The Return of the 1920s

America is again caught between nationalists longing for the glories of an imagined past, and activists invoking ideals the nation has never yet attained.

President Calvin Coolidge and his wife Grace, accompanied by Chief Justice William H. Taft (AP)

In the wake of the terrorist mass murders in Paris and then San Bernardino, many Republicans and conservatives, already concerned about unauthorized immigrants from Mexico and Central America, have responded by conflating opposition to immigration, anxieties about the porousness of America’s borders, and fear of radical, Muslim-identified terrorists. Most Republican governors (and Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire) announced that they would refuse to accept refugees from Syria. Republican members of Congress, with the support of 25 percent of the Democratic caucus, passed a bill to “pause” the program. First, the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said he would “consider” closing Muslim mosques in the United States “because some of the ideas and some of the hatred—the absolute hatred—is coming from these areas.” Trump then further suggested that Muslims should be required to have a special ID and promising to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS. And now he has proposed that Muslims be temporarily banned from entering the United States, a position that, according to several national polls, enjoys majority support among Republicans and white evangelicals. Liberals, including President Obama, have argued that this reaction is not only nonresponsive and practically absurd, but also, as the president put it, “shameful” and, pointedly, “not American.”

But when Obama speaks of what is “not American,” countless citizens wonder: Who is he to judge what is “not American”? The United States is wracked by a spasm of anti-cosmopolitanism and fear of radical subversion. It is exemplified, for many Americans by the election and presidency of Obama himself: black, yet biracially cosmopolitan, urban, intellectual, raised partly in a Muslim country, and the abandoned son of a Kenyan activist and academic. Millions of conservatives still suspect him of being un-Christian and, literally, not a native-born American qualified to serve as president. That Obama’s election occurred simultaneously with the largest economic contraction since the Great Depression exacerbated these cultural tensions. The current conflict is a continuation of one over the past century in the United States between what the historian Gary Gerstle has called the racial nationalism of blood and ethnic supremacy and a more expansive civic nationalism which promises a common political project of equal rights and respect for all. America has seen expressions of both racial and civic nationalism in its history—both are quintessentially American articulations of political power and hierarchy. Yet these different national projects—one culturally and ethnically homogeneous, the other inclusive of differences, yet seeking to subsume them into a “Party of America”, in political theorist Rogers Smith’s words—both risk canceling out a third strain of American nationalism. They contend with a paradoxically de-nationalized pluralism of countless hyphenated Americans whose sub-communities do not cohere into a generous polity larger than the sum of its parts.

There is no period of American history that so pervasively demonstrated the power of ethno-nationalism to suppress pluralist differences as that following the Russian Revolution, the end of the First World War, and then continuing through much of the 1920s. There are many broad parallels between this era and our own. In both historical moments, there is a rising racial nationalism that takes hold of a significant (and demographically similar) portion of the country. Following the 1920s, Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership during the Depression and a massive labor movement—which, at least, in its ideals (if often not its practice) extolled the social solidarity of Americans of all races, ethnicities, and religions—renewed civic nationalism. So, too, did the total mobilization on behalf of prosecuting the Second World War. But civic nationalism, too, was still flawed by institutional racism, and dependent upon extra-national enemies—first German and Japanese totalitarianism and then Soviet communism—to somewhat unify the American political culture. What might we expect to, first, culminate, and, then, follow, the moment of Trump?

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In the late stages of the Wilson presidency, several economic and political shocks jolted the nation. The country suffered a brief, but sharp, recession at the end of the First World War. Workers worried about the end of the war economy engaged in a massive wave of labor actions, including a four-day general strike in Seattle in 1919 during which workers effectively controlled the city’s operation. The strike in Seattle was joined by other major strikes of hundreds of thousands of steelworkers, and an unprecedented strike by the Boston police department. At the same time, the country was terrorized by several sensational bombings by anarchists and leftists. One hit Wall Street in 1920, killing 38 people. Despite a massive investigation, it was never fully solved, but is assumed to have been the work of Italian anarchists. These events created the Red Scare, the belief of many Americans that a radicalized, violent worker’s movement might take hold in the United States, just like Russia’s Bolshevik revolution.

