Populism: George Wallace to Donald Trump

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13588

From 1950 to 2020, populism shifted in a way it never had in its 100-year existence in the United States. Discover the similarities and differences between the 1900 and 2020 populism ideologies!


United States, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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George Wallace quote, 1963

Unlike Theodore Roosevelt or William Jennings Bryan, George Wallace did not use populism to form a coalition of lower-class people.

George Wallace focused on a specific population that was becoming increasingly disenfranchised in the second half of the 20th century, Southern White Americans.

  • How did populism change so quickly?

Before beginning this lesson, be sure to complete the first two Related Lessons in this series on populism, found in the right-hand sidebar.

The years following the World Wars brought a lot of drastic changes across the world; however, it did not include everyone.

As suburban America began to flourish, the South remained significantly poorer than other industrial regions. Everyone in the lower- and working-classes felt disenfranchised from the larger American political process until George Wallace created a new distinction.

George Wallace

George Wallace, 1968

Image by Tilden76, via Wikimedia Commons, has no known copyright restrictions.

The problem with the post-war golden age was that prosperity was uneven. The South was significantly less industrialized and, therefore, less able to capitalize on the growing global economy.

George Wallace utilized this economic disparity for political means by pitting White Southerners against Black Southerners.

For two decades after the end of World War II, George Wallace gained a major following among Southern White voters because he made them feel heard when the rest of the country was on a trend toward desegregation.

Take a look at this 1968 presidential election result map to see just where Wallace had supporters:

1968 electoral map

Image by the United States Geological Society, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

The idea that Wallace was promoting the concerns of the South in order to succeed politically was immortalized in a Bob Dylan song from 1964 entitled, "Only a Pawn in Their Game."

Bob Dylan, 1963

Image by Rowland Scherman, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

In the song, an employee of the NAACP named Medgar Evers is shot by a member of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

As you listen to "Only a Pawn in Their Game" from Bob Dylan (below), pay attention to how Dylan explains that knowing this shooter's name doesn't matter, and identify what he is saying in reference to the attempt to unify a population based upon race:

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  • How does this complicate the idea of populism?
  • Is populism only beneficial when it is based on economic status?

As the United States began to integrate more and more, those who were not enjoying the prosperity of the post-war boom identified Black Americans as the source or scapegoat for their problems.

Bob Dylan saw this utilization of a disenfranchised population as a simple power play by a politician to gain votes.

This was at a time when schools had already been desegregated and the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. Within two years of this song's release, the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act would be passed.

The country was moving in the direction of racial equality, and it seemed that a mild version of Henry Wallace's version of populism was prevailing in the White House.

Lyndon Johnson

Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964

Image by Arnold Newman (WHPO), via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty at a scale unprecedented in American history.

Watch this clip as LBJ Declares War on Poverty, from MCamericanpresident, and identify if it sounds like a populist message:

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He was trying to lift the bottom fifth of Americans out of poverty.

So, at the same time that George Wallace was creating a coalition by enfranchising Southern White Americans, LBJ was creating a coalition by attempting to empower poor Americans.

It is from this point that modern populism in the U.S. stems.

The singular populism against business interests of the 19th and early 20th century was no longer relevant because business had been restricted following World War II.

Instead, the role of government in the lives of Americans became the major factor in U.S. populism. Poor minority Americans identified with one populist figure, while disenfranchised White Americans identified with a different populist figure.

  • How has this morphed into the populism seen in the country today?

Ronald Reagan

Ronald and Nancy Reagan, 1966

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

After the Watergate and Stagflation crises of the 1970s, a new populist candidate rose to the presidency.

Ronald Reagan altered the racist ideas of George Wallace into an inclusive message. All Americans, no matter their ethnic background, could identify with his idea that:

"In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem."

Proposing a brand new economic theory, Reagan emphasized the role of the individual. He believed that if citizens were given the ability and freedom to harness the properties of capitalism, everyone would be better off.

This message resonated with millions of Americans, as you can see by the 1984 presidential election results:

1984 election result map

Image by the United States Geological Survey, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

During his presidency, Reagan succeeded in gaining support from all over the United States by utilizing American nationalism.

For George Wallace, White Americans deserved better because they were "native" to the country. To Lyndon Johnson, the government had to ensure wealth was distributed fairly.

But to Ronald Reagan, anyone who wanted to be American and who wanted to succeed simply had to work hard and embrace the freedom the United States provided.

As you watch his speech, The Price for Freedom, identify how Ronald Reagan crafts a unique populist message no longer based on the problems of business, but of government.

The Price for Freedom Video One: Ronald Reagan Memorial Day Speech from PastorAppreciation1:

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Ronald Reagan believed in the free market (an economic system based on competition between privately owned businesses). He thought it was the best way to empower lower incomes while permitting those already successful to flourish.

Anyone who felt disenfranchised about anything could unite around a common contempt for an overreaching government. This ideology began decades of easing government regulations.

Eventually, as businesses became more powerful by the 21st century, they would again become the target of populism on both sides of the political spectrum.

Barack Obama's Legacy

Barack Obama

Image by janeb13, via Pixabay, is free for commercial use.

At the end of Barack Obama's presidency, Democrats and Republicans alike seemed to be disappointed and frustrated. Americans appeared to want a break from the idea of Washington insiders and sought something different.

Populism once again became the language of the political system in the United States.

Two figures emerged in this political environment and used populist ideas to garner support. Let's look at Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to determine how populism has changed in its 150-year history.

Donald Trump

As you watch Trump's plan to bring back jobs to America, from Fox Business, identify what he thinks about large American companies:

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Bernie Sanders

Now watch We Must Stop Outsourcing Jobs | Bernie Sanders and identify what similarities you see between this message and Donald Trump's:

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Populism of Today

While Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders disagree on almost everything, the core of their populist message is largely the same.

As businesses were massively deregulated from 1980 to 2008, they were permitted to seek lower-wage regions, allowing the companies to prosper and grow dramatically. While there is nothing inherently wrong with deregulation, many Americans have identified with the idea that jobs need to come back home.

The populism of today, regardless of ideological preferences, is about business again.

Whether one believes businesses need to pay their fair share of taxes or should be barred from moving factories abroad, Americans all over the country have united against businesses and their current adverse effects.

Keep going in the Got It? section to identify the two enemies of populism.

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