Remembering the 1920s Backlash

This week in North Philly Notes, Jacob Kramer, author of The New Freedom and the Radicals, reflects on the similarities between 1920s politics and today.

I remember well watching the electoral prediction on the New York Times web site swing from a Clinton victory to a Trump win on November 8.  I was surprised, even though I had written in The New Freedom and the Radicals, “when this work went to press in 2015, a presidency that attracted the support—and sometimes criticism—of a broad coalition including antiwar protesters, equal rights advocates, and supporters of economic reform seemed … to have elicited a conservative backlash.”  I was drawing an analogy between the end of the Obama administration and that of the Wilson administration.  Woodrow Wilson’s presidency was followed by isolationism, immigration restriction, corporate cronyism, and a revived Ku Klux Klan.  The similarities between the 1920s and our own time seem palpable.

New Freedom and the Radicals_smIf one can forgive comparing Barack Obama to our foremost segregationist president, there are some important parallels.  Like Obama, Wilson came to power with the support of a coalition of reform-minded progressives, who at the time cautiously embraced movements to their left.  But during the intervention in the First World War, Wilson enacted sweeping measures of repression, unleashing reactionary forces that turned against progressivism in the 1920s.  Like Wilson, Obama became involved in conflict overseas.  Although he drew down the ground troops in Iraq, he became embroiled in war in Afghanistan, conducted secret military operations, and provided air support to a counteroffensive against ISIS.  Obama has not engaged in domestic repression to the same extent as Wilson, but during his administration the government did monitor international communications, and the Democratic National Committee does appear to have undermined Bernie Sanders’s bid for the presidential nomination.

Although the bulk of attention has been focused on Donald Trump’s unseemly statements, poor economic fundamentals may have been equally important to his victory.  World War I was followed by an 18 month recession from January of 1920 to July of 1921; similarly, recovery from financial crises is usually slow, and in the first 9 months of 2016 annual growth per capita was less than one percent.  Using 100 years of presidential election data, the economist Ray Fair at Yale has developed a regression equation that predicts the share of the presidential popular vote going to the Democratic candidate based on the growth rate and the inflation rate.  His equation assigned only a 44 percent vote to the Democrats.  Hillary Clinton’s popular vote win in his view was a testament to how poor of a candidate Trump really was.

The positions of both political parties in favor of free trade also left a political space open to someone who would advocate protectionism and infrastructure investment.  In the postwar period Republicans have usually been against tariffs in principle and since Ronald Reagan’s presidency have called for cuts in nonmilitary spending.  Since the first Clinton administration, Democrats have been in favor of reducing trade barriers, and since the 1960s, the party has been more focused on antipoverty policies than on public works spending.  These positions, combined with the ongoing effects of the financial crisis, made it difficult for Hillary Clinton to win the critical Rust Belt states that went for Obama in 2012.

The comparison may be extreme, but Juan J. Linz’s concept of “political space,” developed in articles written in 1976 and 1980 to explain the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, is helpful in understanding the upsurge of what Stanley Payne has called “right-wing populist nationalism” more recently.  Linz suggests that because fascism emerged later than 19th century democratic political ideologies, such as socialism, classical liberalism, and conservatism, it did not correspond to a specific social group and had to compete for votes.  Fascists made a nationalistic appeal to those disgruntled with the results of World War I, threatened by a rising Marxian left, and resentful of internal minorities.  As Robert Paxton has explained in his textbook on twentieth century Europe, authoritarian economic control was appealing, especially to middle class persons who feared socialism, during periods of unemployment or inflation when laissez-faire policies proved ineffective.  In The Anatomy of Fascism, he has observed that to achieve power fascists also needed help from conservatives.  They were not able to assume leadership based on their own electoral victories, but in poorly functioning democratic systems they could offer a mass base to conservatives who invited them into government.

A similar situation appears to have obtained in the United States in 2016.  Obama’s expansion of health insurance, Sanders’s democratic socialism, and Clinton’s shift to a more progressive message seemed to many voters to threaten a significant expansion of the public sector.  Trump occupied a space that was nontraditional for Republicans and had been left uninhabited by Democrats for some time—protectionism and massive infrastructure spending—at a time when Democrats’ restrained economic policies had restored only minimal economic growth.  Conservatives such as Chris Christie willing to overlook his extreme statements about ethnic minorities seemed to outnumber moderates like Michael Bloomberg willing to defect from the Republican Party and support Clinton.  Support among economically disenchanted groups was just enough to eke out a victory in an outmoded electoral college despite a loss of the popular vote.

These lessons are helpful, but as the historian Joseph Sramek has reminded me, it is probably best to understand Trump within American traditions.  Here Richard Hofstadter’s classic book The Paranoid Style in American Politics is relevant.  Drawing on Theodor Adorno, Hofstadter described as “pseudo-conservative” those who conceal beneath a conservative façade “impulsive tendencies” that would produce consequences “far from conservative” if realized.  In his expounding of conspiracy theories, criticism of NATO, and bellicose positions on North Korea, Trump echoes the apocalyptic rhetoric of Barry Goldwater.  If he were to involve the United States in a large conflict, the latitude given to the executive in wartime, combined with Trump’s avowed hostility toward particular groups, makes one uneasy about this particular replay of the 1920s.

