At their best, presidential nominating conventions are about inspiration and optimism. Ronald Reagan’s “springtime of hope” in Dallas, 1984. Bill Clinton’s bridge to the 21st century. George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism.
“We are not here to curse the darkness; we are here to light a candle,” Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy told delegates at the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles. “As Winston Churchill said on taking office some twenty years ago: If we open a quarrel between the present and the past, we shall be in danger of losing the future.”
Donald Trump’s acceptance speech did not harken back to the optimism of Reagan or Kennedy, to the inclusiveness of Bush and Johnson. Instead, his speech was the most apocalyptic vision enunciated by a presidential nominee since ’96.
1896, that is.
That was the year that a populist demagogue seized control of a deeply divided party and used his campaign to rail against the powerful elites in the United States and foreign capitals. It took more than a century for a presidential acceptance speech to choose a rhetorical path that dark.
Trump’s speech angrily mourned an era of American humiliation, degradation, instability and leadership incompetence. He promised, as is his campaign slogan, to “make America great again” by putting “American first.”
In many ways, the 1896 parallels make sense. The United States and the world are being destabilized by profound technological shifts. Millions of American workers have been displaced after having lost jobs that are redundant because of modern technology and increasing globalism. Those left behind — often stuck in shriveling small towns and struggling farms — angrily grasp for the lost America of the past, blaming elites and immigrants for the changes they are ill-prepared to master.
The 1896 Democratic presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan, like Trump, was the champion of dispossessed farmers and fearful Main Street merchants. His opponent, William McKinley, was a candidate with broad support among business leaders, internationalists and educated urbanites. McKinley talked optimistically about the potential for America if it embraced the changes it faced. Bryan said McKinley would sacrifice American sovereignty before the New World Order. Trump says that he would ensure that other nations treat America with “the respect that we deserve.”
Bryan’s speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention is best remembered for his vow to moneyed elites that “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” That seems a bit outdated in 2016, but many of the Boy Orator of the Platte’s words ring true in Trump’s vision of America.
In his famous speech, Bryan said that McKinley and the Republicans were “willing to surrender the right of self-government and place the legislative control of our affairs in the hands of foreign potentates and powers.”
It’s a remarkable reversal. A century and a quarter ago, the Democrats were the party of the past, the voice of an idealized order. Today, the Republicans long for a gauzy past they insist has been lost by hostile and incompetent leaders in the public and private sectors. Trump promised to represent these “forgotten” Americans left behind by Big Business and Washington power brokers.
“I am your voice,” he said.
Ivanka Trump called her father “the people’s nominee.” That’s exactly what Bryan promised to be. Donald Trump rails against Wall Street capitalism. Bryan called himself a warrior against the “the idle holders of idle capital.” Unlike his opponent, Bryan said he was truly “on the side of the struggling masses” against international competitors and urban elites. Today, Trump said, the party of Bryan has become the party of “corporate spin.”
“We cannot afford to be so politically correct,” he said, choosing a phrase that did not exist in Bryan’s day.
Instead of the “bimetalism” condemned by Bryan, you have “multilateralism” lamented by Trump. If you just substitute “factory jobs” for “farms,” Bryan’s words reflect Trump’s call for a return to the old days of imagined American industrial might:
Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.
Bryan’s apocalyptical version has many parallel’s to Trump’s nihilist vision. As he worked his way up to his famous “cross of gold” climax, Bryan told the delegates:
If they dare come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost. Having behind us the producing masses of this nation… supported by… the toilers everywhere.
Trump could not have said it better himself.
>>> Read William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech here. It also contains audio of the speech. (Modern technology in 1896.)