Washington Merry-Go-Round

TR vs. Trump: positive vs. negative populism

IMMEDIATE RELEASE 25 Feb. 2016                                                           10

WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

TR vs. Trump: positive vs. negative populism

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – Now that Donald Trump is the undisputed frontrunner for the Republican nomination, the search is on for historical analogies to explain his appeal and understand how he might behave and what he might do as president, for better or worse.

He is running on a brand of populism that is nationalistic and nativist, and that feeds off anger. Contrast that with the saying popularized by Teddy Roosevelt more than a hundred years ago, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”  The two men would appear to have little in common except for the big stick.

President Theodore Roosevelt was a populist though his brand of populism, reining in the banks, going after the robber barons, and establishing the Food and Drug Administration to bring about much needed regulation, places him at the opposite end of the spectrum from where Trump is.

Roosevelt’s positive populism changed America for the better while Trump’s negative us versus them populism is changing America but not necessarily for the better.

Populism is a powerful tonic on the campaign trail, which is why from the time Trump announced his candidacy on June 16 it was folly to rule him out. Now that he has won three out of the first four primary contests, party leaders are torn between mounting a last ditch effort to stop him, or coalescing around him and embracing an uncertain future with an unpredictable nominee.

Some analysts have begun comparing Trump to Ronald Reagan, who was initially dismissed as a second-tier actor and a lightweight. Reagan went on to become one of the more consequential presidents of the twentieth century.

Let’s not forget Reagan was governor of California for two terms. Trump hasn’t been elected to anything, or governed anything.

He has tapped into a rich vein of negative populism, promising to forcibly deport twelve million people, belittling women and men, and boasting about how he’ll “punch people in the nose” when they disrupt his rallies. Those who have known him as a real-estate mogul in New York discount a lot of incendiary rhetoric as part of his shtick, and believe he’ll clean up his act once he locks down the nomination.

If we look to Theodore Roosevelt as a stylistic antecedent to Trump, we see someone as president in the early years of the last century who is brash, pompous, jingoistic – and socially liberal – characteristics that certainly apply to Trump.

Borrowing from a 1984 political ad, where’s the beef?  Roosevelt had plenty; Trump not so much.

Roosevelt was a war hero posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. He was governor of New York before being tapped as the vice-presidential running mate for William McKinley. He was also a prolific writer.

Yet the positive qualities that came to define him were dwarfed by the Republican establishment’s fear of his independent spirit.  Mark Hanna, the party boss in New York, called TR “that crazy cowboy,” and opposed McKinley putting him on the ticket.

It was a fateful appointment because soon after he was elected, McKinley was assassinated and TR assumed the office. He was then elected in 1904, and history records him as the first true populist president.

For the legions of Americans who hold TR in high esteem, it’s almost sacrilegious to compare him to Trump. Still, the historical parallels are there. Roosevelt upended five decades of politics as usual that had led to the robber barons. Trump’s electoral success is disrupting the GOP establishment and the cozy relationship between campaign donors and candidates. Trump’s claim that he owes nothing to anybody since he’s funding his own campaign is wildly popular among voters.

Trump is practicing a dangerously negative populism, pitting people and groups against each other, and winning a significant slice of the Republican electorate in the process.  Party leaders are aghast, and the public should be, but a plurality of Republican voters isn’t.

          Douglas Cohn’s new book, “The President’s First Year: None Were Prepared, Some Never Learned – Why the Only School for Presidents Is the Presidency,” is available in book stores.

          Twitter @WMerryGoRound

© 2016 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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