This President’s Day, Think Twice Before Posting That Meme of President Trump

This week in North Philly Notes, in honor of Presidents’ Day,  we re-post this Chicago Sun-Times op-ed by Thomas Foster, author of Sex and the Founding Fathers, which considers character attacks on the Commander-in-chief.

In our divided nation, one thing that both sides agree on is that Trump has broken the mold. The sense that never before have we had a President like this inspires some opponents to employ unusual tactics. But as anti-Trump discourses proliferate with every new move the administration makes, think twice before sharing that photo of his face superimposed on Queen Elizabeth’s body, or the criticism of Ivanka Trump as his daughter/First Lady, or the image of Trump as a gay man soliciting sex. There’s no shortage of such internet creations and although they might seem novel, all draw on character attacks as old as the nation and as antithetical to a progressive agenda as President Trump himself.

Take the artistic work of Indecline that cropped up in cities during the campaign. Trump’s naked body on full display was meant to speak volumes, to challenge a vision of him as powerful and virile. “The Emperor Has No Balls” read the plaque at the foot of the piece.

Many perceived this as an effective way to counter the accusations made by President Trump that Hillary Clinton lacked the “stamina” to be President. But still others rightly noted that it did little but support those who seek an idealized body-type for masculine leadership – body shaming, indeed.

Creative? Yes. New? Maybe not. Although ever-changing, body ideals have been mobilized since the American Revolution and have been, in modern times, used to make figures such as George Washington appear more masculine and more in keeping with current standards than eighteenth-century types.

G-000865-20111017.jpgThen there are the popular images of Trump as Queen Elizabeth, a commentary on his authoritarian leadership approach but also, undoubtedly, to undercut his claims to manliness – and drawing very effectively on long histories that shame gender-blurring. Such contrasts also highlight and play on bodily and character differences that we assume to exist between leaders (manly) and others. This occurred even at the time of the Revolution when Washington was depicted by the British as a cross-dressing tyrant. Today they inform politicized art, such as in a colorful mural that plays on the image of Washington as the man’s man and make it possible for an image of him in a dress to carry such shock and resonance.

Trump has also emerged as a gay man seeking casual sex – a photo of him holding up an executive order has been modified so the text is instead of a tawdry personal add, worthy of eighteenth-century attacks on personal character in an effort to derail public policies and presence. And there’s this one of him holding onto a leather-clad Putin.

Even the criticism of his family members has historical roots. Melania Trump has been criticized for not immediately occupying the White House with family in tow to complete the nuclear family that we’ve come to expect from the President’s First Family.

And, Ivanka has been tarred as a daughter-First Lady substitute in her stead. We’ve seen this before. Aaron Burr’s relationship with his daughter was the source of intense criticism about the nature of their relationship (complete with incestuous insinuations) and widowed Jefferson relied heavily on his daughter, Martha, to serve functionally as a First Lady.

So, yes, to be that clichéd historian, we’ve seen it all before.

It’s no wonder that the first shiny thing that opponents see that criticizes Trump, sparks a reflex to share or retweet. After all, nothing of substance has yet seemed to stop the changes that we are witnessing. Perhaps this photo of him in a dress will do it? And if not, it will at least bring humor to those feeling beleaguered?

The memes are obviously well-aimed to get under his famously thin skin. And yet anti-Trump discourses have too often reverted to old tropes — and progressives would do well to steer clear of them lest we find ourselves reinforcing a world we work hard to leave behind.

Tycoon politics: Trump versus Berlusconi

This week in North Philly Notes, John Agnew, co-author of Berlusconi’s Italydiscusses ​”tycoon politics,”​ comparing Donald Trump ​to Silvio Berlusconi.

The world over, electorally based political parties are in trouble. Whatever their ideological roots or political goals, they increasingly fail to mobilize or they actually put off potential voters. In a globalizing world, national governments find it increasingly difficult to match the ambitions they set themselves. Borders are too leaky. If you say you’ll tax it, capital moves. Shocks from elsewhere no longer stay over there. As populations judge the failure of promise to match outcome, election turnouts are trending downwards everywhere that elections are held. The success of Donald Trump in the Republican primaries this year must be put in this context. But why should an obvious business tycoon be the instrument for what looks like a realignment of American politics around an appeal to populist themes about “being ripped off” by foreigners?

