I would be lying if I did not admit that one reaction I have had to the presidency of Donald Trump is a paranoid fear that he represents a new form of American fascism. I know I am not alone in that view.
Part of what makes Trump hard to understand is that he is not a normal Republican. He is something different and it is hard to peg that difference. He has often praised dictators. During the campaign, at one time or other, he praised Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Bashar al-Assad, Muammar Gaddafi, and Saddam Hussein. He retweeted Benito Mussolini. I would acknowledge though that it is hard to say he believes in anything including fascist ideology.
While there are certainly ways Trump is not like other famous fascist leaders, it is impossible to ignore his megalomaniacal, authoritarian, and racist tendencies. At the same time it would be wrong to look at him statically rather than as evolving. Like all past presidents, Trump’s presidency is subject to changing circumstances. What remains unclear is how Trump will respond to some as yet unforeseen crisis.
My own paranoid fear has been a scenario where a terrorist attack, a war, or some other disaster acts as a catalyst and justification for Trump to consolidate power and suspend rights previously taken for granted by Americans. The emergency would allegedly require greatly expanded executive powers to manage the public fear and terror.
Such a crisis could also be used as a vehicle to impose a speeded-up transformation of the economy more to the liking of the 1% – tax cuts, privatized services, cuts to social spending, and deregulation.
Manipulating terror is now a time-tested strategy in the authoritarian leader playbook as exemplified by Putin.
In her book, The Shock Doctrine, the writer, Naomi Klein, presents many examples of this type of scenario. For example, Klein looks at what happened in Chile after the military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. In that instance, the trauma of the coup acted to facilitate the political adjustment to sudden, dramatic changes pushed by Pinochet. Klein calls it shock treatment.
Real American fascism would likely include: suspension of freedom of the press, speech, and assembly; dissolution of opposing political parties; the end of checks and balances; no more due process of law; no right to a fair trial; and the arrest and imprisonment of activists hostile to the new regime.
Whatever the dramatic event or series of events that would shock the public, the process of becoming fascist is about removing obstacles to more centralized power.
The historical example that I have seen most cited to describe the process is the German Reichstag fire in February 1933. The Reichstag building housed the German parliament. No one ever learned who set the fire but the German Nazis used the fire as an excuse to suspend the rights of all German citizens.
In a very short time, the Nazis used the emergency to preventively detain political opponents including Jews, liberals, social democrats and leftists of all stripes. They arrested thousands on no specific charges. The security forces put many into Dachau concentration camp and disappeared others. Even in the early Nazi years, hundreds of labor leaders, leftists, and Jewish prisoners died in custody.
On March 23, 1933, a new Nazi-led parliament passed an enabling act which allowed Hitler to rule by decree. For the next twelve years until the end of World War II, Germany was a dictatorship and it remained in that state of emergency. The Reichstag fire had opened that door.
I would also mention the role of a German government campaign called Gleichschaltung which means “coordination” or “synchronization”. With astonishing speed, in an act of anticipatory obedience, many Germans willingly placed themselves under the Nazi rule and command. Almost overnight, millions fell in line.
The best dramatization of this type of coordination is the play Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco. In the 1930’s Ionesco had watched the growth of the fascist Iron Guard movement in Romania. He saw many former friends transform into vicious anti-semites. The Iron Guard was xenophobic, strongly nationalist, and it claimed all Jews were illegal immigrants in Romania. In the absurdist play, Ionesco had people turn into mindless, rampaging rhinoceros.
The coordination campaign was reflected in the new Nazi salute. By 1933, the expectation was that everyone would give the Hitler salute. The German public widely embraced the salute and people incessantly saluted each other.
I think it would be a mistake though to see German fascism as entirely sudden. Fascism evolved and worsened through multiple incremental steps, a cumulative radicalization.
Americans need to discard the notion that a fascist-type state could never happen here. Authoritarianism is very alive in the world. I expect many Americans have believed we were immune from the awful things that have happened elsewhere. It is an American conceit that somehow we are beyond history.
On the positive, we do have far stronger democratic institutions than existed in Germany. Also, the American people are more rebellious, have a stronger tradition of dissent and will not be so easily coordinated as evidenced by all the anti-Trump demonstrations since his election.
Still it is sobering to know how few people in Europe actually opposed the fascists during their rise. I have seen historians estimate that only 2% of the French population or 400,000 people engaged in armed resistance during the Occupation.
How will Americans respond if fascism becomes real here? I think that remains an open question.
