You can find aspects of each man’s career in Trump’s approach to politics — the superficially populist rhetoric of Vardaman, the casual demagoguery of Smith and the corruption of Talmadge — but one figure, for me, stands out in particular: Ben (Pitchfork) Tillman of South Carolina.
Ben Tillman was a son of privilege. His father, a rich planter in the western “upcountry” of South Carolina, owned dozens of slaves and thousands of acres of land. Even after the Civil War and Emancipation destroyed the wealth of the planter class, the Tillman family retained its land and social standing. By the end of the 1870s, the younger Tillman — whose father died before the war and whose mother died roughly 10 years after — was himself part of the state’s landed, agricultural elite.
As part of that elite, Tillman was involved in local Democratic politics, part of a class of men who stood against the state’s Reconstruction government. In 1876, he led a white supremacist vigilante group — called “red-shirts” after their makeshift uniforms — against a garrison of black militiamen in Hamburg, a mostly black town just a few miles from Tillman’s home in Edgefield County. Several black fighters were killed in open conflict, and at least five others were executed as prisoners.