America has a colorful history of populists — what does it mean for Trump in 2020?

Editor’s note: Chris Stirewalt is the politics editor for Fox News Channel and author of the new book “Every Man a King: A Short, Colorful History of American Populists.”

By Rob Bluey and Ginny Montalbano | The Daily Signal

Rob Bluey: You often hear that America has never seen anything like the presidency of Donald Trump, and in some respects I certainly think that’s true. But your book recounts other examples of populists and their rise to power. So what lessons can we learn from our own history?

Chris Stirewalt: Don’t panic is a good one. The amount of alarm, the amount of anxiety, the amount of upset that has greeted the Trump presidency has been as much a reflection of the ignorance of the American electorate when it comes to our own history.

I only take two public positions in issues in my life: One is that Election Day should be a federal holiday, and everybody should go vote in person. The other one is we are in such desperate need of civics and American history education.

People obviously are alarmed when things look totally different. … Given the fact that our moment looks so different than much of the past 25 years, people understandably would panic. But you don’t have to go very much farther past that. You don’t have to reach into antiquity.

If you think about what was happening in this country 50 years ago or you think about the stretch of American history between 1963—let’s say with the Kennedy assassination and the fall of Saigon in the spring of 1975—that was 12 years of incredible turmoil and populist revolt and bloodshed. Riots in dozens and dozens and dozens of cities, and all of those things. That was not that long ago. We go through these cycles. This is part of being who we are.

Ginny Montalbano: I want to ask you a little bit more specifically about President Trump. How do you see President Trump’s policies reflected in his populist rhetoric and are there any examples where perhaps they’ve been in conflict?

Stirewalt: Well, Trump is an attitudinal populist more than anything else, right? Certainly you would say that the populist rebellion that he led or that chose him is substantially focused, and you have seen this very much in his administration policy, on white working-class voters, especially in the upper Midwest.

Trump has taken very, very clearly the lesson from the 2016 election to be focused on those voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin who delivered by a breathtakingly narrow margin the presidency to him. When we talk about adding tariffs to steel and aluminum coming into the United States as a first thing for him, when we see that, we see Trump honoring the populist movement that led him to the White House.

But in other things, of course, and this is sort of what’s interesting, populism doesn’t carry with it any political ideology, per se. Bernie Sanders is just as much of a populist as Donald Trump is in the sense that they both want to be leading revolutions. They both believe that they’re leading movements that are aimed at taking down elites and taking down people in positions of authority who have rigged the game for their own benefit.

That’s both of their theses. However, they just differ on what constitutes those elites and what do you want to do to them.

Bluey: As you know, President Trump has an approval rating among Republicans near or above 90 percent, depending on the poll. How much of his populism is a factor in those numbers? And what does it say about the Republican Party of today?

Stirewalt: I think if you have the New Deal coalition, you’re going to have New Deal policies. The parties are switching lanes and we’re watching it happen.

The old Democratic coalition forged by the Great Depression, annealed during the Great Society and Vietnam—all of that coalition—had two major constituencies of minority voters and working-class whites. That was the basic coalition of the Democratic Party, and the Republicans were the party of college-educated.

The core component of the Republican electorate were college-educated white folks, suburbanites, right? Republicans started winning with college-educated white voters with Eisenhower and never stopped. That has been their core thing.

Now, what’s happening is, you can have an economy that is as robust as this one, and you can have a country that’s essentially at peace, and you can still have a president with an overall job approval rating in the 30s. … The only demographic subgroup that still has majority approval at 51 percent for Trump are white voters without college degrees.

As the Republican Party comes to be more dependent and reliant on those voters, it will change what the Republican Party acts like and it will change what the priorities of the party are, and that just is a function of political math.

Montalbano: You’ve mentioned how populism comes in waves and in cycles. How do you think that the Democrats will respond to President Trump’s populism? Will they nominate their own populist or perhaps go into a different direction?

Stirewalt: Barack Obama recently hit the campaign trail. He was talking about people resisting change. It was an allusion to his 2008 candidacy, and it sounds so funny coming from him. But the truth is, of course, in 2008, he was running as somewhat of a populist insurgent. He was taking on Hillary Clinton. He was taking on the Democratic establishment. He was speaking up for what he said were forgotten or misbegotten individuals and we’re going to fight for them. We are the change that we have been waiting for.

For Democrats now, they have to realize a couple of things. Trump is the reaction to Obama in the clearest. You can sometimes say, “This person was a response to, this election was a response to that election.”

