President Trump has been accused of populism but there’s a long tradition of this kind of politics in the United States. Take for example the People’s Party – a prime example of American populism.
I’ve been glued to the TV and social media like the rest of you watching the torture of the 2020 American presidential election. What struck me was how so many rural and rust belt communities voted for Donald Trump. To many outside the United States – this seems inexplicable. Why would poor people vote for a TV reality chat show millionaire?
But there’s a long history of American populism that has done surprisingly well in rural and poorer areas of the country. Take for example the late 19th century People’s Party – also referred to sneeringly as the Populists – who won four states in the 1892 presidential election.
James Weaver and James Field ran for the presidency and managed to bag the electoral college votes of Colorado, Kansas, Idaho and Nevada. They got additional votes from North Dakota and Oregon. Their political platform, under the People’s Party banner, was left-leaning populism including demands for a graduated income tax, public ownership of key industries and the unlimited supply of silver coinage – sold to the government by miners of silver.
This wave of American populism brought together a number of parties and groups such as the Farmers Alliance, Greenback Party and the Knights of Labor. There was a strong influence of socialist ideas and a call for monopolies to be broken up. The influence of this strand of politics was felt in both Democrat and Republican circles – that felt obliged to acknowledge and respond to the alarming levels of support the People’s Party was achieving.
This wave of American populism eventually died out. But as we know today, there have been successive waves of populism across the United States ever since. Normally viewed as something malign, it maybe should be seen as exposing the deficiencies and shortcomings of the two-party system. In ‘normal’ times, Democrats and Republicans get to divide up the political spoils only interrupted by the inconvenience of elections every four years.
But every so often, the voices of the dispossessed insist on being heard. And those voices may articulate a rational program of ideas or just be an inchoate howl of rage. The Trump phenomenon seems to be more of the latter. And some dark forces are undoubtedly lurking in the wings. Such is the nature of today’s American populism.
I’m on season five of Strange Evidence airing on a TV channel near you. Most likely you’ll catch it on the Science Channel so look out for it!
In this clip from Strange Evidence below, the team and I look at an unexplained incident in south east Asia where some bikers chanced upon what looked like a three foot human. Was he a long lost cousin of ours startled by the sound of those roaring bikes in the jungle?
Go to 59 minutes exactly to see that segment of the show – or knock yourself out and watch from the start – it’s a great show!
Other episodes of Strange Evidence season five to whet your appetite:
Curse of the Zombie Graveyard
Hunt for the Nuclear Monster
Church of the Death Eaters
When Bigfoot Attacks
America’s Atomic Aliens
Nuclear Demon Mummy
I really enjoyed participating in the Strange Evidence episode on the ghost of notorious drug dealer Pablo Escobar. His luxury residence was being dynamited after his death when somebody filming the demolition picked up a white, translucent figure wafting through the rooms. So – had Pablo come back to haunt his pad one last time?
You can see me at 33 minutes here talking about Pablo Escobar on Strange Evidence
As the opening titles to Strange Evidence explain – the series is based on our surveillance culture. We are being watched all the time by fixed cameras in multiple locations. Most of us also have smartphones and record every aspect of our lives.
So it’s hardly surprising that every so often something is caught on camera that defies explanation. On Strange Evidence, we look at the footage and then the options getting expert opinion on what might be going on. And there’s some pretty crazy stuff as you’ll see that gets captured on phones and cameras.
Hollywood has tackled many historical themes over the last hundred years with mixed results. From the Oscar laden 1959 classic Ben Hur to the almost unwatchable Enemy at the Gates. Let’s have a look at the movies that got it terribly wrong – the history movie turkeys!
HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: Alexander (2004)
Gosh, how can you make the story of a young Greek king who conquered the world utterly tedious? Well, take about US$155m and bore your audience to tears.
The worst thing about this movie was the total lack of empathy that Alexander exuded. I couldn’t give a damn about poor old Colin Farrell and his peroxide-blonde locks charging round the Middle East.
Unsurprisingly, this turkey was nominated for six Golden Raspberry Awards in 2005. The notorious Razzies! Poor Oliver Stone set about a Director’s Cut and a “Final Unrated Cut”. But in the end of the day, when the source material is as unwatchable as this – just stop cutting.
