- - Sunday, February 21, 2016

Donald Trump has blazed an unorthodox trail through the Republican campaign for president this year, but he is not the first “usurper” to upset the accepted conventions of campaigning. Several other contenders for the presidency in American history were equally unorthodox for various reasons.

Perhaps the most like Mr. Trump in popularity was Huey Pierce Long (1893-1935), a controversial politician from Louisiana, who rose to national prominence with his “Share the Wealth” campaign. His positions as governor and as senator were very like those of present-day democratic socialist, Sen. Bernard Sanders. He too was a Democrat, but he became a challenger to President Franklin Roosevelt for the 1936 Democratic nomination.

Long was blessed with the ability to deliver stirring speeches and to inspire tremendous loyalty among his listeners. He also had significant support from other national figures, notably Father Charles Coughlin, the Michigan priest who commanded a fervent national radio audience. Huey Long was assassinated one month after he declared his candidacy for the Democratic nomination, apparently as a result of a local dispute. His casket was viewed by 200,000 people, tens of thousands of whom witnessed his outdoor funeral.

Long’s crusade has faded from history over the years, and it is not possible to know whether he could have defeated Roosevelt for the nomination. In his favor was the fact that 1936 saw the beginning of the “Second Depression”, and that his populist message was very appealing to the vast armies of the unemployed and hopeless mired again in a Great Depression, which just would not go away in spite of Roosevelt’s New Deal. In the end, Roosevelt sailed to a second term with virtually no Republican opposition. Long remains, however, potentially the most significant rival Roosevelt ever faced.

Much more like Mr. Trump in background was Roosevelt’s next Republican opponent, Wendell Lewis Willkie (1892–1944), who ran against Roosevelt in 1940. He was chairman of the huge utility company, Commonwealth and Southern Corporation, and gained national prominence for his opposition to the vast government takeover of electrical utilities known as the Tennessee Valley Authority. He had switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party in 1939 as a result of this dispute. Willkie was an inspirational speaker and counted as his audience virtually the entire business community.

In 1940, though not a politician, he was drafted to the Republican nomination for president on the sixth ballot of the convention.

He was soundly defeated by Roosevelt, at least partly because he openly favored American support of the anti-German allies in Europe. Roosevelt, who was running for an unprecedented third term, promised on the contrary to shed “not one drop of American blood on foreign soil”. Many rank and file Americans were isolationists, not willing to enter another war world war. Willkie lost many voters, including Republicans, over this issue, even though he began late in the campaign to advocate limited US military engagement. But the damage had been done. Roosevelt won 57% of the popular vote.

It was later discovered that Roosevelt had already made preparations for America’s entry into the European war. Thus, even though the attack on Pearl Harbor was conducted by the Japanese alone, Roosevelt immediately declared war on Germany as well and sent troops to Europe. Whether Roosevelt intentionally concealed his intentions in order to win the election is a matter still disputed by historians.

Innovative campaigner William Jennings Bryan (1860-1825) was a first term Congressman from Nebraska when he won the Democratic nomination for president in 1896 at the age of 36. His slogan was “You [American big business] shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold”. He advocated adding silver as additional backing for the U.S. currency instead of sole reliance on gold, because that move would create easy money for the victims of the Depression of 1893. He was a maverick and an innovator because he was the first presidential candidate to openly campaign for the presidency. Prior custom held that the candidates themselves should remain at home, encouraging the image of the country calling a reluctant leader to duty. Bryan traveled more than 18,000 miles through 27 states and attracted a large and enthusiastic crowds in 1896, but he lost to William McKinley in both 1896, and 1900.

A final example is a man who was as conventional as possible but became in the end an aspiring usurper. President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) served out the assassinated McKinley’s second term (1901-1905) then was re-elected to office (1906-1910). He ran that time with the promise not to run again, since he had already served most of two terms as president. By 1912, however, he had changed his mind about that decision. He approached his former vice president, now president, William Howard Taft, with the request that Taft step aside and let Roosevelt run again as the Republican nominee. Taft must have thought he was hearing things! He abruptly rejected his old boss’ request, and this led Roosevelt to form the Bull Moose Party and run under its banner. This move, of course, split the Republican vote, and elected the only Democrat (Woodrow Wilson) between 1896 and 1932.

None of these campaigns led to the presidency. If Mr. Trump succeeds, he will be the first.

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