American populism

People’s Party – American populism before Trump

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?

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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.

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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.

Napoleon and Hitler – Private Lives

In 2019, I appeared in every episode of Private Lives broadcast on UKTV’s Yesterday channel in the UKTV and other channels around the world such as the Smithsonian. Historical subjects included Napoleon and Hitler.

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Presented by Tracy Borman, curator of the Royal Palaces in England. I covered the private lives of six fascinating historical characters:

  • Princess Margaret – the late sister of the present Queen Elizabeth II. Margaret never stuck to the rules and caused constant scandal during her life. She’s featured in the Netflix series The Crown
  • Edward VIII – the king of England who gave up his throne to marry an American commoner and divorcee Wallis Simpson. The British Empire was rocked by Edward’s decision but what really lay behind it?
  • Napoleon – the diminutive French emperor who conquered most of Europe but was destroyed in his attempt to take Russia. His passionate affairs, tempestuous marriage and crushing defeat by the English exposed
  • Hitler – you’d think there was nothing left to say about Hitler but we delve into his fascination for teenage girls, frustrated artistic ambitions and the corrupt ambition that brought him down
  • Al Capone – the gangster known as Scarface terrorised Chicago but also had a great many admirers. The establishment seemed powerless to act as this street punk made vast profits from racketeering but eventually they got him on tax evasion
  • Peter the Great – the mightiest tsar that ever ruled Russia. A very odd character who loved dwarves, heavy drinking and women. His parties were notorious. His cruelty, even to close family, was highly disturbing.

Happy viewing – and hope you learn more about Napoleon and Hitler!!

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