We talk to the historian Sarah Churchwell about the origins of some of the ideas churning up politics in the age of Trump: 'America First', 'Make America Great Again', 'Fake News'. Where do these phrases come from and what do they mean? We try to unpick the racism from the isolationism and the anti-immigrant from the anti-elitist sentiment. Plus we discuss whether fascism in America was a real threat in the 1930s and whether it's a real threat today. With Andrew Preston, historian of US foreign policy. Next week: the midterms!
DAVID: Hello – my name's David Runciman, and this is Talking Politics. Today we're talking with the cultural historian Sarah Churchwell about the language of politics in Trump's America. America First, Make America Great Again, Fake News — where do these ideas come from and what do they really mean?
Joining us with Sarah is Andrew Preston, who is a historian of American foreign policy and religion. And many of the sources of the ideas that we're going to be talking about today—we’re particularly going to focus on America first, which is the subject of Sarah's fantastic book Behold, America. I love saying that: Behold, America. I've been really struck, particularly when Europeans want to find someone to compare Trump to, they look outside the United States. They look around the world and they say it's Erdogan, it's Duterte, it’s Orban. Or they look to European politics in the 30s; if it's not Hitler, then it's Mussolini. But Trump is a quintessentially American figure, and his language his ideas, these have a rich heritage in America. And I think a lot of people, maybe including in the United States, miss the deep historical sources of these things. So just as a starting point, when you look at Trump, who does he remind you of in America's past. What are the echoes that you pick.
SARAH: It's a really good question. I mean I will say… I should probably preface by saying I lost my voice, so apologies to listeners of I struggle getting sentences out, which is not really like me… but I do think personally that the comparisons to Mussolini are more than superficial. And there is a reason why those comparisons keep getting made. But I absolutely agree with you. I think Trump is fundamentally American, and particularly his relationship to money, and the way that that's intertwined with his power and his appeal to his voters is absolutely American. There hasn't been anybody like Trump. There is a reason why he is viewed as an anomaly: he is one. On the other hand, he is the apotheosis of a trend that has been coming for a long time. Probably the closest I would say, although Andrew may have a different view on this, is Huey Long, the senator from Louisiana who was assassinated in 1935.
DAVID: And assassinated before he was going to run…
SARAH: Yeah, he was a senator, but he was planning to run for president in ‘36. He is the inspiration for Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize winning novel All the King's Men. Some people may know that. He was also the model for a book by the writer Sinclair Lewis in 1935, which is called It Can't Happen Here, which is a satire of the idea that America would somehow be inoculated from fascism by American exceptionalism, that somehow American democracy was so robust that definitionally fascism couldn't happen there. And many people were looking at Huey Long at the time and seeing in him authoritarian, populist fascism. So Huey Long was definitely a populist figure. And he was much more populist than Trump is, actually. He really did want to redistribute wealth, which Trump has zero interest in doing, pretty evidently. But the problem with Long was that he seemed to be willing to do anything to hang on to power. So the questions of corruption, the questions of rule of power vs. rule of law were the ones that Long raised for Americans at the time. And they saw in him what they thought an American fascist would look like. And that is what Sinclair Lewis did in It Can’t Happen Here, and that novel from 1935 is remarkably prophetic about Trump, it really is.
DAVID: And part of this is about political style as well as substance because the way language is used by politicians like Trump. There's also a kind of brazenness, of shamelessness, not just a willingness to lie, but a kind of disregard of the facts… and you hear that so strongly in these earlier examples as well. It’s how they talk.
SARAH: Yeah. And I think there is a there was a view in which that's the language of the common man. He tells it as it is, it's unvarnished, you know, he doesn't have any of that sneaky elistist rhetoric, that veneer of cosmopolitanism and sophistication. He’s flying by the seat of his pants, he's calling it like it is, and he's a man of the people, and that's what we like. And that strain goes all the way back at least to Jackson. But you know, Andrew knows more about the long history of that than I do.
ANDREW: Well I don’t know about that. In the European context, he’s a lot like Wilhelm II in terms of his pomposity and his sort of spectacular errors of judgment and how he frames issues. And also he’s a lot like Wilhelm II in being a kind of plutocrat, somebody who is clearly from an elite, and yet speaking the sort of language of a common person. But that comes out a lot more strongly, the sort of working class hero aspect of Trump, in the American context. He actually is a quintessentially American figure. And he's a lot like other demagogues in American history, people like Huey Long, but also like Joe McCarthy, like George Wallace, like Pat Buchanan. The big difference between Trump and these people from the past isn't necessarily in tone or rhetoric or style, or even in the policies they've promoted and in the sometimes overt appeals to white nationalism. It's in the fact that he won the presidency. He's the anomaly in that sense, as Sarah said, going back to Andrew Jackson you have this really consistent strain of this of this really hard-edged white nationalist populism, but since Andrew Jackson, the only one to win the White House has been Donald Trump. And that's why, I think, what’s scrambling so much of American politics now. Somebody like Pat Buchanan or Joe McCarthy or George Wallace were really destabilizing, but their effect was contained because they just didn't reach the level the Donald Trump has.[6:10]
DAVID: It is striking because I was going to say, the other point of comparison that people reach for, and Andrew you were just saying, is with a kind of monarchical or imperial court. Because now he is president, the way people try to understand this kind of erratic behavior is it's like a King gone mad.
