To the catchy riff from Sweet Home Alabama, Jeff Sessions took the podium in Madison, Alabama, on Sunday afternoon and changed the trajectory of the 2016 Republican nomination fight—and perhaps also of U.S. history.
In becoming the first U.S. Senator to endorse Trump, Sessions, regarded as the gold-standard of immigration hawkery, declared, “Politicians have promised for 30 years to fix illegal immigration. Have they done it?” As the crowd shouted, No!, Sessions answered: “Donald Trump will do it.”
Then Sessions added, “I’ve told Donald Trump this isn’t a campaign, this is a movement.”
Basking in Sessions’ warm words, Trump himself bounded to the podium and echoed Sessions as he marveled, “There has never been anything like this in American politics; they call it a phenomenon.” Yes, a phenomenon—that’s what it is.
As is sometimes said of a new figure in politics, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Not surprisingly, Trump used the word “winning” many times in his remarks, but he also drilled down into specific detail.
Of course, he whaled on “illegal immigration.” We might add that it wasn’t that long ago that the word “illegal” was considered too politically incorrect for use in politics. But man, has it made a comeback.
And there was more—much more. He took dead aim at the globalization that has looted Middle America.
With populist fire, Trump rained hot hailstones on companies such as Carrier, Ford, and Nabisco, which, he said, have moved jobs overseas.
Decrying “all-talk-no-action politicians,” Trump promised that he would confront “every damn company that wants to leave our country,” imposing a steep tariff on imports.
Speaking of the entire political/donor class, Trump had plenty of brimstone left: “All these liars, all these bloodsuckers.” The crowd loved it.
Yes, the days when Republicans were knee-jerkingly subservient to the wishes of Corporate America seem over. Other GOPers have echoed, for example, Trump’s fierce criticism of Apple over its insistence on protecting the cell-phone secrets of dead terrorists. And although Trump didn’t mention a Friday story in The Los Angeles Times, headlined, “While it defies U.S. government, Apple abides by China’s orders—and reaps big rewards,” one imagines that the brash mogul will have yet more to say about a company that obeys the People’s Republic of China while disobeying the United States of America.
Indeed, in Trump, for all his bold bravado, one can see a distinct and definable ideological core—even if the disdainful elite hate to admit it. When he said, for example, that we need to “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” he was also careful to say that the Russians should help destroy the terrorists.
We might pause to note that this is the foreign policy philosophy school known as “realism.” And it begins with, yes, a realistic view of the world. A realist says, “If the Russians have muscle in the Middle East, why not work with them? Why not make a deal? Would we rather blunder around and risk World War Three?”
Adherents of other “isms,” of course, are horrified: Followers of liberalism, for example, tell us that we should just hold hands and work against the real threat—“climate change.” And proponents of neoconservatism would have the U.S. do all the fighting unilaterally, ordering the Russians to get out of the way. But then the realists come back and say, “We’ve had enough of simpering John Kerry-style blather, but we’re also not eager for another vainglorious Bush 43-style Iraq War.” It was folks like those, after all—those assembled to hear Sessions and Trump—who had borne the brunt of the recent fighting, not the conference-room Clausewitzes who populate DC.
Trump closed with his signature pledge about the American Dream: “We’re going to make it bigger and stronger than ever before … We are going to make America greater than ever before.”
As Trump exited the stage, Virgil noticed a man holding a sign reading, “The Silent Majority Stands With Trump.”
Is that true? Will Trump assemble a majority and win? We’ll have to wait and see, although so far, at least, the indicators are good.
In the meantime, this much is for sure: Trump is right; his campaign is a phenomenon, perhaps like nothing we’ve ever seen before.
Yet for a possible comparison, Old Virgil thinks back more than a hundred years, to 1896, when William Jennings Bryan, then a 30-something ex-Congressman, electrified the Democratic national convention in Chicago with his stem-winding oration. Indeed, in many ways, Bryan had a tough Trump-like message.
Invoking the memory of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president, who held office from 1829-1837, Bryan directed his appeal to the common folk, saying:
It is for these that we speak. 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.
As Trump might paraphrase Bryan, “We tried to be nice, and that didn’t work—so no more Mr. Nice Guy!” Or as Bryan put it 120 years ago:
We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them! … What we need is an Andrew Jackson to stand as Jackson stood, against the encroachments of aggregated wealth.
We can note, to be sure, that the issues were different back then, when the federal government was tiny, and when, business, almost entirely unregulated, was “yuge.” Today, of course, Big Government is at least as great a threat to American well-being as Big Business. Yet both are, in fact, threats—and so both need to be checked.
In Chicago more than a century ago, Bryan closed with the ringing words that put him in the history books:
You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a Cross of Gold.
The Democratic conventioneers, delirious with joy at Bryan’s unabashed willingness to take on the moneyed interests, nominated him in a frenzy of enthusiasm.
It turned out that Bryan lost the 1896 presidential election, although he swept the South, winning Alabama by nearly 40 points, and won most of the West. In other words, if the ‘96 election were held today, given the population shift to the Sunbelt, it would be much closer than in that earlier era.
Still, even in defeat, the Great Commoner, as he was known, had a steel grip on much of the country. The poet Vachel Lindsay was moved to write, “When Bryan Speaks,” including these stanzas:
When Bryan speaks, the wigwam shakes.
The corporation magnate quakes.
The pre-convention plot is smashed.
The valiant pleb full-armed awakes.
When Bryan speaks, the sky is ours,
The wheat, the forests, and the flowers.
And who is here to say us nay?
Fled are the ancient tyrant powers.
Reading these lines many decades later, one almost feels that Bryan did win—although, of course, he didn’t.
Indeed, those exulting in hopey-changey enthusiasm today might be sobered by the wisdom of University of Texas historian T.R. Fehrenbach, describing how Bryan’s populists allies in the Lone Star State, too, were defeated. Recalling that the insurgents allowed themselves to become both dogmatic and overconfident, Fehrenbach observed:
The Populist assault on the state government was not intelligent but emotional. They turned a political struggle into a crusade and made it ‘them’ against ‘us.’ They were too simplistic, forgetting the essential of American political success, the pragmatic alliance between disparate groups.
In other words, to win in a large polity such as Texas, to say nothing of the USA, a movement needs more than enthusiasm; it needs savvy.
Of course, it must be said that Trump, in our time, has plenty of savvy; he has confounded just about every “expert.” And his new allies, Jeff Sessions, and, before him, Chris Christie, are plenty smart as well. Indeed, students of the inside baseball of politics know that just last month, a “young turk” by the name of Stephen Miller went from being a top aide to Sessions to being a top aide for Trump. As we know, sometimes the right sort of key adviser can be a key to victory.
So again, we’ll have to see if Trump’s neo-Bryanite crusade, bolstered as it is by top-line endorsers, can prevail.
Yet one thing is for sure: The people always have the power in their hands. George Orwell, himself a pessimist, nevertheless noted their latent potential in his enduring novel, 1984. Describing the oppressed proletarians, he allowed that it was always possible that they could rise up, even against the dreaded Big Brother. As he put it:
The proles, if only they could somehow become conscious of their own strength, would have no need to conspire. They needed only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies. If they chose they could blow the Party to pieces tomorrow morning.
Maybe that’s the way things are today: Uncle Sam is no Big Brother, but he’s plenty big. And so is business.
So yes, today’s “proles” have their work cut out for them. But for now, it seems, in the persons of Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions, they at least have their champions.