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?

DISCOVER: The real American Nazis

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.

FIND OUT: Fear in history – what has scared us in the past?

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.

18th century Transgender diplomat celebrity

IMG_6567

Some people today find it very hard to even consider giving transgender people equal rights. Maybe they should learn a few lessons from 18th century London where polite society was more than a little obsessed though gratifyingly tolerant of a trans French diplomat called the Chevalier d’Eon.

Transgender celebrity in 18th century London

The Chevalier was a diplomat attached to the French embassy and worked for King Louis XVI (soon to lose his head in the French revolution). He seems to have delighted in confusing people about his true sexuality. This very colourful character lived one part of his life dressed in public as a man (1762-1777) and then another as a woman (1786-1810). During both periods he cross-dressed at parties as the mood took him.

While he was in London, there was a gambling mania. People were betting on anything. And there was feverish speculation about the Chevalier’s true sexuality. The fashionable salons of the city buzzed with gossip and hearsay about the French diplomat – exactly what one suspects he wanted. It must have amused the Chevalier to tease the people whose tongues never seemed to stop wagging.

IMG_6569
Reading the 1771 pamphlet I bought today

I was at an antique book fair today and spotted a 1771 pamphlet about an examination of this trans diplomat by a group of well-born ladies who were overwhelmed by curiosity. On the 24 May, 1771, a “jury of matrons” took a good look at the naked form of the Chevalier with his consent at Medmenham Abbey.

If the name of this abbey seems familiar, it was where the so-called Hellfire Club used to meet. That was a group of wealthy men who dressed in gowns and turbans then paid prostitutes to dress as nuns before despoiling them. Yes, eighteenth century England was a very debauched affair!

Examination of the transgender diplomat

The aristocratic grand dame in charge of the Chevalier’s examination declared that they had to know what was between his legs in case their daughters married him. She couldn’t abide the thought of one of the girls being accidentally wed to another woman or a “hermaphrodite”. The main cause of concern was that as aristocrats they needed to have children to pass their wealth and estates on to. The Chevalier might not be able to deliver the goods!

One of the other ladies in the room was sure he wasn’t really a man:

For though I threw out every possible lure to induce him to make overtures to me and almost solicited him to my bed, I could never get a tender thing from him. Besides, I observed he had little or no beard and that he always avoided entering upon amorous subjects.

Infuriatingly, the pamphlet says that the meeting couldn’t make up its mind and adjourned. One person who did make up his mind was King Louis XVI. In 1775, his majesty insisted that the Chevalier dress as a woman. He eventually complied but took to fencing with men in public to show he was no ordinary woman!

As an additional point, some feminists today have quibbled about whether trans people can be really regarded as women. Again, the eighteenth century can teach us so much. Mary Wollstonecraft was the leading feminist of her time and mother of Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein. She described the Chevalier as a model of female fortitude.

Even though after his death – doctors confirmed that although the Chevalier was very androgynous – he did have male genitalia.