Americans that want to see a picture of how the 2016 Presidential election might turn out should take a look at the electoral contest of 1896. There are plenty of eerie similarities between that election and the way this year’s battle for the White House is shaping up.
The intriguing parallels between the two elections include:
- A rabble rousing insurgent candidate completely disrupting the race by taking control of a major party and imposing a radical populist agenda upon it. In 1896 it was William Jennings Bryan and the Democrats. In 2016 it is Donald Trump and the Republicans. Like Trump today, Bryan was a popular public figure who was widely feared by the elites and reviled by the establishment. Like Trump today, Bryan capitalized upon class differences and economic stagnation and pushed a radical agenda that many Americans feared.
- Perhaps Bryan’s greatest mistake in 1896 was to directly challenge the nation’s most powerful business interests. He took on the nation’s largest corporations; railroads and its richest men including Wall Street financier J.P. Morgan and billionaires such as John D. Rockefeller. Naturally they responded with their most powerful weapon cash which they unleashed on behalf of Bryan’s Republican opponent William McKinley. Trump is now challenging Amazon.com and its CEO Jeff Bezos here’s what he tweeted:
- “Trump on Amazon: “If I become president, oh do they have problems. They’re going to have such problems”. • $AMZN 12:13 PM – 26 Feb 2016.”
- Some news reports that Trump is also calling for a boycott of Apple for opposing a federal court order to help the FBI break iPhone encryption.
- Bryan was widely supported by party rank and file but feared by its establishment. In particular, Bryan was loathed by the incumbent Democratic President Grover Cleveland who openly opposed him. Many prominent Democrats actively campaigned against Bryan and tried to sabotage his campaign. Today several prominent Republicans including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Minnesota) and the 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney are actively and aggressively campaigning against Trump.
- Much of the opposition to Bryan was driven by his radical stands. Bryan opposed the gold standard the nation’s basic economic policy at the time and promoted free silver a sort of 19th Century version of quantitative easing in which the government would buy unlimited amounts of silver and coin it into money. Today Trump opposes immigration and free trade two key cornerstones of the modern neoliberal agenda. Trump’s proposal for a 45% tariff on Chinese made goods and demands for bans on immigration are anathema to many elitists on both sides of the aisle.
- As it is today the country in a staunchly anti-establishment mood in 1896. Then as now average Americans were upset by extremes of wealth and poverty, the concentration of income in the hands of the elite, growing corporate power and runaway cultural and economic change. Many average citizens felt their economic position was eroding and traditional American society was under siege from dangerous outside forces as many people do today.
- There were deep regional and cultural divides in 1896 particularly between the Midwest and New York and the country and the city. There were also deep racial divides back in 1896 Bryan stoked racial fuels and capitalized on white rural Protestants fears of rich people and Catholic from the big city. In 1896 as today much of divide was driven by technology, the big new fortunes in 1896 were the result of new technologies such as railroads, large scale steel production and electricity. Today it is Big Data and technology that is driving the opposition. Over at Global Guerillas, one of today’s most astute cultural critics Colonel John Robb wrote this:
“This milestone became crystal clear after Super Tuesday, when everyone in the establishment, from the Democratic and Republican party regulars to the media elites to academic policy wonks to senior government employees to the heads of large corporations and financial firms, banded together to denounce Trump.”
Robb labelled this elite the technocrati and their behavior is remarkably similar to the leaders of 1896. Back then everybody from former Confederate generals to a radical small town newspaper editor named William Allen White launched vicious attacks on Bryan. Today everybody from Glenn Beck on the right to the pundits at Salon is making a sport of attacking Trump.
The outcome of the election of 1896 should also interest us. When Bryan and his followers took control of the Democratic Party, many of its leaders openly turned on him. Cleveland openly spoke against Bryan, while a group of conservative anti-Bryan activists organized a “Gold Democratic Party” to split the vote and ensure Republican victory. One of the nation’s most prominent Democrats Burke Cochrane even travelled the country delivering anti-Bryan speeches.
Today, one of the most prominent Republicans, 2012 Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is actively trying to sabotage Trump’s campaign with comments about his taxes. Meanwhile, one prominent conservative pundit Robert Kagan is urging Republicans to vote for Hillary against Trump and another conservative commentator Max Boot is calling Trump a “fascist.” Radio host Glenn Beck is traveling the country comparing Trump to Hitler in speeches and his followers to Brown Shirts or Nazi Party thugs.
Yes Folks its 1896 all Over Again
Now much the same scenario seems to be unfolding, Politico reported that Data Targeting a firm of Republican campaign consultants had been commissioned to study the possibility of a third party challenge to Trump by a group of conservative donors on Feb. 26, 2016
The result of that back in 1896 was a dismal defeat for Bryan, largely because the nation’s elite was opposed to his radical agenda and prepared to spend a fortune to stop him. Some experts still think that the Republican campaign of 1896 was the most expensive in our nation’s history.
Since Trump is promoting an economic agenda that would hurt many of America’s biggest corporations – proposing a 45% tariff on Chinese imports – it is safe to assume that Wall Street and Silicon Valley will get out their check books to stop him. I seriously doubt Amazon.com and Walmart are going to sit back and let Trump shut off the source of much of the merchandise they sell.
If 1896 is anything to go by Trump could win the Republican nomination and go down to a dismal defeat. Particularly if the nation’s largest corporations and richest citizens close ranks behind Hillary and flood the Democratic Party with cash. The election will get nasty, we’re liable to see a third party challenge to Trump probably under the Tea Party brand and many prominent Republicans openly campaigning against the Donald.
After 1896 it took the Democrats decades to recover, the country was dominated by a large Republican majority until the Great Depression of the 1930s. During that interlude the Democrats could win when the Republicans were split among themselves.
My guess is the same will happen if Trump wins the Republican nomination. For an interesting look at how this year’s election might turn out check out The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters by Karl Rove which is available through Amazon one of today’s top political strategists. It looks like Mr. Rove is prescient, 2016 is shaping up to be another 1896 in reverse.