Not the Good Old Days

If you want to understand the rabid craziness of today’s MAGA Republican Party, you can read books like:

But there’s another one I want to call your attention to. It describes events from a century ago that parallel much of what’s happening now. The book is American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis by Adam Hochschild. This is from a review for the Times Literary Supplement:

Even now there are American liberals who look back on [President Woodrow] Wilson’s first term in 1913–17 as a golden age, with its trust-busting, tax and banking reform, and eight-hour day for railway workers, making it the last presidency of the Progressive Era. That left little time for international affairs, and when Americans heard the distant thunder of war from Europe in 1914, most of them had no wish to join it….

Barely had he been inaugurated the next spring than he took America into it…. Whatever American entry did to the balance of the war, it had a most drastic effect in and on the US itself. The country was convulsed by a spasm of nativist hysteria and hatred – as Hochschild says, “Never was the raw underside of our nation’s life more revealingly on display than from 1917 to 1921”. For him, the events of these years amount to a crisis in America’s democracy, one that he thinks too few people know about today. 

The first victims were German Americans. Over the previous century six million Germans had emigrated to the US, more than any other nationality apart from the British… Now anyone with a German name was treated as potentially disloyal, and many such names were quickly changed: Koenig became King, the frankfurter became the hot dog….

But changing names didn’t stem the violence. A Methodist minister said that it was “the Christian duty of Americans to decorate convenient lamp posts with German spies and agents of the Kaiser, native or foreign-born”; a Minnesota pastor was tarred and feathered after he had been heard praying in German with a dying woman; and in Collinsville, Illinois, a gang set upon Robert Prager and killed him. The murderers were tried, holding little American flags in court, and were acquitted by the jury in forty-five minutes.

When a war bond was floated, anyone who failed to buy bonds was liable to be denounced or subjected to physical violence…. In Britain conscientious objectors were sometimes harshly treated, but the American story was more savage, with conscientious objectors hanged all day by shackled wrists, with their feet barely touching the floor, and sometimes forced to watch military executions.

War fever intensified the persecution of radicals, socialists and labour unions, or one union in particular. The Industrial Workers of the World or IWW, otherwise the Wobblies, was a unique syndicalist body that mounted a challenge far beyond its numbers of barely 150,000 members. Or so it certainly seemed to business, newspapers and politicians, with headlines predicting a “Reign of Terror” and the irrepressible Theodore Roosevelt calling the Wobblies “unhung traitors”.

In fact, plenty were “hung” or attacked in other ways. After the tarring and feathering of a group of Wobblies in Tulsa, National Guardsmen and corporate detectives killed dozens more. When Frank Little, a Wobblie organizer, was brutally lynched in Montana, Thomas Marshall, Wilson’s vice president, quipped that “A Little hanging goes a long way”.

An Espionage Act and a Sedition Act were passed, giving the state wide powers to curtail free speech, but Albert Sidney Burleson, the postmaster general, hadn’t needed that to suppress socialist journals, of which there were more than 100, daily, weekly and monthly. He simply withdrew their mailing privileges and destroyed their circulations, while William Lamar, the chief legal officer of the Post Office, said, “I know exactly what I am after … pro-Germanism, pacifism, and high-browism”….

A new Bureau of Investigation, forerunner of the FBI, energetically kept watch on political meetings and infiltrated radical groups, its men sometimes acting as agents provocateurs…. Even before American entry into the war, Albert Briggs, a Chicago advertising man, had created, with official encouragement, the American Protective League, a vigilante group “organized along military lines” and appealing to “men beyond military age seeking martial glory”. They were issued with a badge and codenames such as A-372 or B-49 as they went hunting for spies, saboteurs and dissidents.

With American communism as yet unborn, the objects of official and semi-official persecution were democratic socialists or anarchists, notably Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman….The gentle Debs combined democratic socialism with Christianity and pacifism….Now his opposition to the war ensured that Debs would be hounded and imprisoned under the Espionage Act. In the words of one police informer, Goldman was “doing tremendous damage…. If she is allowed to continue here she cannot help but have a great influence”. She was not allowed to, but was likewise imprisoned and finally deported to Russia, where she was lucky to survive….

