'Behold, America: a History of America First and the American Dream', by Sarah Churchwell (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018)
Politics might be defined as the creation of dreams and as a process of convincing other people that you can deliver them. Central themes are liberty and opportunity – for me, for us, for them (sadly often in that order). Martin Luther King's dream went wider – towards an equality that seemed self-evidently fair and inclusive but that, for some, overturned the partisan privileges and exceptionalism of traditional social tribes.
This reveals and exposes an inevitable dialectic here – between what a political and cultural dream might aspire to achieve for a community or nation on the one hand, and the pragmatic ambitions and intentions of vested interests and incumbent power. There are times, for example, when nationalism can work insidiously against true inclusion. At other times cultural dreams can be made to seem to work in harmony with pragmatic politics, as we see with the dreams embedded in the real-politik of a greater Russia, Turkey or China. It is when dreams and political realities collide that we wonder how we got there and if there's a way forward.
In Behold, America
, Sarah Churchwell explores these issues, setting them within the framework of the period between 1900 and the 1940s. Not only is her lively historical analysis compellingly readable about the period, but it also provides a perceptive insight into modern times, in particular the 'America First' narrative of Donald Trump. Churchwell (University of London) makes it clear that Trumpian nationalist exceptionalism and braggadocio is by no means new. There were and are patterns and continuities here that merit close scrutiny, she says.
Also clear is the way in which Trump – and others like Harding and Hoover – harnessed and exploited both the dream (of liberty and opportunity) and the message of 'America for the Americans' in their political campaigns for the top jobs. They cleverly played on populist sentimentality, feelings of being left out, xenophobia and fear to garner support at elections and to build up a power base. A base centred around the dream of heroic leaders who can do no wrong and who can and will keep them safe in a world full of dangers from outsiders. Conspiracy-driven post-truth paranoid propaganda nourishes such fears, and there are plenty of enemies to go round – Nazis in WW2, Russians in the Cold War, and today the growing threat of Islam and China.
There is also the enemy within – not just the Communists that provoked McCarthyism but the wishy-washy liberal establishment, lacking the backbone to tell it as it really is – that at various times in its history the USA has needed strong leadership, one able to guarantee the liberty of its citizens, defend it against the threat of globalisation and terrorism, give opportunity to the little guy against the moguls of capitalism, keep America out of wars it didn't need or want, and maintain some kind of national identity that promoted 'people like us'.
Churchwell suggests that it was such views that led America into protectionism (in trade) and isolationism (early on in both WW1 and WW2), and encouraged growth of the KKK. Nourished by the American dream of liberty and opportunity, and at times contradicting its meaning, the period 1890-1920 saw the emergence (mainly among Republicans) of 'America First', both as a way of thinking and as a popular slogan. 'Real Americans' were white. Talk was of '100% Americans'. The film The Birth of a Nation
celebrated Aryanism. The deep south was mythologised as an Edenic myth. KKK lynchings were condoned. Warren Harding's election campaign in 1920 fused civic virtue with nationalism.
The dialectic between cultural dreams and political realities re-emerges in the Progressive Era of the 1920s-1930s, the time of Sinclair Lewis's novel Babbitt
(1922) with its satire of extreme capitalism, and of Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby
with its dream of aspiration, the use of scientific racism and KKK-inspired theories of racial purity to stem immigration, and the growth of American isolationism. Coolidge ran for power in 1924 with the slogan 'America First'. Churchwell uses contemporary cartoons and photographs cleverly to make this clear.
Then came the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression of the 1930s, a time above all for rugged individualism and patriotism, a moment when the American dream took a hammering and when arguably only Roosevelt's New Deal rescued America with its provision of work and housing and healthcare. Newspaper baron Hearst attacked the New Deal as misguided. Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men
and The Grapes of Wrath
highlighted how the American dream was a mere illusion. Everyone had a quick fix, the KKK and the Friends of New Germany among them, sharing in the dream that, like Hitler's Germany, America should adapt fascism and make it truly American.
