Is the US having a populist moment?

Panic is setting in. “Watching Donald Trump’s rise, I now understand … exactly how Hitler could have come to power in Germany,” writes my Harvard colleague, political theorist Danielle Allen.

“A plague has descended on the party in the form of the most successful demagogue-charlatan in the history of US politics,” according to Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution.

“[Trump’s] remedy is 1930s to the core: nationalism, crude bombast, mytho-history, and sloganeering” says Victor Davis Hanson of Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

Welcome to Weimar America.

I respect these writers, but I’m afraid I don’t buy their analogy. If we had re-run the Great Depression after 2008, then Weimar Germany might be relevant. But we didn’t. The German unemployment rate in 1932, the year of Hitler’s two election victories, reached 25 percent. The unemployment rate in the United States today is 5.5 percent. This is not the 1930s.


In fact, a much better analogy to our own time is the period from the mid-1870s to the mid-1890s. On both sides of the Atlantic, the crash of 1873 was followed by a period of deflation. This was an age of industrialization, globalization, and mass migration. The combination of rapidly expanding production of iron and wheat and the tight monetary policies imposed by the gold standard resulted in deflation. Contemporaries spoke of a “great depression,” but the impact on output and employment was minimal compared with the years after 1929.

Like the late Victorians, we too are living in an age of industrialization (in our case, China’s), globalization (they had the telegraph, we have the Internet) and mass migration (in those days people fled Europe, now they flock to it). We too have seen a vast expansion in the production of both industrial and agricultural commodities. True, we don’t have the gold standard, but despite the creative exertions of our central bankers, we do have something very close to global deflation: very low inflation in most countries, falling prices in a significant number. We avoided a 1930s-style slump. But, like our great-great-grandfathers, we are experiencing a period of stagnation compared with the pre-crisis boom.


In the 1880s, as in our own time, the political result of stagnation was not fascism but populism. Fascism was all about violence: marching men in uniforms, battered opponents, remarmament, war. The violence of populism, by contrast, is mostly verbal. Populist leaders are demagogues, but demagogues in suits, not jackboots. They insult their opponents rather than break their legs. They tend to be against overseas wars.

This is not to say that Donald Trump is identical to William Jennings Bryan, the great populist orator of the late 19th century — only that he is much closer to Bryan than to Hitler.

As in Bryan’s day, the populist backlash is directed against a) financial elites and their political cronies b) free trade c) immigration and d) racial integration (though this last target is not explicit today). As then, populists base their appeal at least partly on xenophobia. Today Trump complains about the Chinese, Mexicans, and Muslims. In the 1880s, populists were more likely to be anti-Semites or segregationists.

Yet the important point is that populism is about more than bigotry. Its core economic argument actually has some substance. “My fellow white Americans,” Trump is essentially saying, “I know you feel less good today than you expected to feel. I know you feel America is no longer great. The people you should blame are people like my opponents [professional politicians with ties to the banks], the Chinese [shorthand for globalization] and Mexicans [immigration].”


I think this is mostly wrong. But the reason Trump is winning is that no other candidate has a more convincing explanation of why so many Republican voters genuinely are worse off today than they were in 2000. And the key to his success is that he blames both George W. Bush and Barack Obama — both Republican and Democratic party establishments.

There is nothing specifically American about populism. As in the 1880s, we have it in Europe, too. Can populism come to power? Of course. There are populists in power already in Greece, Hungary, and Poland. And in many ways the Russian President Vladimir Putin is the ultimate populist, whose interests all of this serves.

The irony of all of this is that we know, or should know, that populism doesn’t work. In the part of the world where constitutions have repeatedly failed to keep populists out — Latin America — it has been tried again and again, both by the right and by the left. Bankers get arrested. Tariffs get imposed. Border fences get built and sometimes fought over. The result? Visit Venezuela.

The question is whether or not we in the northern hemisphere need to relearn this lesson the hard way. That is the right thing to panic about.


Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford.