The 19th-century antecedent that Trump evokes in his nativist appeals to white working- and middle-class Americans is not the populism of the People’s Party but rather that of the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s, which similarly argued that immigrants were taking Americans’ jobs and breaking the nation’s laws. Trump’s “populism” is a brilliant specimen of performance art but one that bears little resemblance, even in style, to the capital-P kind. The earnest activists from the People’s Party of old brandished a lengthy blueprint for reform; Trump’s personality overshadows his program. His canny lack of finesse finesses us all.
The original Populists would probably warm up to Sanders, even if their constituents in places like rural Kansas and Georgia might be puzzled to hear familiar rhetoric spoken by an elderly Jew with a Brooklyn accent. The Populists’ 1892 platform thundered: “The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few.” Sanders similarly attacks “the billionaire class,” whose supposed grip on the state has led to “an enormous transfer of wealth from the middle class and the poor to the wealthiest people in this country.”
Michael Kazin, “Crowd Pleaser”, The New York Times Magazine (27 March 2016), 14-15.