An Old Voice of Populism Penetrates a Grand New Party

The late 1800s were tough times in the United States if you weren’t rich. The Gold Standard was in effect, meaning that your wealth equaled how much gold you owned, no more no less. The disgruntled commoners were displeased. Money should be a right available to all, they said. So they began the “Free Silver” movement.

Free Silver meant that a person’s money should be based on your silver, not your gold. And it needn’t be an exact amount — every silver dollar should be worth $32 in real money, the Free Silver believers believed. Discounting economists’ warning of massive inflation if money was not pegged to real metal, the true believers demanded dollars in every underserving purse.

William Jennings Bryan, a former congressman from Nebraska, emerged as the Great Communicator of ideas for the Free Silverites. His “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic nominating convention took him from back bench status to overnight progressive hero and, then, presidential candidate.

“Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses,” Bryan said, upon accepting the Democratic nomination in 1896, “we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns.”

Unfortunately for Bryan, he lost to Republican William McKinley. Unfortunately for America, Bryan’s ideas later took hold and the Gold Standard was dropped. Free money became the norm. You can blame high prices and credit card bills for that.

“Power to the people.” This slogan has been used by leftist groups for the past half century to rise up against the “establishment,” whatever that may be.

The “establishment,” the “people” feel, are just out for themselves and their big business cronies and power must be returned to those politicians who are out for the “people.” This sentiment gave rise to the populist movement, a Latin takeoff of “of the people.”

Populism is as old as the revolution and as young as you and I. It used to be the voice of 19th century Southern farmers demanding free acres for their crops, or Western ranchers in need of grasslands for grazing.

Today, it is the voice of the Army captain who returned after 16 months from battling in Vietnam and then had to battle the Veterans Affairs department for even longer to get the treatment he needed.

It is the voice of the Rust Belt workers who lost their jobs when the factory closed down and moved to Mexico at an age too old for retraining but with an entire family still to support. It is the voice of the coal workers who lost their jobs to new regulations instituted by the Obama administration to combat supposed climate change.

The populist representation has been around since the founding of the republic. It is the hardscrabble rural farmer, urban blue collar construction worker or ex-inmate seeking to turn his life around. It is the story of what once made America great. Its call is to return to that prominence through one’s own bootstraps, without interference from Big Banks, Big Business, Big Labor or any other self-declared voice of the people prefixed by “big.”

Populism has been called several names under its various transmutations. They were the Whigs and the Farmers’ Alliances, the George Wallace Southerners and Reagan Democrats. A generation ago they were Pat Buchanan’s pitchfork populists; then they were Sarah Palin’s hockey moms before becoming the Tea Partyers.

They are now the Trumpets, angry as a hornet and ready to don the same mask of outrage as generations before have done to keep America the way they remember it.

In each of its original variations, they burst onto the national scene, made their dent by influencing a major party to adopt some of their agenda, then went bust, buried in the pages of history. But their memory is kept alive not only by students of antiquity and bushy-bearded professors but by the millennials and Generation Z.

Populists have the desire to keep America American, to drive cars and clean floors with vacuums made by their neighbors and paid for not by China and Japan but by fellow citizens.

Ronald Reagan was the Great Communicator before, he said, he communicated great ideas. Trump is the new great communicator, not because he speaks from the heart as much as he speaks to the voter.

The Republican establishment initially accepted Trump, believing him to be a malleable candidate who was useful in getting more voters to the GOP but who had no chance of winning. The concept held through until it was too late.

But it always worked that way. All populist movements are accepted by the establishment on high as a way to attract votes and advance their pet causes. Franklin Roosevelt used his coalition of special interests to promote the New Deal economic program. Richard Nixon used his to expand U.S. business interests to China and the Soviet Union. Reagan used his populist base to pass broad-based tax cuts.

But what today’s populists — both on the right, represented by Trump and on the left, by Bernie Sanders — want is not to be used in exchange for the scrapping of a trade deal or raising tariffs on China. They want to fundamentally take over the major parties and transform them in their image.

This is why Trump has a solid 40 percent of support in every poll, through thick and thin, through Jeb, Ted and Marco, through whatever kitchen sink the Clinton machine throws at him. They haven’t abandoned him. As long as he is their voice, it may crack, go hoarse or croak, but they will stay with him.

This is why Sanders did so well in the primary, staging massive rallies and garnering campaign contributions on a colossal scale, an average of $27 at a time.

As Jews, obviously, our concern is that these populist movements usually end up searching for an “other” to blame tight finances and corrupted morals on. And Jews, who are at once different and on the vanguard of change, often end up as the victim.

While there is an anti-Semitic fringe on the Trump ends, so far it remains a fringe. The party shows more support than ever for Israel and “Judeo-Christian values.” Let’s hope it remains that way. The Democratic fringe has already gone nativist, making common cause with the anti-Israel forces who used to feel more at home in upper crust country clubs.

Donald Trump may have a gravelly voice hoarse with age, but tens of millions of opinions are articulated through it. It is the voice of coal workers from West Virginia, Vietnam veterans still forgotten after 50 years, and workers laboring for minimum wage in Kentucky.

His is perhaps an imperfect voice, but thousand of voices of frustration and outrage cry out through his Queens accent. As opposed to Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent, Trump found his cause immediately after descending the gilded escalator in his soaring Trump Tower last year.

If Trump is defeated in next week’s elections, these voices will seek other means of expression. The way to silence a voice is not by killing the messenger but by listening to and adressing its needs.