SARAH: But I would also say, I mean, more obviously to me, he's a mobster. He is very clearly a mobster. And a lot of observers are making those comparisons, I think rightly. You know the way that Mueller is prosecuting him, he's treating this as a RICO case because it pretty clearly is. But also that those are the ways that Trump constructs power around him. Other people have observed that, for example, the fact that he's left so many appointments unfilled is not a bug, it's a feature. He wants to make power vertical, he wants to keep as much control over power as he can. He doesn't want to decentralize it. He wants to have a very few close advisors, concilliaries, who simply execute his orders. He's not interested in the kind of traditional Democratic view of power sharing. And that is why he has this sense of affinity, it's not just with strong man, as the comparison is often put. In my view, he feels an affinity with people running mafia states, and that's what he wants to do with America
DAVID: So we're recording this the week before the midterms. We're going to be talking about them again next week. And he may be the mobster, he may be the crazy King who's about to buck the trend and actually perform better than first term presidents do halfway through. We'll see. Let's just go back to the idea of America first—and we'll come back to the midterms because there's a lot going on at the moment, not least the racist violence that we're seeing in America. But to go back to the origins of some of the ideas that are associated with Trump. So what's so striking about America first and the way you describe it in your book, Sarah, is that it's a kind of cocktail of things that we associate with Trump and with contemporary populist politics, but they rarely get pulled apart. So there is racism and white supremacism in the heritage of this idea. There is also deep anti-immigrant sentiment or nativism, as it's often called, in the heritage of this idea. And there is also isolationism, the idea that America first means we're not going to get ensnared in the rest of the world's problems. And Trump jumps around between these. I mean there are definitely elements of all of those in there, but they are different and sometimes they can be in opposition to each other. So let's.. if we start actually with the anti-immigrant bit, where does America first fit into the history of anti-immigrant sentiment in America.
Well you know there's always an arbitrary starting point any of these kinds of attempts to try to draw a genealogy, but if we think about the word ‘nativism,’ for example, which you just brought into the conversation quite rightly, that was coined in the 1840s and 50s when the first great waves of European immigrants came to the United States from Europe: from Ireland fleeing famine, from Italy and Germany fleeing rebellions and wars. And those huge waves of immigrants created a backlash, as is happening now. And that was what gave rise to this new idea called nativism. What was also known as the Native American party, confusingly to listeners today, who think that means indigenous people, that’s not what they’re talking about, they mean native-born American, older European settler communities.
DAVID: Which became the Know Nothings.
SARAH: Which became the Know Nothings.
DAVID: Which is a more memorable name.
SARAH: But it's confusing again because people think it means that they were ignorant. It was actually a secret political party, so you want us to say that you belonged to it. And that they actually have a very important role to play in the creation of what would become the party of Lincoln, the new Republican Party. The nativists were a kind of faction that broke off and they had a lot to do with how the Republicans eventually emerged. And the shifting and fluency, or fluidity I should say, of American party politics is a part of the story that I think too many people in Europe don't understand properly. So we tend to think that the Republicans and the Democrats are this kind of monolithic party and they've always meant the same thing, and that’s simply not the case. There's a long and complicated story. Anyway, so those waves of immigration gave rise to this idea called nativism, and that basically just kept gaining traction. The Civil War was a diversion from that argument and it mapped it onto questions about homegrown racism and white nationalism. And then you get a kind of convergence of xenophobia and the embedded American racism that comes along with race-based slavery. And America first began to be used as a slogan around that time—the 1880s and 1890s is when I first found traces of it as a Republican slogan—but it wasn't popularized until around the time of the First World War.
DAVID: To unpick those things because, like you say, it is really important, I think, to recognize that you can’t just track these onto what we might now think about as a Republican position or a Democrat position. So that anti-immigrant sentiment, one of the important things about it is it was Northern primarily, right? These anxieties were mainly being felt in the North and the North was also the seat of Republican support. The racism, the white supremacism, which eventually emerges into the Ku Klux Klan, is the Southern phenomenon, and it is also the Democrat phenomenon. It's not quite as stark as that…
SARAH: Not quite. And I think that the important thing to say is that—and you see it again in a kind of way that's analogous today—is that although in the South, by and large they were not affected by immigration, that doesn't mean they weren't voting on the basis of it. In fact they were very concerned about it and the rise of the KKK in exactly these years—It was refounded in 1915 and it continued to gain power over the next decade or so—and it was very much, not just an anti-black party, it was very much a xenophobic, anti- immigrant party, it was anti-Catholic.
DAVID: It was anti-Semitic.
SARAH: It was very anti-Semitic. But we remember that they were racist and anti-Semitic. We forget that they were anti-Catholic. And they were anti-Catholic because of immigration, particularly the Irish and the Italians. So although they weren’t encountering immigrants as such, they were a virulently anti-immigrant voting platform. And they associated that immigration with the cosmopolitan, urban elites of these suspiciously polyglot cities that they didn't want to be gaining power. And at that point, what happened was the position of the Democrats in relation to these different voting blocs began to shift. And that shifting continued across the 20th century, as indeed did the Republicans. But yes, historically what confuses people in Europe is that the Democrats were the party of the South. They were the Agrarian Party that upheld slavery, and the Republicans were the party of Lincoln, the party of radical Republicanism, actually, of abolition. And that has led to some confusion today where some Republicans want to claim that racism could only belong to the Democrats because 150 years ago that was how it looked. I tend to push back on that point by saying if Republicans want to own that particular aspect, the abolitionist aspect of the Republican platform 150 years ago, they also have to support the IRS, they also have to support universities, they also have to support public libraries because that's also what the Republicans 150 years ago did.
So I want to ask Andrew in a second where isolationism fits into this, but one more question about that, at least potential, tension between the anti-immigrant side of America first and what's going to become the white supremacist side. There is a version of the anti-immigrant argument that could appeal to African Americans, who, after all, many of them are not immigrants, or at least insofar as they arrived in the country before many of the whites. And if you're going to prioritize American citizens, there is a way, and you write about this , here is a way that the Republican Party could have made a case on the basis that were going to look after the people who are here against the people who are coming in. That was a much, much more ecumenical move, and it could still come under the heading of America first, but all Americans.
SARAH: It could have but that's not how it played in America.
DAVID: Was it a real prospect? And when was that opportunity lost?
SARAH: I don't think it ever was a real prospect because—and it’s something I spend a lot of time on in the book—but it really goes back to the Constitution because black Americans were three fifths of a human being. And so there wasn't a sense in which…
DAVID: But after emancipation there wasn't a way in which this could become a kind of…
SARAH: Because they were actively disenfranchised.
