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.

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