The dynamic called Trumpism strikes most observers as unique in its ugly implications about the soul of America. One need not belabour recent history that seems to have pushed the republic to a precipice.
Yes, each passing day brings new outrage, emanating not from the fringes of American political life, but from its marrow. Themes of racial, ethnic, religious, and gender divisiveness, of “us vs. them,” and of “taking back America” dominate Donald Trump’s message, more often expressed in the style of a reality TV show host, than the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth.
We’re embarked on a rough road, and no one knows where it will end.
The socio-cultural milieu of the 1920s provides a key to comprehending our current travails. Yes, those “roaring twenties” were known for the apparent death of the nation’s Victorian Superego as it revelled in a “normalcy,” which was far from normal.
Americans in the era both celebrated and recoiled from the impact of cosmopolitan urban culture upon long-standing rural values. Nervous citizens also rued the corrosive effect upon tradition of what journalist Walter Lippmann termed the “acids of modernity” — the automobile, radio, “black” music and literature, and, of course, bootleg liquor — upon accepted social mores.
The U.S. certainly helped win the Great War against the Central Powers, but to judge from events in the following decade, the country was as anxious as it was excited about the novel developments. Despite flappers, bootleg gin, colourful gangsters, and a loosening of old rules, one is struck by the American postwar dynamic of “taking back” America from inferior races and minorities.
The U.S. may have intervened in the War “to make the world safe for democracy,” but the crusade ended with a sour taste. Americans, T.S. Eliot wrote, had not redeemed Europe but had died “for an old bitch gone in the teeth, a botched civilization.”
In its purging of socialists and other radicals, the Red Scare of 1919-20 sought to revitalize an older, Anglo-Saxon America, as did restrictive immigration laws in 1921 and 1924, which closed the gates to Asians and Southern and Eastern Europeans.
Race riots and a spike in lynchings in the South, meanwhile, warned blacks not to traverse Jim Crow. The Ku Klux Klan assumed national prominence, similarly disposed against anything new or strange. The Klan was a many-splintered thing — anti-Semitic in the Northeast, anti-black in the South, anti-Catholic in the Midwest, and anti-Asian on the West Coast.
Other developments, included the burgeoning of Fundamentalist Christianity and the famed “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tenn., which featured three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan defending the literal truth of Jonah and the Whale, bespoke fiery Fundamentalist defences of Protestant Christianity, the Calvinist faith of the Fathers against all forms of religious liberalism.
In Michigan, automobile mogul Henry Ford railed against “international Jewry,” which, he charged, had taken control of American banking and entertainment circles. Ford’s calumnies against Jews everywhere caught the eye of a hopeful German politician named Adolf Hitler. His subsequent testament of hate, Mein Kampf, lifted passages verbatim from Ford.
Anglo-conforming Americans did not succeed in taking back their country during the 1920s. For whatever nativist and racial initiatives accomplished, many of them came on a symbolic level. And the Great Depression, commencing in 1929 — followed by another global crusade against the vilest expression of systemic racism yet, Nazi Germany — demanded that Americans pull together.
Fissures of race, ethnicity, class and gender became problematic when compared to the need for unity. These cataclysmic events changed the rules of the game. And the leadership of president Franklin D. Roosevelt proved crucial in both instances.
The dark side of life in the 1920s undercut progressive impulses, shuttered historic American values of empathy and consensus, turned the melting pot into a pressure cooker, and fixed upon the country an unfettered business cycle that only ended when it imploded in 1929.
The lesson from that era as we confront President Trump, and whatever he stands for, is clear: however much damage he and his base may do to long-standing American ideals, those very values — of diversity, inclusiveness, and acceptance — remain central to the nation’s unfinished history.
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Indeed, Trump’s contribution to that history may yet lie in his awakening of America’s better angels to the message that much needs to be done to ensure a positive rendezvous with a special destiny.
Geoff Smith taught history at Queen’s University from 1969-2006. As a dual citizen, he may have left his heart in San Francisco, but he sure does enjoy living as a Canadian in Kingston.
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