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Those of you fortunate enough to be able to pick up BBC Radio 4 on your wireless sets may wish to tune in after your lunches this week of the Trump inauguration, at 13:45 for fifteen minutes each weekday,1 to hear Trump: The Presidential Precedents, a programme hosted by UCL historian and 2015 Broadcaster of the Year Adam Smith, and devoted to US presidents who came into office promising to upend one apple-cart or another. (Presumably if you cannot tune into Radio 4 the old-fashioned way, you’ll be able to get the episodes on the Internet via streaming audio.)
At the American Historical Association annual meeting this year, I ended a pleasant conversation with a UK-resident friend of mine, who said in parting he’d be happy enough to trade Brexit for Trump. I hadn’t time to inquire after his logic, so I leave it to you to decide whether you would do likewise.
1This is just before “The Archers,” so if you want your sense of relentless continuity restored, just hang around for another fifteen minutes.
Dear unhappy voters of 2016:
We keep hearing you called populists and, to put it in your vernacular, you had one job and you’re doing it wrong.
Like you, we were concerned about an America on “the verge of moral, political, and material ruin” in which “corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress and … the bench.” We saw “universal intimidation and bribery” at the ballot boxes, and hateful news media that were either “largely subsidized or muzzled.” Worst of all, we had galloping inequality: “the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few,” we observed, and we knew that this came from abuse of power—the “prolific womb of governmental injustice,” we called it.
Not only that, we knew we were suffering at the hands of unfettered international capitalist investment and, if we’re honest, a lot of us were upset by the immigration of millions of people who were culturally different from ourselves. Even if it didn’t actually hurt our economy, it made us feel as if our country was kind of vanishing in front of us. It had once been a nation of people who shared much the same fortunes, and our fathers had fought in a war to keep it that way. And now … well, it looked like a nation divided between two kinds: “tramps and millionaires.”1
So, here’s the thing we didn’t do: put the millionaires in charge. Because we knew that inasmuch as anyone was corrupting the republic by buying justice and electoral success, it was the rich guys.
We wanted power for ourselves, not for them. So we pushed for labor unions.
We pushed for public power over corporations, knowing that either “corporations will own the people or the people must own” the corporations—and we were not confused into thinking that corporations are people, my friend.
We wanted a genuinely progressive income tax, so the rich people would pay their share of the costs of the commonwealth.
And yes, we called for “restriction of undesirable immigration.” We know: it’s hard not to get played on issues of racial division. Honestly, it was the Democratic Party’s strong new commitment to white supremacy after we threatened their majorities that did as much as anything to break up our coalition.
But at least we didn’t get played on everything else.
The People’s Party (aka the Populists) of the 1890s
1We hear your guy is a billionaire. We don’t know what to say about that.
Below the fold you will find what I had to say about the election before the election. This excerpt comes from a paper I wrote for a conference about the Obama presidency; the papers were due October 28. In the New York Times story about the conference, you will read that “the overwhelmingly liberal group” were, in the main, blindsided by Trump’s victory, shouting “Get me rewrite!” As you will see, I wasn’t one of those, and I generally stick by what I had to say, though it is, as a draft, a little rough.
“Paddy Power is paying out to customers who backed Hillary Clinton,” I read. Reminds me of another story about election day bets that make punters sweat.
Early in the evening of November 8, 1932—election day, that year—Sam Lamport was running around Democratic National Committee headquarters in mid-Manhattan (just by Grand Central Terminal) trying to find Bob Jackson—not the judge, the other one; the judge, who would later be Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attorney general, chief Nuremberg prosecutor, and Supreme Court Justice, was known to Democrats of the day as “the good Bob Jackson,” while this one—the shrewd political operator, DNC Secretary, cultivator of attractive actresses and general Prohibition scofflaw—was known simply as “Bob Jackson.”
Lamport had a lot of money, did well in the textile business, and backed Roosevelt through the campaign. He was also a serious Ivy League jock, decent-sized guy—had played quarterback for Brown—unusual for a Jewish fellow. And in an expansive moment late in the campaign, he had bet $1000 to Jackson’s $100 that Hoover’s beating wouldn’t be so awful that the president couldn’t win more than six states.
But with early returns coming in, it looked bad for Lamport’s 10:1 bet. So he finally found Jackson, pulled out a roll of bills, and said, “I’ll give you $200 to be let our of our bet.”
Jackson didn’t get to be not-good “Bob Jackson” for nothing. Although he thought it would be “a minor crime” and perhaps preying on Lamport’s generosity, you see, to take him for $1000, he also thought it was a poor businessman who took a first offer. “Make it $300,” he said.
Lamport didn’t stop a moment, but peeled off another $100, and was glad to be shut of the bet. Good thing for him, too.
On this day, the first of February, in 1934, the New York Times carried Franklin Roosevelt’s proclamation of a new gold value for the US dollar. Previously it had been worth 25 8/10 ounces of gold 9/10 fine; now it would be worth 15 5/21 ounces of gold 9/10 fine—or, as it is more commonly said, the dollar had been valued at $20.67 to an ounce of pure gold and now it would be $35 to an ounce of pure gold. But the US was not in 1934, nor would it ever again be, on a gold standard.
Hillary Clinton is taking flak today for her summary repetition of the white supremacist Dunning School of historical interpretation, which held that the attempt in the 1860s and 1870s to provide African Americans with their civil rights was a terrible imposition on the white folks of the South.
[Lincoln] was willing to reconcile and forgive. And I don’t know what our country might have been like had he not been murdered, but I bet that it might have been a little less rancorous, a little more forgiving and tolerant, that might possibly have brought people back together more quickly.
But instead, you know, we had Reconstruction, we had the re-instigation of segregation and Jim Crow. We had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant. So, I really do believe he could have very well put us on a different path.… let’s also think about how we do try to summon up those better angels, and to treat each other, even when we disagree, fundamentally disagree, treat each other with more respect, and agree to disagree more civilly, and try to be inspired by, I think, the greatest of our presidents.
I’ll leave critiques of the Dunning School in other hands because I think they’re obvious, sadly, and Clinton should really know better. I’ll even forgo detail on the obvious point that if you’re a modern Democratic presidential aspirant asked who’s the greatest of the US presidents, your answer is Franklin Roosevelt.1 Instead I want to focus on Clinton’s counterfactual: “had [Lincoln] not been murdered”. Read the rest of this entry »
In the current Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal Michael W. Clune1 writes about odd small episodes, “particularly ephemeral perceptual experiences” we have that may alert us to the gap between how things seem and what they are. Riffing on Rei Terada’s Looking Away, he lists mirages, after-images; “clouds taken for mountains … looking at a landscape with one’s eyes half-closed so that it appears underwater.” He notes that we have nothing to say to each other about these experiences even if we share them, but that they remain with us. They remind us that if we pay too much attention to the mechanism by which we draw meaning from appearance we attenuate that meaning. One of Clune’s examples is an imaginary exchange with a sales clerk about money.
A year from today, the US will inaugurate a new president. But inauguration day has not always been thus fixed.
In the early years of the Republic, habit (rather than statute) placed the date of inauguration at March 4—though even that convention was not quite firm. In 1821, with the incumbent President James Monroe about to take the oath of office for his second term, March 4 fell on a Sunday. Monroe asked of Chief Justice John Marshall whether he could take the oath on the following day, rather than sully the Lord’s day with secular business.
I dislike the term “Great Recession” to describe our times, for technical and political reasons alike. Technically, the severe recession ended in June 2009. But, as the NBER says there,
In determining that a trough occurred in June 2009, the committee did not conclude that economic conditions since that month have been favorable or that the economy has returned to operating at normal capacity.
And indeed it still hasn’t, six and a half years after the recession ended. In fact, as Kevin O’Rourke noted, in August of 2015
the inevitable happened: measured in terms of industrial output, our current recovery was overtaken by that of the interwar period. Pretty dismal stuff.