I admire the honesty of the response of Toivi Blatt, a Holocaust survivor, when he was asked about the human response to fascism he saw. Blatt, who was a Polish Jew, saw his whole family die in Sobibor extermination camp. At the age of 16, he was one of 300 prisoners who participated in an uprising at Sobibor. 200 escaped. Of those, 150 were captured and killed. Blatt was one of 50 Sobibor prisoners who survived the war. After the war he moved to the United States. This is what Blatt had to say about his experience:
“People asked me “What did you learn?” and I think I’m only sure of one thing – nobody knows themselves. The nice person, on the street, you ask them, “Where is North Street?” and he goes with you half a block and shows you, and is nice and kind. The same person in a different situation could be the worst sadist. Nobody knows themselves. All of us could be good people or bad people in these situations. Sometimes when somebody is really nice to me I find myself thinking, “How will he be in Sobibor?”.”
These are uneasy times for those of us on the liberal/progressive side. Trump’s win was a devastating blow with an avalanche of awful consequences. It is painful to contemplate all the harm that will ensue. Revolted at the prospect of four years of Trump, many liberals and progressives are mesmerized at the Russia collusion story and whether we are watching Watergate II, ending in President Pence.
While the Trump show is perversely fascinating to watch, focus there misses a deeper political picture. In spite of what has seemed like increasingly favorable population demographics, Democrats nationally have been getting beaten badly.
The White House aside, Republicans now dominate state governments. They control both chambers in 32 states, including 17 with veto-proof majorities. Democrats control the legislature in just 13 states. Only 5 of these chambers have veto-proof majorities. Republicans control the governor’s office in 33 states and Democrats control 16 with 1 state having an independent governor supported by the Democrats.
By any objective standard, the Republicans have had extraordinary success. They control all branches of the government. Nationally, during the Obama presidency, the Democrats lost over 900 state legislative seats.
Beyond just the numbers is the further reality that the far right fringe has become a dominant faction in the Republican Party. The moderate Republican, denigrated as a RINO, is an endangered species. The Republican Party now aims to gut the government by wholesale elimination of federal programs, cutting taxes, removing regulation and shredding the safety net.
Democrats and progressives need to ask: how did we get to such a weak place? Reading the press and watching social media, you do not see much self-criticism or very deep analysis of how and why we have gotten clobbered from still shell-shocked Democrats.
No one likes to air dirty laundry. Also there seems to be a repetition compulsion to just keep doing what we have done – only do it harder. Rationalizations include: “we were close”; “the Russians”; “Jim Comey” etc. The truth is that with the notable exception of the presidency of Barack Obama, we have been getting our asses kicked in much of the country.
I do not think most liberals or progressives have a good grasp on the scope or depth of what we are up against. I would acknowledge that picture is hard to see and for a good reason: much has been hidden from the public. Secrecy is part of the brilliance of the design.
The arch-conservative billionaires have been spending an almost limitless fortune for a generation to create what has been called a “fully integrated network”. In the aftermath of the Citizens United decision, this spending further accelerated. By joining forces, these billionaires have advanced an extreme strain of conservative politics which serves their bottom line, the public be damned.
In her brilliant book, Dark Money, which is a model of investigative journalism, Jane Mayer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, exposes the extreme right wing billionaire methodology and agenda.
A central part of this story is the role of Charles and David Koch, the infamous Koch brothers. Moving from the right wing netherworld of the John Birch Society to the heart of the Republican Party, they have been key political operators in building what has been called the Kochtopus. They have subsidized think tanks, created academic programs, hired a flotilla of lobbyists, financed legal groups and advanced political front groups and operatives. Using the guise of philanthropy and being ever mindful of secrecy, they have created a private political machine which Mayer correctly says threatens to subsume the Republican Party.
In doing this, they invented a right wing universe of jobs and career opportunities for their wannabees. Think Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Federalist Society, Americans for Prosperity, State Policy Network and American Legislative Exchange Council and that is just for starters.
Of course, the Kochs did not build this remarkable structure alone. Other hugely wealthy people have been on board. Mayer names Richard Mellon Scaife, an heir to the Mellon banking and Gulf oil fortunes; Henry and Lynde Bradley, who made a fortune through defense contracts, John C. Olin, a chemical and munitions firm owner; the Coors family of Colorado brewers; and the DeVos family, founders of Amway.
Together, over a period of almost 50 years, they have raised billions of dollars toward their goal of an America modeled on the Gilded Age before the FDR presidency. They aim to dismantle every safety net and government program created for workers, the elderly, the poor, the disabled, and the environment while obliterating all campaign finance law. These folks think big. Their vision is rapacious Social Darwinism, a you-are-on-your-own society with greed as the highest value.
Doubters might consider the current example of environmental protection and the evisceration of the EPA. As Mayer points out, coal, oil and gas companies form the nucleus of the Koch donor network. These companies are major funders of the campaign to deny scientific findings about global warming. It is no accident Trump picked Scott Pruitt, a notorious climate change denier, to head the EPA. That was a gift to the Koch brothers and the fossil fuel industry. Through funding cuts and the elimination of programs, EPA is being reduced to a shell of its former self.
