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After 2016's Presidential Election, Examining What Populist Means

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's common for news stories to call President-elect Trump a populist, which seems to mean he appeals to the people - then again, so does every elected official. So what's populist really mean? In American politics, there is a specific definition, and we traced some history with the help of Paul Gilje of The University of Oklahoma. In the 1880s, there was a Populist Party, which eventually merged with the Democratic Party. The movement started with frustrated farmers.

PAUL GILJE: The Populist Party really emerged out of the Midwest and the South, mainly agrarians and people who were reacting to a world they felt they no longer controlled.

INSKEEP: What got people in the countryside - in the Midwest and in the South - thinking that the country had gotten away from them?

GILJE: They believed that the government had somehow or another made an alliance with business and banks. I mean, they were forces of modernization. You know, many farmers, for example, bought up all kinds of mechanized equipment. Well, in order to buy mechanized equipment, they needed to go to the bank and borrow money, which left them at the mercies of the bank. And if there was a bad year or two, then they would struggle to make their ends meet and might lose their farm.

So there was a sense of - that this larger world was impinging upon them. Railroads were charging them extra money to bring their produce to the market. Banks were charging excessive interest - that they just were no longer in control.

INSKEEP: So what happened to the original Populists as they went from the 1880s into the 1890s?

GILJE: 1896 is the crucial year for the Populists - they nominated William Jennings Bryan. And in the Democratic National Convention in 1896, William Jennings Bryan gives this dramatic speech, this Cross of Gold speech. And if you just sit down and read the speech, it doesn't strike you as much. But when you hear what people said about the speech - that it was like a blast of artillery, that it was almost a revivalist speech in its tone.

INSKEEP: You know, we can listen to a little bit of the Cross of Gold speech. There wasn't a recording in 1896 so far as we know, but many years later, William Jennings Bryan was asked to reread - recreate this speech, and it was recorded. Let's listen to just a bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer. The merchant at the crossroads store is as much a businessman as the merchant of New York. We come to speak for this broader class of businessmen.

INSKEEP: The Populist Party died off after William Jennings Bryan, but the idea of populism lived on. In the 1920s and '30s, Huey Long won election as governor and senator in Louisiana. He attacked oil companies, railroads and political machines while building a political machine of his own. In this speech, Huey Long compared wealthy businessmen to a guest at a barbecue who grabs nine-tenths of the food.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

HUEY LONG: How many men ever went to a barbecue and would let one man take off the table what's intended for nine-tenths of the people to eat? The only way you'll ever be able to feed the balance of the people is to make that man come back and bring back some of that grub he ain't got no business with.

INSKEEP: Well, there it is right there (laughter), the barbecue analogy for economics.

GILJE: Long played to the resentment of impersonal forces that were controlling people's lives. He was calling for equitable distribution of wealth. But I think Long is different from William Jennings Bryan in the sense that Long was consumed with obtaining power. And his main base of strength in Louisiana were not impoverished people but land-owning small farmers. And it's that group of white voters who was struggling and felt that the system was against them.

INSKEEP: Where does the president-elect fit into this history we've been discussing?

GILJE: This is a hard one because I'm not a big fan of the president-elect, personally.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute - sounds like you're kind of a fan of populists. But this guy who's been described as populist, you're having a little trouble with.

GILJE: Yes, that's true. And the reason for that is I'm not sure how much of a populist he really is. It's one of those bizarre elements of this particular election that we have a man who's a billionaire who says he speaks for the common man. And we have many common men - and women - who actually take him at his word.

INSKEEP: Does his agenda seem populist to you?

GILJE: Well, of course, the difficulty of talking about Trump's agenda is always putting your finger on what exactly that agenda is. But I think the big connection between Donald Trump and Donald Trump's supporters to the previous populist movements is this sense, on the part of the people who support this movement, that they are the real Americans and that as real Americans, Wall Street, big business, the swamp of the government - are no longer working for them but instead working against them.

INSKEEP: Paul Gilje, thanks very much.

GILJE: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: He's an expert on popular action and protest at The University of Oklahoma. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.