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Ghost of William Jennings Bryan haunts Trump's next run for the White House

Former President Donald Trump greets supporters at a campaign rally on April 27, 2023 in Manchester, N.H.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump greets supporters at a campaign rally on April 27, 2023 in Manchester, N.H.

Born generations apart in vastly different worldly circumstances, Donald J. Trump and William Jennings Bryan would appear to have little in common beyond their middle initial.

Yet comparisons between the two began cropping up early in 2016, right about the time Trump's candidacy was bringing the word "populist" back into the daily political conversation.

We are likely to see that linkage between Trump and Bryan again in the 2024 election cycle. We can be sure Trump will continue striving to strike the populist chord as a candidate. Beyond that, if a nominated Trump failed to win the popular vote for a third time, he would match the record of Bryan, who lost the popular vote for the White House in 1896, 1900 and 1908.

Of course, it is far too soon to know how 2024 will turn out. But right now, Trump is the clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination. The proliferation of rival candidates only reproduces the dynamic that elevated him over a crowded GOP field in 2016. He is as formidable within the GOP as any nonincumbent presidential candidate has ever been at this point in the cycle. His status can only be compared to that of an actual incumbent president, which many of his supporters continue to claim he is.

But some of the same polling that shows Trump dominating among Republican primary voters shows a clear majority of voters overall do not want him back in the White House. The NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist Poll released in April even found that to be the view of 68% of independents, a large and growing group.

Whatever similarities attach to Bryan and Trump, there will always be a defining difference between the two: Trump won the Electoral College in 2016 and served a term in the White House. That enabled him to appoint three Supreme Court justices and hundreds of federal court judges and leave a mark on federal policy as well as national politics. And even if he were to lose the popular vote a third time, he might prevail again in the Electoral College — as he did after Hillary Clinton outpolled him by 2.8 million votes.

Battling over a term with a complex legacy

"Populism" was in common use as a political label when Bryan emerged on the national scene. Born and educated in Illinois, Bryan moved to Nebraska after law school and was elected to Congress at 30. He soon became an outspoken champion for farmers, free trade and "free silver" – an effort to ease the repayment of debts by breaking away from the gold standard for fixing the value of currency.

Three portraits of William Jennings Bryan at the Grand Hotel, Paris circa 1905
/ Heritage Images via Getty Images
Heritage Images via Getty Images
Three portraits of William Jennings Bryan at the Grand Hotel, Paris circa 1905

Bryan's populist crusade could claim roots back to Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson, the progenitors of the Democratic Party and the source of its self-image as the cause of the common man.

So it struck some as odd, if not bizarre, to label as populist the candidacy of a plutocrat who plastered his name on luxury towers in Manhattan.

Yet despite the wide disparity between their origins, Bryan and Trump had points of intersection and commonalities of interest and style that could not be ignored.

Bryan was a lawyer and Trump a businessman, but both had found "second careers" in high-profile roles in the media. For Bryan, it was the editor's title at the Omaha World-Herald when he was 34, which allowed him to travel widely and become an influential speaker. Generations later, the sustained NBC-TV success of The Apprentice and its celebrity sequel would make Trump a household name in much of America.

Having made a national name for themselves, both men then pivoted to politics and found success as live performers. Tall and imposing physically, both had commanding voices that could hold a crowd for an hour or more. Bryan was known for his eloquent oratory and traveled tirelessly to display it to the nation. In one campaign alone he was said to have logged 18,000 miles via train, striving to reach every sizable community in the country.

And just as Bryan's reputation for spellbinding speeches filled halls with eager hearers in his day, the often raucous energy of Trump's rallies held the cameras and commentators of cable TV news in thrall through 2015 and 2016.

Former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in support of J.D. Vance, then a GOP Senate candidate, on Nov. 7, 2022.
Megan Jelinger / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in support of J.D. Vance, then a GOP Senate candidate, on Nov. 7, 2022.

Trump himself did not invoke the name of Bryan, but some around him did. His chief strategist Steven Bannon told the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference that Trump was "probably the greatest speaker in those large arenas since William Jennings Bryan."

Finding and fascinating the right audience

The first shock of 2016 for many observers came when the primaries and caucuses began and Trump's appeal seemed most intense among those voters whoe were farthest from Trump's own life of privilege, wealth and sophistication. Trump not only accepted this, he reveled in it. Campaigning in Nevada in February, he looked at the details of a poll and loudly proclaimed: "I love the poorly educated!"

Much like Bryan, Trump thrived outside the major metropolitan centers, among ex-urban and rural and traditionalist Americans. While he did not share the intense religiosity was part of Bryan's persona, Trump actively sought the votes of those who did. In the South Carolina primary in 2016, he broke out among white evangelical Protestants, eclipsing such overtly religious rivals as Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor who was also a Baptist minister.