In response, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer undertook what have become known as the Palmer Raids arresting and deporting hundreds of trade unionists, and alleged radicals, socialists, and communists. Bill Haywood, the giant, one-eyed leader of the militant Industrial Workers of the World, fled to Soviet Russia rather than serve a 20-year sentence on a trumped-up charge of espionage. Emma Goldman, the famous anarchist, champion of free speech, and birth-control advocate, and her lifelong collaborator, Alexander Berkman, were given no choice whether to go to the new Soviet Union: They were deported and arrived there in early 1920. (Goldman and Haywood—who longed, as he told a fellow radical, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, for the “land of baseball and burlesque, big steaks and cigars,” grew despondent in the new Soviet Union.) Black soldiers returning from the war, looking for jobs after fighting for their country, were often met with rage; their simple expectation of respect precipitated a violent, racist backlash. In Chicago in 1919 and Tulsa in 1921 dozens were killed in race riots; across the country, whites killed blacks who dared to imagine they could be equal participants in a project of civic nationalism.

What these various fears shared in common was the concern that the centrality of America’s Anglo-Saxon heritage was being undermined by radicals, immigrants, and African Americans. Understandable concerns for personal safety merged with resentment for groups who sought to disrupt long assumed hierarchies. One consequence was the introduction of the Immigration Act of 1924. It sailed through the Senate, 62-6, enjoying overwhelming bipartisan support. The Immigration Act based national immigration quotas on a population baseline from the 1890 census, and thus drastically limited Asian and European immigrants perceived as radical and un-American: Italians, Poles, and Jews most prominently among them.

The sensational, problematic murder and robbery trial in Massachusetts in 1921 of the Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti acutely encapsulated the fear, which motivated the bill’s advocates, of Southern and Eastern European political radicals. The 1924 law also superseded the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907 between the Roosevelt Administration and Japan, to restrict Japanese immigration without barring it entirely. That earlier agreement had created a steady flow of picture brides crossing the Pacific; the 1924 law closed that loophole, reducing Japanese immigration from 7,700 per year to about 100.

The stated goal of the bill’s sponsors and supporters was to enhance an ethnically and racially homogeneous American population. (As it happened, Mexicans and other Central Americans were among the only national or ethnic groups ignored by the law. Businesses and farms in California, and elsewhere in the Southwest, endorsed the need for cheap labor that, they assumed, would quickly return across the open border when no longer needed. No one else objected.)

A pseudo-intellectual infrastructure, supported by many cultural elites, buttressed the law’s racism. The theory of eugenics was championed in books like Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race and the Harvard-trained historian Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy. Grant, Stoddard, and other scholars argued that the growth of genetically inferior non-white races would ultimately overwhelm the intellectually superior Northern European or “Nordic” race and end white civilization. During this period, eugenics experts regularly testified before Congress and academic study of the field began in hundreds of colleges around the country. (The blustery Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, embodied the eugenicist boom and quoted from a thinly fictionalized book by an author name “Goddard” entitled, The Rise of the Colored Empires.)

The courts, too, found these theories of racial separation and hierarchy persuasive. The Supreme Court in 1922, in Ozawa v. the United States, held that most Asians were not “white persons,” and were therefore ineligible for naturalization. The racial status of other groups, such as Arabs, was subject to near-Talmudic exegesis. All told, the 1924 Act had precisely the effect intended: Immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe dramatically declined, and Asian immigration all but ended.