One critic called it an “excruciating disaster for the ages”. Quite!
HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: Enemy at the Gates (2001)
Seriously, let the enemy in!
Anything to put this movie out of its misery. I remember going to see this at a west London cinema in 2001 and I was just so furious. The Battle of Stalingrad is truly one of the most gripping and appalling conflicts of World War Two. How can you wrong with this?
The casting for me was the big no-no. Jude Law as Soviet farm worker turned Red Army super-sniper Vasily Zaytsev – I didn’t buy it. And I like Jude Law normally. But this was not his part. Thankfully he went on to showcase his undoubted talent in better movies.
HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: Braveheart (1995)
OK – here’s the thing. I have to make a confession. When it came out, like most people, I enjoyed this movie. Unlike Alexander or Enemy at the Gates, which I detested from five minutes after the opening credits, Braveheart was a good romp.
But over the years, the varnish has worn off. The historical inaccuracies and the heavy-handed and cartoonish portrayal of the English. And I’m half-Irish (which is part of the reason I did like it to start with). It’s now completely unwatchable.
HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: King Arthur(2004)
When I was a teenager, I saw the amazing John Boorman directed movie Excalibur – released in 1981. It was a slightly trippy, hallucinogenic take on the Arthurian legend. But then if you read the medieval tales, they are pretty out there.
Then along clunks this turkey proclaiming that it’s a “realistic” version of the story. I went with nothing except trepidation to view this movie. All my worst fears were realised in a film that plods drearily to a leaden conclusion.
By the way – King Arthur was a Roman soldier. Yeah – it’s a fact apparently…
HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: Gone with the Wind (1939)
OK – I’m being a bit provocative now. 1939 has been called the greatest year in Hollywood history. The studios churned out some of the great movies ever that year. And Gone with the Wind was, for many decades, in real terms the biggest grossing movie of all time.
But – it’s overlong, ponderous and a bit racist. It’s based on a book that glorified the Confederacy presenting it as some kind of long lost chivalrous civilisation. And I’m afraid it’s symptomatic of a long Hollywood tradition of getting it wrong on race.
More than anything though – rather like Liz Taylor in the 1963 mega-turkey Cleopatra – it’s just too much and not satisfying enough. I know 99% of you will heartily disagree. But I’ve never been able to sit through this to the bitter end. And I’m a big fan of vintage movies.
In 2012, the academic Steven Pinker wrote a book called The Better Angels of our Nature arguing that in historical terms, violence and murder were in decline. Whereas widespread constant states of fear had been understandable in history – our future would be a lot safer and secure.
What a difference eight years makes! Fear may not yet be banished to the dustbin of history. Crisis after crisis looms – and social media spreads rumour and lies. It seems fear is stronger than ever. History may have the last laugh.
At the moment of writing this, we’re all in Coronavirus lockdown. We tune into the daily news bulletins to hear how many unfortunates have died overnight and how many more are infected.
The Governor of New York state appears in front of TV cameras to plead for emergency assistance. Hospitals and morgues are constructed hastily to accommodate the dying and the dead. Fear is everywhere.
But, as Steven Pinker rightly pointed out, mass fear is nothing new. History is littered with episodes of huge anxiety – where thousands if not millions of people were gripped with terrifying anxiety.
FEAR IN HISTORY: The French Revolution
Yesterday, browsing through some old history books, I came across a month-long episode in French history two hundred years ago when the landed peasantry were suddenly struck by something called The Great Fear. Or La Grand Peur if you prefer the original French.
Mansions and chateaus were attacked by pitchfork wielding landless poor. There were a handful of murders of the wealthy. And all around swirled rumours that the aristocracy were hoarding food supplies and plotting to withdraw what few rights the downtrodden had.
How much of this was true? In reality, the rich were probably no worse than they had been the year, decade or century before. But with an intensified political climate and the neighbouring cities rising up, the rural masses were consumed with a sense that unless they acted, their destruction loomed.
A century before the town of Salem in Massachusetts had been the scene of hysterical witch trials. The backdrop was unrest between colonialists and American native tribes – as well as a war between England and France fought on American soil. Into this toxic brew add small town rivalries and Puritan terror of the devil and it wasn’t long before innocent women were being accused of witchcraft.
