Donald Trump's America has more disturbing parallels with the 1920s than racist statues alone

Donald Trump's America has more disturbing parallels with the 1920s than racist statues alone

Donald Trump's America has more disturbing parallels with the 1920s than racist statues alone

Updated 22 August 2017, 6:10 AEST

Donald Trump should look up another president who vowed to put "America first" in turbulent times, but instead ended up laying the foundations for the Great Depression, writes John Barron.

The president was the unexpected nominee of a deeply divided Republican Party, and managed to tap into something deep and disturbing in the public mood.

America was changing fast, and white men in particular didn't like it. Crime was rampant, women and minorities were increasing their economic and political strength, morals and standards were being challenged, and mass migration was changing the face of the nation.

The president was elected boldly promising to put "America first".

He soon slashed immigration and signed racist laws. Anti-Semitism and anti-black sentiment grew, while membership of the Ku Klux Klan climbed from a few thousand into the millions.

All the while, the president's personal behaviour was increasingly scandalous and he presided over a profoundly corrupt administration, stacked with old friends and cronies.

Many didn't take him seriously; in fact his presidency came to be regarded as one of the worst in American history.

He died suddenly after just over two years in office, and was replaced by a more conservative vice-president, who continued to pander to bigots.

No, this isn't a dire prediction of the future of America's 45th President, but a brief account of its 29th, Warren G Harding, and his successor Calvin Coolidge.

The KKK found open doors in Washington

The affable, handsome Harding was generally seen as more of a fool than a villain. His genius, historian John Hicks wrote, "lay not so much in his ability to conceal his thought as in the absence of any serious thought to reveal".

At least as far as we know, Harding's sexual indiscretions (and there were many) were entirely consensual, and unofficial offspring were still being identified more than 80 years later.

Nor was Harding seen as being particularly racist for a man born in the decade after the American civil war, he even passed anti-lynching laws to try to curtail Klan activity.

Yet on Harding's watch, the KKK went from historical footnote to a potent political force, setting up their headquarters on 7th Street in Washington DC and parading down Pennsylvania Avenue in front of a White House which would soon literally open its doors to them.

As Harding paid more attention to his own illegal drinking, gambling and extramarital affairs, the Klan played a hand in the election of dozens of representatives, senators and governors.

And across the United States, statues were being cast in bronze and erected in town squares, parks, courthouses and the campuses of universities celebrating the "lost cause" of the Confederate Southern states.

Meanwhile, African-Americans were again being tarred, feathered and lynched in numbers not seen since the late 1860s.

Statues with a sinister message

It's no coincidence that the statue of General Robert E. Lee that was at the centre of the recent KKK and Neo-Nazi demonstration and counter-protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, was erected in the 1920s.

Mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu, who ordered the removal of several of his city's Confederate statues earlier this year, eloquently dissected the real purpose of these monuments from the outset.

Mr Landrieu argued the statues were not simply history, but an attempt to rewrite it decades later, and to continue the oppression of former slaves and their descendants.

"After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone's lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city," he said.

And Mr Landrieu dismissed the often-repeated claim that the Confederacy was fighting for states' rights, not the preservation of slavery, by quoting the vice-president of the secessionist states Alexander Stephens in his "Cornerstone Speech" just weeks before the outbreak of Civil War in 1860.

The cornerstone of the Confederacy, Stephens said, "rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition".

That is the fundamentally racist view that Stephens held, and generals like Robert E. Lee fought five bloody years for. And the view that those who raised money to erect statues celebrated and those that want them to remain risk reinforcing.

In the Trump-era, the Klan is back, although some are more likely to wear white polo shirts than hoods and robes and call themselves "neo confederate", "white nationalist" or "alt-right".

But whether they choose to wave swastikas, confederate flags or pictures of Pepe the Frog, their message is the same as it was in Harding's time, and that of Stephens; as white Americans, we don't like the way our country is changing.