Since the Espionage and Sedition Acts had been drafted by the justice department under the attorney general, Thomas Gregory, his resignation in early 1919 came as a great relief to progressives, [who] welcomed the appointment of Gregory’s successor, A. Mitchell Palmer, a Quaker who had called the American Protective League “a grave menace”, and recommended clemency for several hundred people imprisoned under the Espionage Act… 

Those hopes were soon dashed. In November 1919 the affable Quaker gave his name to the notorious Palmer Raids, conducted on radical or merely suspect offices and meetings, particularly where recent immigrants were to be found. The offices of the Union of Russian Workers in a dozen cities were raided [and often destroyed], and in Detroit agents interrogated all 1,500 theatregoers watching a Russian-language play….

If Wilson insisted that this would be a virtuous war in contrast to all the evil previous wars in history, he personified a hypocrisy that amounted to almost psychopathic cognitive dissonance. Wilson was preaching self-determination and democratic rights in Europe, but what of his own country?

A Virginian and the first Southerner to be elected president since the Civil War, …. Wilson had done everything he could as president of Princeton to stop Black students entering the college, and his administration actually re-segregated the civil service… [The postmaster general] said it was “intolerable” that Black and white employees should work together….

The Ku Klux Klan had been re-formed in 1915 and there were lynchings across the South year by year, some almost too horrible to describe in detail. Many Black men enlisted in the army, … but Southern politicians were alarmed that they were being taught to use firearms. Senator James Vardaman of Mississippi said that Black veterans should be prevented from returning to the South, as their contacts with French women must have raised their expectations.

When Blacks tried to escape northwards they merely met more racist violence. In July 1917 there was a ferocious race riot in East St Louis, in which as many as 100 Black people may have been killed, while many hundreds more fled. The Amsterdam News in Harlem pointed to the irony that Black soldiers fighting for the rights of Serbs and Poles would return to lynching at home…

By 1920, with the war won, peace made after a fashion, and Wilson lying incapacitated in the White House, the great fear persisted. A panic spread that on May Day there would be a Red rising throughout the country. In many cities the National Guard as well as armed police were out in force, with machinegun posts installed on the streets of Boston. As Hochschild’s next two-word paragraph reads: “Nothing happened”. The threat was entirely imaginary….

If nothing happened that May Day, something worse had happened, as America drew in upon itself. Behind the assaults on radicals lay a deeper resentment or even hatred of immigrants. Tens of millions of immigrants had arrived in the US in the forty years before the First World War: Italians, Poles, Jews and many others. They had been greeted with intense hostility. Albert Johnson, a congressman from Washington state, railed in the House against “wops, bohunks, coolies and Oriental offscourings” (as a further plus ça change, a newspaper he owned derided conservationists “who tremble every time a tree is cut down”).

Nor was he a lone crank. Theodore Roosevelt insisted that “This is a nation, not a polyglot boarding house”, and Wilson himself said that “Men of the sturdier stocks of the north of Europe” had given way to “multitudes of men of the lowest class from the south of Italy and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland”….

One awful coda to the story is described by Hochschild, the massacre of Black residents in May 1921 in Tulsa, the town where the Wobblies had been persecuted four years earlier. Tulsa had an unusually (if comparatively) prosperous Black community… On the usual spurious rumour that a Black man had threatened a white woman, white mobs rampaged through this quarter for two days, killing, looting and setting scores of buildings on fire. The National Guard intervened only to arrest Blacks, although it’s reckoned that at least 300 were killed. The best explanation the Los Angeles Times could offer was that “Bolshevik propaganda … was the principal cause of the race riot”….

In December 1920, The Times reported that “America is seriously alarmed by the wave of immigration from the poverty-stricken portions of Europe … In Poland alone 311,000 persons have applied for passports to the United States…“The leaders of the Republican Party regard the flood of immigrants as a menace to America and the Americans, and have decided to give it immediate attention in Congress”.

