Omer Madison Kem (standing) with his family and their sod house, Nebraska 1886
No one talks much about the populists these days. In the age of DeSantis and MTG we’re more likely to see the MAGA crowd, or at least some of their leaders, referred to as fascists. But back in 2016, Trump’s followers were routinely described as populists, though hardly anyone seemed sure of what that meant. Because my great-grandfather, Omer Madison Kem, was a founding member of the original Populist Party, formed in the 1890s from the Famers’ Alliance in the South and West in protest against the vast abuses and inequalities of the Gilded Age, I thought I did know something about it. I knew that the Populists had fought against political corruption and capitalist greed and for the rights of workers, farmers, and the poor.
When in 1892 Omer Kem and ten other Populists entered Congress as Senators and Representatives, mostly from the Plains states, they took radical and pro-worker positions in debates surrounding tariffs, taxes, and the rights of the poor. During the 1892 session Kem and the other Populists called for the forfeiture of railroad land grants, an eight-hour workday law, and the nationalization of transportation and finance. After Pinkerton agents killed at least seven strikers during the Homestead Strike that July, Kem supported a resolution to investigate the corporate use of violent strikebreakers. He advocated for direct election of U.S. Senators (rather than election by state legislatures), demanded safeguards against land speculation in the West so that “men of very meager means” could have the “privilege of making for [him]self and [his] family a home,” and in 1894, while the country faced a devastating depression, Kem argued passionately for a graduated income tax so that the rich would be compelled to support the needs of the vulnerable.
At a time when 9 percent of American families owned 71 percent of the country’s wealth, when the average industrial worker lived on $406 a year, and when striking workers were routinely beaten and shot at by hired thugs, the Populists had actively and energetically sought justice for the working poor. As Black Kansas Populist Benjamin F. Foster wrote, the Populists “are in favor of the masses and against monopolies. It is the party of the poor man ... and would give him a chance to live and heal his present misery.”
And yet, less than a decade after his time in Congress, my great-grandfather became a passionate advocate for eugenics, including the forced sterilization of people he considered “unfit to breed.” In the 1910s, ’20s, and ’30s, he eagerly trafficked in the scientific racism that has long influenced U.S. immigration and criminal justice policies, and both European and American fascism to this day.
What is the connection between the Populist cry for equality (“equal rights for all, special privileges for none!” was their slogan) and the turn toward a proto-fascist belief that some people are worthy of life and reproduction and others not? Was it simply that Omer Kem, along with much of the country, got caught up in the pseudo-science of the day (social Darwinism mixed with Mendelian genetics)? Or was there something deeper in Kem’s Populist roots that would lead him in 1926 to write a letter to the Oregonian in which he advocated (as he had many times in letters to family, friends, and other papers) for the forced sterilization of the poor, and then a decade later to go even further with a quasi-endorsement of infanticide?
That letter to the Oregonian earned Kem an admiring response from a man named Mr. Schuman, a member of a Portland-based fascist organization, the Nordic Aryan League of America, who addresses Omer “with Aryan greetings.” Kem finds the writer a little batty but does not hesitate to respond, noting that he and his interlocutor are in general agreement about the value of the “Great White Race” (with this phrase my great-grandfather makes me wonder if he’d been reading Madison Grant). “The time will come,” he writes, “when so-called white couples marry, they will not know whether their children will be black, white, ringed, streaked, striped, bronzed, or spotted. The only way now left by which this calamity can be averted, is to sterilize all participants in these mixed marriages.”
In a recent talk sponsored by the April Institute for Antifascist Research and Education, Cynthia Miller-Idriss spoke about the factors that can lead someone to become radicalized by White Nationalism or Fascism. Citing dates drawn from the biographies of participants in the January 6 insurrection, Miller-Idriss notes that those who are vulnerable to fascistic thinking (though she does not use that term) tend to be people who, having experienced precariousness, fear losing what power they do have (even if they are currently perfectly well-off): “I call it a kind of precariousness plus entitlement,” she says, “because in order to be afraid of something being taken away from you, you have to think you’re entitled to have it.”
Indeed, this quality defines my great-grandfather and many of the white agrarian Populists from plains states, the vast majority of whom had found their way to Kansas or Nebraska by way of the Homestead Act. As poor laborers from mostly the Midwest, they’d been promised the privilege and security of property, but for many it had not turned out that way. Unregulated railroads, falling crop prices, terrible weather conditions, and an aggressive lending industry meant that in 1890s Nebraska there was one mortgage for every three persons—thus, more than one per family—and most of the farms were mortgaged for all they were worth. It was in these conditions that the Populist party arose; white men, having been promised security at the expense of Native populations deemed unworthy or worse, found themselves nevertheless buried in unpayable debt.
The internal contradiction—between a desired and assumed independence and an actual, though decried, dependence—can be readily seen in the (familiar to us) phrase Kem used to describe his feelings upon first acquiring his homestead: “I had passed my 26th birthday somewhere on the way, acquired 320 acres of fine land and you may rest assured that I was one proud boy.” Plains Populism arose out of a condition in which the white settler-farmer was deeply insecure in his relation to the land, which was nonetheless the foundation of his identity (and his survival). In this context, it made a kind of perverse and dangerous sense that some settler-homesteaders like Kem would seek to relocate the source of their legitimacy from where they lived and what they did to who they thought they were, that is, from the land to the blood. When, in September of 2020, Donald Trump told a crowd of white supporters that they hailed from “good genes,” and referenced “the racehorse theory,” he was offering a clue to where the GOP would go next. One root to this frankly fascistic rhetoric lies in the soil of Kansas and Nebraska, in the settler-history of families like mine.