NILES, Ohio—Truth be told, neither the home William McKinley was born in nor the front porch 55 miles west of his birthplace from which he conducted his presidential campaign exist anymore.
The small, wood-plank-sided home here on state Route 46 is a replica of where the 25th president of the United States was born. The original home was moved twice before it burned to the ground. The front porch of his home in Canton has been long gone, the lumber used for park benches during the Great Depression.
Down the street from his birthplace is the McKinley Memorial Library. Constructed in 1917, just 16 years after he was assassinated, it takes up an entire city block. The rain and the dark midmorning skies make the white marble monument and its columns seem all the more grand.
A towering McKinley stands in the center. He is surrounded by bronze busts of the people who served with him, and on either side of his likeness are the wings of the library.
It’s always been a mystery as to why this man and the race he won in 1896 have received scant attention in modern popular culture; his opponent, William Jennings Bryan, was a congressman from Nebraska who was running as a populist at the tail end of America’s flirtation with populism.
The movement emerged on a number of fronts: Industrialization and the radical societal changes it forced on Main Street were changing America at a rapid pace, and the depression of 1893 was still a searing memory for the working class.
One of the major elements of that depression was the false impression of economic prosperity the rapid expansion of the railroads gave; people wrongly believed the industry was stable when, in fact, it was floating on a bubble.
The railroads began failing, which led to the failure of the businesses that indirectly supported them, such as construction, steel mills and urban factory workers. The cost of freight skyrocketed, which threatened farmers’ ability to transport their crops; they all blamed the bankers and railroads for their misery and formed a political alignment.
Three million people were unemployed, and the homeless and hungry lined the streets of major cities as civil unrest exploded across the country.
Suddenly, the little guy was building to become a political force, and their guy was populist Bryan, the fiery Democrat who drew large crowds everywhere he went.
In contrast, McKinley stayed home, literally, and ran his campaign from his front porch in Canton. He had the moneyed elites behind him, bankrolling his campaign; he was also the candidate for the intellectuals and the wealthy.
And he won.
The similarities between the dynamics of that era and our current one are at least compelling enough to wonder if they mean anything. There is societal unrest, distrust, uncertain economic conditions and a technological revolution all fought between a man supported by the intellectual elite (this time, it is Joe Biden) and the forgotten man’s hero (President Donald Trump).
Michael Genovese, professor of political science and president of the Global Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University in California, said there are parallels but cautioned not to take them too far. “After all, it was Mark Twain who reminded us that ‘history may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes,'” he said.
“The huge difference is that voters came to McKinley to pay respects and listen to him pontificate, while Biden is a prisoner in his basement,” Genovese said of the former vice president’s confinement during the coronavirus.
“One clear parallel is that the United States was and is reeling from dramatic economic and international changes: industrialization and, today, globalization,” he said. “Both radically upturned old relationships and placed the workers in a vulnerable position.”
Average citizens were observers, as they are today, of the excess manifestations of position and wealth. Industrialization made huge fortunes, and globalization/the tech revolution did the same.
Both were dynamic periods during which innovation made for deep structural and social changes; both left a lot of people behind.
“Populism, even angry populism, was on the rise, just like today. Resentment against someone or anyone proved a powerful force,” explained Genovese.
Back then, it was the bankers; today, it is those tech innovators who have all our money. The idea is it is their fault, not ours. Back then, we were determined to take our government back. The result: the populist and progressive movements of the turn of the 20th century.
Back then, explained Genovese, the political systems really were in the hands of a corrupt few; the old boss system still ruled.
Politics was a club and not a movement.
“If past is prelude, the center will hold,” he explained. “The forces in the center are just too ingrained to be easily defeated. The forces against the system, be it the Trump ‘corrupt carnage swamp’ or the ‘greedy rich’ elites, burn out or get distracted.”
Genovese said Biden is fighting a basement campaign because he has no other choice. Trump misses his rallies, but he has a huge tech lead over Biden (a 30 million to 6 million Twitter advantage is one example).
Trump can fight a campaign in the clouds. Biden can’t.
Genovese said 2020 will be all about (and almost only about) a referendum on Trump. He and only he will win or lose. There is not much Biden can do to make a dent.
“McKinley ran from his porch by design and choice; Biden is stuck,” he said. “He can’t go out kissing babies and shaking hands. He does not have the charisma to attract those who respond to star power. His best bet is that, in the end, Trump fatigue or Trump opposition will drive voters into Biden’s camp. He will not draw them in. 2020 is all about Trump.”
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