The Salem episode was depicted by the 1950s American playwright Arthur Miller in his play The Crucible – as a satire of McCarthyite anti-Communist investigations. These were show trials overseen by Senator Joseph McCarthy who accused hundreds of Americans of being secret Communists – ruining their careers and driving some to suicide.
At the height of this Cold War paranoia, a movie was released under the initial title: I Married A Communist. It’s a clumsily plotted piece of drivel about a guilt-ridden ex-Communist being blackmailed by his former comrades. Watch it on YouTube – I can’t be bothered to write anymore about it. Except to say, no self-respecting Hollywood director would touch the script so it was directed by British director Robert Stephenson who finally lived that career low down by directing Mary Poppins.
As a teenager in the late 1970s, I experienced waves of popular, tabloid-fuelled fear. This was a time of economic crisis and rising unemployment. And there was plenty – allegedly – to fear.
Skinheads were taking over the streets. Old people were being routinely mugged. Racist propaganda claimed jobs were being taken by new arrivals to Britain from Africa and the Indian sub-continent. And on top of all this – young people wondered whether the United States and Soviet Union would reduce the planet to a post-nuclear dustball.
And yet – here I am. The great fear of the 1970s proved to be largely illusory…
Coronavirus has been a huge shock. But history is brimming with pandemics and plagues. So, what can we learn from them?
Here’s the bad news first.
Diseases like Coronavirus have an amazingly long history
Viruses have been part of our evolutionary history since we stood on two feet and spread out of Africa. Viruses are not strangers – they have been with us for millions of years – and more than likely, will be with us forever.
Coronavirus isn’t a wholly new phenomenon or a moral judgment on our species – as some seem to suggest (on Twitter for example) – it’s just the latest manifestation of a long running phenomenon.
Here’s the really freaky thing – because of the way in which viruses hijack our cells and mess us up – they have probably played a role in our evolution as a species. So close is our relationship to viruses, that they could even be manipulated in the future to cure cancer or genetic disorders. Small comfort now.
But while the Coronavirus is taking a terrible toll – we could one day harness viruses to be a force for good. Basically instructing a virus to do something useful in our bodies instead of harming us. That’s the science of tomorrow – so what about the impact viruses have had on us in history.
Ancient Greek history – disease with a Coronavirus like impact
A catastrophe like a plague can be absorbed by a civilisation in otherwise robust health. But at a critical moment, it can have a devastating impact. The trouble is – pandemics in history often seem to occur when or because of a broader crisis. So – we know that ancient Athens was racked by plague in 430BC at the height of the Peloponessian War – which killed the great Greek leader and statesman Pericles.
Plague after plague in the Roman Empire
History shows us that the greatest empire of them all could succumb to the equivalent of Coronavirus and its might and majesty provided no cure.
The Roman Empire saw two huge plagues at turning points in its history. The Antonine plague of the second century AD came at the end of a period of relative stability but now the eastern frontier with Persia was becoming increasingly problematic. And it’s possible that returning soldiers from those battlefields brought the disease back into the heart of Rome.
In the following century, the Plague of Cyprian (recorded by a bishop called Cyprian) bore all the hallmarks of an influenza-driven pandemic. Cyprian wrote about fevers, the passing of blood and aching limbs. When all factors are taken into consideration, it seems the Romans at that time succumbed to an Ebola type of disease. It came at a time when the empire was divided and at war on many fronts – when its usual reserves of vitality were severely depleted.
Spanish Flu – a Coronavirus type pandemic in history
Today in 2020, the British prime minister Boris Johnson contracted the Coronavirus. But he’s not the first leader of the United Kingdom to have fallen victim to a pandemic. In 1918, the news was hushed up that the then Prime Minister Lloyd George – who had just led the country to victory in World War One – had contracted the deadly Spanish Flu.
I was never told about this studying the “Great War” as a child in the 1970s. Britain had just beaten Germany after a four year war and the establishment didn’t want anybody to know that the Prime Minister was flat on his back in bed attached to a ventilator. Ironically, he may have picked up this disease during the many celebrations at the end of the war. And tragically, the Spanish Flu ended up killing more people than died in the trenches.