And so the thing I talk about in the book is the way that the slogan America first in these years became intertwined with another slogan that was much more prevalent at the time than it is now, which was “100 percent American.” And the easiest way for us to think about it now is that they were against anything they thought of as a hyphenated American. And that was any kind of hybridity. So Italian-American, Irish-American, and then they used those phrases much earlier than I think most people today think. We tend to think that's something we invented. Not at all. And so they were very suspicious of this idea that you might be less than 100 percent American. That you might have a higher loyalty to a European nation of your birth or of your kins-people, or that if you're Catholic you might have a higher loyalty to the Pope. If you were a Jew you would have a higher loyalty to the globalist monetary conspiracy that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were busily telling people the Jews had a higher loyalty to.
So there was this idea that to be 100 percent American, you had to be not hybrid, right? And African-American was already an identity at that point. That phrase goes back to the antebellum days. And it's important to tie it into the idea of what was known as “the one drop rule” The one drop rule said that one drop of “negro” blood made you legally negro, and that meant that even after emancipation you're still subject to Jim Crow, you're still subject to miscegenation laws, you're still subject to all kinds of disenfranchisement, all kinds of violence, are still subject to lynching. But people forget the concomitance of the one drop rule, which said that not only did 1 percent of negro blood make you a negro that said 100 percent of Anglo-Saxon blood was necessary to make you white. Now in a country which says that you don’t have full rights of citizenship unless you are 100 percent white, to be 100 percent America couldn't have bigger consequences. It's not just a metaphor because they're measuring out people's humanity and citizenship in fractions. So African-Americans were never under the banner of 100 percent American. They were unreal Americans, they were not fully American, they were suspiciously not quite American. And that notion takes us all the way up to Obama and the birther movement. The idea that a black president was illegitimate because he wasn't a real American. That idea is deeply embedded in the American cultural imaginary. There were African-Americans who were hopeful that this idea might get extended to them. And of course they were still voting Republican in the early teens as a legacy of the party of Lincoln. They still believed that the Republicans were their party. The Democrats were the party of the KKK at that point, so they were very clearly not the party for black people. So they were hoping that the Republicans would stand up for them and that America first could extend to them. But in practice it never did and they were never interested in doing so.
ANDREW: I would only sort of emphasize that this as a national story. It's not just in the South, it's not just the solid south, the Klan supporting south where this was a problem. This was a nationwide story where the Klan in the teens and 20s was as powerful in states like Oregon, Indiana, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania as it was in the South. They had national appeal and a lot of prominent politicians who would have been appalled by what the Klan was actually doing still traded in a lot of these ideas. People like Teddy Roosevelt, who criticized hyphenated Americans and sort of signed on to the 100 percent American platform. And a lot of other establishment politicians from the North, who were by the standards of their day pretty enlightened on things like race. There was this kind of highlighting of the racial or ethnic nationalist side of the American political project over the civic nationalist side. [17:34]
SARAH: I think it's important for people to realize that America first was a political, presidential campaign slogan for four election campaigns in a row, from 1916 with Woodrow Wilson, both he and his opponent ran on an America platform. In 1920, Warren Harding won on an America first platform. In 1924, one of the most important anti-immigration legislative acts in American history, the Johnson-Reed Act, the National Origins Act, was passed in the name of America first. It was debated on the floor in the name of America first. And it was a quota system. It was specifically barring people from different countries if they had the wrong ethnicity, was an explicitly eugenicist immigration law. And these ideas were always debated and talked about in terms of America first, in terms of being 100 percent American, and absolutely, as Andrew says, they were nationwide. The Klan boasted in the mid 1920s that they had mayors from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon. And by 1937, of course you have Hugo Black, Supreme Court justice—we are a little bit sensitive to questions of Supreme Court justices getting sworn in right now and Black was a card carrying member of the KKK. Now he went on to be a notably liberal judge, which is also important to say, but he was a card carrying member of the KKK.
ANDREW: One of the things I learned from Sarah's book is that—I think I've got this right—is that Donald Trump's father Fred attended a Klan rally in New York City.
SARAH: In Long Island, in Queens, near where they live. Now it wasn't actually a rally. This is really important because it was a Memorial Day parade in 1927. There were 20,000 people there, and there were a lot of benign reasons to be there—there were veterans marching and Red Cross workers marching and people were there with their kids, and it was a perfectly normal civic national parade. But the KKK had controversially been allowed to march as part of that parade and scuffles broke out among the 20,000 people viewing it because some people thought the Klan shouldn't be there and some argued on the basis of free speech that they could be there, which again should sound familiar. And these scuffles broke out, it turned into a riot. Out of the 20,000 people there in 1927, only six people were arrested. Five of them were a card carrying members of the KKK, self-identified as Klansmen, and the sixth was Fred C. Trump. Now that's not to say that he was a Klansman. And there is no evidence that he was a card carrying Klansman. But I do find it remarkable that out of those 20,000 and only six got arrested, five were Klansmen, one was Fred Trump. And what I do say in the book is that certainly his later record on race would not suggest he was there to protest the Klan [19:53].
DAVID: We going to come back to his son. As you said, there are a series of presidential campaigns where America first was the slogan. In 1916 Woodrow Wilson runs on that slogan to keep America out of the war: that's the other part of it, the isolationism, which has this deep strain in American thought and American life, which is that America needs to be separate. But after the war and after Wilson's failed attempt to get America to join the League of Nations it becomes a Republican platform. That's the point where I think you can see the party identity separating out. It is then isn't it that’s very much wrapped up with these questions of racism and anti-immigration? But it is also absolutely how Republicans come to present themselves to the electorate.
