While it’s true that Donald Trump was able to win the president by positioning himself as the people’s choice to bring down the Washington establishment, this is hardly the first time America has experienced a populist uprising.
As a result of the changes brought about by industrialization, populists initially threatened to take over American politics in the late 19th century. The name “Populist Party” soon became synonymous with them.
Who was President when the Wizard of OZ Came Out
The Populist Party was founded in the 1880s in Kansas and spread through rural communities in the Midwest with the goal of protecting farmers’ rights.
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They fought against the railroad tycoons, bankers, and East Coast merchants who maintained artificially low agricultural prices, exorbitant freight rates, and insisted that the United States stay on the gold standard.
Farmers were already struggling to make ends meet before the high interest rates and deflation brought on by the gold standard added insult to injury.
The Populists advocated for the legalisation of silver coins as a means of increasing the country’s monetary supply and so reducing the risk of deflation. In the 1890s, the party, led by one of America’s finest orators, William Jennings Bryan, lured some urban workers to their movement by advocating for an eight-hour work day and curbs on immigration.
The Populists won over 40% of the vote in 1894’s congressional elections. Bryan, who ran for president in 1896 on the Populist and Democratic ticket, was known for a speech in which he said that the “cross of gold” was being used to crucify the farmer. William McKinley, the Republican nominee, defeated him in the end with a margin of 95 electoral votes. In comparison, McKinley’s campaign spent five times as much money on the election.
We’re no longer in Kansas
The Wizard of Oz, written by Lyman Frank Baum in 1900, tells the narrative of the first American populist movement quite well. Many may be unaware of the political allegory behind it, despite the fact that the musical and 1939 Hollywood film ensured it became one of the best-known children’s stories ever written.
As an abbreviation for “ounce,” “oz” alludes to the precious metal. Dorothy stands in for the common man, the Scarecrow for the farmer, the Tin Woodsman for the factory worker, and the Cowardly Lion for William Jennings Bryan. The Yellow Brick Road symbolises the American Dream, the Munchkins are the first family, and the Wizard is the president.
Dorothy and her house are blown away by a storm from Kansas to the Land of Oz, where they crash down and murder the Wicked Witch of the East (the coastal bankers and capitalists) who had been keeping the munchkins in servitude. For her first steps on the Yellow Brick Road, Dorothy dons a pair of silver slippers, a metaphor for the longing for silver currency (note that the ruby slippers were introduced for the movie).
The Tin Woodsman that Dorothy encounters is a metaphor for the shuttered factories that contributed to the economic downturn of 1893. To be sure, the industrial job that dehumanised men and made them into machines was the root of the Tin Woodman’s problems, but the lack of a heart was the actual problem.
Dorothy then encounters the brainless Scarecrow. Baum was under the impression that the farmer was too dim to understand his political motivations. Despite the fact that this was only a few decades after the effective end of Reconstruction in 1877, many rural southerners remained loyal to the Democrats and did not support the Populists.
Dorothy then encounters the Cowardly Lion, who is in need of courage; Baum implies that William Jennings Bryan brought more to the table than just his roar.
They decide to travel to Washington, DC (Emerald City) together in the hopes that the President (Wizard of Oz) will be able to aid them.
However, the Wizard, like any good politician, plays on their insecurities by taking on different forms for each character. A severed head to Dorothy, a ball of fire to the Woodsman, and a dangerous predator to the Lion.
They quickly learn that the Wizard is a phoney, just an old man who enjoys “make believe.” This means that the president’s authority is limited to the extent to which the public is fooled by him, and that corrupt presidents cannot maintain this for very long. When the Scarecrow exclaims, “You’re a humbug! “, Baum’s point is made.
The Wizard escapes to a new life in a hot-air balloon after Dorothy melts the Wicked Witch of the West, who is just as bad as her counterpart in the East. In the West, the Scarecrow is in control, whereas in the East, the Tin Woodsman is in authority.
In spite of this, Baum appears to have concluded that the Populist goal of farmer and worker acquiring power would never materialise because the Cowardly Lion retreats back into the forest. The battle for silver money is effectively over by the time Dorothy gets back to Kansas without her magical silver slippers.
Populists Lose Ground.
After President McKinley restored economic prosperity, the 1890s Populist movement swiftly died out. As more and more people flocked to urban areas and welcomed industrialization, it became clear that their anti-immigrant agenda was anti-American.
The parties further fused in 1896 when Bryan joined forces with the Democrats, who shared the Populists’ views on silver. In 1900, Bryan campaigned for office again, this time under both nominations, but the Populist movement in the United States was already on the decline.
Remembering the Populists’ near-miss in the 1890s is instructive in light of Trump’s 2016 campaign. Trump ran on the Republican platform, but he nevertheless advocated for change in the areas of economics, society, and politics, sometimes at odds with the interests of the elites. Both movements capitalised on people’s anxiety about the presence of foreigners.
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The key distinction is, of course, that Trump will really become president. His roar was deafening, but what he will do next is uncertain.
His campaign theme was constantly shifting, and he has yet to present any concrete proposals for the future. It will be especially fascinating to observe if he follows through on his immigration ideas, especially if they too become perceived as anti-American in the years to come.
He should take the lessons from The Wizard of Oz to heart regardless of the situation. If he was just trying to trick the voters and doesn’t stand up for their interests, he might not last long in office.
Someone else’s pals will be on their way to the Emerald City to tell him he’s a downer. While some things evolve, others remain constant. Thanks for read our Article Who was President when the Wizard of OZ Came Out.