Just as Obama today embodies the fears of ethno-nationalists and the (often-disappointed) hopes of civic nationalists, Calvin Coolidge—who signed the Immigration Act into law as president and had gained national attention by crushing the 1919 Boston Police strike while governor of Massachusetts—embodied the ethno-nationalist hopes of the 1920s. When he was vice president in 1921, Coolidge published an article in Good Housekeeping, entitled, “Whose Country is This?” It was laden with foreboding that radical immigrants were seeking to violently undermine the country. It warned, for example, of “the alien who turns toward America with the avowed intention of opposing government, with the set desire to teach destruction of government.” Coolidge also warned that:

There are racial considerations too grave to be brushed aside for any sentimental reasons. Biological laws tell us that certain people will not mix or blend. The Nordics propagate themselves successfully. With other races, the outcome shows deterioration on both sides. Quality of mind and body suggest that observance of ethnic law is as great a necessity to a nation as immigration law.

Changes in gender norms added another layer to the fears of immigration, African American empowerment, and radical politics. The successful suffragist movement—resisted in the same Southern states that had also disenfranchised black men—and a sexually and economically autonomous middle class of “new” women who populated American cities (captured in The Great Gatsby by the androgynous golfer, Jordan Baker) created the disconcerting possibility of single women unmoored from the economic and social control of men.

Before it succumbed to political scandal and the murder trial of a top official, the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, founded in 1915, synthesized all of these strands of anti-modernity and became the most powerful political movement in the county. The Klan’s credo was “America for Americans” and it attracted perhaps five million, mostly middle-class, evangelical Protestant members at its peak during the first half of the 1920s, not only in the South, but also across the Midwest, Mountain states, especially Colorado, and as far north as Maine. This second iteration of the Klan fused racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-immigration sentiment with ideas about “female purity” and male dominance of the household. The Klan’s particular anger regarding interracial marriage neatly tethered racist and gender norming anxieties about the decline of the conventional marital bond.

The Klan became, for a time, the most powerful bloc within the Democratic Party, so much so that a vote to condemn it was actually defeated at the party’s 1924 national convention by a narrow margin. In 1928, Al Smith, the first Catholic ever to run for president, and a quintessential embodiment of ethnically diverse New York City, traveled to Oklahoma, a remaining Klan stronghold, to campaign. As Robert A. Slayton recounts in his biography of Smith, Empire Statesman, when Smith’s train crossed the state border from Kansas at night, he could see the Klan’s crosses burning in a hateful greeting. Smith joked with a Jewish aide that the crosses must have been meant for the aide.

Other challenges to the new cosmopolitanism sought to limit social and intellectual uncertainties. In a nation which for the first time in history was more urban than rural, rural white Protestants (including the Klan) spearheaded prohibition in 1920 of the sale and production of the great social habit of urban America: liquor. The 1925 Scopes trial pitted the mutually uncomprehending certainties of religion and science against each other. The lawyers themselves were perfectly cast to represent two Americas in conflict: Clarence Darrow, the Chicago atheist and advocate for working class radicals for the defense, and William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic presidential candidate, economic populist, racist, and devout champion of prohibition and of white Protestant rural America, for the state of Tennessee. (Bryan won a conviction in court, but was to die just a few days after the case ended.)

By the end of the decade, labor radicalism, and indeed unionism generally, had been crushed, immigration of specifically undesirable ethnicities and nationalities had been sharply curtailed, and a more broadly shared economic prosperity had taken the edge off these pervasive cultural worries. But in every one of these instances, different variations on what we now call “others”—non-Northern European immigrants and African Americans, newly assertive women, political leftists, and intellectuals untied to religious edicts—sought to advance themselves within American political culture. And in every instance, they were confronted by a coalition of white, mostly male, Protestant farmers, small-business people, and professionals from non-urban, mostly ethnically homogeneous sections of the South, the Midwest and the Mountain West, and the politicians who represented them. Sometimes more powerful and larger business elements supported this reaction to the new America; at other times they opposed it.

