You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Antisemitism in Populist History

Dusty Sklar
March 11, 2017

by Dusty Sklar

THE ANTISEMITISM that has been surging to the surface since Donald Trump became President is in keeping with a tradition of rightwing populist rhetoric that has embraced antisemitism since the late 19th century. Back then, a number of important populist leaders thought Jews to be at the heart of the problems faced by the rural farmers and small business people who constituted their base. In truth, these peopled lived in parts of America where there were few Jews, and many of those early populists had never even meet a Jew, yet stereotypes abounded.

Jewish bankers, notably the Rothschild dynasty, and hence the Jewish "race," were blamed for the oppressive level of debt that was wiping out family farms. President Grover Cleveland's move to shore up the U.S. gold standard with a 1895 sale of bonds to a banking syndicate that included J.P. Morgan and the House of Rothschild provided "proof" that the country, suffering a severe economic depression, was in thrall to international Jewish bankers. In the 1896 presidential campaign, Nebraska's Democratic Party candidate William Jennings Bryan, who opposed the gold standard (as well as the imperialistic Spanish-American War and the growth of corporate trusts), invoked the long history of Jews-killed-Christ ideology by roaring, "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." (Hear his speech below.)

Bryan later demurred, in a speech to a Jewish audience: "We are not attacking a race, we are attacking greed and avarice, which know neither race nor religion. We do not know of any class of our people who, by reason of their history, can better sympathize with the struggling masses in this campaign than can the Hebrew race."

Thomas E. Watson, a leading populist politician from Georgia, was Bryan's running mate in 1896. Watson was a progressive populist to begin with, pushing through legislation that established rural free delivery by the post office (an enormous expansion of the post office's reach and duties), and calling on poor whites and blacks to unite in struggle against the country's wealthy class. After 1900, however, facing the failure of fusion politics between Democrats and Populists, Watson turned to race-baiting Catholics and blacks. He added Jews to his hit list by 1913, when, as a newspaper publisher, he whipped up public outrage against Leo Frank, who had been arrested on trumped-up charges of having raped and murdered one of his employees, a 14-year-old girl. Watson reportedly made a cash payment to police for access to evidence, then was accused of removing evidence that favored Frank. He told the governor that he would throw his support behind a Senate bid "if only the governor would let Frank hang," then led a group of Georgia's finest citizens to the prison and drove Frank 180 miles to a site where he was lynched the following morning.

A number of writers have argued that the populists of the 1890s were no more afflicted by antisemitism than the rest of the Western world at that time. People like Madison Grant, for example, a graduate of Yale and Columbia Law and a friend to Theodore Roosevelt, in his 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race, expressed the fear of Jews and other "lower races" and championed a strict anti-immigrant act. His book was much admired by Hitler as well as certain academic, political and business elites.

From 1881 to 1920, about 2.5 million Ashkenazi Jews came here from Eastern Europe, and experienced discrimination in employment, education, and social advancement. They were declared inferior in every way imaginable, and clearly, the populist movement did much to intensify the assault. In that 1896 presidential race, for example, all the major political parties used antisemitic sloganeering to appeal to voters, but the Populist Party made antisemitism a bedrock of its appeal. "It was chiefly Populist writers who expressed that identification of the Jew with the usurer and the 'international gold ring' which was the central theme of American antisemitism of the age," writes historian Richard Hofstadter in Anti-Semitism in the United States. "The omnipresent symbol of Shylock can hardly be taken in itself as evidence of antisemitism but the frequent references to the House of Rothschild make it clear that for many silverites the Jew was an organic part of the conspiracy theory of history."

THERE WAS, HOWEVER, ANOTHER, more tolerant side to populism. For example, under the influence of populist activists like Clarence Darrow and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, San Francisco elected a populist mayor, the Jewish mining engineer Adolph Sutro, in 1895. In Omaha, Nebraska, another Jew, Edward Rosewater, a prominent Republican, founder of the Omaha Bee, threw his support behind the populist candidate for governor rather than the Republican, who was supported y the American Protective Association, an anti-Catholic group.

Samuel Ealy Johnson, Lyndon Johnson's grandfather, a populist politician in Texas, taught his family the importance of including Jews in the human brotherhood. Lyndon learned the lesson well. As a freshman Congressman in 1938 and 1939, he was one of the rare people to help Jewish refugees from Germany and Poland get around America's restrictive immigration laws.

In the past few years, populism has been nationalistic in its appeals, worldwide, and it is often tinged with antisemitism. An increasingly divided society, here and in Europe, is grappling with the challenge of economic stasis, with new technologies rendering many unskilled and semi-skilled workers obsolete. At the same time, the fortunes of the top 1 percent are exploding.

As Pope Francis reminds us, "Crises provoke fear, alarm. In my opinion, the most obvious example of European populism is Germany in 1933. Germany is broken, it needs to get up, to find its identity, a leader, someone capable of restoring its character, and there is a young man called Adolf Hitler who says 'I can, I can'."

"I can, I can" is precisely Donald Trump's message, as exemplified in his final campaign ad, below.

The four readily identifiable American bad guys in the ad are Hillary Clinton and three Jews: George Soros, Janet Yellen, and Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs. The narration runs as follows:

“The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election. For those who control the levers of power in Washington [Soros appears] and for the global [Yellen appears] special interests. They partner with these people [Clinton appears] who don’t have your good in mind.”

“It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the [Blankfein appears] pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.”

William Jennings Bryan couldn't have said it any better.

Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles. Her most recent articles for us were about the Alt-Right’s antisemitism and "Is Racism Actually in Decline?"