So they did, with harshly restrictive immigration acts passed in 1921 and 1924 designed to maintain the predominance of those sturdier stocks… No one who reads Adam Hochschild’s admirable but sombre book … will feel quite the same about the land of the free or the Statue of Liberty. 

That’s true. You can’t read American Midnight without seeing today’s MAGA movement as the latest outbreak of anti-progess, anti-tolerance, anti-immigrant, anti-Black, anti-labor, anti-reality Americanism.

Being Real in America

The real Eiffel Tower is in Paris. There’s a fake one in Las Vegas. If there is a “Real America”, is there a fake one somewhere? Maybe in Belgium or Thailand? Max Boot of The Washington Post has some thoughts on what’s real about America:

I’ve been feeling very blue this summer. Oh, I don’t mean I’m depressed — I’ve been having a ball. But I’ve been spending time in some of the most liberal enclaves in America: first Martha’s Vineyard, then Provincetown, Mass., an LGBTQ mecca where pride flags are ubiquitous…..

I have to admit that even this reformed ex-Republican did a slight eyeroll at the car next door to our rented beach house in P-town. It sports bumper stickers proclaiming “Biden-Harris,” “Coexist” (with Christian, Jewish, Muslim and peace symbols), “Resist” and “Bye Don” under a shock of yellow hair. Naturally, it’s a Subaru station wagon with a bike rack. How cliché can you get?

It is easy in such environs to imagine that you’re not in the “real America”….

But you know what? Provincetown is the real America [note: first settled in 1700]. So is Martha’s Vineyard. These communities are undoubtedly on the left…. But, in many ways, they might be more representative of 2022 America than the Rust Belt diners where reporters love to take the pulse of T____landia.

There is an implicit assumption, shared by many Republicans and Democrats, that “real” Americans are White, rural, conservative, Christian and poorly educated. (“I love the poorly educated,” D____ T____ said in 2016.) Ultra-MAGA Republicans assume that their policy preferences — anti-immigration, anti-gun control, anti-abortion, anti-“woke” — are the only legitimate views that can be held by “real” Americans, and that anyone who disagrees is a pointy-headed elitist or “globalist” who is out of touch with reality.

Yet it is White, Christian, rural, conservative voters who are now in the minority. Indeed, much of the reason that MAGA Republicans sound so hysterical so much of the time is that they know that the tides of economic and demographic change are leaving them behind. The White share of the population has declined from 80 percent in 1980 to just 60.1 percent in 2019. By the 2040s, America is projected to become “majority minority.”

Accompanying this demographic shift is an economic shift that puts a premium on brains over brawn: In 1970, 31.2 percent of non-farm workers were employed in blue-collar jobs. By 2016, the blue-collar share of the workforce had fallen to just 13.6 percent. There is even a religious shift: Atheists and agnostics are the fastest-growing religious group in the country, while the percentage of Christians declined by 15 points between 2007 and 2021.

Demography is not necessarily destiny, and Latinos, in particular, are not as Democratic as they used to be. But these trends are hardly favorable for a T____ified Republican Party whose base increasingly consists of White, evangelical Christians who haven’t graduated from college.

A more diverse, better-educated country is more liberal, particularly on cultural issues. In other words, more like P-town and the Vineyard. Just look at the massive shift on same-sex marriage. Even Obama came out against marriage equality in 2008 when it had the support of only 40 percent of Americans. Now same-sex marriage is supported by 71 percent of the public — and even by 55 percent of Republicans. It has become a nonissue.

The hardcore MAGA base might thrill to the kind of cultural warfare practiced by T____ and [Florida Governor] DeSantis, but it repels most of the electorate — which is why so many Republicans who touted their opposition to abortion during the primaries are now soft-pedaling an unpopular stance.

Our political system has a sharp minoritarian bias, but there is little doubt that Democratic positions are way more popular than Republican ones. Sixty-seven million more Americans live in counties won by Joe Biden than by T____ in 2020 — and the Biden counties produce 71 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.

The Biden strongholds are in major cities and suburban areas — and that is increasingly where most Americans live. Even in red states, major metropolitan areas tend to be pretty blue. The largest city T____ won in 2020 was Oklahoma City [the 22nd largest city in the US].