Duplicate that model throughout the whole government and you will have an idea what the Kochs and their allies are up to.
I expect some may respond that the Democrats have their billionaires too. One could legitimately cite George Soros or Tom Steyer. However, the sides are not symmetrical. The overwhelming billionaire money is on the Republican side and it has long been that way.
The Republicans represent the billionaire class and that class does not need two political parties to represent it. I would suggest that if your goal is to collect billionaire funders, the Democrats cannot compete on that turf and they would be barking up the wrong tree even to try. In this area, the campaign of Bernie Sanders pointed in the right direction.
So what are liberals and progressives to do?
To use the immortal words of Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn, organize!”. It is the 99% against the 1%. They have the money but potentially we have the numbers. We can learn from the systematic, long-term perspective and institution-building adopted by the Kochs. They don’t quit when they lose. Politics is a life-long engagement. The fact that we have been beaten badly should be seen as just one round in a fifteen round bout.
Liberals and progressives can come back. The womens’ marches show both the energy and the enthusiasm is there. Progressives need to do better in speaking respectfully and empathetically to all kinds of people outside their enclaves. The superiority of the progressive vision is that it can speak to the needs and humanity of all Americans.
All the money in the world does not change the fact that the Kochs and their Republican allies are wedded to a selfish vision of oligarchy that will ultimately immiserate the majority of Americans while being an environmental time bomb for the planet.
Being very hard on immigrants was one of Donald Trump’s campaign promises. He said, ” I will deport illegal immigrants so fast, I will make your head spin.” I would have to say that in scapegoating immigrants and in fear-mongering, Trump has exceeded expectations.
When he was running for President, Trump promised he would deport violent criminals, gang members, and drug dealers, the people he described as “bad hombres”. Since he became President, he vastly expanded who qualifies as a bad hombre. Now undocumented immigrants can get deported for almost any criminal violation.
Trump has directed the full force of the government to find, arrest, and deport undocumented immigrants, regardless of whether they have committed serious crimes.
Probably the story that has generated the most publicity is the deportation of Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos. Garcia came to the United States with her parents at age 14. She had lived in Arizona for over 20 years. She has two children, both U.S. citizens by birth.
In 2008, then-Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio organized a raid on Garcia’s work site, an amusement park where she was part of the cleaning crew. Garcia had worked there for 10 years. To get the job, she had made up a Social Security number.
State prosecutors persuaded Garcia to sign a plea agreement on a felony charge of criminal impersonation. She served 90 days in a federal detention facility but was allowed to remain in the country on supervised release. Every year she faithfully checked in at the Phoenix Immigration, Customs and Enforcement (ICE) office. She did that for 8 years.
In her first check-in under the Trump Administration, she ended up detained and then deported back to Nogales, Mexico. The fact that she had two U.S. born children and she had an otherwise clean record for over 20 years did not stop her deportation.
Then there is the story of Roberto Beristain, who came to the United States in 1998 to visit an aunt. He ended up staying, meeting his future wife and starting a family. He lived in Indiana. In 2000, he came to the attention of immigration authorities when he and his wife made a trip to Niagara Falls. At the time, they accidentally crossed the border into Canada.
Immigration agents discovered Beristain was undocumented. Although he was ordered to leave, he never did. Immigration authorities placed Beristain in a supervised status. He had checked in with ICE once a year for the last 17 years. ICE agents helped Beristain obtain a driver’s license, a work permit and a legal Social Security number. Beristain went to work in the restaurant business at a steak house in Granger, Indiana. In January, he actually became a co-owner of the restaurant.
When Beristain checked in with ICE in February this year, he was detained. He has appealed but he is now being held at a detention center in Wisconsin. Beristain’s wife had voted for Trump. She was quoted: “Trump did say the good people would not be deported…”
Gerardo Marinez-Morales, a 52 year-old man who had lived near Houston was deported on March 17. Martinez-Morales had lived in the United States for almost 20 years. He married a U.S. citizen and he has four U.S. born children under the age of 12.
In 2004, Martinez-Morales returned to Mexico to see family. When he returned, immigration authorities arrested him for crossing illegally at the Texas border. That set in motion his deportation order. Martinez-Morales returned to the Houston area where he lived uneventfully until this March when the police pulled him over for a broken tail light. The immigration authorities deported Martinez-Morales one week after his detention.
The Obama Administration had allowed people living in the U.S. illegally with no criminal record to stay in the country even if they had a deportation order that predated January 1, 2014. Under the Trump regime, people like that are now a priority for removal. As is apparent, Trump and his agents are ripping families apart without concern for the human consequences.
Compounding the harm, Trump is promoting a propaganda campaign against immigrants. In his speech to Congress, Trump announced the creation of a new federal program called VOICE, an acronym that stands for Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement. The purpose of VOICE is to publish information about crimes committed by immigrants.
