But every crisis carries within it echoes of all the previous crises the nation has endured. Some reporters have had fun alluding to 1932, comparing the President to Franklin D. Roosevelt. The President himself has alluded to 1860, and the crisis of Abraham Lincoln.
But the nature of our present crisis is more like that of 1896 than anything else. It is both about a basic change in the economy and America's place in the world.
Back then we were dealing with the rise of manufacturing and a single market, along with America's first steps toward colonialism with the Spanish-American War. This time it's about the Internet and manufacturing's end putting a period on America's colonial era.
All this is by way of approaching what I'll call The 1897 Game, and one of the most important (but largely forgotten) figures of that era — Thomas E. Watson.
Before we consider who is Thomas E. Watson is now, let me tell you about the original.
Populism was a broad movement. If William Jennings Bryan represented its moderate, governing wing Watson was its id, its ideological impulse.
Watson was a small-town man from Georgia with a silver tongue and (over the years) many perceived enemies. Wall Street, railroads and northerners generally. Catholics. The whole mass-market enterprise. Black people. He went after each group in its turn during this career, and the love of his constituency is reflected in the statue of him which still stands beside the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta, about five miles from my home. (That's it above.)
In 1897 Watson was just past a high-water mark. He had run for Vice President in 1896, on the Populist ticket, below Bryan. An effort to get him the Democratic nomination, however, had failed. He saw his constituency then as working men, and his was a class war.
Later, in 1904, Watson would be the Populist candidate for President, but 1896 was the closest he would come to national office. His rhetoric helped split the Populist movement, and what he led in 1904 was a rump.
Still, he could put on a show. That's the most important point to remember about Watson, that he was a political showman. The show always required a clearly defined enemy, a hate shared by his constituency, which is why the focus of his ire changed over the years. From the railroads, to Wall Street, to the parties, to the immigrants, to the blacks.
One reason I firmly believe Populism is for Losers is a close study of Watson's career. Populism is against. It can't exist without an enemy, and is seldom able to create much beyond anger, misery and grief.
If history remembers Watson today at all, it's for something that occurred far past this time, the Leo Frank case. Watson agitated for the Jewish manager's conviction in the death of Mary Phagan. He was successful, but when the outgoing governor commuted Frank's sentence to life, the leading citizens of Marietta lynched him. This helped lead to the creation of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, to the NAACP, but also inflamed the Second Rising of the KKK, which during that time instituted the Jim Crow regime that was finally broken two generations later by the Civil Rights movement. Over the years the Frank trial was highly fictionalized. A version of Frank was played by Claude Rains in 1937's They Won't Forget. Alfred Uhry did the trial as a 1998 musical called Parade.
So who is Thomas E. Watson now?
All this is meant as a compliment to Michelle Bachmann and a warning to her critics.
She is not just a kook. She has a constituency. It's important to look beyond the liberal blogosphere to what her fans say of her.
- GOPMike calls her a politician with no fear.
- Libertarian Republican considers her a Jeffersonian. (Watson's Magazine was called the Jeffersonian.)
- The American Freedom Network calls her a real American.
- Ron Paul fans like the Campaign for Liberty have been warming to her.
- And of course Michelle Malkin likes her.
The point is that Bachmann represents a long-running strain in American political thought, one that reaches deep into our history. You may call her kooky, even mysterious and ookie. But she does have importance, and we will continue to hear from her, whether or not she continues in Congress.
I happen to disagree with her on absolutely everything. I find her politics to be anathema. Her one-world conspiracy theories, her hatred for the President and for Democrats generally, her stands in favor of global warming, all these mark her as someone who should never be allowed anywhere near the levers of power. The fact that she nearly got into the leadership under the last President should tell you a lot about the last President. The craziness of her current fan base must be a warning to you, that politicians like Michelle Bachmann are truly dangerous.
But don't belittle her, don't make her into a joke. Take her seriously, as serious as a heart attack. Because she is utterly sincere, and the people behind her are extremely dangerous.