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Xenophobia has, unfortunately, played a significant role in American history. Both World Wars I and II were followed by post war Red Scares that fostered discrimination and distrust of racial minorities, immigrants, and political dissidents questioning the status quo and advocating change. These reactionary times destroyed the lives and careers of many Americans, but in the final analysis the nation was able to withstand attacks on freedom with our institutions relatively intact.

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Demagogue-in-Chief: Lessons of History—Ron Briley

The storm this time may be different as the post war reactions lacked charismatic leaders to rally a fearful citizenry. Joseph McCarthy may have earned a noun in the English language for his willingness to demonize his victims while offering no evidence beyond hearsay and innuendo, but McCarthy had no sense of charisma or awareness of how to employ the emerging television media. This is hardly the case with Donald Trump whose rhetoric and demagoguery enjoy a national stage and sometimes seem to whip his emotional followers into an unruly lynch mob.

Following the First World War, Americans were terrified of the changes unleashed by the war. The global conflict helped to foster the Great Migration as many black Americans departed the South in search of defense industry jobs in the industrial North. This migration hastened back economic development and frightened many vulnerable whites. The result was a series of race riots across the nation in cities such as East St. Louis, Chicago, and Tulsa, Oklahoma in which blacks were attacked by white mobs. The Great Migration also encouraged the Ku Klux Klan to expand its focus and become a national organization with thousands of hooded Klansmen marching down the streets of the nation’s capital.

As a national organization, the post-World War I Klan was also concerned with the “new immigration” from Southern and Eastern Europe whom they perceived as violent threats to American order, jobs, and culture, and who would be unable to assimilate. These fears were also stoked by images of the Bolshevik Revolution coming to America’s shores. There was a terrorist bombing on Wall Street and an attack upon Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. The response of the government was to pass the Immigration Act of the 1924 that imposed a quota system that discriminated against immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.

Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested for a payroll robbery and murder in Massachusetts, and their trial was conducted in an atmosphere of xenophobic fervor that focused upon their anarchist beliefs and resulted in the convictions and executions of the two men despite international protest. The government also took advantage of an intolerant environment to crush indigenous radicals in organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World and Socialist Party which enjoyed considerable prewar influence in states such as Oklahoma.

The state also pushed for the removal of immigrants whose politics were suspect, but these deportations played an important role in the formation of the American Civil Liberties that pushed back against the post war reaction. The extremism of the early post war years settled into the conservative business values of Presidents Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover who preferred stability and Coolidge’s observation that the “business of America is business” over rabble rousing. Southern demagogues such as Theodore Bilbo were unable to break through regional barriers, although in the 1930s Huey Long of Louisiana poised more of national threat before his assassination.

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Following the Second World War, many politicians attempted to take advantage of fears and insecurities regarding communism, the Cold War, atomic bomb, another depression, and changing roles for women and minorities to forge a national security state and limit progressive change. Institutions such as the FBI and House Un-American Activities Committee portrayed New Dealers, feminists, civil rights advocates, labor leaders, and reformers in general as subversives who were part of an international communist conspiracy to subvert the American government and way of life. For example, child care centers were depicted as a threat to the sanctity of the American family.

With the support of the New Deal, the power of organized labor expanded during the 1930s and early 1940s, but in the post war era the anticommunist crusade succeeded in labeling many labor leaders as communist sympathizers, and legislation such as the Taft-Hartley Act rolled back many of labor’s gains. Government employees were subjected to Loyalty Review Boards and the FBI under Director J. Edgar Hoover spied upon American citizens while preparing for the incarceration of dissidents. Teachers and professors lost their jobs due to political beliefs, and the Hollywood film industry instituted a blacklist for artists whose politics were suspect.

President Harry Truman vowed that he would “scare the hell” out of the American people during the 1947 Greek crisis in order to assure popular and Congressional support for the Truman Doctrine. Nevertheless, while politicians and bureaucrats such as Truman, Hoover, McCarthy, and Richard Nixon employed the Red Scare to further their political agendas and careers, they lacked the charisma and rhetorical skills of the true demagogue feared by the Greeks and America’s Founding Fathers.

The fact that the United Sates weathered the post-World War II crisis of McCarthyism and the nativism of World War I is supposed to provide us with some faith in the integrity of American institutions. In addition, we survived the unrest of the 1960s and 1970s as Lyndon Johnson stubbornly pursued the Vietnam War while Nixon challenged the separation of powers in the Watergate scandal. Thus, surely the system can withstand the erratic leadership of the current incumbent.

Donald Trump, however, poises a greater threat to American liberty because he is a demagogue who seems to have mastered the manipulation of modern media and communications. Thus, the Trump Presidency becomes another installment of his successful reality television series, The Apprentice. He understands the Hitlerian concept of “the big lie” delivered through the simplicity of a tweet that has no room for rational argument or evidence. Trump employs political rallies to emotionally bolster himself and his followers.

And no matter what he says or does, around forty-five percent of the population always seems to believe him. His claim during the campaign that his followers would not desert him even if he took a gun and killed someone is Time Square does not seem that much of an exaggeration. He also surrounds himself with sycophants willing to fulfill his every command and relies upon advisers such as Stephen Bannon who openly embrace a fascist philosophy.

In short, these are dangerous times. The nativism present after World Wars I and II lacked the charismatic and demagogic leadership of a Donald Trump. We cannot normalize this threat to American liberty as many in the media sought to do following his Congressional address of February 28. Navigating these perilous times will require constant vigilance on the part of those who seek to maintain liberty and justice for all. The historical record is not as reassuring as many might assume.

ron briley

Ron Briley