What is American Populism?

Was Donald Trump a “populist”?

How about Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama, or Joe Biden?

What about Pat Buchanan?

Trump’s victory in 2016 created real interest in American populism. Is it simply a rural version of progressivism?

What are it’s goal and origins?

You can’t understand American populism without first understanding Jeffersonianism. There’s a reason Tom Watson called his newspaper The Jeffersonian.

And you can’t understand Jeffersonianism without understanding John Taylor of Caroline, one of the most important American political thinkers of the nineteenth century.

Here’s a news flash: Trump isn’t a Jeffersonian and he certainly wouldn’t embrace much of what Taylor had to say.

Nor would almost anyone else on the list above. Buchanan comes closest. Sure, Trump and even the Democrats like Clinton, Obama, and Biden can sound like populists at times, but they don’t act like it once in power.

Obama is the most progressive of the bunch. That has more to do with where he’s from than anything else.

Clinton, Buchanan, and Biden at least have some connection to the South. Biden is more of a Pennsylvania boy than anything else, but he rubbed elbows with Southern statesmen during his time in Congress, and as the progressives pointed out during the 2020 campaign, that by default made him a racist.

The New Yorker Trump had more Hamilton in him than Jefferson.

He also had a dose of self-aggrandizement that would turn off all of the early American populists like Taylor.

The best short essay on the topic is by Clyde Wilson. You need to read it.

The National Review thinks we could learn much from William Jennings Bryan. He might have been from Nebraska but the Bryans had been in Georgia for decades.

I scribbled a little piece on C.A. Lindbergh and his son, Charles, in Forgotten Conservatives in American History. C.A. clearly flirted with socialism, but he had the right views on banking and empire. Both father and son admired the Minnesota outdoors and had a rural sensibility to their distrust of the New England elites.

Populism is more complex than a simple distrust of the monied interest. It has to have a rural backing, and more than anything has a Southern flavor.

Trump is consistently able to gather large crowds in the South because Southern culture still admires the hard fighting populist. At one time, not so long ago, Democrats banked on this group for support. Howard Dean said he wanted to appeal to the white Southerner with the Confederate flag on his pickup truck. Imagine any Democrat saying that now.

I discuss American populism in Episode 478 of The Brion McClanahan Show.

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