In March of 2016, as the Trump trend accelerated, Politico's weekly magazine published a cover piece by Michael Lind suggesting Trump could be called "the perfect populist" for his times – much as Bryan had been for his.

It was phony populism, insisted commentators such as Paul Krugman and others. Historian Julian Zelizer argued at the time that Trump was not really a populist but his "conservative populist rhetoric" was nonetheless a hit with many of the voters he targeted.

The map of the November 2016 election wound up looking notably similar to the map of Bryan's first presidential bid in 1896. There were just 45 states in 1896, and Bryan won 22 of them. In 2016, Trump won all but four of those 22 states, dominating as Bryan had in the South, the Midwest and the Mountain West. But the payoff was greater for Trump because these states had added votes in the Electoral College as their population growth rate exceeded the national growth rate in the intervening decades.

In addition, Trump in 2016 also added four of the five states that had joined the Union in the 20th century, plus four more "Blue Wall" states along the Great Lakes that had voted for Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012.

And that put him over the top in the Electoral College.

Seeing all sides of the "Great Commoner"

Bryan was just 36 when he rose to address the Democrats' 1896 national convention and delivered what became known as the "Cross of Gold" speech, equating the nation's monetary system to the crucifixion of Christ.

The next night, Bryan was nominated for president. He would be nominated again in 1900 and 1908. He lost twice to William McKinley and then to William Howard Taft, two Ohio Republicans who personified the party of the industrialist-business class. It was the worst skein of presidential election frustration since perennial candidate Henry Clay fell short of the prize five times under several different party banners from 1824 to 1852.

Not quite as dogged in pursuit of the presidency as Clay, Bryan did not run again after 1908. But he did campaign in 1912 for Woodrow Wilson, who would be one of just two Democrats elected president between 1860 and 1932. Bryan served as Wilson's secretary of state for two years and thereafter campaigned for women's suffrage and the prohibition of alcohol, both of which were achieved by Constitutional amendment during Wilson's second term.

Bryan devoted his later years to what he saw as moral crusades, including a form of evangelical Protestant Christianity that was becoming known as fundamentalism. In 1925, he agreed to serve as the lead prosecutor in the trial of a small town Tennessee schoolteacher named John Scopes who had violated a state law against teaching evolution. The teacher's defense was taken up by Clarence Darrow, the courtroom icon known for defending labor leaders and progressives.

The so-called "Scopes monkey trial" was front-page news nationally for weeks that spring and summer, and later immortalized in a play titled Inherit the Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. It was made into a Hollywood movie in 1960 and remade for TV in 1965, 1988 and 1999.

In the climactic scene, the character based on Darrow (played in the 1960 movie by Spencer Tracy) calls the character based on Bryan (played by Fredric March) to testify as an expert witness on the Bible. In the ensuing confrontation, Darrow hammers at the rigidity of Bryan's theology.

"I don't think about things I don't think about," the Bryan character responds, prompting the Darrow character to ask: "Do you think about the things you DO think about?"

Bryan's strain of populism did not die with his own presidential ambitions

The populism once personified by Bryan survived him, resurfacing in a variety of manifestations. It was part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's coalition in the 1930s. It also drove the Depression-era "Share Our Wealth" movement of Huey Long, Louisiana's governor and senator. Populist themes were mixed with Christian nationalism in the radio rants of Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest whose broadcast screeds in the 1930s were often virulently anti-Semitic.

The essence of populism includes a faith in "regular folks" and their inherent goodness and wisdom, as well as a persistent suspicion of elitism – whether perceived on Wall Street or in Washington or in the Ivory Towers of academia.

HUM Images / HUM Images/Universal Images Group
HUM Images/Universal Images Group

Populism has also often had a strong admixture of nativism, resistance to cultural change or diversity and outright racism.

Bryan himself was resistant to immigration, especially from China, and showed little concern for the condition or political standing of African Americans.

As Oscar Winberg, an international scholar and a student of U.S. political history, has described it, there have been "anti-intellectual and, at times, overtly racial appeals" that characterized "right-wing populism."

This kind of populism was glaring in the 1960s and 1970s campaigns of George Wallace, the defiantly segregationist governor of Alabama who sought the Democratic nomination for president three times and also ran as the nominee of the American Independent Party.

Some elements of Wallace credo could be detected in the campaigns of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in the 1970s and 1980s, and in the 1994 congressional elections in which Republicans gained a majority of the seats in the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years.

A clear reprise of that could be heard in the "Tea Party" triumph of 2010, when the GOP gained 63 seats and control of the House.

That election, and a similar midterm in 2014, could be read as renewals of the conservative populist impulse — and as the final setting of the stage for the age of Trump.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 19, 2023 at 9:00 PM PDT
An earlier version of this story mistakenly said The Apprentice was an ABC show. In fact, it was an NBC show.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.