SARAH: Absolutely. And America first, it should be noted, was also one of the slogans used to keep America out of the League of Nations. That was one of the rallying cries of people like William Randolph Hearst who did not want to see America joining the League of Nations. And indeed they talked about being in permanent thrall to the European overlords in ways that, once again, we can hear strong echoes. This idea that it was in the interest of the global elites to draw America into these permanent entangling alliances in Europe, and that America should look after it own first. In fact, Harding tried to pass a permanent protectionist tariff in the name of America first, which would have saved Trump the trouble. And it very much became the Republican platform throughout the 20s, the probusiness idea, the boom was part of America first and that if we just looked after our own interests, the rest of the world go hang, we had enough resources to take care of ourselves. And of course it was the crash that put paid to that, but all the way through the 20s the argument was that the boom was proof that America first was working.
DAVID: And Andrew, how deep does that run in the American psyche, that idea that in a dangerous and troubled world, we need to be kept out of it?
ANDREW: Well it's there from the very beginning. It’s there from the revolutionary period. John Adams and the model treaty of 1775 expresses these ideas. George Washington in his farewell address, Thomas Jefferson in his inaugural address, where they say we have to keep free of entangling alliances, we have to avoid permanent alliances, all those sorts of phrases. I'm not sure necessarily though it's a strain of thought that leads to separation and to the United States being apart from the rest of the world as opposed to just doing what it wants to do no matter what anyone else thinks. It's more of a unilateralist idea. And I tell my students not to use the phrase isolationism because the United States has never really been an isolationist country and has never kept to itself. it's always traded with the rest of the world. There have always been deep political ties and economic ties and cultural ties and there's been a lot of military intervention throughout American history going back right to the 1770s and 1780s. But this idea of America first is that America will act as it wants to no matter what anyone else thinks in its own interest. It's a kind of nationalist way of thinking, which is what Trump, I think, would say.
DAVID: So the basic idea is there are no international rules? So that’s what’s being rejected, the idea that there are any international rules that could bind America?
ANDREW: Any kind of sense of reciprocity, or any kind of internationalist sentiment where we're part of a system where we have rights but we also have responsibilities. And that idea is something that predates Woodrow Wilson but it was Woodrow Wilson that really changed how Americans think about the world in terms of tying America down into a system where it has responsibilities as well as rights, where if it's going to do something it has to do so in a way that at least takes on board how it's going to affect other countries and how American actions are going to affect the international system. And Trump, if anything, he's not an isolationist. He's a militarist, as my former colleague Stephen Werthiem called him in The New York Times. But he's also, as Trump says and as I just said, he's a nationalist. And he believes, as he told the UN in a speech, ‘I am going to do what's right for my country just as all of you would do what's right for your country.’ And so that line, strangely in the UN, not this year but last year, he got a round of applause. And with Trump, his foreign policy in terms of America first, it's all about tone and not necessarily policy because his policies don't differ a whole from some of his predecessors. They don't differ a lot from Richard Nixon, they don’t differ a lot from George W. Bush, whether it be unilateral steel tariffs or intervening in the world according to what the president thinks, what the imperial president thinks, to go back to a theme that you talked about earlier, David, the president as a kind of monarch. And that sort of concentration of executive power doesn't necessarily go back, it doesn't have a very long lineage in American history. It's something that's much more since the time of Franklin Roosevelt.
DAVID: And there's one more, I think, part of this complicated heritage, which is… I don't know if this is Jeffersonian or not, but this idea that we're not going to ask the rest of the world what we should do. We're going to ask ordinary Americans what we should do because of the common sense of the American people, and that Jeffersonian idea that you rebuild American democracy every generation by connecting it back to the people who live it… that’s there too, right? All the way through the American story there’s that thought that in moments of crisis, let's not ask the outside world. Let's trust the “common man.”
That's more of a Jacksonian strain than a Jeffersonian one. Of course Jackson comes out of the Jeffersonian tradition. So the idea that, yeah, the yeoman farmers are the backbone of America and that we can trust the wisdom of the common man and that that is this kind of purely democratic vision was what Jacksonian populism was kind of all about. And that strain is very, very powerful, and that is certainly the strain that Trump has risen to power. I don't think there is any doubt about that. And its specifically associated with white men, white rural men, in particular. You know, Sarah Palin would also invoke that idea, that somehow those Americans are more real than any other kind of American. Those of us who inhabit cities are somehow unreal Americans, or less American, of course, is the real implication. Because we’re too cosmopolitan and that’s suspicious. But the real American in the heartland and all of that kind of logic are the people who are at the heart of American exceptionalism. They’re at the heart of the idea that the American experiment will be safe on its own terms if you just trust the common man. One of the things that’s interesting to me… I know we’re mostly talking about America first today, but my book also goes into the history of “the American dream.” And one of the things that really interests me is that one of the earliest uses of the phrase “the American dream” by an important American writer, by Walter Lippmann, was to actually denounce that idea, to criticize that idea. He says that the idea that the common man could run America, that they knew enough to be trusted to make the right choices, was the American dream, the American illusion. And he means the American dream in the sense of a delusion, a fantasy. And so people have been recognizing for a long time that there is a potential question there about what do you mean about trusting the common man? Who is the common man? When you stop and think about it, it doesn't actually make any sense, you know, why would people in rural areas be any better able to run the country than people in another area? But people don't examine that precept, and of course it exists here as well. The idea that some middle England is a truer England than other parts of England, that it somehow better reflects the soul of the nation, or the ethos of the nation… it's a myth, but it's a really, really powerful one. [26:49]
ANDREW: But it's a myth that has some substance in fact as well when a lot of elite driven projects end in catastrophe. It could be Vietnam, it could be Iraq, it could be a lot of the economic policies that we've seen. I mean I agree with what Sarah just said about who should be running the country and it's not necessarily, you know, the guy in the bar who’s full of opinions or guy down at the pub who should be running the country. But when a Donald Trump comes along after a catastrophe like Iraq or Libya that doesn't really have a whole lot of popular support behind it… it kind of gives credence to the idea that maybe elites don't know what they're doing.