The tragedy of HIV/AIDS
The societal impact of a virus can ultimately be positive despite the terrible human cost. HIV/AIDS was an appalling illness that ripped through the gay community in the 1980s. I knew two men who died of AIDS and that was immensely tragic. But the virus forced gay identity to the top of the media agenda. Initially that was a negative. Gay people were accused of spreading a plague.
But within the gay community it built a gritty determination and anger to break through and demand tolerance and acceptance. And among the wider population, gay people went from largely invisible to highly visible. Families were forced to realise that a son, father or cousin was gay – because they finally had the courage to come out.
The Coronavirus has up-ended our lives. There’s already a mass of academic content on how things will be different. The state looks set to play a bigger role. Populism in politics will be in the dock. Experts may come back into fashion. And so on. Let’s see!
I was in Berlin in February 2020 just before the Coronavirus struck and led to the city going on lockdown. It seems incredible that at the time of writing this, I was in Berlin three weeks ago and walked around the incredible Pergamon Museum – whose doors are now closed.
But – I don’t want you to be denied the amazing sights of the Pergamon Museum just because of this wretched virus. So luckily, I had my iPhone and captured the incredible Roman gateway that was shipped a hundred years ago from what is now Turkey to Germany. The Gate of Miletus was then reconstructed at the Pergamon Museum in a vast room.
I am appearing as a contributor on the new Discovery channel history investigation series Rob Riggle Global Investigator presented by Mr Riggle – who you will have seen previously on Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show as well as several comedy movies.
Scottish Grail quest for Rob Riggle Global Investigator
He brings his comedic talents, military background and ability to connect with TV audiences to this new fun history series. I was honoured to be asked to appear with Rob on his special investigation into the Holy Grail.
We filmed at Kilwinning Abbey – a Scottish ruined medieval structure. Some believe that when the Templars fled the wrath of the King of France – they ended up in Scotland with their treasure.
So we went hunting to see what we could find!
Templars, Grail and off to Scotland!
The story behind this episode of Rob Riggle Global Investigator is that when the Knights Templar were crushed in 1307, they fled France with all their treasure. A very popular theory – though contested – has them boarding ships at the French port of La Rochelle and setting off for Scotland.
Once there, they helped Robert the Bruce defeat the English at the Battle of Bannockburn. In gratitude, the Scottish kings let the Templars hole up with the monks at Kilwinning Abbey. Over time, they blended and merged with the monks and used their skills as masons to erect a beautiful place of worship.
One local historian claims that the Grail chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper was brought to the abbey by the Knights Templar and is hidden in a secret chamber. While another claim is that a wooden cross that once stood there included part of the True Cross – on which Jesus was crucified.
The Masonic connection
In Freemason lore, the Heredom of Kilwinning dates back to the 12th century while the Rosy Cross was a Masonic rite established after the Battle of Bannockburn. The two were merged and the clear inference is that the Templars were indeed the first Freemasons.
The Mother Lodge of Scotland – numbered as zero – is based at Kilwinning. It’s sometimes referred to as Mother Kilwinning.
There are reputedly secret tunnels under Kilwinning – one of them leading from my hotel. But for some curious reason, the hotel owner built a toilet over the tunnel entrance. She showed it to me with some trepidation. And claimed that a Catholic priest had warned her to block it (the tunnel not the toilet!) so nobody could go down. I suppose a toilet is an effective obstacle!
Anyway – enjoy!! And tune into Rob Riggle Global Investigator!
In the last two weeks, I finished filming for a new series of Forbidden History and for a new documentary series on the History channel that will accompany The Curse of Oak Island. There’s great Templar related content on both programmes and I think you’re going to have some amazing viewing in 2020. I’ll tell you when those programmes appear – of course!
Plus – three months ago I was up in Scotland filming with broadcaster and top comic talent Rob Riggle for a brand new series for Discovery called Rob Riggle Global Investigator. As with the other programmes above, I’m sworn to secrecy on the content but needless to say, more Templar secrets will be revealed.