The whole country might not be nearly as progressive as Provincetown or Martha’s Vineyard, but those blue havens are closer to an increasingly liberal mainstream than the MAGA redoubts where pickup trucks sport “Let’s Go, Brandon!” bumper stickers. There is a good reason so many MAGA Republicans are embracing “semi-fascism”: Their views are too unpopular to command majority support anymore. They certainly don’t speak for the “real” America — to the extent that such a thing even exists.


In the old days, when Hollywood made a war movie, a platoon would include soldiers from all over (maybe they still do it these days with the addition of a woman or two). There would be a fast talker from Brooklyn, a cowboy from Texas, a hothead from Mississippi, a college athlete, a family man from Iowa, a skinny kid who lied about his age to enlist, an Arizona Indian, a reliable sort from anywhere USA (maybe played by Van Johnson), perhaps even a quiet black man and somebody named “Gonzales” or “Nakamura”. The message was that real Americans, the great guys who were defending democracy against the fascists, came from all over. Today, when our homegrown fascists and semi-fascists hear “we’re all in this together”, they think it’s a threat. They hate the reality of America.

At the Heartbreak Hotel on Desolation Row

Let’s consider the Supreme Court’s radical right Gang of Five. They’re trying to take America back to 1953 or so, if not earlier, ignoring what the majority of Americans want.

Three of them (Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Coney Barrett) are the only three justices in US history who were both (1) selected by a president (D____ T____) who lost the popular vote and (2) approved by a group of senators who represented less than 50% of American voters. (That particular president took office only because the national news media was fixated on the email practices of the Democratic candidate and the director of the FBI broke his agency’s own rules by releasing “news” that harmed the Democrat a few days before the election.)

One (Gorsuch) took his seat on the Court after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked consideration of Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, for a record 293 days, saying the upcoming election precluded any talk of a nominee.

McConnell got another one of them onto the Court (Coney Barrett) when he reversed the “rule” he’d invented for Garland. She was nominated by T____  just 38 days before the 2020 election (when votes were already being cast) — another record.

The fourth member of the Gang of Five (Alito) was nominated by a president (George W. Bush) who lost the popular vote the first time he ran. He might have also lost the Electoral College if the five Republicans on the Supreme Court had allowed Florida to keep counting votes (just think, President Gore would have meant leadership on the climate crisis and no Iraq war).

Alito is the author of the draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade, which he called an “egregiously bad” decision. He apparently came to that conclusion after his 2006 Senate hearing, during which he told the US Senate that he’d look at abortion with an “open mind”.

The fifth justice (Thomas, nominated by George. H. W. Bush) ascended to the Court after lying to the US Senate about his bad behavior (the senators didn’t believe Anita Hill). He was the first Supreme Court justice approved by senators from states representing less than half the country. Although his wife openly supported the January 6th insurrection, he proceeded to cast the only vote in favor of keeping insurrection-related emails secret.

All five of the Gang are Catholics, as is the sixth Republican on the Court (Chief Justice Roberts, the second justice chosen by Bush #2). None of them told the Senate they would overturn Roe v. Wade if given the chance.

Meanwhile, the Republican justices have been making our politics less democratic, less representative of the nation as a whole, by allowing more money into politics, weakening the Voting Rights Act and refusing to do anything about the rampant gerrymandering of congressional districts. All of this has made it less likely Democrats will be elected and much less likely that conservative institutions like the Court, the Senate and the Electoral College will ever be made more responsive to public opinion.

In other words, we’re screwed.

The American journalist Alex Pareene explains why, furthermore, electing more Democrats might not make much difference:

One of the more consequential contradictions of the Democratic Party is that the vast majority of its staffers, consultants, elected officials, and media avatars, along with a substantial portion of its electoral base, are institutionalists. They believe, broadly, in The System. The System worked for them, and if The System’s outputs are bad, it is because we need more of the right sort of people to join or be elected to enter The System. . . .

Institutionalists, in my experience, have trouble reaching an anti-system person, because they think being against The System is an inherently adolescent and silly mindset. But believing in things like “the integrity of the Supreme Court” has proven to be, I think, much sillier, and much more childish.

