Trump’s precedents

On the verge of becoming his party’s nominee for the third time, Trump has never won the popular vote. Pictured: Former U.S. President Donald Trump. Photo Credit: Donald Trump/X

Over the past few days, I have found two entertaining articles about the parallels between Donald Trump and previous presidential contenders. 

The first one, Dan McLaughlin’s William Jennings Bryan’s Subtractive Populism, appeared in the Aug. 14, 2023, edition of the National Review. In comparing Trump to William Jennings Bryan, a thrice-nominated candidate for the Democratic Party at the turn of the twentieth century, McLaughlin’s thesis argued that as Jennings represented a renegade group of populists hoping to overthrow the Democratic Party, Trump’s faction of the Republican Party has overtaken the old GOP. In doing so, Bryan increased voter turnout for himself and his opponents, leading to years of national political impotence for the Democratic Party. Will Trump do the same to the Republican Party? 

In securing nomination as the Democratic nominee on three separate occasions, Bryan took on the party establishment. Known as the Great Commoner, Bryan held his party’s loyalty for over a decade and believed he spoke on behalf of the forgotten people of America. While repeatedly winning his party’s nomination, he could never earn enough votes to become president. On the verge of becoming his party’s nominee for the third time, Trump has never won the popular vote. 

In some ways, the men initially present as opposites. Bryan, a creature of rural America, became the nominee at age 36 and was deeply religious and faithful to his family. Trump hails from the city, lives an openly liberal lifestyle and will become the oldest presidential nominee of his party. Both practiced lifelong teetotalism and as McLaughlin wrote: “Ideologically, they shared isolationist tendencies, which neither man applied rigidly while in office. Politically, they hailed from states dominated by the opposing party, and they neither won statewide office nor learned the skills to do so.”

The undergirding tenets of conspiracy lay at the heart of both movements. Bryan’s opponent in two consecutive elections was William McKinley, who won both times. Trump will face Joe Biden in a rematch of the 2020 election, creating the possibility of the first back-to-back defeat of a presidential candidate since Dwight Eisenhower thumped Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956. 

Class warfare fueled much of Bryan’s campaigns like it does Trump’s. Ridiculing Bryan’s voters, a newspaper once described them in a headline as a “Wild, Raging, Irresistible Mob Which Nothing Can Turn from Its Abominable Foolishness.” How often has the dominant media stared down their noses at Trump voters as ignorant, corrupt, ill-informed, and deplorable? 

And the press hated Bryan but could not stay away from him any more than they could Trump. One reporter wrote upon Bryan’s death in 1925: “he was to the world of news what Babe Ruth is to baseball — the real drawing card.” Think of Trump’s rallies and how the dominant media, scathing in its coverage, uses him to create ratings, scintillate the audience with drama, and overstate his pronouncements. They did this and more with Bryan a century ago. 

Bryan enjoyed his divisiveness within the party as Trump works to divide Republicans today. Bryan sought to rid the party of those not committed to the cause and was fearless in the face of the party establishment. Trump has purged the old Republican Party of moderates, legislators, and former leaders who did not offer allegiance to him or his campaigns. Going so far as to denigrate former party nominees or presidents, Bryan attacked Grover Cleveland the same way Trump goes after the Bush family. 

As humourist, Finley Peter Dunne’s character suggested, “th’ dimmycratic party ain’t on speakin’ terms with itsilf.” Sizing up the GOP today, the Trump faction dominates while 20-25 per cent of its voters have no say, no currency, and no status in a party in the throes of Trump adoration. McLaughlin goes on to document Bryan’s highs and lows and the effects these had on the long-term health of the Democratic Party. From 1896 until 1932, they won two national elections, a golden age of Republican rule. 

As characteristic of Trump, Bryan’s ideas, public outcries, and followers clung to shadows of conspiracy. McLaughlin suggested another comparison between the two camps: “Many of Bryan’s supporters were more loyal to him than they were to his party, and their devotion formed the most intense personality cult American politics had yet seen. Many observers spoke of crowds pressing upon Bryan as if he were a faith healer.” 

In his well-read book about McKinley, Karl Rove said: “Bryan’s attacks on anyone who disagreed with him became harsher as the campaign progressed, narrowing the pool of people who would vote for him. Politics is a game of addition, but Bryan played subtraction.” 

The problem McLaughlin identifies mystifies Trump supporters who believe his accomplishments unprecedented and his job performance unrivalled. They only take note of his ability to increase the Republican vote, ignoring that he drives up the opponent’s eagerness to ensure his defeat. This explains the gulf between his insistence on the theft of the 2020 election and the reality that Democrats rallied to defeat him. 

Bryan’s supporters always looked for explanations when Bryan lost. Trump supporters struggle to accept that the rallies he holds, the lawn signs, and the hats on heads do not assure victory. Whether the Republican Party can move on from Trump lies in the historical record. Bryan, a three-time loser, oversaw the percentage of the Democratic vote drop from 46 per cent in 1892 down to 36 per cent by 1908. McLaughlin sees the challenge for the GOP to move on from Trump before the Republican Party remains permanently outside the halls of power. 

In Nothing New Under the Sun? Campaign Departures and Parallels, Rick Marschall, writing for Real Clear Politics on March 8, 2024, discusses those American leaders who have attempted third runs. Marschall notes that Trump joins an exclusive club of men who sought a non-consecutive term.  All New Yorkers (Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Grover Cleveland, and Teddy Roosevelt), only Cleveland finished the task. 

Only he of the other four reclaimed his party’s nomination. The others all ran on third-party platforms. Marschall uses that backdrop to compare Cleveland and Trump, claiming Cleveland foreshadowed Trump as an instrument of reform. He endured a sex scandal in the middle of his 1884 campaign while still a bachelor. In 1888, Cleveland lost an election rife with political corruption and susceptible to what Marschall called cheating. 

The voting practices described in the article remind the reader of charges and countercharges that began in 2000 when George W. Bush won a close vote in Florida after weeks of counting and court rulings. There were even accusations that people in Pennsylvania received bribes to visit Indiana and vote multiple times in the 1888 contest. 

Cleveland lost to Republican Benjamin Harrison by a whisker in the electoral college. His lacklustre administration welcomed a repeat contest as Cleveland won renomination in 1892. The rematch argued most of the same issues as 1888. Cleveland won the only non-consecutive second term in presidential history. The similarities between Cleveland and Trump are striking. Whether or not the former president can regain his office will cement his connection to Cleveland or Bryan.     

Your donations help us continue to deliver the news and commentary you want to read. Please consider donating today.

Donate Today


  • Politics

  • Sports

  • Business