Trump is latest in long line of demagogues
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No one has been more affected by the surge of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump: LeBron James's 'racist rants' are divisive, nasty North Carolina man accused of fraudulently obtaining .5M in PPP loans Biden announces picks to lead oceans, lands agencies MORE in the polls than the pundits who obsess with elections. Much ink has been spilled trying to answer questions like "What does it mean?" and "What does it say about us as a country?" The one thing it says to anyone familiar with the history of demagogic presidential candidates is that the more things change, they more they stay the same.


Trump is currently polling nationally at 26 percent of the Republican primary electorate. Assuming that Republican primary goers are half of all voters (a very generous assumption), this means that 13 percent of the electorate is attracted to The Donald. Throughout American history, many presidential hopefuls who had a loud megaphone were capable of reaching 13 percent of the electorate. Many of them appealed to the same voters that Trump is garnering. Here are some examples:

William Jennings Bryan, 1896: Bryan was the Democratic nominee for president three times as a prairie populist, railing against the gold standard and the Eastern elites. He appealed to farmers and others worried about the Industrial Revolution, the growth of the cities and yes, massive increases in immigration. Deeply religious, he ended his career prosecuting John Thomas Scopes for teaching evolution in a Tennessee high school. As his party's nominee, he got much closer to the presidency than Trump has.

Huey Long, 1932-35: Long served as governor and then senator from Louisiana during the peak of the Great Depression. He championed the "Share Our Wealth" program. He combined a fiery populism with a corrupt reign as governor. He was assassinated before running for president in 1936 but was enough of a threat to worry then-President Franklin Roosevelt.

Strom Thurmond, 1948 and George Wallace, 1968: Sen. Thurmond (S.C.) and Gov. Wallace (Ala.) abandoned the Democratic Party over civil rights and each ran for president as third-party candidates. Both were fiery demagogues that relied upon white Southern voters unhappy with the demise of segregation. Thurmond carried four states and Wallace carried five.

Ross Perot 1992: Perot, like Trump, is a wealthy businessman. He ran for the presidency trumping (pun intended) his outsider anti-politics credentials. Focusing on deficits and free trade with Mexico (his "giant sucking sound" of jobs going to Mexico is evocative of Trump's rhetoric), Perot built up significant support and received 19 percent of the vote in the presidential election as a third-party candidate.

Trump has a lot in common with these earlier demagogues. He is running against the political establishment and the elites on the coasts (but unlike the others, he is one of those elites). He appeals to a largely rural largely anti-immigrant population (Bryan and Long were not as overtly nativist as Trump, but many of their supporters were). None of them became president and only Bryan was remotely close. Before anyone gets too excited about Trump's chances, remember that four years ago, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), running as an outsider, won 11 states in the contest for the Republican nomination. Trump hasn't won any yet.

If anything separates Trump from these previous candidates, it is the time in which he is running. With an 18-month campaign for president and a continual news cycle, there is a constant need for headlines. A reality-show star with extensive experience in self-promotion is uniquely positioned to give the media the headlines they desperately need to fill the weeks between debates and months before real votes are cast. Bryan, Long, Thurmond, Wallace and Perot would be proud, and perhaps jealous. But like them, Trump won't come close to being president.

Shapiro is an associate professor and director of the Public Policy Program at Rutgers University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.