Like a lot of other folks I have spent the past few months saying that I have never heard of (let alone experienced) anything quite like the presidential campaign of 2016. Setting aside the powerful insurgency of a 74 year old socialist in the Democratic primaries, the “ain’t never been here before” reference is all about Donald Trump. Trump’s success has been attributed to a combination of his astutely channeling the deep anger of a suffering (mainly white) middle class, an incredible aptitude for showmanship combined with the sheer entertainment of breaking all the rules, a toady cable news media more in love with its enhanced ratings than doing its job responsibly, and the independence a man possesses when he doesn’t need anyone else’s money or love. It hasn’t hurt that the Republican Party is hurting by deep internal divisions that prevent it from presenting a united front against the larger than life Donald.
To date, we pundits comforted ourselves with the sense that things like this just cannot happen here. The voters, we have felt, are ultimately too smart to be fooled by demagoguery and, if not, there is the solid foundation of a political party establishment that can use its resources to step in and place a check on the will of its own voters. On the eve of the GOP primary in New York, the only question remaining is whether or not Mr. Trump wins more than 50% of the vote statewide and in its congressional districts to walk away with all of the state’s delegates.
I thought it would be instructive to share a story from New York history that shows that the state (and the nation) have been in this very same position before. The year was 1906 and the larger than life political figure was none other than newspaper publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was already, like Trump, a major figure on the national scene. By 1906, Hearst had already defined himself by having, in the words of biography.com, “adopted a sensational brand of reporting later known as “yellow journalism,” with sprawling banner headlines and hyperbolic stories, many based on speculation and half-truths”. Once a Democrat, he had served two terms in Congress, run unsuccessfully for mayor of New York, and was preparing to run for governor of New York as a Republican – a move seen by many as a steppingstone to a run for President. His campaign caused fits in the White House – President Theodore Roosevelt was a New Yorker – and Hearst was detested by the Party “establishment”.
President Roosevelt dispatched perhaps the penultimate New York elite figure, Secretary of State Elihu Root, to go to Utica (Root’s and my hometown) to deliver a major speech about the dangers of Hearst’s political ambitions. Here are a few excerpts from Root’s “Utica Speech” of November 1, 1906:
“A demagogue is one who for selfish ends seeks to curry favor with the people or some particular portion of them by pandering to their prejudices or wishes or by playing on their ignorance or passions…
“We are witnessing in the State of New York one of those tests of popular government… when a skillful demagogue attempts to get elected to office by exceeding all other men on the denunciation of real evils and in promises to cure them.
“Honest and well-meaning voters, smarting under the effects of political or social or business wrongdoing, naturally tend to sympathize with the man who expresses their feelings in the forcible and extreme language and who promises the most sweeping measures of reform; and in the excitement and heat of public indignation they are sometimes in danger of forgetting that he who cries ‘stop thief’ the loudest may be merely seeking his own advantage, may be worthless as a leader, may belong to the actual criminal class himself .”
Secretary Root charged Hearst with being vulgar and crude, violent in his language, insensitive to the recent assassination of President William McKinley – and he made a strong case for supporting Charles Evans Hughes who was elected governor, ran for President in 1916 and lost a squeaker to Woodrow Wilson, and served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
The “Utica Speech” was a turning point in that campaign. It was a time when the political establishment could speak with one voice and unite a party against what it perceived to be a common (or uncommon) danger). It is well worth reading 110 years later.