Donald Trump made headlines when he warned of illegal-immigrant drug runners and rapists pouring across the U.S.-Mexico border. But he wasn’t the first to do so. Ohio Rep. James Traficant, Jr., was well-known for voicing similar comments on any given morning from the floor of the House. Before there was Trump, there was Jim Traficant—the original plain-talking everyman politician.

Traficant is among those who are often disparagingly referred to as “populists,” homegrown Robin Hoods who have arisen to take a stand for the common man against wealthy interests and their bought-and-paid-for underlings who put the squeeze on Middle America. He did not author any long philosophical tomes, but he bequeathed to posterity thousands of speeches skewering free trade, open borders, foreign lobbyists, foreign wars, secularism, political correctness, and pretty much anything that the elites advocated. Despite his affiliation with the Democratic Party, he was very much a man of the populist right.

Traficant was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and never ceased working and fighting for the education, jobs, and quality of life of her citizens, first as a drug-dependency counselor, then as sheriff of Mahoning County, and later as a congressman representing Ohio’s 17th congressional district.

During his death-defying stint as sheriff, Traficant raided biker gangs that were stockpiling illegal arms, threatened mob bosses by name on the evening news, and went to jail for refusing to foreclose on laid-off steel workers. He also managed miraculously to defeat the U.S. Justice Department in a RICO trial while representing himself—the only American to have done so.

The “Walking Tall Sheriff from Youngstown”—as he was known—easily won his congressional seat in 1984, followed by eight subsequent terms.

Despite his 17 years in Congress (1985–2002), Traficant never assimilated to Washington, D.C. In a town overrun with gray suits, he wore cowboy boots, old bell-bottom pants, corduroy jackets, skinny ties, and a giant toupee. He punctuated his official speeches with his signature line, a Star Trek reference: “Mr. Speaker, beam me up.” He was a Democrat who deftly used his platform to further the interests of blue-collar America. He may not have been the most learned luminary, but he was Middle America’s man in the arena.

During his time on the Hill, he became best known for his use of the one-minute speech rule. Each member of the House was afforded one minute every day to say whatever he desired—and Jim Traficant did.

On free trade agreements with central America, Traficant opined on Sept. 25, 1998:

Take today’s fast track, for example, another fast track that will send more American factories, more American investment, and more American jobs overseas, this time to Central America. In return, America will get two used Ford pick-up trucks, another 50 tons of heroin and cocaine, and three baseball players, to be named later. Beam me up, Mr. Speaker.

Regarding government funding for anti-drug TV programs, on July 11, 2000, he engaged in potent wordplay:

The borders are wide open. Heroin and cocaine are pouring across the border faster than Viagra at Niagara, and the drug czar wants subliminal hits in Hollywood. Beam me up. America needs to stop drugs, cocaine and heroin, at our borders. And one thing America does not need is to start using federal dollars to make subliminal hits on American citizens through the media. That is just what Communists do. Mr. Speaker, I yield back all the drugs in Hollywood to boot.

On Aug. 3, 1998, the congressman mused on the tension between science and faith:

Mr. Speaker, a new report says only 7 percent of scientists believe in God. That is right. And the reason they gave was that the scientists are ‘‘super smart.’’ Unbelievable. Most of these absent-minded professors cannot find the toilet. Mr. Speaker, I have one question for these wise guys to constipate over: How can some thing come from no thing? And while they digest that, Mr. Speaker, let us tell it like it is. Put these super-cerebral master debaters in some foxhole with bombs bursting all around them, and I guarantee they will not be praying to Frankenstein. Beam me up here. My colleagues, all the education in the world is worthless without God and a little bit of common sense. And I yield back whatever we have left.

He was no Cicero, but he was able to articulate his message in a way that attracted enormous media attention. The growing C-SPAN cable network that aired unedited clips from Congress would air Traficant’s one-minute soliloquy in the mornings and interview him in the evenings. Johnny Carson played clips of Traficant for laughs on “The Tonight Show,” including one in which Traficant referred to his colleagues as a “bunch of political prostitutes,” followed by his apology to all the hookers in America for “associating them with the United States Congress.”

Traficant used his platform to advance various Middle American lost causes: trade protectionism, abolishing the Federal Reserve Board, stationing troops on the U.S.-Mexico border, and opposing the first Gulf War, to name a few.

He did manage to score major victories on tax reform, however, and he did it thanks in large part to the influence he wielded over conservatives through the growing power of conservative talk radio and cable news.

Rush Limbaugh replayed Traficant’s speeches on both his cable-TV and radio shows, and referred to him as “my favorite Democrat.” As a result, Limbaugh fans flooded congressional offices with letters and phone calls demanding that their congressmen support Traficant’s tax reforms. In 1996, congressional Republicans passed the first Taxpayer Bill of Rights with an amendment authored by a Democrat, Rep. Jim Traficant, that enabled taxpayers to sue the IRS for up to $1 million.

