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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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.

A Woman Out of Time

New Freedom and the Radicals book

The New Freedom and the Radicals
Woodrow Wilson, Progressive Views of Radicalism, and the Origins of Repressive Tolerance
by Jacob Kramer

This week in North Philly Notes, Jacob Kramer, author of The New Freedom and the Radicals, writes about Hillary Clinton and the issue of income inequality.

As Occupy Wall Street and the ground-breaking book by Thomas Picketty have shifted the national conversation in the direction of income inequality, Hillary Clinton is now claiming the issue as her own.  Clinton has a long record of advocacy for the poor, though she has not always chosen to make it her principal focus.  The change in her emphasis over the years is not simply a matter of inconsistency.  Rather, it reflects a progressive tendency to take a strategic position in order to achieve long-term objectives.  At times, Clinton’s ideals have seemed to suffer at the expense of political expediency.  But the context is now more suited to her fundamental hopes.

Much like Clinton more recently, in the early twentieth century progressives tended to modify how they viewed politics to their left depending on the circumstances.  Sympathetic to socialism before the First World War, progressives publicly kept their distance during the repression that followed the American intervention, yet they defended the rights of radicals during the 1920s.  100 years later, the political trajectory of Clinton is a good illustration of a similar tendency.

Looking back at her 1969 commencement speech at Wellesley, what is striking is not Clinton’s youthful idealism, but her attempt to harness student radicalism to practical ends.  Speaking in the context of student protest on the one hand and the idealism of the space race and civil rights movement on the other, she said, “We feel that for too long our leaders have used politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.”  Articulating her classmates’ frustration at the “gap between expectation and realities,” she called, in the words of Nancy Scheibner, “not to save the world in a glorious crusade,” but for the essentially progressive notion of “The art of making possible.”

As first lady, by contrast, Clinton seemed to overestimate the readiness of the public for sweeping health care reform.  Defending her 1993 universal health insurance proposal before two congressional committees, for instance, she at times blurred the distinction between the public and private sectors.  Questioned by Illinois Republican Dennis Hastert whether the proposal would introduce rationing, she said, “right now we have rationed care throughout this country.”  When asked about price limits, she suggested that there was already control over prices on the part of insurers and government.  Nearly a century earlier, progressives like Walter Lippmann also sought to break down the distinction between corporations and government, but Clinton scared people.  The failure of health care reform and the excess of idealism she exhibited seemed to convey a lesson that she carried with her in her two terms as United States Senator from 2001 to 2009.

Like progressives during the intervention in World War I, Clinton faced a fundamentally changed context after 9/11.  It was very difficult to oppose the president or defend civil liberties, much as it had been to oppose Woodrow Wilson or defend radicals during World War I.  With 29 other Democratic senators she voted in favor of the authorization of the use of force in Iraq and was one of the nearly unanimous Democrats in the chamber—all except Russ Feingold of Wisconsin—who voted for the Patriot Act.

These votes, especially the former, came back to haunt her in the 2008 presidential primary campaign, by which time the political sands had again shifted.  In the wake of the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the financial crisis, and growing frustration with the war in Iraq, Barack Obama put together a remarkable coalition calling for an end to the war and economic reform and outmaneuvered Clinton for the Democratic nomination.  Obama seemed to herald the passing of the pro-business centrism previously associated with the Clintons.

Clinton now seems determined to keep in step with the times.  Like progressives in the 1920s, she is re-asserting her connections with her more egalitarian roots.  No doubt she will be criticized for being both inconsistent and too far to the left.  And as with progressives, one must ask at what point a step away from the left made for strategic purposes becomes a difference in substance.  But a majority of the public may now be ready to hear about her long-standing goal of helping the least well off.

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