Politico

Donald Trump Is No William Jennings Bryan

Written by Lisa

Donald Trump won millions of followers and, perhaps, the presidency with his blunt and entertaining speeches. So it was probably inevitable that Stephen Bannon, the powerful White House chief strategist who likes to invoke the lessons of history, would compare Trump to an oratorical legend from the past.

On Thursday, Bannon told a packed crowd at CPAC, the annual conservative conference, that Trump, only a day before the president gave remarks at the same venue, is “probably the greatest public speaker in those large arenas since William Jennings Bryan.”

Bryan, like Trump, did excel in front of mass audiences and often bashed the elites of his day. But the similarities between the two men as speakers end there. The Nebraskan Democrat, whom his admirers dubbed “the Great Commoner,” was an economic progressive whose populist rhetoric targeted “the money power”—Wall Street investment houses, big industrial firms and the politicians, most of them Republican, who did their bidding. He supported labor unions and free trade and called for a ban on private donations to political campaigns. As an editor of his own newspaper, he loved talking to reporters, and would never have considered attacking the press, even though most big-city dailies opposed him. Bryan was the key figure in changing his party from a conservative one (on economic policy) to the modern liberal one that Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Barack Obama inherited.

The Great Commoner’s speaking style also contrasted sharply with Trump’s. As he did on Friday, the president fills his talks with slogans about “making America great again” and angry jousts at “bad dudes” and “fake news.” Bryan, however, became a celebrated orator while still in his early 30s by giving lengthy, class-conscious addresses on thorny-but-vital economic issues. He was a serious man who cared deeply about substance.

As a young Democratic congressman in 1892, Bryan made a three-hour speech on the floor of the House attacking high tariffs and calling for a progressive income tax. He cited, from memory, statistics about how much wool and twine Americans produced and consumed, while mocking Republican manufacturers who supped at lavish banquets in Manhattan where “within a stone’s throw … were people to whom a recent meal would be a luxury.”

Four years later, in his famous “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic national convention, Bryan thrilled delegates with a similar argument about how an inflexible money supply throttled the opportunities of small farmers and wage-earners. And compare this rhythmic passage from that address with the blunt, repetitive sloganeering of nearly every speech Trump delivered during the campaign:

We do not come as aggressors. Our war is not a war of conquest. We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!

What’s more, Bryan was equally skilled at making long, popular defenses of Christianity as he was at standing up for what he called “the producing classes” against the “money power.” He gave one speech, “The Prince of Peace,” more than 2,000 times before audiences all over the world. In it, Bryan managed to merge his belief in Biblical literalism with a case, inflected with the Social Gospel, that men and women who had a “personal responsibility to God” should learn to restrain their selfish, individualistic ambitions and serve the common welfare. As we know from Trump’s awkward reference last January to the Biblical book of “Two Corinthians,” he knows very little about the religious text he professes to revere.

There are historical figures Trump calls to mind, of course. The president’s heated bombast resembles that of several right-wing populist figures from America’s more-recent past: Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s unsubstantiated attacks on Communists in the federal government and Alabama Governor George Wallace’s digs at Washington bureaucrats who allegedly let criminals run rampant. Like those men, Bryan was a provocative and polarizing figure. But he did not simply stir audiences to vote for Democrats or be good Christians, he strove to convince people with rational arguments. And he wrote every speech he gave himself.

To his credit, Bannon was entirely correct about one historical detail: Unlike Donald Trump, who earlier this month seemed to suggest that Frederick Douglass still walks among us, the president’s chief strategist is quite aware that William Jennings Bryan is dead.

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Lisa

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