American visitors to the blog may have seen me on the last series of Strange Evidenceand NASA’s Unexplained Files – where I covered an extraordinary breadth of topics. Plus there was my outing with Scott Wolter on America Unearthed where Scott and I investigated a possible Templar link at Rosslyn Chapel back in January of this year – which has now been aired on the Travel channel.
So, all in all, 2019 has been a good year for taking history on to TV and hopefully making it accessible and fun for global audiences. If there are any subjects you think I should be covering on TV in 2020 – please do tell me and comment in the usual way.
Tony McMahon – the bearded historian – is coming to a history TV screen near you!
Women have had a tough time breaking through in history. Up against societies where men were told they ruled the roots – women had had to exercise power against all odds. Sometimes behind the scenes and other times up front.
But when women have managed to get to the top in history – they’ve been demonised or subjected to myth making and invented scandals. In short, women in history have been the subject of fake news. And the image we have of many famous female historical figures is entirely from the poison pens of male historians of the time.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: Catherine the Great
Oh, you must have heard how Catherine the Great of Russia died. The horse. The harness that broke. How it fell on top of her. What she was trying to do at the time with the horse.
I’ve heard that tale for decades going back to university. The myth that one of Russia’s most powerful historical rulers was killed when she attempted to have equine intercourse. The story, folks, is total bunkum – nonsense – 100% tripe.
But myths like this about great women persist. If anything, with social media they are reviving and spreading more than ever. This maliciously amusing lie about Catherine the Great is believed to have originated in France among catty royal courtiers who wanted to mock Russia’s ambition to be a world power. How better to do that than denigrate the late female tsar.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: The Empress Livia – wife of Augustus
Women in history have always been the subject of the most resilient myths. Ambitious, clever females have been systematically rubbished by male chroniclers. The Roman Empire is a good example. Take the wife of the first emperor Augustus. Livia was the mother of the people and brainy consort of her husband the emperor. But she was also cast as a serial poisoner.
The historian Tacitus accused her of framing and being complicit in the murder of some of her rivals. The very bitchy Roman writer Suetonius echoed these claims.
And then Cassius Dio, a very respected Roman source, went as far as to claim that she ended up murdering Augustus by smearing poison on figs she knew he would eat. These accusations were all repeated in the 20th century novel I, Claudiusby Robert Graves, later made into an excellent BBC TV drama in the 1970s.
Why would Livia have poisoned as many people as these historians claimed? Because it’s alleged she was clearing a path for her son Tiberius to become the second emperor. There is no evidence whatsoever to support an association between Livia and about twenty deaths attributed to her. Yet, the crimes have stuck like glue damaging her reputation down the centuries.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: Roman female politicians
Roman women clearly exercised very real power and got trashed for doing so. The mother of Nero, Agrippina the Younger, was accused of poisoning her husband the emperor Claudius (who was also her uncle).
And then there’s the wife of Mark Antony – not Cleopatra, but a lesser known woman called Fulvia. She was hated by the great Roman orator Cicero who spoke out against her on several occasions. One unsubstantiated account has her receiving his head after he was executed for treason and piercing his tongue with her gold hairpins.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: Lucrezia Borgia
Fast forward to Italy during the Renaissance and we have the scandalous history of Lucrezia Borgia. The first shocking fact – true as it happens – is that she was the daughter of Pope Alexander VI. Yes, you read that correctly. The pope had a daughter. And other children. Pope Alexander indeed freely admitted to having fathered several kids from his mistresses.
His reputation has been undermined as a result with his family, the Borgias, painted as corrupt and libertine. But at the time, Pope Alexander was deemed to have been one of the most cultured and successful popes in history.
One of his children, Cesare Borgia, was an ambitious statesman who was the inspiration for Machiavelli’s book The Prince. While Lucrezia was also a very talented political operator but she was cast as …. yet another serial poisoner.
Women who murdered were normally expected to use poison. The idea being that they were too physically weak to resort to something more physical. And drugging also revealed underhand feminine guile and cunning. So, the gossip went, Lucrezia concealed poison in her ring that she slipped into her victims’ drinks.
