Sarah Churchwell sees fascism in Trump’s America.
‘We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only: America first, America first.’ So said Donald Trump, president of the United States, at his inauguration in 2017.
For many, Trump’s celebration of ‘America First’ signified little more than a protectionist, potentially isolationist approach to policymaking. Some, though, detected something rather more sinister in Trump’s invocation. Sarah Churchwell, a professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the University of London, was one. As she argues in her new book, Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream, Trump’s use of ‘America First’ and his appeals to the ‘American Dream’ are far from innocent; rather, they play on a history of racist mythmaking.
But to what extent can, or indeed should, we explain Trump in terms of a history of American racism? Is he really the fascist threat that Churchwell makes him out to be? And what of the American Dream itself? Is it salvageable for the 21st century? The spiked review spoke with Churchwell to find out more…
Ella Whelan: Why did you feel the need to write this book?
Sarah Churchwell: I had been giving a lot of lectures for many years on the American Dream, in part because I wrote a book about The Great Gatsby (Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby). And, if you write a book about The Great Gatsby, everybody asks you to talk about the American Dream. And so, from the beginning of 2016, when Trump was emerging as a frontrunner to be the Republican candidate, he was so prominent that I was tying him into some of those lectures. He actually fits in with The Great Gatsby in ways that people haven’t realised. If he had ever heard of The Great Gatsby (which, of course, he hasn’t), he would think he was Jay Gatsby, when of course he’s Tom Buchanan.
In researching the book on The Great Gatsby, I came across the phrase ‘America First’ a lot. It is very prominent in the American political conversation in the 1920s. Yet in the commentary around Trump, people seemed to miss its origins, thinking it was a phrase that emerged at the beginning of the Second World War. But it has this huge traction in American political culture for decades before that, especially in terms of the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. This is why I thought Trump was going to be so bad. That was why I realised I needed to do this book; I realised that it was my way of fighting back. As I say at the end of the book, I think that a knowledge of history can be liberating, because it makes other alternatives clear to you.
Whelan: I want to come back to Trump, but let’s start off with what you call your two protagonists in the book – America First and the American Dream. You explain how complicated their definitions are – there are some positives in America First as well as some negatives in The American Dream. But do you think they always have to be counterposed?
Churchwell: Not always, and I would say right now that they’re probably not because of the way in which the American Dream is understood as a strain of selfishness. Even at its most progressive today, as the pursuit of individual success and individual opportunity, it’s still a kind of self-centred way of looking at things. And so the American Dream feels like the individual version of the nationalist story that is America First. So by no means do they always have to be opposed. But there was a lot of evidence to show that in the debates over the Second World War they were opposed.
As you say, they are each complex and they contain lots of different elements. That’s what codes are for – people use them in order to muddy the water so they can get tweaked and repositioned all the time.
Whelan: Can we save the phrase America First? Your telling of its history – the Klan, racism, fascism – suggests you probably think it better consigned to the dustbin of history?
Churchwell Yeah, I would bin it certainly. Look, if you meet somebody who doesn’t know what Heil Hitler means, do you say ‘okay this person is just using it innocently’, or do you say ‘no, this history is so nasty that there is no point in reclaiming this phrase’? You need to come up with a new phrase that doesn’t have all of its connotations. Many who use the phrase America First and wave the flag without knowing any of the history are innocent of the connotations. But it is a dangerous kind of innocence, and not one we should protect, because some, like Trump’s advisers, do know the history and are using it in the historical sense. Once something has accrued that kind of baggage, why would you want to save it? Just get rid of it.
Whelan: Let me push you on this because there was a point in the book where you brought up the fact that both America First and the American Dream were sometimes defined in terms of sovereignty and democracy, against the League of Nations, for instance. These are ideas that are external to the racist history of America First. Do you think by focusing on the fact that the Klan used the term America First, you might lose a positive meaning of the term?
Churchwell: I don’t even particularly see that ‘positive’ meaning as a positive strain in American history, because most of the motives for resisting the League of Nations were conspiratorial. There was this idea that the League of Nations was a cabal of international magnates and industrialists and imperialists, who were going to colonise the US. I think that’s very conspiratorial and paranoid. It assumes that there is a master plan, rather than a lot of people trying to make and sustain a peace. Yes, there was a lot of land-grabbing going on and people jockeying for power – that’s just what people do. But that’s a different thing from a giant conspiracy to make the United States a vassal state of some great European empire.
I’m not going to give Trump the opportunity to find out whether or not he’s the kind of guy who commits genocide or not because I’m pretty sure he is
I allude to this in the book – the kinds of people (not exclusively) but some of the people who were opposed to the League of Nations were people who supported the Klan, because they saw all of this as being of a piece. So people like Hiram Evans, the imperial wizard of the Klan, were saying things that were very consistent with saying that we don’t want our European overlords. We’re supposed to be the overlords is the subtext – we’re supposed to be in charge. And this view of power, which is very Trumpian, is a zero-sum view of power: somebody has to lose in order for me to win. There is no collective notion of it; there isn’t any idea of mutual benefit. So, in my view, something like the League of Nations, or the United States, as constructs, were attempts on the part of people working at the time to create some kind of mutual benefit to reduce conflict, stop war, promote peace.
