Mark Stein is an author, screenwriter, and playwright. He is the author of several books, including Vice Capades: Sex, Drugs, and Bowling from the Pilgrims to the Present (Potomac Books, 2017); How the States Got Their Shapes, a New York Times best seller and the basis for the eponymous History Channel series; and American Panic: A History of Who Scares Us and Why. His new book, The Presidential Fringe, is now available and was recently reviewed in the Wall Street Journal.
Preparing for my upcoming book talk on The Presidential Fringe at DC’s Politics & Prose on February 16, I realized I should prepare myself for the question: which of the fringe candidates in the book is my favorite?
Tough to choose. John Donkey, a cartoon candidate back in 1848? The 1960 self-declared candidate of his Universal Flying Saucer Party, Gabriel Green? Or maybe comedian Gracie Allen? Her 1940 comic campaign provides insight into women’s gradually increasing self-empowerment in her “speeches” containing a few punchlines based not on her trademark daffiness but “Graciefully” aimed at men.
Still, at this point in time, I’d have to say my favorite is a man named George Francis Train, who nominated himself in 1872. For those open to the possibility of reincarnation, Donald J. Trump could well be the re-embodiment of George Francis Train.
As a candidate for president, George Francis Train proclaimed, in the words of the New York Times, “that all the world was sunk…and only one man could save it, and he was GEORGE FRANCIS TRAIN.” At the 2016 Republican Convention, Donald Trump likewise depicted the nation as a broken mess and declared, “I alone can fix it.”
Right from the outset of their careers, eerie similarities abound. Where Trump rose through his father’s successful real estate business, Train rose though his uncle’s successful shipping business. Both expanded those businesses enormously. Train enlarged the size of the ships used and extended the company’s shipping into the Pacific. He built a warehouse in Australia that, at six-stories tall, he boasted was that nation’s largest warehouse. Except it wasn’t. Six stories, that is. It was two-and-a-half stories—making his story very much like that of Donald Trump saying Trump Tower in New York is 68 stories, when in fact it is ten stories smaller.
Train later claimed that, while setting up the Australian branch of the business, he became the president of that nation’s Chamber of Commerce. And he claimed that, amid political turmoil taking place in Australia’s gold mine region of Ballarat, the leaders of the rebellion offered him the nation’s presidency. No newspapers from the time nor later historians have ever mentioned either—due to the fact that neither happened.
Train was also a supporter of Irish independence. Upon arriving in Cork in 1868, he told of how he was greeted and accompanied through the streets by some 20,000 people. No such event occurred. Likewise, Donald Trump claimed a record number of people attended his inauguration in 2017. The evidence says otherwise.
To help Irish immigrants deal with various fees and costs entailed in immigration, Train spoke of the pride he took in having invented the British £1 bill. That claim must have raised eyebrows at the Bank of England, seeing as that institution created it in 1797. Donald Trump’s coinage claim was that he coined the phrase, “fake news”—which was fake news. The phrase dates back at least as far as 1893 when it was used in a Connecticut law that made it illegal to report “fake news” to newspapers.
So popular was George Francis Train, according to George Francis Train, that he was offered the presidency of France while there during the upheavals of the 1871 Paris Commune—not true, not even by any stretch of the facts. For his part, Donald Trump recently asserted, “I could be the most popular person in Europe. I could be—I could run for any office if I wanted to.”
Incredibly, the list goes on.
But something else goes on, as well. In both cases, those who came to their presidential campaign rallies loved them. Both also had vehement detractors and avid supporters in the press. “George Francis Train has been in the city three or four days and has had an ovation such as no other man ever had here,” a Memphis newspaper reported in 1871, going on to declare, “The idea propagated by the Northern press that he is crazy is utterly dissipated…. He is a miracle of thought, action, and elocution…. Train is a great genius.”
And get this. On the same page a separate report noted that Train’s claim about having been offered the presidency of France was false. As with Donald Trump, George Francis Train’s supporters admired him in spite of his whoppers. A Nashville newspaper called Train “the sanest lunatic in the world.”
There is, however, one big difference. Even with Train’s huge adoring crowds, virtually no one voted for him.
And therein the insight, through this fringe candidate, into subtleties in the political landscape of the United States in 1872. “[T]he present campaign… is essentially of but an ordinary degree of importance,” the North American Review told its readers at the time. That 1872 election pitted incumbent president Ulysses S. Grant against newspaper editor and publisher Horace Greeley as the two mainstream candidates. With the nation still recovering from the Civil War, the article went on to say, “All that seems to be wanted is the quiet continuance of the present opportunities and dominant influences, in order that the great settlement may complete itself.”
What was wanted in 2016, however, was change in politics as usual.
And change is what we got.