So now, having avoided quite so severe a contraction as the 1930s, we are suffering a less impressive recovery. What do we call this ongoing period?
“Malaise” is taken, and rather ruined, by Carter-related discourse. I’ve lately been suggesting “the great economic unpleasantness” but without, I confess, really expecting it to catch on. Krugman’s old “Lesser Depression” is looking depressingly correct.
Peter Hitchens is less well known in the United States than his late brother, but when asked to write for the New York Times, he delivers his Mail columnist goods, full-strength. Regarding Robert Tombs’s English and their History:
Even in free countries it is sometimes necessary to alter the past to suit the present. For instance, I recall the day at my English boarding school in the early 1960s when our sober, patriotic old history books were gathered up and carted away to a storeroom. In their place we were handed bright, optimistic replacements, with a good deal less to say about the empire, the Protestant martyrs or what we had been taught without embarrassment to call the Glorious Revolution.… Older English people look back fondly on 1940, when we supposedly stood alone. In fact we were a major industrial and exporting power with a global navy, more or less self- sufficient, nationally cohesive and bolstered by the tribute of a still-great empire. Now all of that is gone. Is it possible that, after a thousand astonishing years, our island story has finally come to a full stop? Will the next great history of our nation and people be written in Chinese?
Now that George MacDonald Fraser has died, the sources for such views of the empire and its history seem fewer each day.
In The New Republic, Jeet Heer says that Donald Trump is not a populist, he’s “the voice of aggrieved privilege—of those who already are doing well but feel threatened by social change from below, whether in the form of Hispanic immigrants or uppity women.” Or the voice of the white American man enraged at the possibility he might lose his ill-gotten privilege. Heer doesn’t use the f-word, but it’s the elephant in the room.
For the alleged misunderstanding of Trumpism as “populism,” Heer blames the historian Richard Hofstadter, who in the middle 1950s explained he was interested in “that side of Populism” that sounded to Hofstadter a lot like McCarthyism. Hofstadter was right: there was a side of Populism, and not a trivial side, that sounded like McCarthyism—and Trumpism too. Read the rest of this entry »
Ronald Reagan in “A Time for Choosing,” the Gipper’s speech for Barry Goldwater in 1964:
Welfare spending [is] 10 times greater than in the dark depths of the Depression. We’re spending 45 billion dollars on welfare. Now do a little arithmetic, and you’ll find that if we divided the 45 billion dollars up equally among those 9 million poor families, we’d be able to give each family 4,600 dollars a year. And this added to their present income should eliminate poverty.
David Brooks in the New York Times, regarding the case of Freddie Gray in 2015:
The problem is not lack of attention, and it’s not mainly lack of money. Since 1980 federal antipoverty spending has exploded. As Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post has pointed out, in 2013 the federal government spent nearly $14,000 per poor person. If you simply took that money and handed it to the poor, a family of four would have a household income roughly twice the poverty rate.
Annie Lowery points out why Brooks’s argument is numerically bogus: just as conservatives don’t count millions of government employees as employed in 1930s, Brooks doesn’t count federal money as money in the 2010s:
Brooks is claiming that federal spending on anti-poverty programs is not lifting families out of poverty… when the government specifically does not include the value of those very programs in its poverty calculations.… A fuller accounting shows that food stamps alone lift 4 million people above the poverty line. The earned-income tax credit lifts nearly 6 million above it. Which is to say that “not bringing down the official poverty rate” is not a good yardstick by which to judge these programs.
But I would like to take David Brooks up on his suggestion: with the absolute same degree of sincerity as 1964-era Reagan, he’s supporting a straight-up transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor. It is a radical solution to poverty, this long-standing Republican proposal, but perhaps one that we should consider.
