We survived four years of Donald Trump, but he just won’t go away. Like a zombie, he’s now trying to come back from the politically dead. And, given today’s toxic political environment – where anything goes, no matter how ugly or extreme – that very prospect has raised fears of democracy destroyed.
Civil libertarians warn about what Trump Redux might look like: declaration of martial law; armed white mobs attacking homes and businesses of law-abiding Black Americans; FBI agents rounding up and deporting anybody who dares criticize the president; magazines and newspapers censored by the government; publishers thrown in jail for publishing articles critical of the government; American Jews deported and would-be Jewish immigrants denied entrance to the country; and labor unions declared illegal and shut down.
You think that could never happen? Think again! As historian Adam Hochschild reminds us, it already has. Once before. Here in the United States. Between 1917 and 1921. During and right after World War I. Under President Woodrow Wilson.
It’s all laid out in Hochschild’s new book, “American Midnight,” one of the most powerful, deeply researched, beautifully written, and scariest books I’ve ever read. For those of us who thought we knew American history well, this is a period that has largely escaped attention. Perhaps because we’re ashamed of it. And should be.
Or perhaps because we still naively think of Woodrow Wilson as a great progressive, which he clearly was not. Yes, he deserves credit for some progressive achievements: introducing a progressive income tax, eliminating child labor, sponsoring anti-trust laws, adopting an eight-hour work day, and devoting his life to preserving world peace through the League of Nations. But at the very same time Wilson was engaging the United States in a war for democracy in Western Europe, he was presiding over a war against democracy at home. Wilson was, in fact, a lifelong racist and anti-Semite.
Under Wilson, the years 1917 to 1921 represented a total breakdown of democracy. It was America at its worst. At every level, led by Wilson’s Justice Department, governments acted to crush dissent, deny civil liberties, and foment and forgive political violence against African-Americans, immigrants, Jews, labor unions, anti-war activists, and the media.
With Wilson’s knowledge and blessing, Postmaster General Albert Burleson declared over 70 magazines and periodicals “unmailable,” simply because they dared question U.S. involvement in World War I. Unable, in the pre-internet age, to reach readers, they simply shut down. Meanwhile, operating under the Espionage Act, which had nothing to do with “espionage,” the government arrested hundreds of people who expressed opposition to WWI, including Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, who won 6 percent of the popular vote in 1912. Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his argument that “men were fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder.”
Because of their wartime push for better working conditions, labor unions were another target, especially the Industrial Workers of the World, or “Wobblies,” whose colorful organizing tactics drove the Wilson administration crazy. In April 1918, in what is still the largest civilian criminal trial in American history, 112 Wobblies were found guilty and sent to prison – not for acts of theft, sabotage, or violence, but solely for words they had spoken or written critical of the government.
As in any war on civil liberties, immigrants were another prime target, especially those who did not reflect what Wilson called his “old Colonial white stock.” The government practically shut down immigration from southern Eastern Europe – Italians, Poles, and Jews – thousands of whom ended up victims of the Holocaust.
But, no surprise, the worst abuses were what Hochschild calls “white race riots,” attacks on African-Americans by mobs of armed white vigilantes – an early version of today’s Proud Boys – with the tacit, if not open, support of the federal government. Dozens of blocks of Black homes and businesses in East St. Louis, Illinois, destroyed in spring 1917. Thirty-five blocks of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma, wiped out in May 1921. More than 70 African-Americans lynched by mobs in 1919 alone, including 17 World War I veterans – three of whom were murdered in their uniforms.
And over all this mayhem presided the “progressive” Woodrow Wilson. Reading “American Midnight” is a chilling reminder of how close we came to the loss of civil liberties under Donald Trump and a powerful warning about why he should never be entrusted with power again. The total breakdown of democracy? If it happened once, it could happen again.
(Bill Press is host of The BillPressPod, and author of 10 books, including: “From the Left: My Life in the Crossfire.” His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org. Readers may also follow him on Twitter @billpresspod.)
©2022 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.