1920 Revisited?

1920 Revisited?

by George W. Liebmann

Many Americans are bemused by the success of a candidate who has mastered the fascist speaking techniques described by the sociologist David Riesman in 1942: “The violence and daring of the verbal onslaughts exercise a great appeal over the imagination of lower middle-class folk who live insipid and anxious lives; the apparent daring of their leaders, moreover, is in sharp contrast to the balanced and often timid speaking and writing of the teachers, preachers and politicians who , for them, have represented democracy.” Robert Taft in a collection of essays in 1939 warned against identity politics in terms which fit many Democrats as well as Trump: “If we create distinctions, we may still have the rule of a majority for awhile, but it is not a rule of the whole people. . . the deliberate stimulation of race or religious prejudice threatens the foundation of the Republic.” Margaret Chase Smith, in her Declaration of Conscience in 1950 declared with six other Senators: “I do not want to see [my] party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny–fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear.”

Mr. Trump, however, owes his success not only to such tactics but to his recognition of three features of political life that most of his Republican opponents chose to ignore.

The public is tired of gradgrind economic policies as pursued by both parties: of free trade, free immigration, and de-regulation pursued as theological creeds without any sense of proportion.

There is also disenchantment with the last three administrations’ attempts at a pax Americana. All but two Senators once voted for the United Nations Charter, with its limitation of war-making to individual and collective self-defense and interventions approved by the Security Council. The Constitution and War Powers Act were likewise designed to discourage careless foreign interventions,. The Bush administration defied the Charter in Iraq; the Obama administration did so in its support of regime change in Libya; the War Powers Act was ignored by the Clinton administration in Kosovo and the Obama administration in Libya; by its lawyers’ reasoning, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was not an act of war.. The fruits of our disregard of the warnings of the French and Russians in Iraq, the Russians in Kosovo, and the Turks in Libya have been massive refugee flows from all these places, two nations in anarchy and a Kosovo run by its Mafia.

Finally, there is resentment at the interventions of both the President and the Supreme Court in moral issues. Washington’s demands for tolerance are directed ever outward never inward. As George Kennan once observed: “I have never taken offence at the thesis of the Roman Church that many men require a spiritual as well as a profane framework of law; a moral order founded on an appreciation of the dilemnas of birth and death. . . For many people it is always better that there should be some moral law, even an imperfect one or an entirely arbitrary one, than that there should be none, for the human being who recognizes no moral restrictions and has no sense of humility is worse than the foulest and cruelist beast.” Meddling in reapportionment has converted legislatures into competing coteries of extremists; meddling in immigration policy, in the case of Plyler v. Doe requiring admission of illegal aliens to public schools was accompanied by the assurance of Justice Brennan that “few if any. . . come to this country in order to avail themselves of a free education.” Chief Justice Burger dissenting observed that “it blinks reality to maintain that the availability of governmental services such as education plays no role in an alien family’s decision to enter or remain.” We now know who was right.

Thus we are seen to have a system of government by unaccountable courtiers resembling the ‘old regime’ of Louis XIV, all in the name of democracy.

These discontents should make it as difficult for the Republicans to lose this election as it was for them to lose the election of 1920. Then as now, there was discontent with the consequences of mass immigration and its attendant municipal corruption and disorder, which fueled both the prohibition movement and the northern Ku Klux Klan. There was discontent with a controversial war, accompanied by controls that made the country a virtual dictatorship. There was impatience with moralistic preaching from Washington. Of Wilson, Learned Hand wrote :”He had, and I should say that it was his greatest failing, the gift of inspiring others, particularly women, with a sense of the loftiness of his moral principles. . . men like Wilson are soothsayers, misleaders of the children of men.”

Warren Harding, Mencken’s “Angel Gamaliel” was benevolent, but bizarre. Former President Taft declared: “Everything sounds cheap and makes a man of intelligent discrimination wince when he reads.” Mencken said a Harding speech “reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup; of college yells; of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights.” But the Republicans of the 1920s delivered: a curtailment of immigration that lasted for forty years; economic de-nationalization coupled with Secretary of Commerce Hoover’s promotion of the new radio, aviation, telephone, and electric power industries; and Secretary Hughes’ less grandiose but constructive foreign policy, including the Washington Naval Conference, the Dawes Plan, and a separate peace with Germany.

Constructive Republicanism was sabotaged by the doctrinaire Coolidge. “Not a word came out of him,” Mencken said, “on the subject of Prohibition; not once did he challenge the speculative lunacy that brought the nation to bankruptcy. And all he could be induced to do about the foreign debts was to hand the nuisance on to poor Hoover.”

Hoover acquiesced in high tariffs and restrictive monetary policy, but had real achievments. His debt moratorium was sabotaged by Pierre Laval; he signed the Norris-La Guardia Act ensuring that labor had no reason to regard the Army as its enemy; his Home Owners Loan Corporation was delayed by partisan Democrats until the coming of Roosevelt; and he appointed three excellent Supreme Court justices (Hughes, Cardozo and Roberts).

Whether a Republican can grasp the present opportunity remains to be seen. Such a person must address the casualties of globalism with something like Roosevelt’s youth employment programs and low-tech infrastructure projects: flood control, soil conservation, reforestation, national parks, together with a German-style exemption of young workers from payroll taxation. The looming tower of debt discouraging investment requires benefit cuts and new taxation. A foreign policy throwing rocks into every hornet’s nests must be abandoned, with treatment of terrorists as homicidal criminals, not political martyrs. Moral issues should be left to the easily changed laws of the states and the manners of the people. The nettle of the drug war must be grasped, through wide decriminalization. Immigration policy must favor immigrants with American support systems; the promised border fence should take the form of enforcement of sanctions against employers of new arrivals, requiring no new legislation; law-abiding illegal immigrants should be fined several thousand dollars and sent home if they, their families or employers do not pay; the proceeds going to a dedicated fund for Central American nurse health services, policing, and housing, to reduce crime, the threat of epidemics, and the birth rate. This reciprocity may enjoy the support of both nativists and cosmopolitans.

Mrs. Clinton is the perfect foil. She has endorsed each and all of our unsuccessful recent wars; her ‘tougher than thou’ syndrome ensures that she will follow the path of the Mesdames Bandarinaike, and Gandhi, neither of them remembered as Princesses of Peace. She has no real respect for international order, and is an apostle of nationalism’s evil twin, identity politics. Like President Obama, she has not proposed to do anything serious about future deficits, youth unemployment, the drug war, or massive immigration Her personality combines the least attractive features of Calamity Jane and the late East German Justice Minister Hilde Benjamin. She favors centralization, has no respect for the law, and will govern, not constitutionally, but through a corrupt personal entourage, an American nomenklatura.

The writer, a Baltimore lawyer, is the author of various historical works, most recently The Fall of the House of Speyer: The Story of a Banking Dynasty.


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