DAVID: I think the most appealing version of this is the main street vs. Wall Street version of it because there you do absolutely… who's going to be on the side of Wall Street?
SARAH: To be clear, we live in this world of false dichotomies. I wasn’t trying to suggest that the elites are better at it, as you say. We’ve got a lot of evidence that the elites are pretty bad at it too. It's just that we fall under this false binary of thinking, ‘Well the guy on the street would be great at it.’ but then I'm just not convinced that he'd be good at it either.
DAVID: So I think what a lot of people do know about America first, or they’ve been made aware of it, is that in the late 30s it was associated with Charles Lindbergh, and it came very close to being the kind of slogan of American fascism. And American fascism was a real thing in the 30s. I mean, how close did it come… it comes out of Woodrow Wilson, it's an ecumenical slogan, it's a bipartisan slogan. It becomes more and more partisan and any of those divisions between anti-immigrant and white supremacist voters gets collapsed… By the late 30s, how close is it to being a slogan of American fascism?
SARAH: Oh it definitely was the slogan of American fascism by the late 1930s. It is important to say that the Wilsonian idea of… what he was really trying to do was say America would be the first to lead—that lasted for all of about 30 seconds. So it really never gained any traction. And that's what he was trying to have it mean but it was taken up in the name of isolationism very, very quickly and it gained, accrued those meanings of white nationalism, xenophobia, very, very quickly. And those just gained power through the 20s, particularly with the Klan, which was using America first. And it's important to say—I think this is a really key fact—is that when Mussolini was on the rise in the early 20s and he introduced this word “fascism” into the political conversation for the first time, in America, when commentators and journalists were trying to explain this new idea “fascism” to their readers, they said over and over and over again, all around the country, in big urban papers and little local papers, they said, ‘Look if you want to know what this new thing fascism is that Mussolini’s doing, it's basically the KKK, but in Italy.’ And they said ‘If you want to know what this new thing the Klan is, it's basically fascism, but in America.’ And they saw the resemblance very clearly, very early on. And so I think it's important to not skip that because by the time we get to the late 30s, what we have is a political climate in which those ideas have been equated for 20 years. And adults grew up with those ideas. They knew that the KKK was American Fascism. It was a commonplace. They understood that very, very clearly.
DAVID: And just in that dynamic, which was meant to be normalising which? Which was the one that…
SARAH: I don't think they were… at this point in their early 20s in particular they weren’t normalizing it….
DAVID: It is a relative term…
SARAH: But they weren’t. They were just trying to define it. And remember, of course, they didn't know about what fascism would prove, right? They thought it looked dubious, I mean, they were worried about it. But they were sort of saying, ‘There's this new thing in the air and if you want to understand it, basically this is the American version and that is the Italian version.’ And they might have different views on it, so some were pro-it, some were against, but they recognized that it was the same phenomenon. And that seems to me really important because right now we're asking a lot of questions about whether were being anachronistic—I know that's a question that you're very alive to, whether were being anachronistic in seeing these parallels. I think it's important to note that it doesn't take hindsight. They saw very clearly that they were the same movement with just different faces and different nations. And for 20 years those ideas just gained traction as the KKK started to ebb its influence, as its influence began to decline in the late twenties. It was brought down by a combination of sexual scandals and corruption scandals, which again should sound familiar.
DAVID: That’s just democratic politics.
SARAH: Exactly. But then its place was taken pretty much by a growth of splintered right wing groups in America in the early 1930s, including a group called the Silver Shirts, which modeled themselves on the brown shirts and the black shirts. I know it’s all very Roderick Spode.
DAVID: You know you always wonder what happens when all the good colors have been taken. Who ends up with the pinks shirts?
SARAH: [crosstalk] But there are lots of Christian this, Christian that, the knights of the White Camillia. And there was a group called America First Incorporated, which was incorporated in 1934 and it was run by an anti-Semite who called for a pogrom in America in 1936. And you know we’re speaking now a matter of days after the shootings in Pittsburgh, where 11 Jews were killed in synagogue. So we have this guy in the name of America first in 1936 calling for American pogrom, saying that he was shooting soap because it resembled Jewish flesh and that was how he was practicing. Some are really, really nasty stuff. And this is all part of the, again, the national conversation. He was in Time Magazine, they thought he was kind of a joke, but of course Time Magazine was hugely influential in the 30s. And so by the time Lindbergh comes along you have a conversation in which America first has been associated with fascism over and over and over again. And then you have the America First Committee which is now the most famous iteration and the most familiar version of America first. And too many commentators and historians today say that America first began in that moment and what I try to show in my book is that it’s very much not the case and that prehistory matters too for us to really understand what was happening, in that Lindbergh doesn’t come out of nowhere. The America First Committee at its height had almost 800,000 members, by no means all of whom were Nazi appeasers. There were socialists, there were conscientious objectors, there were pacifists. So it was very much a wide umbrella. It was a coalition of many competing interests of people who saw different reasons for the United States to stay out of the European conflict. But certainly some of those people were fascists, some of them were Nazi appeasers. They wanted to stay out of the war because they thought it was fine if Germany won. In fact they preferred for Germany to win. Lindbergh began broadcasting… he gave his radio broadcast before he officially signed on with America first. But it's kind of all of a piece. In 1939 he started giving these radio broadcasts that were enormously influential in which he said over and over again that America should stay out of the European conflict because it was not a question of, and I quote, “The White race banding together to keep out Asiatic intruders.” This was not a case, he said, of fighting back a Genghis Khan or a Xerxes. If it were the case, he said, then America should come to defend the white races against such Asiatic warriors but because it was merely a fight among our family, he said, of white races, then it should just be left to them to fight it out. In other words, as long as some white race was in charge, Lindbergh didn't care which one and it was fine if it was the Germans. As long as it was white people… it’s explicitly eugenicist. He’s practically verbatim quoting the eugenicist writers of their early teens like Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard, who made exactly that argument that the Asian and the Middle Eastern races “were coming in to wipe out poor whites” and the whites had to assert supremacy and their merit to rule, their right to rule. And Lindbergh’s America first was very much bound up again in these older ideas about white supremacy, eugenicism, and white nationalism.
