Trump’s Presidency: It’s Been this Bad Before
Almost 100 years ago the US elected Warren G. Harding, a man widely remembered as the worst US president in history
As much of the country begins to come to terms with Donald Trump’s upset victory in the 2016 presidential election fear and fatalistic rhetoric have taken root in the public dialogue. Trump’s brand of racism, authoritarianism and unfettered capitalism is something that is, thankfully, without parallel in the current mainstream political dialogue in the United States.
The current political moment, however, is not without precedent.
In 1920 Republican Warren G. Harding was elected the 29th President of the United States. In the years leading up to his election the country had been worked into a nationalist, racist fervor. In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and in the face of a growing anti-capitalist movement in the US, Congress passed the Immigration Act, the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act to undermine and outlaw subversive organizing. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer was rounding up radicals in the Palmer Raids aimed at breaking up left wing resistance in the United States. Fueled by the success of the 1915 film “Birth of a Nation” the Ku Klux Klan was growing at a rapid pace and had built a national reach.
At the onset of the campaign he was considered a long-shot candidate, even for the Republican Party nomination. As other more mainstream candidates battled for the nomination the convention was deadlocked. As the process played on Harding’s support grew and by the 10th ballot he won the support of the majority of his party’s delegates and became the Republican nominee for presidency.
In the general election Harding’s campaign slogan promised the “return to normalcy.” While Harding was reminding Americans of simpler times before the First World War, Trump’s promise to “make America great again” is eerily reminiscent of this notion. Throughout the campaign Harding railed against the idea of US involvement in the league of nations; demanded large tariffs against trading partners; and called for tax cuts for the wealthy.
Harding won in a decisive victory against Democrat James M. Cox and Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs. At the time, Debs was serving a 10 year prison sentence for violating the Espionage Act in a speech opposing US involvement in World War I.
When Harding took office he appointed the ridiculously wealthy banker Andrew Mellon as secretary of the Treasury. The two made good on campaign promises for cutting taxes for the rich, passing legislation that would cut taxes for the richest Americans from 73% in 1921 to 25% in 1925. Another hallmark of Harding’s presidency was the Emergency Quota Act which capped the number of immigrants that would be allowed into the United States from any given country annually at 3% of the number of residents from that same country living in the United States as of the 1910 census. The measure was designed to restrict immigration from Italy and Eastern Europe while continuing to allow mass immigration from Western Europe. Harding also had the opportunity to appoint four US Supreme Court Justices, locking in a conservative majority for years.
The point of recalling the terrible political moment we faced in 1920 is not to present the argument that Trump’s presidency will “not be that bad,” or that “everything will be okay.” It is that bad and everything is not going to be okay.
Millions of people were devastated by Harding’s policies and things didn’t get better when he died in office in 1923. Harding’s policies contributed — directly or indirectly — to the great depression, rise of the Nazis in Germany, and the current immigration crisis. In the coming years we face the real threat that millions of our neighbors will be deported, that we will see an escalation in racist policing in our communities, and that we will see a terrifying escalation of fossil fuel extraction accelerating the already unavoidable impacts of climate change.
Faced with four years of a Donald Trump administration many in the American left have embraced a type of depression-induced nihilism committing to fighting defensive battles and trying to weather the storm until he can be unseated by a new administration. While this reaction is understandable in such a terrifying time, backtracking and turning inward will only expand the scope and influence of a Trump presidency.
Social movements don’t grow because they have the support of the state; they grow when they can present an alternative narrative to the status quo and a coherent theory of change for improving people's material conditions. In the face of an aggressive opponent in Harding, working people didn’t back down. In April of 1922, 500,000 coal miners went on strike over wage cuts in the midst of a temporary downturn in the economy. Then in July 400,000 railroad workers went on strike opposing a 12% pay cut. Both strikes produced mixed results but they held the line against a new wave of concessionary demands.
Communists, socialists, and anarchists continued to organize openly and underground throughout the 1920’s and the work they did helped to lay the groundwork for major unionizing drives in the the 1930’s. By 1933, just 10 years after Harding died in office, Franklin D. Roosevelt started signing new deal legislation into law, establishing a federal minimum wage, Social Security, federal labor law, and implementing a myriad of other progressive reforms. In the coming years millions of workers would organize into unions and transform the economy turning blue collar jobs into family sustaining occupations.
The political moment that working class people faced in 1920 was terrifying but history did not end in 1920. Within 10 years of Harding’s death we found ourselves in the midst of the era of the most progressive political change in American history. The political moment we’re facing today is terrifying, but it is also not the end of history. Together we can keep fighting through the Trump administration, taking bold action and making aggressive demands. We can not only hold back the most egregious of Trump’s proposals; we can continue to build a powerful peoples movement for social, economic, and racial justice in the United States.