As a matter of public policy, VOICE flies in the face of rationality. Innumerable studies show immigrants are less likely to commit serious crime than the native-born. In fact, high rates of immigration are actually associated with lower crimes rates, including violent crime rates. Singling out immigrants this way is simply immigrant bashing.
This is sadly reminiscent of a Nazi practice used against the Jews. The Hitler government publicized Jewish crime statistics as a way to drum up anti-semitism. Nazi newspapers published reader accounts of Jewish crimes. The historian Saul Friedlander, a Holocaust expert, has written that until 1938, Hitler’s Ministry of Justice ordered prosecutors to forward every criminal indictment against a Jew so that the government’s press office could publicize it. VOICE is in this tradition.
Needlessly cruel, legally questionable deportations and hateful propaganda should be beneath the office of an American president. By stigmatizing immigrants, Trump is trying to shift blame from his own failures. Immigrants are a convenient scapegoat.
Senate Bill 7, a Republican-sponsored bill that would significantly reduce the number of people who can receive food stamps in New Hampshire, has passed the New Hampshire Senate on a party-line vote. Given the Republican majority in both Houses, it is expected the bill will pass and Governor Sununu will sign it.
The bill is mean-spirited, callous, and without any sense of compassion. I think it is likely to increase hunger and malnutrition in our state. The bill is expected to deprive 17,000 low-income families with children of food stamps. This is literally taking food from the mouths of poor children.
When these families lose their benefits, their food need will not stop. That is one thing that can be said with certainty.
When low-income people have food stamps, they can spend the money they do have on other basic needs like housing or utilities. Without food stamps, precious dollars have to go to food, leaving less for other essential expenses. With inadequate cash, the question becomes where does remaining money go: housing, utilities, medication, school expenses, clothes or child care? Where is the most compelling need, all things considered? It can be a Sophie’s choice.
Right now food stamps is probably the most important public benefit reaching masses of people in the United States. It is so short-sighted to cut this program. Food stamps is a bulwark against hunger, malnutrition and absolute destitution. By leaving available income for other needs, food stamps actually protect against utility shutoffs, evictions and homelessness.
Contrary to conservative fantasy world, great numbers of food stamp recipients are working but they are not making enough money to pay all basic expenses. Yet that does not stop some conservatives from calling food stamp recipients “welfare slaves”. You have to wonder what happened to the moral sense that no one should go hungry.
The program is not perfect and there is some fraud but it remains the most effective and targeted public benefit ever devised in the United States.
New Hampshire had opted for a slightly more generous income and assets test that allows more families to obtain food stamps but any generosity for low-income families is apparently too much.
Hunger and malnutrition aside, Senate Bill 7 is fiscally stupid, downshifting costs from the federal government to cities and towns. 100% of food stamp benefits are paid by federal funds. If people lose their federal benefits, they have the right to go to their home city or town for help and those cities and towns must assist under our local welfare law.
Of course, many probably will not go to local welfare for different reasons (including lack of awareness about the local welfare legal obligation) but if they do, the law mandates cities and towns to “relieve and maintain”. Food need falls squarely within the mandate of local welfare law.
Senate Bill 7 is a direct hit on the local taxpayer but the bill’s sponsors avoid that fact. They talk airily about promoting freedom – freedom from food, actually. They also talk about work requirements. They seem to forget that the Food Stamp program already incorporates work requirements.
There is unintentional irony in this bill. Republicans invoke Hew Hampshire values and state’s rights but this bill is anything but a New Hampshire bill. The bill is forcing the state to adopt a federal asset test. New Hampshire has long had a state waiver which gives the state more flexibility to respond to changing economic circumstances.
Readers of the Monitor may have seen the March 3 letter to the editor from Mary Anne Broshek of Andover. Broshek, who is a genuine expert on food stamps (she was in charge of eligibility at the Department of Health and Human Services for many years) certainly did not see Senate Bill 7 as a New Hampshire bill. She wrote that the bill prohibited state flexibility and sought to solve a problem that does not exist.
She also pointed out that the Republican bill sponsor, Sen. Avard, co-wrote the bill with a lobbyist representing a conservative group pushing similar measure in statehouses around the country. The lobbyist outfit, the Foundation for Government Accountability, is a right wing think tank based in Naples Florida. The bill template for Senate Bill 7 was lifted from a template on their web site with room for fill-in-the-blanks.
The Foundation for Government Accountability is a member of the State Policy Network, a coalition of groups that pressure for a hard right wing agenda in statehouses nationwide. It has close ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the billionaire-funded organization of Koch Brothers fame, dedicated to free market fundamentalism.
