Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Nearly three years ago, in the early morning hours of Nov. 9, as the results of one of the most stunning election nights in U.S. history began to come into focus, Jerald Podair sent an urgent email to two fellow history scholars.

They were his co-authors on a book project, in its early stages, about Spiro Agnew, the oft-dismissed former vice president who they believe served as a harbinger for the modern Republican party.

“Our book just became very, very relevant,” Podair wrote in that email as the clock ticked past 3 a.m. and it became clear that Donald Trump would become the nation’s 45th president.

Three tumultuous years later, that book, Republican Populist: Spiro Agnew and the Origins of Donald Trump’s America, has arrived, set to be published Oct. 18 by University of Virginia Press.

Portrait of Jerald Podair in Main Hall.
Lawrence University history professor Jerald Podair partnered with two other history scholars on a new book on Spiro Agnew, detailing how Richard Nixon’s one-time vice president set a path to the era of Donald Trump. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

In the book, Podair, the Robert S. French Professor of American Studies and professor of history at Lawrence University, and co-authors Zach Messitte, president of Ripon College, and Charles J. Holden, professor of history at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, detail how the ascent of Trump and his populist base can be traced back to Agnew, whose political star burned bright briefly in the late 1960s and early 1970s before crashing hard.

Agnew was much maligned in his day and is often referenced among the worst vice presidents in history. But Podair, Messitte, and Holden argue that historians and political observers need to take a closer look. Agnew’s populist “everyman” appeal, his very public disdain for political correctness and the academic class, his depictions of the media as the enemy, and his ability to rally supporters by railing against uncomfortable cultural change woke up a political base that would eventually lead the Republican party into the era of Trump.

Agnew was considered a joke by many political pundits of the day when Richard Nixon surprisingly tabbed him as his running mate in 1968. Time magazine called him “a narrow and dangerous man with a genuine capacity for bigotry.”

“That’s how he was viewed,” Podair said. “Just like Donald Trump is viewed in many ways today. But, like Trump, Agnew had much more substance to him and really had a powerful populist message that resonated very deeply with middle Americans at the time — the Trump voters we’d call them today — and may very well have swung the 1968 election to Nixon.”

Interest in the book is already ramping up. An op-ed about Agnew written by the three co-authors appeared in the Baltimore Sun in late September and has since been picked up by numerous other media outlets across the country. A book event featuring Podair, Messitte, and Holden is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Oct. 28 in the Warch Campus Center Cinema at Lawrence.

The timing of the book’s release, just weeks after Democrats in the House launched an impeachment inquiry against Trump, should give it prime exposure. It wasn’t necessarily planned that way.

Podair, Messitte, and Holden began conversing about the Agnew book before Trump even declared his bid for the presidency. Its focus was more about Agnew’s role in the transition of the Republican party from one focused on economics and the business elite to one focused on cultural unease and an angry populist reaction.

Messitte and Holden have long studied the political waters of Maryland, from whence Agnew emerged. And Podair is well-versed in the politics and cultural dynamics of the 1960s and the various arcs and swings of politics through the 20th century.

Thus, they agreed to team up on a book project that they believed was important, whether Trump was in play or not.

“We divided the book into sections,” Podair said. “My portion was to explain how the Republican party changed from the 1930s, when it was viewed as the party of the economic elite, to the 1960s, the late ’60s, when it began to be viewed as the party of the average man, the working man. Not necessarily economically populist, but certainly culturally populist.”

The Democratic party, meanwhile, had seen its own role reversal, becoming the party of “cultural elitism” in the 1960s as the country navigated race riots, student rebellions and an anti-war movement that divided much of the country, Podair said.

“Spiro Agnew was uniquely positioned to take advantage of that,” he said.

Agnew would become Nixon’s “point of the spear,” Podair said, ridiculing protesters in often crude and seemingly mean-spirited ways, all the while working up what was a growing base of resentment against the cultural transformations that were taking place in the U.S.

“That flies in the face of the traditional view of Agnew as some bumbling, inarticulate clown,” Podair said. “He did say some things that were gaffes. But there was much more to him than these gaffes, which is what the media focused on. He was able to bring a culturally populist message to the American people and get people who had normally voted for Democrats their whole lives — the New Deal Democrats — and get them to vote for Republicans. And that’s the way I think he shifted the political ground.”

If that sounds very much like 2016, Podair said you are not wrong, and that’s why historians and others who are studying the unfolding drama that is the Trump presidency would do well to zero in on Agnew, from the time he first garnered attention as a national political figure in the late 1960s to his resignation from the vice presidency in late 1973 amid revelations that he committed income tax fraud while governor of Maryland.

“When Trump took the escalator ride and started speaking the way he did, he was really tapping into a welter of cultural resentments,” Podair said. “Whatever you want to call his typical voter — blue collar white voter or alienated working class voter — well, he was tapping into a welter of cultural resentment that Agnew had definitely tapped into. And I would argue that if you took the name off of Agnew’s speeches and updated it a little — obviously there was no Twitter in those days and the media that Agnew was railing against was the three networks, that’s it — these are words that Donald Trump could have spoken.”

All the more reason for historians to take a deeper dive into the makings of Agnew, Podair said. With an impeachment inquiry under way, a 2020 election campaign heating up, and emotions running high, Trump is a daily fixation, for better or worse. Republican Populist may provide a little context as to how we got here.

“Our general thesis is, if you want to understand where Donald Trump came from, he didn’t come out of nowhere,” Podair said. “He has, in fact, deep roots in the changes in the Republican party that go back more than 50 years. If you want to understand Donald Trump, you’ve got to understand Spiro Agnew. He is actually a pivotal figure, and, I think, a very understudied and underrated political figure.”

Book event: A book discussion featuring Podair, Messitte, and Holden will be held at Lawrence University on Oct. 28. The Main Hall Forum begins at 4:30 p.m. in the Warch Campus Center Cinema. It is free and open to the public.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu