The Unpopular Origins of Populism

By Jesse Russell, PhD
Assistant Professor of English, University of Mary

On March 4, 1829, Andrew Jackson was inaugurated as the seventh president of the United States. Following a new American tradition, Jackson hosted a reception at the White House. As well as the usual suspects of Washington’s high society, Jackson invited the frontiersmen and hillbillies who had helped sweep him into the White House. After losing a bitterly contested election in 1824, Jackson drew on the support of the American people and ran again in 1828, defeating John Quincy Adams, a fixture of the newly minted American political establishment.

At the reception, Jackson’s jubilant supporters paraded into the White House, drinking voraciously and acting raucously, and famously trampling cheese into the White House carpets. Traditionally called “the People’s Day,” by historians, this pell-mell, redneck rampage was met with disgust by the Washington elite who were more comfortable playing “pall mall,” an early form of croquet on manicured lawns, which was popular among elites. (When the game went out of fashion in Europe, the long narrow lawns became shopping areas or “malls.”)

While Jackson is despised by many today because of his very un-populist support for slavery, his election provides a window into our current political situation, showing that populism is as American as proverbial apple pie.

Old one cent stamp with Andrew Jackson on it. Andrew Jackson was an American soldier and statesman who served as the seventh president of the United States and was the founder of the Democratic Party.

Old one cent stamp with Andrew Jackson on it. Andrew Jackson was an American soldier and statesman who served as the seventh president of the United States and was the founder of the Democratic Party.

This fall, the victory of one of America’s prominent political families, the Clintons, seemed inevitable to most pundits. In October, the New York Times predicted that early voting would assure Hillary Clinton’s victory. On November 6, the LA Times confidently predicted that she would win a whopping 352 electoral votes. However, most reporters and commentators misunderstood the power of populism’s appeal in America.

Donald Trump won the election because, for better or worse, he was a man of the people. His rallies dwarfed Hillary’s since she lacked the popular appeal that had ensured her husband’s electoral success. Hillary garnered the backing of various elites and most registered Democrats, but she failed to gain wide popular support because she is not a woman of the people. Hillary, unlike Bill Clinton, was much more pall mall than pell mell.

Bill Clinton, despite being a Yalie, Rockefeller protégé (Clinton famously said in a 1998 address to the Council on Foreign Relations that the only two people who believed he could be president were his mother and David Rockefeller) and a Rhodes scholar, always appeared to the average American as just “Bill.” While his wife became known as just “Hillary,” the common usage of her first name was more a matter of distinguishing her from her husband than connoting a warm, “down-to-earth” personality.

Like Donald Trump, Bill liked to eat fast food. He famously took reporters on jogs to McDonald’s. There was a classic Saturday Night Live skit in which Phil Hartman as Clinton ravages the food of other customers at a Micky-Ds. As Andrew Jackson before and Trump after him, Bill was a regular guy in public, who used expressions such as, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Ironically in the 2016 election, Bill wanted Hillary’s campaign to appeal to the working class in counties like Monroe, Michigan, which flipped from Obama to Trump by 23 points, and to rural voters in areas like the Arkansas Ozarks that Hillary lost to Trump. In fact, if Bill Clinton had run for president in 2016, he might have won the White House by being more a man of the people than Trump. In the long run, “it’s always the voters, stupid.”

In his famous article “Pell Mell,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in 2007, American novelist Tom Wolfe captured this quintessentially American political culture. Wolfe dates the birth of “the American idea” to December 2, 1803, when a disheveled Thomas Jefferson broke diplomatic protocol by hosting a disorganized dinner party without assigned seats at the dinner table. This encouraged a mad, pell-mell dash to the table where the quickest, rather than the most important guest, got the best seating. This offended the very pall-mall British Ambassador Anthony Merry.

The same reckless pell mell aided Trump’s election bid more than it hurt, because it made him a man of the people. Prior to the campaign, Trump was known best by most Americans for his tagline—“You’re fired!”—on the reality show “The Apprentice.” The spectacle of Trump shaving the head of Vince McMahon, CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, in the ring during a match, endeared the Donald to ordinary men and women nationwide.

This idea of the everyman politician is endemic in American history. North Dakota’s adopted son Theodore Roosevelt, known as much for his moustache and game hunting as his foreign policy, boasted about the wild energy of American politics. “We are a vigorous, masterful people, and the man who is to do good work in our country must not only be a good man, but also emphatically a man,” Roosevelt (also known as just “Teddy”) said in a speech given outdoors to a large crowd in Redlands, California in 1903. “We must have the qualities of courage, of hardihood, of power to hold one’s own in the hurly-burly of actual life.”

"The News Reaches Bogota" political cartoon, depicting Theodore Roosevelt building the Panama Canal, and shoveling dirt on Columbia. New York Herald, December 1903. Author W.A. Rogers (Credit: The Granger Collection, NY).

“The News Reaches Bogota” political cartoon, depicting Theodore Roosevelt building the Panama Canal, and shoveling dirt on Columbia. New York Herald, December 1903. Author W.A. Rogers (Credit: The Granger Collection, NY).

This pell mell of American populism surfaces regularly during election cycles. As a graduate of humble Whittier College and then Duke University’s law school—neither of which are Ivy League colleges—Richard M. Nixon won the presidency in 1968 and again in 1972 because of the rise of the “silent majority” of Americans who had come to detest what Tom Wolfe called the “radical chic” elitism of the post-Lyndon Johnson Democratic Party.

Then in 1976, the Democrats, after losing two elections, caught onto populism’s importance and nominated the unpretentious Jimmy Carter. While Carter’s cabinet included a smorgasbord of elite members of the Council on Foreign Relations, Carter remained the mild-mannered Baptist farmer from Georgia. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won precisely because he was a charismatic actor from California with populist appeal. Reagan was best known for movies such as “Bedtime for Bonzo,” just as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s role in “The Terminator” helped him become the governor of California in 2003.

Even the Bush family had to shed their WASP Episcopalian heritage for Texas accents and evangelical Christianity to win the new Southern and Christian Republican voters in 2000 and 2004. George W. Bush’s seeming difficulty pronouncing three-syllable words didn’t gain him votes in Boston, but certainly didn’t lose votes in Alabama. “W” learned from the mistakes of his one-term presidential father who famously revealed his pall-mall Ivy League roots when he asked for a “splash” of coffee at a New Hampshire truck stop in 1991. Barack Obama, a graduate of Columbia and Harvard Universities, often sheds his necktie and struggles through baseball analogies. He deliberately uses un-Ivy League terms, such as “folks” to describe average Americans.

What has frustrated so many members of Washington’s political establishment, on both sides of the aisle, is the naïve expectation of what political scientist Francis Fukuyama called “the end of history.” In a 1989 academic article, Fukuyama predicted the ultimate end of global conflicts after the termination of the Cold War and the emergence of a peaceful utopian global order. Fukuyama’s thesis was shattered by the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Then the Obama administration and its supporters, unfazed by what the German philosopher G.W. F. Hegel called “the cunning of history,” envisioned an endless parade of progressive victories after the passage of Obamacare and the Obergefell v. Hodges triumph. That thesis was destroyed on November 9, 2016, by the election of Donald Trump, which in reality is neither the end of history nor the end of the world. And if Trump’s White House succumbs to pall-mall isolation from the nation’s pell mell, another politician will capitalize on the disconnect.

As the gumshoe work of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks has revealed—much as the leaking of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times during the Vietnam War—many conspiracies and machinations of powerful pall-mallers are true. Government for the people, by the people, will continue to prevail as long as the sometimes unruly American pell mell survives.