DAVID: So as Andrew said, the big difference with Trump is that he won. There’s a great novel by Philip Roth called The Plot Against America, which speculates what would have happened if Lindbergh had won in 1940. But how close… do you have a sense Andrew, Sarah? How close did this come to power, American fascism in the 30s?
ANDREW: Well Sarah will know better than I do. She's much closer to the material. I just want to pick up on something that Sarah said towards the end of that last question, in that the idea of America first, that the United States doesn't necessarily need to come to Europe's defense or really get involved in European affairs, was, as she said, a really bipartisan movement. And it was the majority opinion in the United States in 1939-40/41 because there was no clear motive for self defense. The United States didn't need to protect itself against Nazi Germany. There was no way that Germany was going to invade the United States. There was no way Japan was going to invade the continental United States. And if those were the terms on which these issues would be decided then people like Lindbergh with his anti-Semitic and fascist views, but also really thoughtful anti-interventionists like Herbert Hoover, who was not an anti-Semite, who was not a fascist, who was a small ‘d’ democrat, a republican politician, who said if we get involved in Europe, actually, in order to defend liberty in some capacious, fuzzy, abstract way, what we're going to do is imperil liberty at home because we'll invest in the Executive so much power in order to wage the war that we're going to curtail American liberties at home. So, as Sarah said, they were pacifists, socialists, they were all sorts of all sorts of people. So just because about the America First Committee was really popular in 1940-41 doesn't necessarily mean that fascism was on the cusp of winning the White House or taking control of American politics. I'd say it was probably less likely to in 1940 despite the large presence of American fascism, actual fascism in America, than it is today in some respects.
DAVID: So one of the great heroes of your book is a woman called Dorothy Thompson, who is probably not particularly well known today. She was a journalist. She was the most prominent woman journalist in America. She and Walter Lippmann between them kind of carved up the space of being the person you listen to to find out what is really going on. But she was an early and staunch warning against the threat that America had plenty of Nazis in it.
SARAH: Absolutely. She was in Europe in the 20s as a foreign correspondent and watched the rise of Fascism in Italy in Vienna and in Germany. She was the first American reporter to get an interview with Hitler, and she was also the first American to get kicked out by Hitler in 1934, which pretty much made her a celebrity, an international celebrity.
DAVID: And people did accuse her afterwards of having underplayed Hitler because she said he's a little man with nothing to say.
ANDREW: And she wasn’t the only one to make that mistake.
DAVID: But she’s also saying we should be really terrified of him for that reason.
SARAH: And she also never underplayed Nazism. So what she said is—at the end of that book, so there's this one line where she says he seems like this foolish kind of guy and I can’t believe that people are falling for this. But she says these dark forces have been unleashed. So she's not in any way underplaying fascism.
DAVID: I think it’s more chilling. It’s like, why would anyone fall for this guy? My god, they have. We should be really afraid.
SARAH: And she was very clear that it could happen in America. So she came home to this incredibly influential syndicated column where she began writing columns like it can happen here, calling out these fascist organizations talking about America first, saying of course it can happen here. And what she said—and again this I think is to Andrew's point about in some ways were more at risk now than we were in the 30s, which I agree with. What we need to note as well that there were, as he says, not only outright American fascist movements in the 30s, there was an American Nazi Party in 30s, which was approved by Hitler and Hess and became quite influential. It had big rallies in Madison Square Garden, and you can see some of the footage online. It’s really chilling—stormtroopers in Madison Square Garden and people giving the Nazi salute where, you know, a picture of George Washington is flanked by the swastika. And Dorothy Thompson went to one of those rallies and shouted “bunk,” which sounds funny, which of course means BS, right? But if you think about what it would mean to walk into a room full of 20,000 fascists as a woman and shout “BS” at the top of your voice, you actually get a sense of how gutsy she was. And one of the things she worried about over and over and over again was she said the question of whether fascism can come to the United States will be decided by conservative leaders as much as it will be decided by anything. She said if the conservative leaders decide that they would rather make common cause with fascists to defeat liberals, to defeat the Left, than to make common cause with the Left to defeat fascism, which is what happened in Europe, she said we will go down the same road as Europe. And in the 30s that's exactly what didn't happen in America. Well in the early 40s, partly of course because the Japanese did bomb Pearl Harbor, so that did create instantly that coalition. But it is what we're seeing now, is that clearly, the Republican Party has self-evidently made the decision that it will defeat the left at any cost. And if that means pandering to any number of white nationalists, you know these kind of very clear dog whistles, they will pander to extreme evangelical agendas, which Andrew knows a lot more about than I do, but is an incredibly important part of what an American fascism today would look like if it does indeed emerge. But that warning, which she says is, look it will depend on two things, whether America gets fascism. One is whether it can have a charismatic enough leader to lead the charge. Trump clearly is that. And second, as I say, whether the Conservatives will decide that it is more important to defeat the Left. And that's where we are right now. And I think that warning is what we really need to heed [40:05].
DAVID: I said at the beginning that fake news is also a phrase with a deep history, it comes out of this period—I mean it probably predated it, but people were using it because they were aware of the ways in which the news was being manipulated.
SARAH: It was the rise of propaganda at the same time.
DAVID: So you got someone like Dorothy Thompson, something that we have lost is those figures like her and Walter Lippman. They weren't just syndicated columnists in a fairly sparse news landscape. They had incredible reach. I mean how could anyone play that calling out, I love the fact, ‘it's bunk.’ Who's the debunker now? It's just in the space we’re in at the moment.
