LU prof. tours for recent book on Spiro Agnew

Lawrence became the fourth stop on the book tour for “Republican Populist: Spiro Agnew and the Origins of Donald Trump’s America” on Oct. 28, just 10 days after the book was published. The three authors, Lawrence’s Professor of History and Robert S. French Professor of American Studies Jerald Podair, President of Ripon College Zach Messitte and Professor of History at St. Mary’s College of Maryland Charles Holden, were all in attendance.

Altogether, the event was slightly under 90 minutes, opening with introductions by Professor of History Jake Frederick, then moving into a 30-minute presentation by the authors immediately followed by a question and answer session.

Work on the book began in 2015 — before the election of President Donald Trump. According to Podair, Trump’s election made the book more relevant and helped to attract attention, even though the book’s focus is primarily on former Vice President Spiro Agnew.

“We realized that there was a story here that hadn’t been told — that Spiro Agnew was someone who, to a certain extent, had been ghosted out of American history,” Messitte said. “And in part, this was because of his downfall at the end, but he had, we thought, an overlooked legacy —something that people hadn’t thought about.”

The book talk discussed two key points of the work: Agnew’s intense populist appeal and the shift in image and base for the Republican and Democratic Parties. By campaigning on a populist message — often including statements seen as offensive to much of the public, according to Podair — Agnew was able to appeal to the “average man,” specifically white working class citizens who felt they were otherwise being ignored. 

Agnew was so successful in this appeal that he was instrumental in shifting the view of the Republican Party from being the party of rich elites focused on economic concerns to a party of populists with cultural concerns. Likewise, the Democratic Party shifted from being viewed as the party of the people to the party of coastal elites, intellectuals, minorities and the media.

“It’s not that they take their economic success for granted,” Podair said in regard to formerly Democratic members of the white working class. “But they started out poor in the 1930s. They made it into the working class. And now by the 1960s, they own homes of their own, they’re in what we consider economically the middle class. So my theory is always that cultural issues come to the floor when economic issues are less important.”

Despite Agnew’s campaign gaffes, including calling a Japanese reporter a derogatory slur and referring to people of Polish descent with ethnic slurs, Agnew was still able to garner favor with the often overlooked white working class — much in the same way Trump appealed to them during the 2016 election, according to Podair. 

This, Podair said, leads to the most relevant aspect of the book: political candidates on both sides of the aisle need to ensure they gain broad support, especially from the large number of white working class voters who do not feel heard, if they want to win a national election.

“It teaches us to take large segments of the American voting population seriously,” Podair said, “because electoral politics is not necessarily about defeating your opponent, but convincing your opponent. Writing off large swaths of the American voting public — white working class, white middle class — as deplorable, as Hillary Clinton so infamously did in the 2016 election is a great way to lose that election, which is exactly what she did. These are not perfect people, but they do have legitimate concerns that need to be taken seriously.”