Donald Trump’s presidency and election reflected things that were unleashed by Republicans and by Obama among the GOP, right? It’s like, “Oh yeah? Well, how do you like it now?” People thought that Republicans might go for an anti-Obama. They wanted an Obama of their own who turned the volume up even higher.

We are now at a point where we are so divided. It is so rotten out there, and people are so angry at each other. Politics infects literally every corner of our society. There is no TV show, no football game, no theater production, nothing can be free, nothing can be apolitical. That’s where we are.

There’s a real clear path for Democrats in 2020, which is nominate somebody normal. If the Democrats hadn’t nominated Hillary Clinton … just imagine what the 2016 election would’ve looked like if the Democrats would’ve chosen, and I know they wouldn’t have done this, but what if Tim Kaine had been their nominee? … If they would have ran an anodyne, normal politician without the corruption, without the baggage … Hillary Clinton was the worst.

Democrats could not have picked a worse nominee, I don’t know, since William Jennings Bryan the third time. I mean, you got to go back past Michael Dukakis. I guess as bad as George McGovern anyway. If they would’ve picked anybody reasonable, they would have probably been fine.

The question for Democrats now is this same populist energy, the Bernie Sanders people, this revolt is in their party. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts and Andrew Gillum in Florida, and so on. The revolt is there. So do they match the Republicans populist counter revolution with yet another escalation of these pitch fork wars, or do they find their way to pick some sort of centrist-sounding or normal-sounding politician? On that decision will hinge their success and failure.

Bluey: On the cover of the book, you have pictures of Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, Ross Perot. Certainly many colorful figures as the subtitle of your book says. The title is “Every Man a King.” It’s a quote from Huey Long, one of the other politicians that you write about in the book. Tell us about the meaning of that title.

Stirewalt: Huey Long was just as nutty as a peach orchard boar. We should remember most populism in American history—other than Andrew Jackson, who we talk about in the book—is a left-lurching thing because it’s usually economic in focus and it’s usually about giving me what some of you got.

Huey Long was going to confiscate. … He claims, and it may be even partially true, he claimed that he had 7 million members of what he called the Share Our Wealth Society across the country in 1935. That was a scary year for the United States. Fascism was on the march around the world and it had real devotees. We were not immune to what’s happening as the second dip of the Great Depression comes on. Americans are starting to think maybe this whole republic concept, maybe this whole liberal-democracy concept is a bad idea. Maybe we can’t afford it, and maybe what we need to do is, as people like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh and Joe Kennedy said, maybe what we need to do is modernize here and try a little bit of light fascism.

Huey Long was there to deliver. His idea was they were going to confiscate every fortune—more than $8 million—and redistribute the money across the populace. Now, of course, Huey Long would’ve taken a big fat chunk of it for himself if he got the chance. But he was going to redistribute the wealth across everywhere. So everybody has a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage, every man can afford a home, everybody will be a king. We will elevate everybody at once, and, of course, like a lot of populists, he says, “It’s just right there and it’s just so easy to do.”

The only reason that they don’t do it is because they don’t want you to have it. I know the secret, and if you give me a dictator, essentially—and he didn’t bat an eye talking about that, a dictatorship. He said, “Perfect democracy would look like a dictatorship because the leader would just be acting out the will of the people.”

What’s wrong with that? Give him the power to confiscate these fortunes, spread the money around, and everybody is going to live great. Why don’t we just go ahead and do that? It sounds foolish now, but in 1935, when people were desperate and income inequality was much more painful way, it probably sounded pretty good to a lot of folks.

Bluey: I appreciate your recounting that story. There’s so many more like it in the book. In the dedication, you write to your children, “Keeping this republic will be your job, not mine.” I’m a father myself, and that really resonated with me as well. What do you hope that your readers take away from the book?

Stirewalt: Be of good cheer. This is OK. That doesn’t mean that everything that’s happening is OK. But it means we need to have confidence in the fact that we have been through worse.

The purpose of faith is to fix our eyes on something that is beyond our current struggle, right? Beyond the current thing that we’re doing. Very often, and this is certainly in biblical terms, the Israelites recount, “Oh, we suffered here. Oh, we suffered there. Then it was bad. Then we came out. Then it was OK.”

It is important for Americans—when they are concerned, when they are alarmed, when they feel bad about things—sometimes it’s good to go back and just say, “OK. We stood right at the edge of the cliff several times before, and we didn’t plunge in. We’re not going to do it again this time.”

In the conclusion, I talk about the election of 1864. If we can do that, if we can succeed in that moment of keeping a republic in the midst of a Civil War, we can handle Donald Trump and Twitter.

Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons