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Bryan, Bryan, Bryan
The three-time loser with a lesson for Trump
In the early twentieth century, the Democratic party had a problem. His name was William Jennings Bryan, and he wouldn’t go away.
Bryan had been a darling of progressive Democrats when he burst on the scene at the party’s national convention in 1896. Against the old guard wedded to the gold standard, Bryan preached the remonetization of silver at a generous rate. “If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost,” Bryan proclaimed. “Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
The delegates swooned, then made the young Nebraskan—Bryan was a mere thirty-six, only a year past the minimum age for president—their nominee. Bryan campaigned thrillingly against William McKinley, carrying his message around the country while the staid Republican sat on his porch in Canton, Ohio. Bryan spoke himself hoarse, until by election day he could barely croak.
He lost. McKinley’s men shamelessly shook down big corporations for money to offset Bryan’s personal appeal, and in those days before regulation of campaign spending, there was nothing the Democrats could do to prevent it.
Yet the Bryanites stood by their man, hoping to nominate him again in four years and make him president then.
They did nominate him again in 1900. The dire fate he had predicted for America under the gold regime hadn’t come about; in fact, following discovery of new mines in the Yukon and South Africa, the gold standard became the basis of an economic boom in the United States and other rich countries.
But Bryan had a new issue: anti-imperialism. After the brief Spanish-American War, McKinley persuaded the Senate to accept a treaty annexing the Philippines and Puerto Rico as American colonies. Bryan railed against this violation of the spirit of democracy, and he tried to make the 1900 election a referendum on the issue.
He lost again. Americans cared about foreign affairs less than Bryan did, and they liked the prosperity McKinley presided over more than Bryan did.
Bryan retreated but didn’t disappear. The Democrats turned to another candidate—Alton Parker, a conservative—to carry their banner in 1904, but after Parker suffered the largest popular-vote defeat in American history until then, to Theodore Roosevelt, Bryan made a comeback in 1908. He won the nomination a third time, and he sallied into battle against William Howard Taft, whom TR had anointed to be his heir.
Bryan lost yet again. His core of support among farmers dwindled with each try at the top; farmers were simply declining in number, and Bryan’s shine had dulled since his first run. But they remained the largest single bloc in the Democratic party, and though they couldn’t make Bryan president, they could keep other Democrats from becoming president, by denying those others the nomination.
Donald Trump isn’t William Jennings Bryan. In the first place, Trump actually won the presidency, in 2016. Yet he did so with a minority of the popular vote. And when he ran in 2020, he did worse than he had in 2016, losing the popular vote by a larger margin and losing the electoral vote too.
A growing number of Republicans fear that Trump has become a weight on party prospects they can’t get rid of. His supporters, like the Bryanites with their man, will follow him just about anywhere. Trump’s supporters appear to be dwindling in number; they probably can’t make him president again. But they can keep other Republicans from becoming president, by denying those others the Republican nomination.
What are Republicans to do?
The Democrats solved their Bryan problem by making him secretary of state after the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912. It wasn’t an ideal appointment. Bryan lent his weight to Wilson’s efforts to rein in the money trust, but after the outbreak of World War I, Bryan’s pacifist streak put him at odds with Wilson’s increasingly interventionist desires.
It’s hard to imagine Donald Trump as secretary of state. Less-diplomatic individuals have rarely crossed the stage of American politics.
Conceivably Trump will recognize the problem he has become for his party and retire quietly. But not much in his background points toward selfless statesmanship.
Bryan finally became a celebrity spokesman for conservative Christian values, speaking in favor of Tennessee’s anti-evolution law in the famous Scopes trial of 1925. Trump was a celebrity before he went into politics; perhaps he could just go back to that.