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Today, these forces have both less and more power than they did in the 1920s. According to the Pew Forum, only 34 percent of Americans are white Protestants. For the first time in history, there are no white Protestant members of the Supreme Court. On civil rights, feminism, and gay liberation, the forces of cultural modernity have seemingly triumphed. Women not only have the vote today, but also have a significant public presence in every aspect of American life. Labor is today a much more cosmopolitan movement than ever before and has been a key advocate in the “fight for 15” movement among low-wage labor, and vital to sustaining the debate about income inequality (even as its actual membership has declined dramatically since its postwar high). Black Lives Matter has exposed and protested police violence against African Americans all over the country. Liquor is again legal almost everywhere, and even marijuana is now legal in a couple of states. Same-sex marriage—utterly incomprehensible in the 1920s—is now the law of the land.

As with evolution in the 1920s, many politicians and influential pundits vigorously reject the science of climate change, but most Americans accept it. In 1924, members of Congress earnestly—urgently—endorsed racist pseudo-science during the debate over the Immigration Act. In 2015, it is no longer acceptable in the cultural, economic, or political discourses of the nation to express explicitly racist views toward minorities, and sexist and homophobic remarks are also robustly contested and condemned. Despite the apparent broad support among Republican voters for Donald Trump’s proposal to deport 11 million unauthorized immigrants and temporarily block Muslims from entering the country, both proposals have been met with fierce opposition from some conservative elites, and even from several of the other GOP candidates for president. Educated elites are brought together by a shared, perceived merit, rather than, as in the past, an assumed ethnic and religious commonality. Thus those who would tell America its story clash on partisan and ideological grounds in the way the old WASP aristocracy did not. Take, for example the tension between Harvard Law grads Barack Obama and Ted Cruz. And corporate America, constantly in search of not just cheap labor but consumer markets, has clashed with religious conservatives over gay rights The contemporary Republican Party fields two Latino candidates, a woman, and one African American running for its nomination for the presidency.

In only two respects are the ethno-nationalists today in a better structural political position than were the supporters of the 1924 Immigration Act—but they are significant. First, during the 1920s, the vast, anti-immigrant white Protestant population was divided between the Democratic and Republican Parties. Millions of Northern and Midwestern rural and small-town white Protestants—scathingly depicted in the novels of Sinclair Lewis—were Republicans. Millions of Southern rural and small town white Protestants were still members of the “party of Democracy,” the Democrats, whose Jim Crow restrictions had made it the sole, dominant party of Southern white supremacy. The clashing between parties thus sometimes divided demographically similar voting blocs along partisan and regional lines.

Today, however, white Protestants overwhelmingly support the Republican Party. If the 39 percent of voters in 2012 who identified as white Protestants had been the only citizens permitted to vote, their 69 percent support of Mitt Romney would have given him, by far, the largest landslide in U.S. history. Evangelical white Protestants supported Romney by an even higher 78 percent. In all, about 42 percent of Romney’s voters identified themselves as white evangelicals. The political weight of white Protestants—the long-dominant group of Americans most threatened by changes in racial and ethnic demography, gender norms, and cultural modernism—now lies predominantly in a single party. Representative Steve King of Iowa and Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, both ardently opposed to immigration, would likely have found themselves on opposite sides of the political fence a century ago.

Second, the divide between Protestants and Catholics that marked the America of the 1920s has been replaced by a cleavage between the very religiously observant and those less religiously observant or non-religious. The battles over Roe v. Wade and the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s brought observant white Catholics (and, even more significantly, perhaps, the institutional apparatus of the U.S. Catholic Church) and evangelical Protestants together to form the foundation of the modern Republican coalition—a development that, were they alive today, would stun both William Jennings Bryan and Al Smith. Thus although past defeats limit today’s version of anti-modernism—a revival of eugenics is not imminent—the kind of issues that Americans still fight over, regarding racism and police violence, gender norming, immigration, and religious liberty, are the ones with the greatest hold on the Republican Party and its overwhelmingly white and religious voting base.

