HM - April 2017 - Backstory: Populism

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People's Choice
Teacher Resource Set

by Noel Sucese

Though Donald Trump’s populist rhetoric, to the surprise of many, took the nation by storm, BackStory reveals that presidential candidates have a history of using populism to attract American voters. Trump’s debate and speaking style bears many similarities to Alabama Governor George Wallace’s. In a 1963 inaugural address, Wallace famously declared “segregation now…segregation tomorrow…and segregation forever.” While such sentiments may have appealed to Southern voters, during the 1968 presidential election Wallace had to tailor his message to include the concerns of Americans outside of the South. He did so in one campaign ad that featured a white woman walking in a dark urban area amidst the sounds of glass shattering and gunshots. In this way, he recast racist views as fearful overtones that played on the concerns voters had during a time of swirling social change. Similarly, Richard Nixon played on these same fears in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Miami, Florida that same year. Referencing what he called, “the forgotten American,” Nixon recast racism into a desire to establish law and order in an age of urban rioting. Not coincidentally, both Nixon and Trump expressed desires to restore America’s greatness in their speeches to the American public. While Donald Trump certainly used 21st century powers of social media to his advantage, it is evident that electoral candidates have utilized populism effectively during times of economic and social division within the United States.  

By examining how populism was used during the 1960s and 1970s in speeches and campaign ads, students can analyze the significance of the past to their present situation. In addition, students can also evaluate the content of President Nixon and President Trump’s speeches to practice historical empathy as a means for gaining insight as to why certain Americans feel marginalized and attracted to messages of American restoration and hope. Additionally, examining George Wallace’s shift in strategy based on audience from 1963 to 1968 can encourage students to investigate the role purpose and intention play in historical change and consequence. The sources included align with the BackStory segment, “Populists at the Podium,” which is found in the BackStory episode, “A History of Populism.”



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