Berlusconis_ItalyIn 2008 we published a book about the influence of another tycoon-politician, Silvio Berlusconi, on Italian politics (Berlusconi’s Italy). The Trump-Berlusconi comparison seems to bear some weight. Beyond their similarities in campaigning it also suggests how Trump would rule. Berlusconi too was and is a businessman-media entrepreneur who emerged into prominence as a major political actor in a time of political crisis. In his case it was in the early 1990s when the principal existing Italian political parties were collapsing under the weight of either their corruption (the Christian Democrats and Socialists) or the end of the Cold War (the Communists). Berlusconi created his own political party, Forza Italia, named after the supporters’ cry for the Italian national soccer team. In the Italian electoral system without the institutionalized dominance of two parties as in the United States he did not need to force a takeover of an existing party. Like Trump he began his career as a wealthy man by building apartment blocks in Milan. He used political connections (and donations) to accumulate control over all the main national private television channels in Italy. These channels then broadcast a steady diet of soap operas and reality TV shows that would do Trump proud.  A consumerism for the masses based on the American model was at the heart of the messages disseminated by Berlusconi’s channels. To round out the comparison, Berlusconi was and is a shameless self-promoter. His masculinist posturing alongside such presidents as Putin and Sarkozy, notwithstanding the lifts in his shoes to make him seem taller than he is, broadcast a message of potency and competitiveness that many Italians found appealing. His infamous gaffes about various world leaders (the “tan” of President Obama being one of the most notorious) were always turned into negative commentaries about those drawing attention to them. His anti-Communism, even though the party of that name had disappeared, recalled both old disputes about whose side he was on (and who had won out) and suggested how much he was in favor of the Church and mainstream morality (Communism = anti-clericalism) even as bad publicity about his private life allowed him to wink at conventional mores.  A self-confessed “family man,” his history of trophy wives and girlfriends suggested something else entirely. Above all, however, he presented himself as the quintessential anti-politician, the outsider taking a broom to the Augean stables of established Italian politics.

The property tycoon Donald Trump’s surge to the top of the list of candidates for the Republican nomination for the 2016 US presidential election in national polls as well as in early primaries and caucuses has been interpreted in a variety of ways. He is appealing to the interests and prejudices of all those, particularly older white poorly educated men, who feel that they have lost out to women and minorities in an increasingly “politically correct” America. He is a blunt talker whose views on immigration, globalization and guns are free of the caveats that mar the politicians and party hacks he freely insults on the campaign trail. He is a strong leader whose personal history as a property tycoon and reality TV star offers a welcome relief from the professional politicians who pivot hither and thither on this issue and that. He is the most effective communicator with an audience that views “nuance” as implying a lack of faith in basic premises about the nature of reality. What these all have in common is not much evidence of policy savvy or even focus on what he might actually do if he were elected president but overwhelming emphasis on a leader picking up followers irrespective of what he does or says.

Elections are always about drama. But they are not usually entirely theatrical. Political candidates are usually judged as much by the campaign performances they give as by the policies they propose. As Charles Guggenheim who worked for Robert Kennedy once said: “people expect drama, pathos, intrigue, conflict, and they expect it to hang together as a dramatic package.” With his background in so-called reality television, on NBC’s The Apprentice, where he got to say: “You’re fired” to dozens of putative protégées, Donald Trump is cast perfectly for the role of a lifetime. But the Trump phenomenon is more than the typical electoral dramaturgy. As a TV protagonist, Trump is the Boss. He forces the viewer to line up on one side or the other in judging him. He will not allow you to be neutral. Show ratings depend on being as outrageous as possible. Nobody tunes in to watch a “reasonable” presentation. Like professional wrestling, it’s the fights that get the audience, however fake everyone knows it to be.

Not surprisingly the emphasis on performativity by the Trump campaign, even the Pope can become an attractive target for opprobrium for at least one news cycle, has attracted comparison to other leaders past and present with a penchant for over-the-top hyperbole and self-dramatization. Mussolini, Hitler, Charlie Chaplin playing Hitler, and former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin have all put in appearances in the press and on the Internet. The most popular comparison has been to Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister. This makes sense. Their emphasis on electoral dramaturgy is eerily similar. It is their shamelessness in bullying their opponents and boasting about their success about everything from their wealth and sexual proclivities to their self-evident charm and capacity to dominate the news without paying for it that sets them apart.

How far should the comparison be pushed? It does show how important the purely dramatic can be in a post-party and even post-truth (“Did I say that?”) era. But interestingly the comparison also shows the limits to Trump’s political possibilities – towards office and beyond. The reality is that given his control over the media (including most of the public TV channels when in office) and the lack of institutional constraints on his power while in office, Berlusconi as the central figure in a parliamentary system had far greater scope to achieve any goal he set himself than a President Trump would ever have with a potentially hostile Congress and Supreme Court to rein him in. Overall, Berlusconi must be considered a political failure notwithstanding his occupancy of political office for fully nine of the years from 1994 to 2011 (May 1994-January 1995, June 2001-May 2006, May 2008-November 2011). He created a “courtier regime” of lackeys and yes-men (and – women). He spent enormous political capital using his political office to protect his business (and personal) interests. He opened the door to the massive expansion of vitriolic and demonizing rhetoric about political adversaries. He left Italy’s economy in a shambles and a country without much of any respect at home or abroad. All told, Berlusconi did not exactly Make Italy Great Again.

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