As I see it, America First is consistent with that Klan viewpoint – and I think it’s an ugly viewpoint.
Whelan: Moving on to the second protagonist — the American Dream. You finish the book hoping to regain its original democratic, pro-equality definition. Do you think it’s now understood largely in crass materialistic terms?
Churchwell: I think this one strain of thought in American life – individualism, which has always been there – has taken over to the exclusion of any other aspiration. And we used to dream bigger. I think humanity can do better.
For me, this is where it does come back to The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby is the emblematic American, which clearly Fitzgerald wanted him to be. Gatsby stands in for the nation as a symbol of it. But the whole idea of Gatsby is that he has all of this enormous potential (and for Fitzgerald, it’s a very artistic potential; he has these imaginative capacities and these romantic dreams). He has what Fitzgerald calls a capacity for hope. He’s ready and hopeful and he thinks anything is possible and he’s got these huge ambitions and dreams, but nothing to attach them to – he doesn’t really know what he’s dreaming of. And he grows up in this country which teaches him to attach his dreams to a big car and a big house and a rich girl. And it destroys him. And that is a kind of allegory for America. It’s not that prosperity doesn’t matter – no one is dreaming of poverty. But this country that could have been about anything, it had so much possibility, and it just attached itself to this big house and big car, and these crass… dreams.
Something I don’t put in the book is that James Truslow Adams, who popularised the phrase the American Dream in his book The Epic of America, imagines the American Dream as a public library. Why? Because it is everybody – rich, poor, male, female, black or white, from across society – in a public library, and it is funded by their culture to enable the betterment of individuals intellectually, spiritually, creatively, imaginatively. That to him is the American Dream. Nobody today would say that the public library was the symbol of the American Dream. I think that’s worth thinking about.
Whelan: You bring in the American Dream in relation to immigrants and the idea of America as the land of hope and opportunity. You explain that, to a large extent, it was used in relation to assimilation and the persecution of ‘hyphenates’ (Latin-American, Italian-American etc). But the flipside of immigrants’ relationship to the American Dream was the desire for greater wealth – America was (and still is) the place where you can escape the trappings of poverty. Surely for many Americans I imagine that is still a very real dream?
Churchwell: Sure, but the question is how much? The immigrant dream wasn’t necessarily to be a millionaire. That’s why I start the book with those examples that to be a millionaire was an un-American dream. In the 19th century, the idea of democracy was that everybody had enough but that no one was hoarding or monopolising. In the 19th century – this is way too generalising – the dream of the Irish or the Italian immigrant coming to America wasn’t a mansion, but a roof over their head and not even a home of their own. Home ownership as a dream didn’t become embedded in the cultural conversation until after the Second World War. It wasn’t even a thing; people weren’t worried about it. If you were renting at a good rate that was fine. People didn’t want to be starving in rural poverty – they wanted to have plumbing.
I’m not in any way making light of that struggle. America was supposed to be a place that made it easier to do that. But the more that you have a monopoly and inequality, the less likely that is. This is what we’re dealing with now. There are people living with unimaginable wealth and there are people living in dire poverty, in the deep South in Alabama and in urban environments like Detroit or Trenton, New Jersey.
Right now, the American Dream is being used as a fig leaf. It’s a cover for people saying, ‘Well, you failed to make the most of the American dream, it’s your fault you’re now living in poverty’. And this sense that being impoverished is an individual’s fault is a pernicious myth used by people in power to protect their privilege. I’m not saying that there isn’t a positive side to people trying to better their lives materially – the question is, where does it stop?
Whelan: You’re very careful not to present Behold, America as as an explainer for Trump. In fact, I don’t think you say that the history of either of these phrases specifically describes why Trump has happened. Is that because this view – that Trump is just the 1930s repeating itself – is now largely understood to be a little over-the-top? Were you concerned that perhaps that wouldn’t be a fair reading?
Churchwell: Actually, I disagree with the people who say we’re being alarmist. I think we’re frogs in boiling water. I think there is an enormous amount of evidence to suggest that this is exactly what Trump wants to do. Trump is not a Nazi, in the sense that he’s not Hitler, but he is a fascist in the very specific sense of Mussolini. People conflate Nazism and fascism and they’re not the same thing. He’s an American fascist, so he’s not exactly Hitler or Mussolini and it’s not the 1930s; it’s 2018. The conditions are different, and so it looks different.
