The figure of Donald Trump looms over Sarah Churchwell’s new history of American national identity, which highlights the ugliest features of the country’s ingrained traditions of intolerance and bigotry. But it is the current president’s father, Fred, who first leaps off the page in a startling cameo appearance.
On Memorial Day 1927, as Churchwell recounts, the white supremacist, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic Ku Klux Klan organised a march in New York City’s borough of Queens, home to the German-American Trump family, whose patriarch, Friedrich Trump, had emigrated to the United States in 1885. About 1,000 demonstrators, many dressed in the KKK’s signature hooded white robes and ‘accompanied by 400 women from the so-called “Klavana”’, had gathered to promote their version of ‘America First’, a slogan that Churchwell strives to rescue from oversimplification. Not everyone watching along the parade route was enthusiastic about the Klan’s exercise of its First Amendment rights, and a riot ensued. In the melee, seven people were arrested, including five Klansmen, an innocent bystander, and the father of the as-yet-unborn Donald.
There’s no proof that Trump senior was a member of the KKK, but there is plenty to infer and imagine about what he was doing at that march in Queens, especially given Trump Jnr’s disgracefully equivocal reaction to the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia last August, as well as the Trump family’s history of discrimination against black tenants in the New York apartment houses the family owned. The question poses itself: is there a straight line, or even a crooked arc, from Fred’s arrest in 1927 to Donald’s appalling statements 90 years later? What’s the toxin running through American society that would permit the ascension to the White House of someone who espouses the anti-immigrant and racist claptrap that one normally associates with fringe radicals?
As a literary and cultural historian, rather than an academic historian of politics, Churchwell is nuanced enough not to venture a definitive answer. Her guiding non-fiction light is Dorothy Thompson, the widely syndicated columnist of the 1930s and 1940s who sounded an early alarm about European fascism and the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. Assessing the Nazi sympathiser and America First proponent Charles Lindbergh in 1941, Thompson wrote that the celebrity aviator’s
behaviour is confusing only if one fails to remember that it can be a political tactic to confuse. If one assumes that Lindbergh confuses consciously, then his behaviour fits a pattern... I am absolutely certain... that Lindbergh intends to be President of the United States, with a new party along Nazi lines behind him.
The bridge to President Trump may be too far — Trump appears to be more salesman and opportunist than ideologue — and Churchwell is careful not to cross it: ‘The similarities between what Thompson says in 1941 and our political situation today might seem like a coincidence,’ she writes. Nevertheless, ‘what looks at first like historical coincidence may, instead, simply be a pattern we haven’t discerned yet’. Churchwell is good at patterns, and at fact-checking. ‘America First’ didn’t begin with so-called isolationism in the 1930s but rather with the dedicated internationalist Woodrow Wilson, in a 1915 speech advocating that ‘[we] think of America before we think of Europe, in order that America may be fit to be Europe’s friend when the day of tested friendship comes’.
Wilson was being disingenuous — the racist, vainglorious former professor craved a role on the international stage that would lead to military alliance with Britain and France against the wishes of a majority of his fellow citizens — so the irony is all the greater that ‘America First’ would wind up as a battle cry for American nationalists who hated the League of Nations and still hate the United Nations.
Similarly, Churchwell rejects the argument that George Washington’s often-cited ‘Farewell Address’ should serve as inspiration to isolationists, despite its admonition to ‘steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world’, since Washington also allowed for ‘temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies’.
Churchwell provides the evidence for, but doesn’t endorse, the reality that it was precisely Wilson’s entry into the Great War — allegedly in a quest for world peace and democracy — that fuelled the worst outburst of xenophobic propaganda (‘This Newspaper is One Hundred Percent American’ headlined the San Francisco Chronicle at the beginning of 1918) and up to that time the most severe crackdown on civil liberties and dissent in the nation’s history. Seemingly content to debunk Wilson as a double-talking hypocrite, Churchwell prefers to exhibit more openly jingoistic proponents of pure Americanism and US imperialism, such as Theodore Roosevelt and William Randolph Hearst.
Thus, her examination of another misunderstood American slogan, ‘the American dream’, is somewhat off kilter. She correctly explicates the two competing ideas behind the ‘dream’ — the older Jeffersonian and Progressive one of equality and justice in opposition to concentrated wealth and political power, and the newer brand, more in line with Trump, that mainly celebrates materialism and potential riches for all. But calling Wilson ‘a wily old diplomat’, who took the country into a war that could ‘reasonably’ qualify as George Washington’s ‘extraordinary emergency’, she misses what could reasonably be described as Wilson’s singular betrayal of the American dream she clearly favours.
Churchwell is at her best when she relates in horrific detail the once commonplace public lynching of blacks, both in the North and in the South, and she is astute about the crackpot/booster strains in American culture. The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s great American novel about the emptiness of the capitalist dream, met with only modest commercial success when it was published in 1925. The same year, The Man Nobody Knows, whose author portrayed Jesus Christ as a ‘startling example of executive success’ and ‘the greatest advertiser of his own day’, was a bestseller.
Churchwell also performs a service by reviving Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt, about a Midwestern businessman, Republican and Protestant to the core, who encapsulates all that was narrow-minded, conformist and insecure during the 1920s economic boom. Jay Gatsby may be the most interesting character in 20th-century American fiction, but George Babbitt is perhaps its most emblematic.
Churchwell takes heart from the melting-pot ideal of America, but she cautions that ‘idealism is not inexhaustible; neither is democracy’ and she calls on Americans ‘to restore belief in the social contract... in the name of a reclaimed American dream’. Left hanging is the question of historical coincidence versus pattern: is there continuity between the arrest of Fred Trump in 1927 and the election of Donald in 2016?
Whatever the answer, we can lament the unfortunate decision in 1905 by the Prince Regent of Bavaria to reject an appeal for repatriation by Donald Trump’s wealthy grandfather, Friedrich, who had been deported back to the United States because of his failure to complete compulsory military service or to report his initial emigration to the New World 20 years earlier. If Prince Luitpold hadn’t been such a stickler on immigration law, history might have been very different.