In her brilliant book of investigative reporting, Dark Money, Jane Mayer unmasks the role of many groups like the Foundation for Government Accountability. Over a period of the last 50 years or so, ultra right wing billionaires have created a powerful network of well-funded think tanks to protect the interests of the 1% and to push radical right wing policies and legislation. They are about overturning all the protections created for working people since the New Deal.
By any objective measure, the right wing has been extraordinarily successful in gaining control of statehouses across America. Republicans now dominate state governments. They control both chambers in 32 states, including 17 with veto-proof majorities. Democrats control the legislature in just 13 states. Only 5 of those chambers have veto-proof majorities. Republicans control the governor’s office in 33 states and Democrats control 16 with 1 state having an independent governor supported by the Democrats.
I would submit that the powerful network created by the billionaire class has had much to do with the Republican success. I do not think liberals and progressives appreciate the scope and depth of this network which has been deliberately hidden by the Kochs and their super-rich allies. Mayer, who writes for the New Yorker, lays it out in Dark Money. I think the book is required reading for Democrats and progressives. Democrats do not have anything that remotely matches up against this juggernaut.
We should not see Senate Bill 7 outside the context of a national effort to shred the safety net. The billionaires are making a concerted effort in all states to take away working class gains. Whether it is Steve Bannon talking about deconstructing the administrative state or Grover Norquist saying he wants to reduce the size of government to the size where it can drown in a bathtub, the vision is the same.
President Trump’s budget is a defining document of the ultra-right wing vision. It is a search and destroy mission for almost any federal program that helps low-income and working people. Whether it is Meals on Wheels, Legal Services Corporation, Corporation for National and Community Service (Americorps), School Breakfast and Lunch, Community Development Block Grants, U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Weatherization, or Low Income Home Energy Assistance, Trump wants to zero them all out.
It is no exaggeration to say Trump’s budget is an act of class war where the billionaires bludgeon working people. Trump is spitting in the face of his working class supporters. He is showing himself to be the huckster and con man many suspected he would be. He fancies himself like Andrew Jackson but he is more like P.T. Barnum. Bills like Senate Bill 7 and the Trump budget are designed to drive millions more into extreme poverty and hopelessness.
When Senate Bill 7 was in front of the New Hampshire Senate, Republicans pushed an amendment that passed. Instead of affirmatively cutting 17,000 families off immediately, they gave the Joint Health and Human Services oversight committee the right to do it. Speaking on the senate floor, Senator Dan Feltes of Concord gave the perfect response:
“In the words of Ann Richards, ‘you can put lipstick on a pig and name it Monique it’s still a hog'”.
Senate Bill 7 is soulless and needlessly cruel. It flies in the face of what we know about increasing economic inequality and it will only make that inequality worse.
In understanding racism in America, we have paid insufficient attention to xenophobia. Fear and irrational dislike of people from other countries has a long tradition in America. Even though we are a nation of immigrants, episodes of xenophobia have kept recurring.
Trump’s travel ban on refugees and nationals from seven (now six) Muslim-majority countries as well as his threats to deport millions is not an aberration in American history. It is only the latest example of a long-standing historical pattern.
Going back in American history, nativists and white supremacists have long had an obsession about screening out and deporting those perceived as “undesirables “. Trump is just the latest incarnation.
In the 19th century, proponents of Manifest Destiny, the belief that settlers were destined to expand across North America, often argued the superiority of white Europeans over Indians, Blacks, Mexicans, and Chinese. Although the history is obscured and forgotten today, eugenics was behind much of the racist ideology.
Racists saw ethnic mixing as leading to degeneration, a big 19th century concern. Newspapers and periodicals of the time frequently ran articles arguing against race-mixing. There was much discussion of selective breeding as a means to improve the human stock.
Some scientists of the mid-19th century expressed concerns about inferior stock polluting the nation’s racial order. For example, Dr. Josiah Nott, a southern surgeon and phrenologist, advocated the need for eugenics to keep the white race pure. To quote Nott in 1844:
“Whenever in the history of the world the inferior races have been conquered and mixed in with the Caucasian, the latter have sunk into barbarism.”
Slavery and 19th century racism relied heavily on pseudo-scientific justifications. I think racism based on fraudulent science was also the ideological backdrop for the nativism and xenophobia that characterized our later 19th century immigration policy. From the 1880’s through the 1940’s, racist, restrictive immigration policies became a norm.
In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This was the first act to restrict entry of a specific ethnic group. The law prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the United States for ten years under penalty of imprisonment and deportation.
Prejudice against the Chinese was widespread especially in the West Coast states. Whites could rob, beat, and murder Chinese people with impunity. Anti-Chinese riots and lynchings were part of the picture. Many Americans saw the Chinese as taking their jobs.
While Chinese workers were widely seen as reliable and willing to work without complaint, they were scapegoated by politicians for allegedly depressing wages. Economic depressions and the desperation of working people created fertile soil for racist demagoguery.
