In last Sunday’s Observer the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, placed President Trump into the same category as the European populists who are “using the same divisive tropes of the fascists of the 20th century to garner support”. Was he right to do so? Well, yes. But Donald Trump is also part of the story of American fascism and the American Dream.
Not the American Dream as originally set forth: 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, describes how this dream mutated over time firstly being reduced to a dream of opportunity, and finally to becoming a dream of the individualist pursuit of wealth.
Donald Trump’s slogan ‘America First’ has deep roots in American history. Sarah Churchwell traces its use from when it emerged in 1884 during trade wars with Britain – that certainly rings a bell - to the time when it mobilized voters in the 1916 Presidential campaign. It was thought so effective it was used by both candidates. According to Woodrow Wilson when he said America First, he did not mean beggar your neighbor but that the USA should taking the lead internationally. Wilson attempted to put his ideal into practice in the founding of the League of Nations. The League, intended by Wilson as a global body headed by the USA, was never ratified by Congress, and in the 1930s “America First”, acquiring some of its present meaning, became the popular expression of isolationism.
The deep and broad appeal of the words America First and the allied theme of Americanism was that their meaning for the public could encompass traditional and honourable themes of patriotism as well as those of racial bigotry and the assertion of white supremacy. America First was more than compatible with the views and racial violence of the Klu Klux Klan. Donald Trump inherits and promotes this ambiguity.
Sadiq Khan is right in making the link between the USA and Europe. Toxic ideologies are no respecter of geographical distances especially in the internet era. In the US mix of the 1930s the Friends of New Germany were active. On 17 May 1934, beneath a swastika banner, 20,000 people attended a rally in Madison Square Gardens. This was the overt face of American fascism. But fascism’s true and abiding American expression was, and remains, the promotion of fascist values under the cover of super-patriotic American slogans. Today’s European populist Parties finesse their own politics in a comparable way with varying degrees of sophistication.
Was Trump aware of this dark heritage of American politics when he set out on the campaign trail? Perhaps some of his advisers such as Steve Bannon knew their Right-wing political history. It doesn’t really matter. Extreme right-wing ideas have a way of sticking around for ages like chewing gum under furniture. There are striking parallels with former US political figures such as Huey Long and Charles Lindberg who gained national prominence in the 1930s. The ideas behind America First and Americanism were there to be discovered or re-invented. Just as America First Inc. emerged in 1934 as a reaction to Roosevelt’s New Deal, so today’s Trump’s version of America First is a response to the Obama presidency reacting to the 2008 financial crash, an economic crisis comparable in gravity to the Great Crash of 1929. Trump could win a second term on the slogan.
There is a great danger that the effectiveness in electoral terms of Trump’s first term will be underestimated and liberals’ hopes of his disillusioned supporters seeing sense will turn out to be a form of denial. Until our political systems have answers to the human consequences of Rust Belts, the problems of inequality and to the challenge of integrating immigrant communities, and until they can also respond to those part of the mass media that provide echo-chambers for extreme right-wing thinking, fascist tropes will have traction. Does this make Trump smarter than we like to think? Perhaps. More important, it makes him more dangerous.
The Mayor of London is not being deliberately contentious. We have our own values in London and they need asserting in the face of a foreign visitor who apparently likes straight talk. 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 by some aberration accidently got into power. America, Britain and the world have encountered this cluster of ideas before, resisted them, and lived to see another day. The current President of the United States is indeed a throwback to a dark past. This doesn’t solve the problem but it is an important insight.
But insights are not enough. Trump promises to hold the dominant elites to account. That, in a divided society, is the source of his appeal both in the US and in Britain. The same elites must now examine themselves and recognize how much they have contributed to an outcome with which they so strongly disapprove.
See TheArticle 04/06/2019 "Donald Trump is flirting with fascism. The Mayor of London is right to stand up to him"