenry voted in presidential elections – unlike the last four elections in which voter turnout has averaged 55.2 percent. But the majority of Americans were troubled by Bryan’s brand of populism, and McKinley’s well organized campaign delivered a victory with almost a 100 electoral vote margin, which set the stage for 16 years of Republican control of the White House.
The 2016 presidential campaign is arguably the contest with more populist overtones than any race since 1896. But there the parallel ends. In 1896, character counted with the American people. So did political and executive leadership. William McKinley had served as a young man in the Union Army during the Civil War, enlisting as a private. Through exemplary leadership and extraordinary bravery under fire, he rose through the ranks, and at the end of war, he was a brevet major. He practiced law in his home state of Ohio, entered politics and served first as a congressman and later as governor. He was a practicing Christian, known for his integrity. People trusted him. In short, he was the “establishment” candidate. But, in those days, that was seen as something positive.
The current “establishment” candidate is the polar opposite of McKinley. Unlike McKinley, Hillary Clinton did not work her way into powerful positions on the basis of merit and character. She gained power based on her husband’s success as president, and (at least in part) based on the public’s sympathy for all that he had put her through (never mind that she enabled his philandering behavior, which caused him to be only the second American president to be impeached).
On numerous occasions as U.S. Senator from New York and later as U.S. Secretary State, Mrs. Clinton showed that her word meant nothing. Her lies about the assault on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi and the CIA annex have been shameful. The corruption and self-enrichment inherent in the Clinton Foundation has been well documented and scandalous. The current email scandal, which would have landed any other American in jail, demonstrates without a doubt that Mrs. Clinton thinks she is above the law. No surprise then that polls show 70 percent of the American people do not trust her. Wide-spread rejection of Hillary, the “establishment” candidate, set the table for her two “populist” opponents – Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
First Sanders. Bernie Sanders, who captured the hearts and minds of the millennials, is, of course, no William Jennings Bryan. Unlike Bryan, Sanders did not hold a real job until he was nearly forty years old. Unlike Bryan, Sanders had a child out of wedlock. He celebrated his honeymoon in 1988 in the Soviet Union — at a time when the Soviet Union was still the “evil empire” and mortal enemy of the U.S. Illegally, he visited Cuba in 1991. In short, he is an admirer of collectivist governments and a real live socialist. But Sanders near victory over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries shows two things: how far the Democratic party has moved toward socialism and the what a weakness of Hillary Clinton as a candidate.
Next Trump. Donald Trump was able to win the dysfunctional Republican primaries with 17 candidates because the main “establishment” candidates were unable to demonstrate the leadership potential, vision and organizational abilities necessary to defeat an outsider with a flair for self-promotion. But, more than that, Trump grasped what no other Republican candidate was able to grasp: that much of America was deeply upset about three things: illegal immigration, the no-growth economy, and the demise of American “exceptionalism.” Hence Trump’s slogan: Make America Great Again.
The problem for Trump is that the polls show that he is disliked and not trusted at about the same rate (70%) as Clinton. Trump appears to have changed his mind repeatedly on many issues over the past several decades. Americans believe that pragmatism is a good thing, but they also think that it is important to have clearly delineated principles. Trump also has no political experience and comes across sometimes as a bully and a street fighter. Unlike Bryan, Trump is not a populist, but rather a multi-millionaire, a reality TV star and part of the elite he claims to be fighting.
Trump is, nevertheless, a political outsider in a year when Americans distrust insiders, and he has successfully challenged the establishment because many believe that he can put an end to much of the political correctness which today dominates our culture.
Choosing between two deeply flawed candidates is a real dilemma. But it may come down to choosing between a candidate who has repeatedly shown that she cannot be trusted and a candidate who has yet to be in a position to be trusted with power. While not a populist like Bryan, Trump may well need his own Cross of Gold speech to beat Hillary, who despite her many weaknesses and character flaws, remains the establishment candidate to beat.