SARAH: You know I always say to my students, when I was growing up, Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America. Imagine a news anchor being the most trusted man in either America or Britain. And that is, I think, a real problem that we have. It's something I talk about in the book, that a lot of my sources in the story, most of my sources, are from American journalism of the time, the kind of first draft of history idea. And I wanted to go in and close read the first drafts of history to try to forget some of our received wisdoms that might have distorted our view retrospectively. And one of the things that comes out so clearly from doing that is that although Americans have different opinions about the facts they didn't have different facts. They didn’t in dispute what was happening, they just disputed what to do about it. And how we go back to that, I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows how we get back to that. And I don’t know any of the voices who would unite everybody, do you?
ANDREW: No, I wouldn’t be able to think of a person who would be able to command that space because the media landscape, and the landscape of political discourse and political culture, is just so fragmented and fractured that I’m not sure that that's possible anymore. I agree that you couldn't really have a Cronkite like figure.
DAVID: I think with Lippmann and Dorothy Thompson, they were loathed and reviled too—they weren't uniters. It was more that they were the authoritative voice of their side. It's that it's hard to imagine anyone who unites in a political landscape that's as divided then or now. But it's almost there aren’t two main voices on each side, or there aren't too many voices on Trump's side. He's kind of cornered his market. But on the other side, it is this case that the opposition to Trump doesn't have a leading voice.
SARAH: Not yet. I mean we’re a week before the midterms. So we’ll see what happens in the midterms. I think that's going to be a bellwether in a lot of ways. Whether that voice is a political figure, I don't know. Obviously we need a political leader to take the opposition to Trump. We need to, to put in my view—I mean I'm going to be very clearly partisan about this—I think he's doing an enormous amount of damage and he needs to be stopped. And we need somebody who can come in and stop him. I would happily vote for a Republican who would come in and stop him, but there doesn't seem to be one. So at the moment that leaves us with Democrats. But that voice that you're talking about is probably not a politician, if we can find such a voice, and again I don't know who it would be. But I think politics right now is so toxic that it's hard to imagine that that would be… If was going to be anybody would have been Obama. And he came close. He came as close as anybody, but then there is, you know, an enormous backlash that we’re still very much in the midst of.
ANDREW: And somebody like a Walter Lippman, a lot of people reviled him in his day, but he still had this legitimacy, he still had this cultural authority. I just I just don't see anybody today really being able to command that space, that even if you disagree with them passionately, you have to take them seriously. You have to take their ideas seriously. And there is a certain decorum and there's a certain… I mean American politics has always been incredibly vibrant and really fractious and really argumentative and really passionate and violent, but it's reached a stage today where somebody’s ability to command that space and really speak across the divide, and to have other people at least take this idea seriously… It seems to be something that's lost because of social media because of other new technologies and I'm not sure how it's ever going to be recovered.
DAVID: People have heard me talk about before on this podcast, and Sarah mentioned it—I have my doubts about the 1930s analogies, and I don't want to… I think it's great to hear this story because it is so compelling, but there is something that comes out of your book that really struck me. And I'm not in any sense trying to downplay the violence going on in America at the moment. Not just the events of the last few weeks but the routine violence that is inflicted on young African American men by the police state, which is what it is in various parts of the United States. But my God, the 1930s were more violent than now. And particularly the political violence—by political violence I mean the capacity of street politics to lead to killing, not to mention, as you touched on earlier, the racial violence which was a culture of lynching in which this wasn't just tolerated, it was celebrated in various places. And some of your descriptions are frankly unreadable of how horrific it was. I don’t think our world is that world. I think in many ways we've forgotten how relatively peaceful and secure our politics is, particularly the rhetoric of violence in our politics is as bad, and a lot of the comparisons are at the level of rhetoric, but the violence in the politics itself is nothing like that. So when people talk about this being the beginnings of the next American Civil War and so on, I just think whatever it is it isn't that.
SARAH: Well, I think for a country that calls itself the United States, America has always been as marked by division as by being united. And indeed as a as a literary historian I would say that the emphasis on the word “united” is itself symptomatic of how divided we are. We have to keep telling ourselves we are united to try to make it so. So those divisions are always there and only once has it erupted into outright military conflict, in the Civil War of the 1860s. We’re certainly as divided right now, politically—and in tribal terms, as people are talking about it now—as we have ever been. I’m not saying more divided, but as divided. But I tend to think we're in a kind of cold civil war at the moment, where it is very real and the fight is real, but it is mostly rhetorical, in the way that the Cold War was fought mostly, through rhetoric, through soft power, through influence, and not through military combat. But of course you know cold wars can head up as well. And so just because we're not seeing that level of violence… one of the reasons I go into… and I'm glad to hear they were unreadable… descriptions of atrocities that were committed in America in the first half of the 20th century, particularly lynchings, as you say, people tend to think of lynchings as kind of furtive hangings in the woods. And that was sometimes the case. Bbviously would be bad enough, I don’t mean that dismissively, but that would have been a kind outcome from many of the victims of lynching. We’re talking about people who were burned to death in front of crowds of 10,000, 20,000 people. We’re talking about torture, dismemberment, unspeakable torture. So I wanted that to be harrowing for a reason, which is to take this stuff seriously. Because if we think, ‘Oh the KKK is on the rise but, oh, what’s that going to amount to? Some harassment and some pointy hats, and that's a bit silly. Maybe they'll be burning some crosses on some lawns and that's objectionable. Nobody likes harassment. But come on, as you say, it’s just rhetoric and these things happen.’
No, because it is a slippery slope, and we've seen that in the two years since Trump took power, the way in which people feel legitimated and validated, and it's getting worse. It's not getting better. It is breaking out into real violence, into real violence that is condoned in too many parts of the American political conversation. Do I think tomorrow we're going to see a lynching with dismembering and torturing and 20,000 people? Of course I don't, but do I think that that is what some of these people would be willing to do if we keep moving in the direction that were moving? I don't know. My position is that I'm not prepared to give them a chance to find out. What I have seen from them makes me unwilling to trust them. And what I've seen from Trump makes me unwilling to trust him. I don't want to see how far he would go. I want to stop him before he can go any further.