The desire for social, cultural, and racial homogeneity is much harder to sustain and impose in the United States today than it was in the 1920s. On the whole, it is a weaker phenomenon now than it was then. But its political impact is no longer regionally and politically diffused; it is concentrated within the Republican Party. Various experts have claimed that the GOP must increase its share of the African American, Latino, and Asian American votes in order to remain a competitive presidential party. However, responses to protests against police violence towards black Americans, Obama’s actions to mitigate climate change, and Trump’s bombastic presidential campaign have revealed a huge gap between Republican voters and the rest of America, which tends to show greater support for immigration, tolerance of Muslims, belief in the validity of climate science, and support for the view that blacks are, on balance, mistreated by law enforcement in far greater numbers than are whites.

Regardless, Republicans control Congress and many more state governments than do the Democrats. This is why the now-common comparisons between “Trumpism” and ethno-nationalist splinter parties in Europe like Britain’s UKIP and the France’s National Front are facile; Trump’s views have a larger constituency within the Republican Party than his already considerable personal support in the polls. In a non-parliamentary political system that only offers the choice between the Democrats and the Republicans, neither party is ever more than a recession, scandal, or foreign-policy catastrophe away from winning the White House. In the case of the GOP and the 2016 election, this would result in sustaining its slim control of the Supreme Court for another generation, and having the control of Congress and the presidency necessary to implement public policy, not merely generate nativist and racist fervor.

So the present is a variation, not a simulacrum, of the great cultural, economic, and political fights of the 1920s—history cannot be photocopied. There will not be another immigration law saturated with the racist assumptions of the bill passed in 1924. Most Americans today, when reading Gatsby, are likely to view Fitzgerald’s Tom Buchanan as a belligerent buffoon who evokes, perhaps, a certain real-estate mogul and reality-television star running for high office.

But a still potent rear-guard fight against modernity and cosmopolitanism has not passed from the American scene. And there is no necessary reason to believe this moment of racial nationalism and nativist appeal will be followed by some egalitarian renewal of civil nationalism. The great social unity generated against the fascist threat and then the Communist threat sat uneasily with the continuation of the apartheid South and the reactionary hysteria of the second Red Scare, McCarthyism.

Frank Sinatra’s 1945 paean to an ecumenical America, “The House I Live In,” pictured the nation as he wished it existed, not as it actually was ...

The house I live in, a plot of earth, a street
The grocer and the butcher, and the people that I meet
The children in the playground, the faces that I see
All races and religions, that's America to me

Less than 20 years later, Martin Luther King would express his own vision of civic nationalism in his speech at the March on Washington, as he attached the cause of African American equality and freedom to the injunctions of the Founding Fathers: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

But there has, in fact, never been an operational civic nationalism that has lived up to the rhetoric of that creed.

A couple of years ago, the National Journal’s Ron Brownstein observed that the relentless opposition of the Republicans in Congress to any policy associated with President Obama, (especially an Obamacare assumed to take from the majority to give to an undeserving minority) “increasingly resembles a sit down strike by non-urban white America.” In this latest iteration of the old struggle, some of the particular grievances have changed, as have the faces of those most feared. The strike continues. There seems, no less than in the 1920s, tension between an older crabbed, cloistered nationalism, and a growing diffusion of pluralist sub-cultures, as much commercially as culturally constructed. There is, as of yet, no cosmopolitan party of America in the way that Sinatra and King, in their different ways, imagined.

Instead, Americans are still accusing each other of not being American, and are even debating who should have the right to call themselves Americans at all. Both the pluralist left and ethno-nationalist right have urged their adherents to “take back our country.” The left wants to “return” to a country that doesn’t yet exist except in the minds of its artists and activists, and in the rhetoric, but not the actions, of its venerated Founders. The right wants to “return” to a country which is ever receding from its view, and will never quite again exist in the way it wishes that it might. Between that “doesn’t yet” and “never quite again” lies a struggle over which side will get to impose its understanding of what “America” should mean upon America.