In the beginning of Joe Biden’s presidency a lot of very intelligent people tried to come up with ideas for how to change the Supreme Court, which is poised to spend years eroding the regulatory state and chipping away at civil rights. Expand it, perhaps. Or marginalize it. President Joe Biden, a committed institutionalist, formed a commission of legal scholars—from across the ideological spectrum, of course—to investigate what ought to be done about it. They failed to come up with any answers. “Lawmakers,” the commission wrote, “should be cautious about any reform that seems aimed at the substance of Court decisions or grounded in interpretations of the Constitution over which there is great disagreement in our political life.” You might be mad at the Court because of the decisions it produces, but it’s essential that everyone still trusts the processes that led to them.

This was a white flag. I think some people in the White House have some sick hope that the end of Roe will galvanize the midterm electorate. Something like that may indeed happen. But if they wish to understand why the president has been bleeding youth support for the last year they should try to imagine these young people (and “young”, at this point, has expanded to like 45) not as the annoying and hyper-engaged freaks they see on Twitter every day, but as ones they don’t see anywhere, because, having been urged to pay furious attention by people in the party, they discovered that those people had absolutely no realistic plans to overcome entrenched, systemic obstacles to progress. . . . 

The legitimacy crisis is that our institutions are illegitimate. For my entire adult life, beginning with Bush v. Gore, our governing institutions have been avowedly antidemocratic and the left-of-center party has had no answer for that plain fact; no strategy, no plan, except to beg the electorate to give them governing majorities, which they then fail to use to reform the antidemocratic governing institutions. They often have perfectly plausible excuses for why they couldn’t do better. But that commitment to our existing institutions means they can’t credibly claim to have an answer to this moment. “Give us (another) majority and hope Clarence Thomas dies” is a best-case scenario, but not exactly a sales pitch.


Twenty Years Later

Twenty years ago this morning I was on my way to the World Trade Center as part of my regular commute. The conductor announced that it appeared a small plane had hit one of the towers. So I took a different train under the Hudson River and got off some blocks north of the Trade Center. Standing on Broadway, I watched the building burning and then got on a subway. By the time I’d gotten to work, the other tower had been hit. I could see them both burning from a window on that side of our building.

I reacted differently than most people, partly because it affected my job. We had to deal with the stock exchange being closed that week. But I didn’t watch any of the endless TV coverage and immediately feared that the president would take advantage of the situation, which he did in disastrous fashion. The air around the site was acrid and stayed that way for a surprisingly long time.

From David Roberts (@drvolts on Twitter):

3,200 on Thursday. 2,400 yesterday. On average, Covid is killing around as many Americans as died on 9/11 every single day. 

The very same people who were willing to send American children to war, spend trillions of dollars nation-building, commit war crimes, torture prisoners, & build a massive domestic-surveillance regime in response to 9/11 are unwilling to wear masks to stop a daily 9/11. 

What’s uncomfortable to talk about is that, especially for the loudest post-9/11 voices, it wasn’t really about the lives lost. It was about ego injury, about being hurt by a group of brown people we’d been socialized to think of as primitive & weak. 

The whole ensuing cascade of horrors was mostly about repairing the injury to the large & tender egos of America’s self-style Manly Men. The official elite discourse somewhat obscured this, but it was very, very clear when you read the war bloggers or watched Fox. 

Why does this 9/11 20th anniversary feel weird & muted? Because the real historical significance of 9/11 is that it marked the beginning of a downward spiral for the US, as a democracy & as the dominant global superpower. We’re too close to that, to *in it*, to reckon with it. 

And, just to bring it full circle, this explains the utterly hysterical reaction of US political elites & media to Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal. It wasn’t about lives, it was about *humiliation*, the “Big Dog” running home with its tail between its legs, in failure. 

Will It Happen Here?

