William Jennings Bryan and His Populist Campaign

Populism began the fourth party system.

We’re currently in the seventh party system.


“Donald Trump won millions of followers and, perhaps, the presidency with his blunt and entertaining speeches. So it was probably inevitable that Stephen Bannon, the powerful White House chief strategist who likes to invoke the lessons of history, would compare Trump to an oratorical legend from the past.

On Thursday, Bannon told a packed crowd at CPAC, the annual conservative conference, that Trump, only a day before the president gave remarks at the same venue, is “probably the greatest public speaker in those large arenas since William Jennings Bryan.”

Bryan, like Trump, did excel in front of mass audiences and often bashed the elites of his day. But the similarities between the two men as speakers end there. The Nebraskan Democrat, whom his admirers dubbed “the Great Commoner,” was an economic progressive whose populist rhetoric targeted “the money power”—Wall Street investment houses, big industrial firms and the politicians, most of them Republican, who did their bidding. He supported labor unions and free trade and called for a ban on private donations to political campaigns. As an editor of his own newspaper, he loved talking to reporters, and would never have considered attacking the press, even though most big-city dailies opposed him. Bryan was the key figure in changing his party from a conservative one (on economic policy) to the modern liberal one that Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Barack Obama inherited.

The Great Commoner’s speaking style also contrasted sharply with Trump’s. As he did on Friday, the president fills his talks with slogans about “making America great again” and angry jousts at “bad dudes” and “fake news.” Bryan, however, became a celebrated orator while still in his early 30s by giving lengthy, class-conscious addresses on thorny-but-vital economic issues. He was a serious man who cared deeply about substance. …

What’s more, Bryan was equally skilled at making long, popular defenses of Christianity as he was at standing up for what he called “the producing classes” against the “money power.” He gave one speech, “The Prince of Peace,” more than 2,000 times before audiences all over the world. In it, Bryan managed to merge his belief in Biblical literalism with a case, inflected with the Social Gospel, that men and women who had a “personal responsibility to God” should learn to restrain their selfish, individualistic ambitions and serve the common welfare. “

Those of us who had hoped in 2016 that Donald Trump would be a transformational populist and nationalist president in policy were bitterly disappointed. As we pointed out this morning though, Trump’s lasting legacy is that he changed the voters which will inevitably change the policies. Congress is still full of geriatric conservative “fusionist” Republicans who are throwbacks to the 1980s. Those who want to build a more representative “common good conservatism” should study Bryan.

Note: Unlike Donald Trump, William Jennings Bryan was never elected president. He was the Democratic nominee for president in 1896, 1900 and 1908. He served as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State until resigning in protest when Wilson started steering the U.S. into World War I.

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  1. The Thomas Frank video is a good selection, Hunter. Nineteenth century Anti-populist strategy was followed by anti-socialist and anti-communist strategies in the twentieth. The system couldn’t allow the peoples’ choice Bryan to win. They “pulled out all the stops” yet kept Bryan around, gave him things to do, let him hold offices, controlling him, but not too obviously. Not that there was ever a conspiracy; it’s simply the nature of plutocracy, how plutocracy works.

    Re: Bryan’s gift: Contemporary Americans don’t care about oratory, are not impressed, and some are even annoyed by “oratorical gifts.” They think Obama or Ronald Reagan are/were great speakers, and Biden’s poor communication doesn’t bother them at all. In the Populist age, in the nineteenth through early twentieth century, people were mostly in church on Sunday listening to sermons, and they often discussed the merits and skill afterwards at the Sunday dinner table. In churches today, poorly attended, mind-numbing videos are playing on the walls….

  2. WJB was a good man. He resigned as Wilson’s Secretary of State when he could see that Wilson and his jewish circle of advisers wanted to get into WWI against the will of the people.

    WJB would have been a much better POTUS than Wilson was on his best day in office.

  3. I learned more about WJB in this thread than I learned about him in four years of hi skool “history”. I can’t wait for HW to discuss the German-American Bund and the Great Sedition Trial of 1944!

  4. Bryan was the Cowardly Lion in the Wonderful Wizard of OZ (= ounce). Scarecrow = Agriculture (i.e., the Populists) Tin Man = Industry (i.e., the Knights of Labor) Dorothy = America.

    They travel the Emerald City on the yellow brick road (gold standard) to find that Wall Street is fake. Dorothy realizes she has the answer to their problem the whole time: her silver slippers, i.e., the Silver standard.

    It’s a Populist fable.

    • @NBF

      The implication is that Bryan was still pretty much a conservative – he was the cautious, “good optics” wing of the Populist movement and was more of a reformer than a revolutionary.

      In the book the symbolism is all blatantly obvious and the illustrations – which were done in the style of newspaper editorial political cartoons of the time – make it even more obvious.

      But the musical theater production and the movie ignored most of that to make it a children’s story. Then of course the movie changed Dorothy’s slippers to ruby because the color looked very good on their new Technicolor film stock.

      Thus the entire point of the novel was lost for 50 years, until someone wrote about it in the 60’s.

      You can go to youtube and find a thousand high school kids doing presentations about it.

      But apparently the literary establishment considers this a “conspiracy theory” – of course. It’s just part of the demonization of the Populists, and by extension, the second Klan.

      Anyone reading Baum’s novel in 1900 would have found it all quite obvious and also hilarious as it was a satire, and quite vicious in some ways.

  5. A good talk from Frank. The same class of super-rich oligarchs were behind the anti-populist campaigns of 1896 & the ’50s – but in the ’50s the kikes, fresh from their triumph in WW2, were the new, decisive element: they more than anyone else pushed and continue to push this idea that the White farmers & other rural people were crazy, anti-Semitic hatahs, “authoritarian personalities”, this despite the fact that the reverse was the case. All because they’ve always hated & feared the peasants they’ve shafted for 2000 years & more.

    And now there’s another addition to the mob of the degreed managerial “experts” that ran the show in the ’50s: the insufferable, smirking Cultural Marxist scum gleefully using usurped governmental & corporate power to dox, deplatform & financially destroy any “white trash” who refuses to bend the knee, or even says a word they hate.

    Are we going to meekly accept being dominated by billionaires, shitlibs & kikes from now on?

  6. Trump really suffered from getting involved with that Paul Ryan scumbag. I knew Romney would lose when he showed his true colors by running with that rat and Trump destroyed his first two years on this unpopular shit. Nobody with a brain cell can have heard Ryan’s “Entitlement Reform” of getting rid of Social Security and Medicare so the billionaires can pay lower taxes and not immediately know that it meant that instead of the government taking care of you in old age, it will give you a $40,000 mutual fund to cash out at age 65 and by age 66 you will be broke and living on the street like a Calcutta beggar. This Reganomics shit has run it’s course and makes the GOP immensely unpopular that only the idiot wokesters in the democratic party running on putting transvestites in your daughter’s high school lockeroom could mess up a potential slam dunk victory.

  7. Native Son of (Southern) Illinois and a hero for Dixie Populists, Midwestern Socialists, and agrarians all across North America! Smash Yankee Capitalism and Imperialism! ??????????

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