Mike Pence hit the nail on the head. On Sept. 8, while speaking at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, he declared that the spirit of 1980 was back and that Donald Trump would win the White House.
While others jeered, Pence predicted that the same forces that powered the Reagan revolution — working-class voters, union members, evangelicals — would align behind Trump and create a winning coalition.
The party of Reagan has returned just as Pence described it: populist at its core and motivated by economics of the working class. Exit polls showed Trump captured 50 percent of the union vote in the Midwestern Rust Belt, which Democrats assumed belonged to them.
“His message resonated with the working man and woman,” said Maria Bartiromo, anchor and analyst for the Fox Business Network.
Political strategist Bill Burton, in an interview before Election Day, put it this way: “A large number of Americans … feel that politics is different now. It’s not right versus left the way it used to be. It’s really people versus powerful.”
This is not the first time a candidate has tapped into the concerns and dreams of the common folk, while the privileged class failed to notice. During the election of 1892, farmers in the West and South faced plummeting cotton prices and drought. Instead of helping, the big banks charged them higher interest rates. The People’s Party, also called the Populist Party, organized in St. Louis to represent farmers and the working poor against the interests of railroads, bankers, corporations and politicians tied to them.
The preamble of the Populist platform that year said, “We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot box, the legislatures, the Congress … The people are demoralized.” Trump’s campaign stump speech, in which he advocated for more jobs and the end of harmful trade deals, was uncannily similar.
The Populists did surprisingly well in 1892, with James Weaver winning more than 1 million popular votes and several Populist members elected to Congress. (In the presidential race, Democrat Grover Cleveland defeated incumbent President Benjamin Harrison.)
Over the next four years, the Democratic Party realigned itself to absorb the Populists and motley Republicans who disagreed with their party on the gold standard. Although the establishment candidate (Republican William McKinley) won the 1896 election, William Jennings Bryan commanded the farm vote and engaged millions of voters in the political process.
Similarly in the 1930s Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran on behalf of the “forgotten man” and campaigned against what he termed economic royalists — the corporations, banks and big industries that were perceived to be ripping off the working class.
In an article last year analyzing the candidacies of Trump and Bernie Sanders, the news magazine The Week defined populism this way: “Broadly speaking, it’s the belief that the will of ordinary citizens should prevail over that of a privileged elite. Throughout American history, movements based on anti-elitism have repeatedly sprung up on both the left and right, often stoked by charismatic firebrands who harnessed the resentment of marginalized people.”
Trump used his acceptance speech to reach out again to the marginalized, saying, “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” He could have taken the words right out of FDR’s mouth.
A populist message took Trump to the White House because citizens had begun to see government as part of the privileged elite. Hillary Clinton reinforced that image in the final days of her campaign when she summoned rap singers, celebrities and basketball stars to the dais instead of ordinary citizens.
Again, Mike Pence predicted this months ago. The Bushes, Romneys and other establishment Republicans can move out of the way. They’ve been replaced by the new Republican-Populist Party.
Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.