Many Americans of varied political stripes saw the Chinese as an unassimilable race. There was a popular belief the Chinese were dirty and carried germs and disease. The Chinese were victims of a national phobia, the Yellow Peril. Sadly, there were few public voices who spoke out against the virulent anti-Chinese racism.
The Chinese Exclusion Act remained in effect for 61 years until President Franklin Roosevelt led the effort to repeal it. Chinese-Americans had their own Jim Crow-like experience where they were subject to discriminatory laws and practices. That harm is rarely acknowledged.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the Japanese experience as well. From the start, the immigration of Japanese also met with a negative response. Nativists feared Japanese immigration. Like the Chinese, Japanese people were segregated and denied employment, except for menial jobs. Most western states passed legislation forbidding intermarriage between Asiatics and Caucasians.
While the history deserves far deeper treatment, I did not want to ignore the Japanese-American internment. This is one of the most spectacular examples of xenophobia in American history. Under an Executive Order issued on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the forced relocation and incarceration of Japanese-Americans into camps. 62% of the internees were American citizens. Nearly 130,000 Japanese-Americans were incarcerated. This action came in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
It is now widely recognized that the Japanese-American internment was a product of racism and not justified by any military necessity.
The Chinese and the Japanese were certainly not the only victims of xenophobia. In the early 20th century, xenophobia reemerged prominently in regard to other regions. A series of three laws highlight the trend. In 1917 Congress passed an Immigration Act which imposed a literacy test on immigrants. The law barred not only those unable to read, it also excluded “feeble-minded persons”, “idiots”, “epileptics”, “anarchists”, and all immigrants from Asia.
Shortly after in 1921 and 1924 Congress passed an Emergency Quota Act and the Johnson-Reed Act to limit the flow of immigrants into the country. The Johnson-Reed Act limited the quota to 2% of the total immigrants from a given country living in the United States in 1890.
The law aimed at greatly reducing immigration of Southern Europeans and Eastern Europeans, especially Italians and Eastern European Jews. From the late 19th century to 1920, there had been a huge increase in Jewish immigration from Russia and Eastern Europe, in part, to escape pogroms.
The explicit purpose of the Johnson-Reed Act was “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity”. Immigration restrictionists sought to maintain the racial preponderance of native-born Americans. Also, in the aftermath of the Russian revolution in 1917, the Red Scare of 1919 raised fears about foreign radicals importing revolution.
As was true with racism against Chinese and Japanese immigrants, anti-semitism relied on contradictory stereotypes about Jews. Stereotypes ran the gamut. Jews were both money-grubbing capitalists and Bolshevik revolutionaries. In the period before World War II, anti-semitism in America was far more accepted than it is now.
The Johnson-Reed Act ultimately succeeded in tremendously reducing Southern European and Eastern European immigration, especially that of Jewish people. But now we can see the cost and the tragedy. The law acted to prevent millions of refugees from escaping the Holocaust. People could not get out of Europe when they needed to. The United States was not alone among countries in closing the gates. Many millions needlessly perished in the Nazi death camps and gas chambers. The Johnson-Reed Act proved catastrophic.
Though it is not widely known, Anne Frank was denied immigration to the United States twice. Her father, Otto Frank, appealed to the Roosevelt Administration. FDR refused. Anne Frank died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
It is hard to ignore the historical parallels with our current period. Refugees seeking to escape the war in Syria and undocumented immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are in a similar desperate situation to people who wanted out of Europe in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. They are running for their lives.
In his view of the world, President Trump has dehumanized and criminalized the category of refugee. He sees refugees as potential terrorists – not as people trying to escape desperate situations. In his stereotyping, he is Xenophobe-in-Chief. What he is doing with Syrian refugees is no different than what earlier racists did against the Chinese, Japanese, and the Jews.
Just for the record, I would note that far more could be said about our xenophobic history, particularly actions against Latinos. It would be wrong not to mention the Mexican Repatriation.
James Baldwin once wrote:
“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”
Xenophobia is as American as cherry pie. Trump fits right in. It is late in the game for any pollyanna views of our history.
In his comments about Black history month, President Trump raised many eyebrows when he spoke about Frederick Douglass. Trump said:
“Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”
It is not clear whether Trump knew that Douglass had died over 120 years ago.
Contrary to President Trump’s statement that Frederick Douglass is being recognized more and more, the truth is that Douglass was far more famous in the 19th century than he is today. He is someone who has faded from historical memory. I would be surprised if many Americans know about Douglass’s contributions to American life.
Because he is arguably one of the greatest Americans ever, more needs to be said about who Douglass was and what he accomplished in his life.
