I confess. I thought the appeal of Donald Trump was a worrying new political phenomenon akin to the wave of right-wing populism in Europe. But it has a long American pedigree, there is little new about it. What is new is the sheer scale of his success.
My excuse for a skewed perspective is that I lived in New York in the mid-1960s. Nearest the political surface was the civil rights movement: Selma, sirens up the east side after Martin Luther King was murdered, the ashen-face of the TV news presenter, and relief at the muted reaction in Haarlem. The huge, internationalist peace marches against the Vietnam war, different immigrant nationalities streaming to rallies through long caverns of skyscrapers, were full of hope and purpose. We expected radical change never anticipating America First, clamp-down on immigrants, and beggar your neighbour, contempt for the poor, white supremacy.
Naïve you may say. Yet the original American Dream was still alive. It had seen the light of day in The Epic of America written by the historian, James Truslow Adams in 1931: liberty, equality and justice ‘for all our citizens of every rank’ (my italics). Sarah Churchwell’s recent study Behold America: a History of America First and the American Dream charts how the content of this dream mutated over time to become a dream of opportunity, and finally to become the ultra-individualist pursuit of wealth through free-market capitalism.
Churchwell also chronicles use of America First as a mobilizing political slogan from its emergence in 1884, during trade wars with Britain, to its role as a presidential campaign slogan in 1916 by both candidates, and then to becoming the expression of the isolationism in the 1930s. For Woodrow Wilson America First did not mean beggar your neighbor, but indicated that the USA should take the lead internationally, which he attempted in founding the League of Nations - never ratified by Congress. The meaning of America First and the American Dream were transformed almost into the opposites of their original content.
The appeal and success of the slogans America First and its allied theme of Americanism was that their meaning could encompass traditional patriotism and racial bigotry as well as an assertion of white supremacy that overlapped with the extreme views of the Klu Klux Klan. Also in the mix during the 1930s were the Friends of New Germany. On 17 May 1934, 20,000 people attended a rally in Madison Square Gardens beneath a prominent swastika banner. This was the overt face of an American fascism. Though admittedly the mid-1930s lacked today’s hindsight of the full horrors of fascism to come. But fascism’s true American expression was, and remains, the promotion of fascist values under the cover of super-patriotic American slogans.
How much of this dark side of American politics was Trump aware of when he set out on the campaign trail? Perhaps some of his advisers such as Steve Bannon knew their history. It doesn’t really matter. Extreme right-wing ideas have a way of sticking around for a long time like chewing gum under furniture. There are striking parallels with former national figures such as Huey Long and Charles Lindberg. The ideology behind America First and Americanism was there to be discovered or re-invented. Just as America First Inc. emerged in 1934 as a reaction to Roosevelt’s New Deal, so the economic context of Trump’s America First is Obama’s presidency confronting an economic crisis comparable to the Great Crash of 1929.
There is a great danger that Trump will be underestimated and the supposition that disillusioned supporters will eventually see sense. Until our political systems have answers to the human consequences of Rust Belts, the problems of inequality and the challenge of integrating immigrant communities, the ideas found in extreme right-wing thinking will gain traction in the echo-chambers of the mass media and voting patterns. Does this make Trump smarter than we think? Perhaps. More important, it makes him more dangerous.
Before his visit to UK in July, it helps to set Donald Trump’s policies in an historical context, rather than simply dismissing him as some kind of a narcissistic sociopath who accidently got into power. America, Britain and the world have encountered this cluster of ideas before, resisted them, and lived to see another day. Sarah Churchwell has provided the evidence that the current President of the United States is a throwback to a dark past. This doesn’t solve the problem but it is an important insight.
But that is not enough. Trump promised to hold the dominant elites to account. That was an important part of his appeal. The elites must now examine themselves and recognize how much they have contributed to the shaming of America. The Republican Party knows full well that, as Mitt Romney said during the Trump campaign in 2016: ”He has neither the temperament nor the judgement to be President and his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill”. How right he was. The American Dream has become a nightmare.