“It always happens” doesn’t imply “it will always happen”. With that correction in mind, Adam Gopnik makes an interesting point about democracy and autocracy in The New Yorker:

We are told again and again that American democracy is in peril and may even be on its deathbed. Today, after all, a defeated yet deranged President bunkers in the White House contemplating crazy conspiracy theories and perhaps even martial law, with the uneasy consent of his party and the rabid support of his base. We are then told, with equal urgency, that what is wrong, ultimately, is deep, systemic, and Everybody’s Fault. Perhaps there is a crisis of meaning, or of spirit; perhaps it is a crisis caused by the condescension of self-important élites. (In truth, those élites tend to be at least as self-lacerating as they are condescending, as the latest rounds of self-laceration show.)

Lurking behind all of this is a faulty premise—that the descent into authoritarianism is what needs to be explained, when the reality is that . . . it always happens. The default condition of humankind is not to thrive in broadly egalitarian and stable democratic arrangements that get unsettled only when something happens to unsettle them. The default condition of humankind, traced across thousands of years of history, is some sort of autocracy.

America itself has never had a particularly settled commitment to democratic, rational government. At a high point of national prosperity, long before manufacturing fell away or economic anxiety gripped the Middle West—in an era when “silos” referred only to grain or missiles and information came from three sober networks . . .—a similar set of paranoid beliefs filled American minds and came perilously close to taking power. . . . [A] sizable group of people believed things as fully fantastical as the Txxxx-ite belief in voting machines rerouted by dead Venezuelan socialists. The intellectual forces behind Goldwater’s sudden rise thought that Eisenhower and J.F.K. were agents, wittingly or otherwise, of the Communist conspiracy, and that American democracy was in a death match with enemies within as much as without. (Goldwater was, political genealogists will note, a ferocious admirer and defender of Joe McCarthy, whose counsel in all things conspiratorial was Roy Cohn, Dxxxx Txxxx’s mentor.)

Goldwater was a less personally malevolent figure than Txxxx, and, yes, he lost his 1964 Presidential bid. But, in sweeping the Deep South, he set a victorious neo-Confederate pattern for the next four decades of American politics, including the so-called Reagan revolution. Nor were his forces naïvely libertarian. At the time, Goldwater’s ghostwriter Brent Bozell spoke approvingly of Franco’s post-Fascist Spain as spiritually far superior to decadent America, much as the highbrow Txxxx-ites talk of the Christian regimes of Putin and Orbán.

The interesting question is not what causes autocracy (not to mention the conspiratorial thinking that feeds it) but what has ever suspended it. We constantly create post-hoc explanations for the ascent of the irrational. The Weimar inflation caused the rise of Hitler, we say; the impoverishment of Tsarism caused the Bolshevik Revolution. In fact, the inflation was over in Germany long before Hitler rose, and Lenin came to power not in anything that resembled a revolution—which had happened already under the leadership of far more pluralistic politicians—but in a coup d’état by a militant minority. Force of personality, opportunity, sheer accident: these were much more decisive than some neat formula of suffering in, autocracy out.

Dxxxx Txxxx came to power not because of an overwhelming wave of popular sentiment—he lost his two elections by a cumulative ten million votes—but because of an orphaned electoral system left on our doorstep by an exhausted Constitutional Convention. . . .

The way to shore up American democracy is to shore up American democracy—that is, to strengthen liberal institutions, in ways that are unglamorously specific and discouragingly minute. The task here is not so much to peer into our souls as to reduce the enormous democratic deficits under which the country labors, most notably an electoral landscape in which farmland tilts to power while city blocks are flattened. This means remedying manipulative redistricting while reforming the Electoral College and the Senate [or by making the Electoral College irrelevant]. Some of these things won’t be achievable, but all are worth pursuing—with the knowledge that, even if every box on our . . . wish list were checked, no set-it-and-forget-it solution to democratic fragility would stand revealed. The only way to stave off another Txxxx is to recognize that it always happens. The temptation of anti-democratic cult politics is forever with us, and so is the work of fending it off. . . .


It’s hard for most Americans to believe it might happen to us. We haven’t had a king or dictator since the United States was created 240 years ago. That’s why Sinclair Lewis called his novel about fascism coming to America It Can’t Happen Here. Our country isn’t destined to become an autocracy, but the past four years show that we have work to do — to make sure it doesn’t happen here.