Douglass was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland in 1817. His father was a white man but Douglass never learned his identity. His mother worked as a slave on a plantation twelve miles away. As happened to Douglass, the slaveholders forcibly separated children from their mothers at a very young age. Douglass only saw his mother four or five times in his life. In his first autobiography, he wrote:
“She made her journeys to see me in the night, travelling the whole distance on foot, after the performance of her day’s work. She was a field hand, and a whipping is the penalty of not being in the field at sunrise…I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day. She was with me in the night. She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked, she was gone.”
Douglass’s mother died when he was seven years old. He was not allowed to be present during her illness, her death or her burial.
In his writing, Douglass presents a vivid picture of slavery.
“I was seldom whipped by my old master, and suffered little from anything else than hunger and cold. I suffered much from hunger, but much more from cold. In hottest summer and coldest winter, I was kept almost naked – no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, no trousers, nothing on but a coarse tow linen shirt reaching only to my knees. I had no bed. I must have perished with cold, but that, the coldest nights, I used to steal a bag which was used for carrying corn to the mill. I would crawl into this bag, and there sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in and my feet out. My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.”
While still very young, Douglass’s owner moved him to a new master who lived in Baltimore. The new mistress of the household had never had a slave under her control before. She taught Douglass the beginnings of how to read. When her husband found out, he forbade learning. It was unlawful, and considered unsafe, to teach a slave to read.
It was that love of learning which inspired Douglass.
“Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.”
Douglass’s greatness was not just that he overcame slavery personally; it was that even after his own misfortune he dedicated himself to the liberation of all oppressed people. His literacy and his developing eloquence were foundational. Douglass became a journalist, an author, and a renowned, powerful orator. He composed the narrative of his life in his autobiographies and he exposed slavery as a nightmarish crime. He often said: “Knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.”
At age 20, after two failed attempts, Douglass escaped to freedom with the help of his future wife, Anna Murray, a free Black woman. Prior to that, Douglass had been turned over to a man named Edward Corey, a professional “Negro-breaker”. Forced to work in the worst weather conditions, whipped regularly, starved almost to death, Douglass reached the breaking point. Physically attacked again by Corey, Douglass fought back and scared the master so much he never flogged Douglass after that.
Douglass escaped slavery by dressing in a sailor’s uniform and by travelling under an assumed identity. He boarded a train in Baltimore, later took a steamboat, and made his way to a safe house in New York City. He later moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts where he went to work as a free man.
Shortly after arriving in New Bedford, Douglass connected with the abolitionist movement. He subscribed to the Liberator, the anti-slavery paper edited by William Lloyd Garrison, and he started attending abolitionist meetings. After he was asked to speak, Douglass quickly overcame his nervousness. His speeches recounting his experiences as a slave electrified audiences. In little time Douglass became a full-time lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.
Although many at that time considered it an impossibility, Douglass set out to destroy slavery and free the African American people. Working cooperatively with white abolitionists, he stressed common humanity and an egalitarian outlook. He was an early supporter of women’s rights. Douglass saw himself as building on the revolutionary legacy of the Founding Fathers.
His anti-slavery speeches were dangerous events. As he travelled around the northern states, he was frequently accosted by slavery supporters and on several occasions he narrowly escaped death. At a lecture in Indiana an angry mob chased and beat him. Douglass suffered a broken hand. A local Quaker family rescued him.
Becoming more well known and still fearful of recapture, in 1845 Douglass went to England, Scotland, and Ireland on a lecture tour. He ended up spending two years there, giving many lectures in churches and chapels. He was a huge draw. It was at that point Douglass’s fame exploded. Douglass’s British admirers raised funds to buy his freedom from his American owner.
When Douglass returned to the United States in 1847 he created and published his own abolitionist newspaper, the North Star. In the paper, he argued the case for women’s rights. In 1848, Douglass was the only African American attendee at the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention held in the United States. He spoke in support of a resolution for women’s suffrage.
In 1855, Douglass, along with John Brown, helped to found the Radical Abolition Party. The party platform included: immediate and universal emancipation; full suffrage for all Americans, regardless of sex or race; redistribution of land so that no one would be rich and no one poor; and violent intervention against slavery.
While he could be pragmatic, Douglass remained a radical for the rest of his life. After the start of the Civil War, Douglass campaigned against President Lincoln’s ultra-cautious approach to the slavery question. Before the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass argued passionately for the freedom of slaves and for the inclusion of Black soldiers in the Union forces.
After the Civil War, Douglass was in the forefront of the fight to allow Black people to vote. He helped passage of the Republican-sponsored 15th Amendment to the Constitution which certified the right of Black men to vote. While he remained a Republican, Douglass worked to shift the Republican Party in a more pro-Black and progressive direction.
Later in his life, with racism resurgent in America, Douglass spoke out against the appalling rise in the number of lynchings of Black men. Douglass railed against the failure of Reconstruction. He had envisioned a vastly more open America that belonged to all and transcended race, religion, gender, class, and national origin divisions.
