Real populism was very different from Trump’s pseudo-populism today
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For months, we’ve been told that Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE’s election was a “populist revolt,” working-class, alienated white Americans dissatisfied with the growing economic inequality rising up against a self-satisfied Establishment.

There is some truth in this.

But real populism — such as that in the 1880s and 1890s — was very different from Trump’s pseudo-populism. It was a more radical political movement — a bi-racial alliance of primarily southern farmers who demanded government intervention to ease their plight as exploited sharecroppers and tenant farmers.

There were two primary components of late 1880s Populism — the Southern Farmers’ Alliance, a group of poor white farmers numbering nearly 3 million, and the Colored Farmers’ Alliance, a peer organization of more than a million blacks.

Each group reflected the grassroots activism of the day. Organizers for both groups gathered at Saturday markets and Sunday church services. They shared their anger at how they were treated by white planters and merchants who advanced them money for supplies and seeds, then after crops were harvested, calculated who owed what.  Almost always, the sharecropper came out owing the planter money.

As the two farmers’ alliances grew, they met regularly to discuss how to liberate themselves from the iron control of the planter class. More and more they came to the conclusion that only intervention from the federal government could free them from poverty and powerlessness.

In their “subtreasury plan,” the Agriculture Department would provide upfront money for crop production, then warehouse their crops until a decent market developed. Much like what became the Agricultural Adjustment Administration of the New Deal, the  government would provide a floor of support that would enable farmers to develop independent incomes and prosper.

Ever since the Civil War, there had been some bi-racial political cooperation in the South. County and state Reconstruction governments were made up of both blacks and whites. Often, these governments pioneered the creation of public schools, internal improvements like roads and canals, even some public health facilities. As long as federal troops were there to protect the Reconstruction politicians from the Ku Klux Klan, progressive governments could thrive.

But then Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican candidate for president in 1876, sold out these coalition governments by withdrawing federal troops and ending Reconstruction in return for the electoral votes of South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana. Soon, all-white governments, akin to the former Confederate regimes, were back in power.

But alliances between poor whites and blacks continued to emerge, first in the Readjuster Movement of Virginia, then in the emergence of the Southern Farmers’ Alliance and the Colored Farmers’ Alliance. The two groups met in separate conventions, but at the same time and in the same place. They evolved a common platform for action.  United in voting, they achieved repeated victories over the planter elites in many Southern states.

In North Carolina, for example, the “Fusion” party of black and white farmers seized control, winning a majority of the state legislature in 1894, and the governorship in 1896. The Fusion government enacted progressive laws on education, farming and taxation. Whites and blacks joined together in police forces and local governments. A black Congressman was elected from Eastern North Carolina. Change was in the air.

At that point, the “best white men” of the state joined forces to overthrow the Fusion regime and put an end to working class, bi-racial cooperation. Prominent white leaders like William Aycock claimed that black men were determined to rape white women and only suppression of the Fusion government could rescue white families.

Local allies of Aycock and others in Wilmington, N.C. called on whites to “fill the Cape Fear River” with black bodies, leading to the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898. Soon the Fusion regime was driven from power and North Carolina joined every other Southern state in disenfranchising blacks, legalizing segregation and creating a Jim Crow society.

The Fusion movement represented the real populism — a bi-racial politics of progressivism from the bottom up that sought government support to create a more equal America.

This is not Donald Trump’s populism. Rather, he is one of the “best white men” who would disempower poor people. “Real populism” would dethrone Trump, restore dignity to working people and create a democracy that serves the economic needs of black and white working people. 

William Chafe is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History, emeritus, at Duke University, and author of 13 books on modern American history.


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