The first test case of the Traficant amendment came in 1998 when Shirley Barron, a widow in New Hampshire, sued the IRS for the maximum amount. Barron’s husband had recently committed suicide following 15 years of IRS harassment. As he explained in his suicide letter, “The IRS and PBT (Pelham Bank Trust Co.) are bigger than me.” He further elaborated that the IRS “sits and does nothing and watches you die.” In exchange for dropping the suit, the IRS excused all outstanding tax debts, released the lien on Barron’s home, and paid her legal fees. The Traficant Amendment saved Shirley Barron more than $500,000.

In an updated Taxpayer Bill of Rights signed in 1998 Traficant and his Republican colleagues shifted the burden of proof in civil tax cases. A taxpayer would no longer bear the burden of proving his innocence when dragged into court by the IRS. Rather, the IRS would bear the burden of proving his guilt.

The effects were staggering. As Traficant told the City Club of Cleveland: In 1999, IRS wage garnishments fell to 540,000 from a 1997 high of 3.1 million; property liens to 161,000 from 688,000; and property seizures to 151 from 10,037.

Other Traficant-led causes did not engender as much support. In some instances, Traficant managed to isolate himself by wading into controversial waters—his effort to save alleged Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk being the most notable example. Demjanjuk, a retired autoworker from Cleveland, was standing trial in Israel for being “Ivan the Terrible”—the notorious operator of the gas chamber at the Treblinka concentration camp during World War II.

Traficant brought to the House floor what he said were recovered Justice Department documents which called into question the Justice Department’s claim that Demjanjuk was the Nazi mass murderer. These exculpatory documents were recovered from the trash. In 1993, he gave his evidence to the Israeli government and threatened to withhold all foreign aid to Israel if they executed Demjanjuk. A few days later, the Israeli Supreme Court found Demjanjuk “not guilty” and turned him over to Traficant at the Tel Aviv airport.

Rather than blaming the Israelis for any misdealing, Traficant blamed the U.S. Department of Justice for deliberately withholding exculpatory evidence during Demjanjuk’s denaturalization and extradition. “The Israeli Supreme Court,” said Traficant, “taught the U.S. Government a lesson about justice.”

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Traficant. In a ruling issued two months after Demjanjuk’s acquittal, the court wrote that “as early as 1978 or 1979 the government had information from official sources within the Soviet Union indicating that… [Ivan the Terrible] was a man named Ivan Marchenko, not Ivan Demjanjuk.” Furthermore, DOJ attorneys “acted with reckless disregard for their duty to the court” in failing to disclose documents.

The U.S. government had stripped an American of his citizenship and deported him to a foreign country where he was nearly imprisoned for crimes that the U.S. government knew he did not commit. The power of labels—racist, Nazi, anti-Semite, sexist—to disqualify Americans from basic due process should concern all Americans. As Traficant explained to his House colleagues:

When we allow the rights of one American to be violated, we allow the rights of all Americans to subsequently be endangered. Shame when the word ‘Nazi’ can waive the Constitution. No one around here supports Nazis. Neither do I. I am tired of the accusation.

By the early 2000s, the old sheriff found himself increasingly out of sync with both parties. Since the mid-1980s, he had encouraged Congress to look homeward, to stop obsessing over the Mideast and focus more on the Midwest. But nobody wanted to hear that message after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Immediately following that tragic day, Traficant gave one of his most courageous and controversial speeches:

I condemn this tragic act of war, like all, but yesterday showed the failings of American policy, folks. This attack was planned for months, maybe years. Where is our intelligence network, our human intelligence network? The fact is, ladies and gentlemen, it is easy to attack the United States of America. Our borders are so wide open, terrorists could cross them with a nuclear warhead, and it may be unpopular to say, but I believe America’s foreign policy in the Mideast is so one-sided that we endanger now American citizens. We must be fair in our policies. I condemn these tragic acts. The Congress must now look in the mirror and do what is right and be fair.

While the president and Congress called for increased foreign intervention, Traficant suggested that U.S. foreign meddling was to blame. While nearly all of Washington urged sending more troops overseas, Traficant suggested bringing them home and stationing them on the southern border. “A nation without secure borders,” explained Traficant, “is a nation without security.”

Traficant soon received an answer to his question about what the American security services that were supposed to prevent 9/11 were doing. In a classic example of anarchotyranny, federal law enforcement had spent the months and years leading up to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks investigating Jim Traficant for racketeering and corruption. They charged him shortly after the attack.


above: U.S. Representative James Traficant (D-OH) gestures prior to testifying before the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, in Washington D.C. on July 16, 2002. (REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo)

In the summer of 2002, Traficant was convicted of the corruption charges without a single piece of physical evidence, and by a jury that consisted of none of his peers—as the trial took place far outside his district. He was sentenced to eight years in prison and expelled from Congress. He could not coexist with the Deep State—one would inevitably destroy the other.

Nevertheless, Traficant’s political demise should not detract from his success, which provides a roadmap for a post-Trump right. With a populist message, Traficant built a diverse coalition that kept him in office for two decades.

To get a taste of Traficant’s legacy and broad appeal, one need only watch his 1990 televised townhall hosted by Phil Donahue, in which a working-class audience of all ages and races ecstatically cheered him. These are what Pat Buchanan called “the conservatives of the heart.” In the post-Trump era, the American right needs to redouble its efforts to connect with these people.