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.