I had a woman in the audience at a festival ask me the same question, and she said, ‘You know, he hasn’t committed genocide, this is hyperbole’. I said, ‘He hasn’t committed genocide yet’. Hitler didn’t start off with genocide — he was given the opportunity to work up to it. What I’m saying is that there is not a single thing that Trump has done in his entire existence that makes me willing to give him the chance. I’m not going to give him the opportunity to find out whether or not he’s the kind of guy who commits genocide or not, because I’m pretty sure he is. There is nothing to indicate that he has a conscience…
Whelan: That’s a very big statement to make – that he’s capable of genocide…
Churchwell: I can’t see any evidence to dispute it. He constantly promotes and creates laws and acts and movements that are racist. Just look at the Muslim ban; he launched his career with the birther conspiracy; he said Mexicans were rapists. Everybody just keeps apologising for this. He’s talking about immigrants as insects, he doesn’t want people from ‘shithole countries like Haiti’, he wants people from Norway. Look at Mussolini as a leader – what he believed in and what he promoted and what Italian fascism was like (much less ideological than Nazism, much more ad-hoc and corporate in its nature, about bureaucracy and people grabbing wealth)… there are huge parallels with Trump. So, no, I don’t know that he has plans to commit genocide, but then I don’t think genocide should be the fucking threshold. That’s where we stop people? I’m afraid my bar is different.
Trump voters recognised that they had a bad flu, but they voted for the plague
Everything he has done is consistent with the behaviour of people who supported fascism. And one of the reasons why I go into the KKK in Behold, America is to show that it was understood as an American fascist movement at the time. Sinclair Lewis predicts American fascism in It Can’t Happen Here in 1935 and it is Trump to a T. So, yeah, I think he is a fascist. But I think people have too limited an idea of what fascism means.
Whelan: On the one hand it seems like Trump critics think this guy has just fallen into this position and he’s an idiot. On the other hand, the history you put forward in this book is extremely complicated. There is a narrative to it, and an ideology backing it up. Does this mean you’re challenging the idea of Trump as stupid – is his use of America First actually a part of a master plan?
Churchwell: No, you just have to know that America First is a KKK dog whistle. David Duke knows that – he supported Trump when he came out with that slogan. If you go on neo-Nazi websites, they are still debating America First Nordicism; they connect America First with Nordicism. These ideas have been alive all along, they’re just underground. They haven’t researched the history of the term, but they know the basics of what it means. The litmus test is wrong – the idea that to have some sense that America First is a dog whistle means that Trump is an evil genius is wrong.
As I show in the book, his father grew up in that moment and he certainly learned eugenicist thought from his father. Let me put it this way: he believes in eugenicist thought, he just doesn’t know the word eugenicist. He believes that he’s a superior-type human. He believes he is superior, his children are superior, white people are superior, and that brown people are inhuman – he doesn’t think that they count. I do think that his advisers know this stuff – it wouldn’t surprise me that Steve Bannon knows all of this. Steven Miller also knows a lot – it’s not an accident that Bannon talks about economic nationalism, which is what they talked about in terms of America First isolationism during the Treaty of Versailles. That’s not a coincidence. It’s not a coincidence that Steven Miller wrote that he was 100 per cent American on his high-school yearbook. Those people know it; Trump is their useful idiot.
Whelan: How do you explain the phenomenon of the Obama-Trump voters, then? The fact that a large portion of people voted both for a president that ran an election described as full of hope and openness, and one whose election campaign has been slammed as closed and bigoted? If America First and racism is the blatant and defining factor of Trump, how could the Obama-Trump voter exist?
Churchwell: First of all I think it was overstated – I don’t think that they were completely behind Obama and completely behind Trump. There aren’t that many of them. There are some, definitely. But look, we have this tendency to fall into binaries and think that it’s all going to be clean, but people don’t make very rational, clean choices.
Telling this story is not suggesting that everybody who voted for Trump is racist and that they were motivated by race. I know a woman whose two adult daughters are dating a Mexican man and an East Indian American guy. And she has zero problem with that – but she voted for Trump because of taxes. People like her are rich and they want to stay rich. The issue is that Americans are actively discouraged by too many people in power from acknowledging the fact that many white people, who are not actively racist, have benefited from a racist system. White privilege is built on the ruins of slavery, the capitalist power that was accrued through slavery and Jim Crow. They don’t see their white privilege as a choice to actively disenfranchise black people, but that’s what it is doing all the time.
When voting for Trump, people did identify what the problem was – the loss of jobs, stagnant wages, growth of inequality – but they chose the worst possible solution. The idea that Trump was going to be their saviour was a joke from start to finish. Trump voters recognised that they had a bad flu, but they voted for the plague. They just got it wrong – catastrophically wrong. People wanted him to smash the system – well, great, he has, and the system was protecting you in ways you didn’t even realise.
Whelan: America is a young country, and the importance of mythmaking – whether it’s America First or the American Dream – is central to its potential success or downfall. Do you think it’s time to leave mythmaking, codes and creeds aside? Or do Americans need to invigorate what you argue is the true meaning of the American Dream: equality and democracy?
Churchwell: I don’t think we have the option of leaving mythmaking aside; I think America is tremendously reliant on those myths. It is a manufactured country that is dependent on those stories because in a very real sense that is all America is – a story and a hunk of land. There isn’t anything else that holds people together other than those stories. I think our only option is to have better myths, more positive myths. Perhaps slightly less mythical ones, and maybe more historically informed stories would be a good thing. But I don’t think you can just say no more myths.
Sarah Churchwell is Chair of Public Understanding of the Humanities and a professorial fellow in American literature at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.
Behold, America, by Sarah Churchwell, is published by Bloomsbury Publishing (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)