Scrambling to understand Donald Trump’s wild and, so far, remarkably effective campaign for the presidency, commentators have rushed to find parallels to explain the man who has dominated coverage and led in most polls of likely Republican voters. Some see the orange-maned billionaire as a fascist akin to Hitler or Mussolini or compare him with such bygone American demagogues as Father Charles Coughlin, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, or Alabama Governor George Wallace. Others maintain that he is a homegrown version of Russian President Vladimir Putin or French National Front leader Marine Le Pen.
But, at best (or worst), Trump bears only a superficial resemblance to any of these individuals. He evinces no desire to create a militarized state that abolishes free elections and jails or executes its critics, as did the former dictators of Germany and Italy. If he expanded welfare programs and commanded industrial firms to produce what he wanted, as did Hitler and Mussolini, Trump would alienate those conservatives who now cheer his hostility to immigrants and the media. Neither does Trump share Coughlin’s religious zealotry or McCarthy’s fondness for accusing federal officials of treason. And there’s a sharp contrast between Wallace’s blue-collar belligerence at soft-handed elites and the real estate mogul’s incessant boasting about how much money he has made and how famous he is. Further to compare Trump with the shrewd Russian autocrat or the seasoned French hypernationalist is like comparing a carnival barker with a brilliant, if malevolent, magician.
The Trump phenomenon is better understood as an amalgam of three different, largely pathological strains in American history and culture. To search for a single individual whom he most resembles misses the larger forces that churn out figures who storm their way through the political universe, leaving damages for others to repair.
The first and perhaps most obvious strain is hostility toward immigrants whose ethnic and religious identities seem to clash with those of the native-born majority. In the 1850s, the American Party—labeled the “Know-Nothings” by its opponents—accused Irish and German Catholics of being agents of the pope and a threat to republican government. Later in the century, white workers on the Pacific coast led a mass campaign against Chinese newcomers, whom they blamed for undercutting wages and spreading disease. Federal lawmakers affirmed their bigotry by excluding anyChinese laborers from entering the United States. In the 1920s, fears of Slavs, Jews, Italians, and others suspected of being hostile to America’s white “Nordic” heritage persuaded Congress to impose quotas that all but banned immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. Trump’s attacks on “rapists and murderers” crossing the southern border and on potential Muslim terrorists jetting across the Atlantic belong to this long and ignominious tradition.
The GOP front-runner’s contempt toward established political authorities also echoes American populists’ past. “We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned,” Future Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan declared in 1896. “We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!” Trump’s gibes at “stupid” and “incompetent” politicians in both major parties are quite crude in comparison, but the sentiment is similar.
At the same time, Trump’s attacks are far less coherent than the indictments hurled by the original Populists during the Gilded Age or, for that matter, by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders today. Bryan’s followers lambasted officeholders who sent troops to break strikes but would not spend a dollar to help the unemployed. Sanders rails against Wall Street investors who “used their wealth and power to get Congress to do their bidding for deregulation and then, when their greed caused their collapse, they used their wealth and power to get Congress to bail them out.” Yet Trump mostly derides the governing class for its supposed psychological flaws: he claims that most politicians are too “weak,” “dishonest,” or confused to address what ails the nation.
What’s more, his vow to “Make America Great Again” lacks any explanation of what or who made it so wonderful before. Searching his website for clues turns up no proposals that might credibly bring about a national revival—unless one believes that a simplified tax code and a stern crackdown on illegal immigration amount to a sufficient blueprint for major change.
Of course, Trump thunders that he will destroy the nation’s enemies overseas, although here, too, he mostly leaves the details to the imagination. As far back as 1987, Trump was making the same aggressive pitch. He ran full-page ads in major newspapers asserting, “There’s nothing wrong with America’s Foreign Defense policy that a little backbone can’t cure. . . . Let’s not let our country be laughed at anymore.” Since this was a veiled attack on U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Republicans either ignored Trump or denounced him.
Yet today, at a time when nearly all Republicans and a good many Democrats think politicians either cannot or will not stop America’s decline, Trump’s refusal to elaborate on his campaign slogan has appeal. A candidate who makes no specific promises can never disappoint his followers. Trump’s populism of derision—directed against the media as well as the political elite—thus fixes nearly all attention on the image and personality of the man himself.
In this way, he belongs to a familiar tradition of celebrity businessmen who used their riches and renown to gain an outsize influence in debates about the nation’s future. Industrialists such as Leland Stanford and Andrew Carnegie and financiers such as Jay Cooke and J. P. Morgan once held a whip hand over the American economy. The press covered each man’s every act of civic consequence—whether breaking a strike, causing or soothing a stock market panic, or donating millions of dollars to a good cause. Rarely, however, did such men run for political office. Why take a chance on losing when their economic clout already gave them sway over those who won?
One partial exception to the rule was Henry Ford. Like Trump, the Michigan automaker had a penchant for making controversial political statements that kept him in the news. As a pacifist, during World War I, Ford declared, “To my mind, the word ‘murderer’ should be embroidered in red letters across the breast of every soldier.” Then, in the early 1920s, his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, published the vicious anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Ford, like Trump, moved back and forth between the major parties. In 1918, he was the Democratic candidate for a Senate seat in Michigan, a race he probably would have won if he had bothered to spend any money on it or campaign for himself. In 1924, despite or perhaps because of his notoriety, many Republicans wanted to draft him for president; a magazine poll in 1923 had him leading all other potential candidates. In the end, however, Ford decided not to run. He was as arrogant as Trump but lacked his political ambition.
Yet the media never tired of the man who created the assembly line and the world’s first affordable car. One journalist in the 1920s wrote that modern Americans were eager for “new sensations” that a “tame president” could not fulfill. “If you were a motion-picture producer,” he wrote, “bent on furnishing a glimpse into the future . . . wouldn’t you choose Henry Ford as your hero?”
Both the allure of Trump’s candidacy and the dread it provokes at home and abroad stem from the same impulses, which run deep in U.S. political culture. A rich man whose name is familiar to everyone bashes people whom many citizens either fear or mistrust and makes vague promises to fix whatever ails the nation. And he does all this with a smirk, a threat, and yet also with a yearning for respect, even from those he routinely assaults in speeches. Trump probably will not be elected president, and it would be a disaster if he was. But his act is hardly as novel as he, and many of his fans and his critics, believe. After he leaves the stage, another wealthy performer with a talent for bombast and no political record to defend may well take his place.