Churchwell's blend of historical analysis and literary criticism makes this study one of particular interest. For example, in citing books like Herbert Agar's The Land of the Free
(1935), which argued that freedom was based on equality and that America's privilege and wealth undermined that, and Sinclair Lewis's It Cannot Happen Here
(1935), a satire of the idea that exceptionalism protects America against fascism, she is able to tap into contemporary popular culture and its preoccupations. Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!
, too, exposed myths of white superiority.
The historical narrative extends up to WW2. After that, Churchwell looks over the horizon of history to tease out those patterns and continuities she spoke about before. She alerts us to the sinister affinity between European fascism and American white supremacism during the 1930s and 1940s, something that has not gone away, indeed something that morphed later in the 1960s into civil rights and black power and is edgily current today.
The KKK might have disappeared or gone underground, but some see the NRA as its reincarnation and others, more plausibly, see its reincarnation in American alt-right social media. In the 1990s, Pat Buchanan's 'new nationalism' traded on xenophobia, white superiority and conspiracy. Comparisons between Hearst and Trump are more than plausible, and current debates about Fox News and fake news are reiterations of debates in those earlier decades.
'The story is full of coincidences or patterns', Churchwell suggests: for all the differences between the 1920s and the 2020s, there are 'continuities' – the ways in which democracy depends on good faith (think of Trump's contested presidential election), the conflict between decency and crime, the danger that equality can be highjacked by opportunists or undermined by materialism. She concludes that 'Americans need to restore belief in the social contract, our sense of society as a moral economy… and reclaim it'.
Pie in the sky? For the political fatalist, seeing a broken America and one losing its world hegemony, the dream is as bust as the illusions of Frank Baum's kingdom of Oz, the dreams all piss and wind to deceive the punters. Perhaps for the political realist, aware that strong-man authoritarian nationalism is the rising paradigm (think China, Russia, Turkey, Hungary), the SWOT analysis of democracy that Behold, America
describes could forecast the emergence of one time-line for the USA under Trump Mark Two. You've seen it here before: don't be surprised if it happens again. It's not the first and it won't be the last.
is a challenge to refresh our understanding of two ideas that have become slogans and near-clichés – the American dream and versions of America First. I say versions because I've heard 'Scotland First' and 'England First' as part of the shrill rhetoric of extreme nationalism. Churchwell's narrative reminds us of how insidious these slogans are. Her book could be seen as acting out the playbook of magic tricks that worked, or tried to work, in the past and go on working now – the exceptionalism that we are special and we are right, the claims party politics make that they nurture our dreams, the policies put forward that will put things right, the myths we tell ourselves to rationalise self-interest and power play, the very illusion of control. After all, it's in the nature of dreams that some of them will be nightmares: to every utopia there is a dystopia.
John Lloyd picks up the issue of truth and power in his well-researched study of news and information, The Power and the Story
(Atlantic Books, 2017). He suggests that the truth began and ended with Trump, and that such demagogues rise to power because they persuade the people that they have elected one of their own. And in bypassing and demonising the media, he can speak directly to his people. 'Media, get lost.' Only by what we know can we take realistic decisions and put any escapist dreams into perspective.
We believe that we can spot propaganda when we see it, know the difference between truth and lies, know what fake news looks like. The truth is that fake news is very subtle, just like all-too-familiar words like 'nationalism', which is not such a 'good-guy' term as it looks. Talk now in the UK about National Conservatism with its focus on the nation state, God and free enterprise. Take that to extremes and what have you got? Check back in Behold, America
to find out. We could go there ourselves. All we need is for everyone, one day, to ask 'Are you a real Scot?' or 'Who shafted Scotland?', and there to be an election the same day, for us to go there ourselves. And who was it who called it patriotism? That's another dialectic about dreams and political realities, head and heart, feelings and facts, identity and inclusion. Behold, Scotland.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is a writer and reviewer based in Scotland