The Farmers’ Alliances (Grange) grew in the Midwest and South in the 1880s. Farmers were discouraged over low prices for their goods and a lack of credit/banking facilities to serve them.

 Farmers felt ignored in favor of business and industry. By 1892 it became apparent that the Alliances were not gaining political traction, so the leaders organized the Populist, or Peoples, Party. The mostly agrarian group tried to increase their tent-size to include labor. 

They advocated for some issues that stand today, like a graduated income tax and direct election of Senators (17th Amendment), some that are still good ideas like tariffs on revenue only––never on goods, and some that have fallen by the wayside like more currency by allowing unlimited coinage of silver and government ownership of railroads (Amtrak is partly government controlled). The idea was to bring farmers parity.

Like many single-issue third parties, Populists began to split on other issues. Southern farmers began to waffle on Populist dogma in favor of their preference for protecting white supremacy, thus voting Democratic. 

In 1896 the Free Silver Movement got the rest of the Populists into the Democratic Party. There they stayed until 1948 when President Harry Truman’s federal civil rights activity began challenging states’ rights and the maintenance of segregation. 

The southern white Democrats, including the old Populists, concerned with segregationist issues, began defecting to the Republican Party as Dixiecrats. The move was finalized in 1964 when Democrats passed the Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The faction tied to the plight of farmers and labor unions remained Democrats. 

Populist issues are progressive today, but there is still a populist kernel alive in the Republican Party–hence the confusion.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the brainchild of then Professor Elizabeth Warren and implemented by Barack Obama in 2011, is a page right out of the Populist playbook. 

The bureau is organized with units including community affairs, consumer complaints, the Office of Fair Lending, and the Office of Financial Opportunity. Does the financial opportunity focus sound familiar? It came directly from concerns of the original Farmers’ Alliances in 1880. 

The CFPB is a watchdog over illegal financial actions and unfair treatment of clients by big banks. In its first years the CFPB returned $12 billion to consumers who were legally adjudicated to have been wronged by financial institutions. 

It was working just like it was drawn up, until Donald Trump got ahold of it. He fired Richard Cordray who had been running the bureau ever since Republicans refused to confirm Warren to the post she most wanted. 

As an aside, this falls into the “Beware What You Ask For” category because if Ms. Warren were confirmed as CFPB chief, she likely would never have run for and won her Senate seat and Republicans wouldn’t be dealing with her on such a high level today. 

Anyway, Trump fired Cordray and put Mick Mulvaney, a Tea Party Representative and currently Acting Chief of Staff, into the job as acting CFPB chief. Mulvaney immediately changed the focus from a consumer-based agency to one favoring financial institutions.  Not to worry. 

If the country comes to its senses and elects a Democratic president, the stroke of a pen can return the CFPB to its original mission––that of being a populist champion backing the common citizen against Wall Street giants.

Labor unions are populist by design. Unions advocate for any and all workers’ rights and benefits. Like the focus of the CFPB, unions give individual working people equal footing dealing with corporation ownership. The simple act of a constitutionally sanctioned law suit by individual workers against massive Fortune 500 legal teams is ludicrous. With union support, the playing field is leveled.

Donald Trump would like us to think he’s a populist/people’s president. Steve Bannon told him he is, but Bannon and others like to mistakenly soften the xenophobic edges of nationalism by advocating a meld with populism. Nationalists would have us believe populism is theirs alone. 


Populism is a singular theory in support of common people, regardless of that common person’s looks, religion, or personal preferences.

Trump, at times, makes efforts to talk like a populist touting low unemployment numbers and modest job creation. But, installing tax cuts that save the richest 10 percent of the country billions of dollars, impose minimal corporate taxes, increase profits without expanding the companies, and effect little gain for low- and middle-class workers is elitist. 

Putting tariffs on goods that make every-day shoppers pay more and cause farmers to lose sales of crops is despicable. Subsidizing farmers for their losses is socialist. 

None of the above are populist. Trump promised coal and steel jobs––few materialized. The populist stark reality is that no one can bring those jobs back––they’re just gone. 

Trump’s ignoring infrastructure repair and upgrades that lead directly to more than enough jobs to make up for fossil fuel jobs lost to green interests and industrial jobs lost to technology is anything but populist. 

A populist would be making Herculean efforts toward ensuring that one job would earn enough money for any family to pay the bills and allow for modest saving––not the case with Mr. Trump. 

He is an elitist who foiled the CFPB and is anti-union. 

Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican populist. Donald Trump is not.

Terry Donnelly is a retired teacher. He taught in public schools in Kentucky, Michigan, and Colorado. He was an adjunct faculty member instructing teachers and teacher trainees at Michigan State University, University of Colorado, and Adams State College in Colorado.