With Abenesia in the news, I thought it might be useful to talk about another Axis nation’s complicated struggle with the memory of the Second World War. Jennifer Teege found out, at the age of 38, that not only was her grandfather a Nazi, he was an especially infamous Nazi: Amon Goeth, the commandant of Płaszów concentration camp, the man played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List. On trial after the war, Goeth sneered at the witnesses against him, “What? So many Jews? And we were always told there’d be none left.” He gave a Hitler salute on the gallows.
Hence the title of Teege’s memoir: she has an African father, and a Nazi grandfather who would have regarded as subhuman a person of African descent. The book is a great deal subtler than the title suggests. It is saturated in memory, and forgetting, and the fault lines between memory and history run throughout it. Teege describes her attempt to reconcile what she learns about her grandfather with the kind – but, she now knows, complicit – grandmother she remembers. The book presents Teege’s reminiscence and necessarily somewhat therapeutic work alongside the sober, reportorial voice of Nikola Sellmair, whose dry factual rendering of verifiable history often undermines Teege’s hopeful, emotional writing.
There are different kinds of memory in the book. Teege’s adoptive German family had a more usual relationship to the Nazi era – her father didn’t really know the extent to which his family had taken part in Nazi crimes. Sellmair discusses such modern Germans, summarizing Harald Welzer’s study “Grandpa Wasn’t a Nazi.” Latter day Germans seize on any opportunity to construct a guiltless, even noble past for their forebears – as with the French, they were all in the resistance.
Teege’s brief narrative also encompasses also the memory kept by Holocaust survivors and their descendants: before Teege found out about her grandfather, she traveled to Tel Aviv, made friends there, and lived there. Her discovery imposes silence between her and her Jewish friends. She doesn’t know what she can say. Her grandfather might have shot their grandparents.
“There is no Nazi gene,” Teege insists, struggling against the idea that she must bear some guilt for her grandfather. But she clearly feels that guilt. We all inhabit the world the bloodthirstiest conquerors made; only some of us grew up with them, personally.
|Now, or recently, at newsagents|
In the TLS for 17 April, you can find my essay on Nicholas Wapshott’s The Sphinx, about the presidential election of 1940, the isolationists, and how Franklin Roosevelt engineered the US shift toward war. The essay starts like this:
Franklin Roosevelt recognized the threat Adolf Hitler posed from the moment of the German Chancellor’s appointment. In January of 1933, Roosevelt—not yet inaugurated, though already elected, President—told an aide that Hitler’s ascent was “a portent of evil”, not just for Europe but “for the United States”. He “would in the end challenge us because his black sorcery appealed to the worst in men; it supported their hates and ridiculed their tolerances; and it could not exist permanently in the same world with a system whose reliance on reason and justice was fundamental:. From then onward, Roosevelt’s policies raced Hitler’s: the New Deal was not merely a programme for recovery from depression, but one to rebuild economic strength while preserving democracy in the United States so the nation would be ready to fight Nazism when the time came.
The New Deal gave Americans not only the material capacity to fight fascism, but faith in American institutions. Which is why, of course, the prevalence of remarks like this one remains so appalling.
If you’re interested, Slate just posted an excerpt from a chapter — on Appomattox and memory — from Battle Lines, the graphic history of the Civil War I’ve written with Jonathan Fetter-Vorm.
Perhaps my favorite story of the Civil War comes from Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox, which took place 150 years ago today. Here’s an excerpt, below the fold, from a piece I wrote last year about that episode.
Leonard Nimoy’s Spock made the most powerful case for the value of emotional intelligence* that I’ve ever seen. I’m also pretty sure that the Roanoke episode of “In Search Of…” made me the historian I am today. And, more important still, his life offscreen suggested that personal decency can far outstrip fame. RIP to a wonderful entertainer and a better person.
I’d like to think that he wouldn’t want this forgotten:
And here’s Nimoy on Roanoke:
Also, as commenter Kevin points out, Nimoy was good for the Jews:
* Yeah, it’s not a great phrase, but there it is.
As this article makes clear, I’m a plucky outsider who beat long odds!
Nothing brings me more joy than Edgar Allan Poe’s obituary.