DAVID: Andrew, do you think the cold civil war risks heating up? I think the cold civil war is a great phrase for this, but I still don't know, I think, what the heating up would look like, given it won't be the 20s or 30s or even actually the 60s and 70s.
ANDREW: [47:48] It's a great metaphor. The Cold War, at least between the US and the USSR, never led to a hot war. There were a lot of hot wars that were going on and the Cold War was actually a profoundly, incredibly violent era. But in terms of just the superpower attentions, the Cold War never became hot and that's because there was mutually assured destruction, and so each side knew that if it attacked the other side that it would lead to the destruction of both. And I'd like the Cold War/Civil War metaphor for in politics today but I’m not sure what the deterrent factor is, other than the state, as in the government, as in the police forces not tolerating any violence of any kind. And when it does happen, then, whatever the authorities think of whatever their politics are in play, the police move in and try and stop the violence and prevent violence from breaking out. And I’m sure that’s the only reason why American politics isn’t more violent than it was in the 20s or 30s, or it was in the 60s and early 70s. So if we are in a cold war/civil war, what will be the trigger? I’m not sure. I’m not sure what it would take more than what we've had in the last two years. The other thing I'd say is you can blame Donald Trump for a lot, and I do blame him for a lot. And his rhetoric and his political discourse as the head of state, as the chief executive, as the commander in chief, has been appalling over the last two years. And he has normalized and removed the restraints on a lot of political discourse that was considered beyond the pale. But these problems pre-date Trump. The polarization in America, the violence against minorities, especially African Americans, mass shootings against African Americans, pre-date Donald Trump. This isn't something that is going to go away if Donald Trump leaves office. And so Democrats who think that if they can take both houses of Congress, but even just the House of Representatives, and if the Mueller investigation turns up something that is incriminating that they can impeach Donald Trump, that this is going to somehow make American politics better and it's going to bring it back to a sort of neutral or a more normal space… I think it'll make things a lot worse in some ways. And so to get out of this mess—and if I had the answer then obviously I would be selling a million copies of a book that I would write on this and everyone would want to hear what I have to say on this—because there is no sort of single, one answer because I’m not sure how America is going to get out of this mess.
SARAH: No, I absolutely agree with that. And I think it’s important that when I say I want to stop Trump I don’t mean impeach him actually. When he was elected I thought I would want nothing more than to impeach him but I actually think that would be the worst possible outcome for the country right now. If we can muster a free and fair election and enough people believe that it’s a free and fair election, we need to remove him by the means that most Americans trust, which is the 2020 election. I must stop him in terms of the ways that are approved, which is to say a Congress that could begin to block him. And indeed we're seeing the resurgence of states’ rights, which is a really interesting and complex phenomenon. States’ rights have historically been used for illiberal purposes; they were used to fight federal attempts to combat white nationalism and racism and the things we've been talking about. But what that meant was that it embedded power in states’ rights and now we're seeing the reverse, where the federal government is trying to do increasingly illiberal things. State governments have the power to push back against Trump, so notably things like the Muslim ban was opposed not by individuals but by the state of Hawaii. You know, in sanctuary cities, example after example. So Trump can be blocked and can be thwarted legitimately by the means of the great embedded checks and balances which aren’t just the three coequal powers of government. But we’ll do better if those coequal branches of government start to stand up to him as coequals [51:08].
DAVID: I want to ask one last question and it comes out of what Andrew was saying. I'm not sure I agree that it's just the power of the American state that is holding the lid on this violence because I also think that the condition of the American people, for all the rhetoric that this is a country in ruins and so on, it's not. It's an incredibly prosperous secure and stable place for most Americans—not for the most vulnerable. But, as it were, for this civil war to kick off the non-vulnerable have to fight too. And I think actually among many Trump supporters I don’t think the incentive is there, I think they have too much to lose. What gives me pause is something Sarah said a lot earlier, which is if you go back to the 20s, America first it was partly riding the wave of the boom. And it was thought that—and it's absolutely there in Trump's rhetoric—by putting ourselves first, we're going to make money. And, okay ,the stock market’s had a wobbly couple of weeks but it's had a pretty good two years and a lot of Trump’s appeal as he presents it is ‘I’m putting America first and look at the results.’ Like, we are booming again. And soon, because it's just the law of nature almost, what goes up will come down. The boom will bust. That's the bit that scares me. And that’s where the 30s parallel gives me chills.
SARAH: Absolutely. And what I would say is that when we talk about the loss vulnerable and their support for Trump, in terms of the voting in 2016, the numbers don't actually bear that out. So people on an income of $30,000 or less, Clinton carried them by 10 points.
DAVID: I think we're agreeing. I'm saying that Trump supporters are affluent so they have a good reason not to use violence because they have too much to lose.
ANDREW: The Tea Party as well.
SARAH: So I guess the question is, if the Trump supporters who are comparatively affluent—all of Trump's supporters are comparatively affluent, whatever their perception of their own left behindedness may be. If they start to lose the money that Trump has promised them, I don't think violence ensues. I think getting rid of Trump ensues. I think that’s when he just loses his base, which is fine. So I don't wish a recession on anybody, but I think politically it would be the best outcome. Obviously I don't personally think that Trump is responsible for anything that's happened because he doesn't have policies and he doesn't have, you know, agendas. He just has instincts and impulses, and so right now that is working out well for him coincidentally and that's nice. And Wall Street likes that he's in charge and that he's lifting all the rules. But at some point, as you say, that that will bounce back. But I don't think that's going to lead to street violence. I think that's going to lead to people voting Trump out because then he's got no appeal whatsoever if he can’t make them rich.
DAVID: I’m glad that we flipped that. I’m glad that you told me why there is reason to be cheerful. Next week it is the midterms and we will be discussing them just after they've happened. The week after, it'll be Italy. My name's David Runciman and we've been talking politics.