It is truly ironic that Donald Trump would try and use Frederick Douglass to highlight Black History. No two figures could be more different. Douglass suffered enormously, deeply valued reading and learning and wanted an inclusive, more democratic America. He consistently favored more voting rights, workers’ rights, and immigrants’ rights. Trump grew up in the lap of luxury, is not a reader, and has a vision of exclusion. If Douglass was alive now, I can only imagine what he would say about President Trump.
Why Use of the Slogan “America First” is Tone-Deaf to History – posted 2/13/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 2/22/2017
In his inaugural address, President Donald Trump made a big point of describing his foreign policy approach as “America First”.
“We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power, from this day forward, a new vision will govern our land, from this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first.”
The problem I have with the phrase is that Trump and his supporters are tone-deaf to its history. “America First” was the slogan used by Nazi-friendly Americans in the 1930’s. In the period immediately before World War II, the America First Committee opposed fighting Nazism.
America First has a sordid history. Before Pearl Harbor, the movement resisted America’s entry into World War II. It advocated neutrality toward the Germans, arguing that they were unlikely to invade the United States. Harshly critical of President Franklin Roosevelt, America First was blatantly anti-semitic and promoted appeasing Hitler.
When asked about his use of the phrase by the New York Times’ David Sanger, Trump brushed off any historical parallel. He said,
” To me, America First is a brand-new modern term. I never related it to the past.”
It remains unclear how much Trump knows about the history of the phrase although he told the New York Times he was familiar with it.
The Anti-Defamation League has asked Trump to refrain from using the slogan.
I do believe that if Americans were more aware of the history around America First, they would urge Trump to reject it. Superficially this slogan sounds good but the history is toxic. That is true not just for Jewish Americans but for all Americans who are opposed to fascism, racism and authoritarianism.
America First blamed Jews for conspiring to pressure the government to join World War II against the interests of America. Knowing what we know now about the Holocaust, the actions of America First can be seen as what they were: appalling collaboration with the German fascists.
The history deserves review. Starting in the early 1930’s, media kingpin William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day, began using the slogan “America First”. Hearst hated President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Hearst saw the New Deal as “un-American to the core”. He hailed the Nazis as winning great victories for “liberty-loving people” everywhere.
In America, before World War II, there was a surprising amount of support and good will toward the Nazis. In part, that reflected popular acceptance of anti-semitism in American life.
At its peak, the American First Committee had 800,000 members across the country, including a number of very famous people. Future President Gerald Ford, future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and industrialist Henry Ford were all part of the America First Committee.
Probably the most famous member was the aviator Charles Lindbergh. He became the committee’s principal spokesman. In 1938, Lindbergh received the Grand Service Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle, Germany’s highest honor, from Herman Goering. The award was given “in the name of the Fuehrer”. The only other American to receive the award was Henry Ford.
The American First Committee was dogged by charges of anti-semitism. Henry Ford and Avery Brundage sat on its executive committee. The auto magnate was a vicious anti-semite. Ford financially supported the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous anti-semitic tract. In the early 1920’s he wrote a four volume set of pamphlets titled The International Jew. Every week for 91 issues he exposed what he saw as some Jewish-inspired evil. He later wrote a regular newspaper column obsessively focused on attacking Jews that was called The International Jew: The World’s Problem. Ford is the only American mentioned, and mentioned positively, in Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
Brundage, former chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, opposed a boycott of Germany in 1936 because he believed there was a Jewish-Communist conspiracy to keep the United States out of the Berlin Games. When the Games were held, Brundage prevented the only two Jews on the Olympic team from competing in the 400-meter relay. He did not want to offend the Nazis.
While other leaders of America First denied they were anti-semitic, Lindbergh laid his cards on the table. In a speech he gave in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 11, 1941, he warned that Jews were a dangerous enemy. He pointed to Jews’ “large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government”.
Nazi supporters like Lindbergh argued that Jews in the United States spread falsehoods about Germany to push America into a war of revenge from which they would benefit financially.
America First only folded after the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s engagement against the Axis powers.
If he had an awareness of history, Trump would understand that use of the slogan “America First” is offensive. America First has a history laced with anti-semitism.
For someone who always reminds us what a great mind he has, Trump has not demonstrated an appreciation of history. Many made fun of his lack of awareness that Frederick Douglass is no longer with us but the deeper tragedy is that he is profoundly ignorant of American history. People can argue about it but Frederick Douglass is one of the most outstanding Americans ever. It is beyond sad that we have a president who is clueless about such an important figure in our own history.
I do not see the fact that Trump has a Jewish son-in-law as inoculation against anti-semitism and bigotry. Considering his own racism and his support from white supremacists, Trump’s insensitivity to anti-semitism is not surprising. Still, he should not be using the slogan “America First”. The historical echo is very bad karma.