The stories about the Borgias holding orgies and having incest spread from two very hostile sources. One was the growing Protestant faith, which viewed the early 16th century Vatican as a corrupt Babylon of vice and depravity. The other source was the radical preacher Girolamo Savonarola who accused Pope Alexander of being in league with the devil. His repeated denunciations of the papacy led to him being burned to death in 1498.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: Anne Boleyn
I’ll finish with Anne Boleyn – the second wife of Henry VIII – beheaded when she was unable to bear her king a son. Anne was ambitious but no more so than any other woman of her rank.
She was just better and brighter when it came to getting what she wanted. In the end, she paid with her head with charges trumped up against her that were clearly over the top. Incest with her brother being one calumny thrown at her.
And in addition, Catholic propagandists – who disliked the Protestant Anne – spread the entirely false rumour that she had a sixth finger on her right hand. Obviously a sign of being a witch! Anne’s remains were exhumed in the 19th century and there was no sign of an extra digit!
As you can see, being a woman in history has been tough – let’s hope it’s getting easier from here on in!
Who were the maddest rulers in history? We’ve not been short of a few in my lifetime. Though some have been insane but wily while others had become incapacitated through mental illness. Colonel Gaddafi is a good example of insane but wily. While poor old Boris Yeltsin seemed increasingly unstable in his last years.
Dynastic systems breed the maddest rulers
When you have a political system where somebody inherits the top job, you’re not always assured of the best person for the role. That’s especially the case when the new king or queen is completely insane. Yet that’s exactly what has happened many times in history when the mad have taken over.
Charles VI of France (1368 to 1422) believed he was made of glass and wore protective clothes to prevent his body being shattered. Think what happens to the Night King in Game of Thrones and you get the idea. In one incident while out hunting, Charles was convinced he was under attack and killed four of his own retainers before being restrained.
The reign of Charles VI was very long because he took power when he was very young. And there seems to be a connection between assuming the throne in infancy and coming under tremendous mental strain. Think about it. You have had no preparation for absolute power and when things go wrong, it comes as an overwhelming shock.
Maddest rulers: Henry VI and his fits of deep depression
So, child monarchs don’t tend to have happy reigns. Henry III, Richard II and Henry VI in England are good examples of this. Henry VI suffered what looks like fits of depression that made him completely unable to rule for periods of time. Stress seems to have rendered him like a rabbit in headlights – he froze while his advisers around him panicked.
Juana La Loca (literally Joanna the Mad) was Queen of Castille, part of modern Spain, in the early 16th century. This was when Spanish power around the world was reaching its height with colonies in the Americas, across Europe and Asia. But Juana was way too mad to be allowed to rule any of that so she was “secluded” (locked away) in a castle.
Maddest rulers from the bible and ancient Rome
The biblical monarch of Babylon Nebuchadnezzar exhibited symptoms of a disorder known as boanthropy where an individual believes they might be a cow! Now it’s hard to know if this was propaganda used against him or the truth. But the condition certainly exists.
The Roman Empire threw up an extraordinary number of mentally unstable emperors almost from the start. The second emperor, Tiberius, retreated to the island of Capri where he reportedly tortured people in some pretty horribly ways.
He was then succeeded by Caligula whose madness is disputed by some historians but accepted by most. One of his oddest acts was to announce the appointment of a new consul, which turned out to be a horse called Incitatus.
In the 6th century CE, the Byzantine Empire was ruled by Justin II. A chronicler called John of Ephesus described how he was possessed by an evil angel that made him impersonate animals!
For suddenly it destroyed his reason, and his mind was agitated and darkened, and his body given over both to secret and open tortures and cruel agonies, so that he even uttered the cries of various animals, and barked like a dog, and bleated like a goat; and then he would mew like a cat, and then again crow like a cock: and many such things were done by him, contrary to human reason, being the workings of the prince of darkness…
Ecclesiastical History – John of Ephesus – Book 3
The only way to calm Justin down was to have organ music played all day and night, which must have driven his courtiers round the bend. He also had to be pulled through the palace in what’s described as a throne but I think a baby cart would present a truer picture.
And then no blog post on mad monarchs could leave out the maddest of them all – King George III. The king of England who lost America and his mind. Experts are still debating what the nature of his disorder was and views seem to change every year.
But the poor man was completely incapacitated for periods and would do things like greeting trees and shaking their branches as if they were human. You will all be familiar with the famous stage play and movie on this life story.