Are Republicans the party of change, as was promised in the campaign of 2016? The word “change” sounds positive, implying doing something different that makes things better. But what if so-called change is really change-denial? Closer examination reveals that Donald Trump’s theme of “Making America Great Again” was not forward movement but rather a futile effort to go “back to the future.”
The first two months of the Trump administration have revived discussion of the crimes and downfall of Richard Nixon. Already Trump and his inner circle are looking like a remake of the Nixon story of corruption, lies, and obstruction with a bunch of new characters. But there is another historical parallel that needs attention, one that demonstrates how Trump and the Republican Party represent change-denial.
Trump’s promise to restore the conditions of a lost past (Making America Great Again) repeated the successful Republican strategy of 1920 when an America tired of Progressive reform and involvement in a European war was promised a return to the “good old days,” to “Normalcy.” Not only does Trump’s theme imitate Warren G. Harding, Republican policy ideas represent an attempt to return to the America of the “Roaring Twenties.”
What makes the 1920s so appealing to Republicans? Domestically, American-style manufacturing outclassed the world as Henry Ford’s assembly-line process turned out record numbers of automobiles at low cost. Republican domestic policy returned to freewheeling capitalism. Taxes were lowered on the rich, spurring an economic and stock market surge that became the Republican ideal of what happens when regulatory limitations and taxation don’t hamper business. As the economy soared, the belief slowly grew that a new stage of history had been achieved, a New Era with unending growth and prosperity.
Politics was also freewheeling. Many of President Harding’s cabinet appointments belonged to his “Ohio Gang” of friends and some of the richest men of the time. Public business was mixed with personal gain, leading to a string of scandals (including the Teapot Dome bribery scandal) and criminal convictions.
Internationally America profited as former allies in the Great War suffered. The financial ascendancy of London and Paris moved to New York during the war as former allies and Germany became our debtors. Rejecting the internationalist policy of the League of Nations, Republicans preferred concern was getting Britain, France, and Germany to repay loans. Imposing and raising tariffs sought advantage for American industries and farmers as the ability of European debtors to recover from war and pay loans became more difficult because of our economic nationalism.
The message of “Making American Great Again” and actions in the first sixty days of the Trump administration make clear the effort to return to policies and ideals of the 1920s – manufacturing leadership, absence of government regulation of business, tax cuts for the wealthy, economic nationalism including tariffs, and cronyism combined with ethical blindness that are already suggesting scandals bigger than the 1920s. But this just scratches the surface.
Republican ascendancy in the Roaring 20s thrived on extreme laissez faire preference for business and the wealthy in the guise of realizing freedom. Laissez faire, as advocated by Adam Smith, limited government economic involvement to protecting the right of private property, putting complete trust in self-correcting markets whose excesses would be overcome by an “invisible hand.” This was an atmosphere in which helping ordinary people hurt by the economy was considered immoral and unconstitutional. The concept of entitlements arrived with the New Deal as the right of citizenship (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness) became the basis for programs like unemployment insurance, Social Security, and aid to the old, blind, and disabled, along with help for mothers and children. This was also before the emergence of the United Nations with its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as before the civil rights gains of the 50s and 60s.
House Speaker Paul Ryan is known for his desire to “de-federalize” programs, beginning with Obamacare then continuing to Medicare and Medicaid. Such conservative Republican ideals intend to abolish the idea of entitlements, which extremists in the “Freedom Caucus” erroneously insist are socialism. In short, what Republicans are now calling conservatism is a return to the federal role of the 1920s.
How about human rights? Trump’s assault on immigrants in general and especially Muslims and Hispanics renounces the concept of human rights. Trump’s phantom excuse for a Secretary of State follows the President’s example by ignoring human rights as an American policy or even a concern. The 1920s were also a time for bigotry against immigrants. The targets of the Johnson-Reed Act were immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe along with Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian peoples. The Ku Klux Klan was revived in the 20s and spread nationwide by adding immigrants to African-Americans as targets.
Can America return to the glory of the 1920s? Obviously not! Technological, scientific, and social changes over the last century require adjustment of early capitalistic ideas to a world that has been irrevocably pulled together by transportation, communication, and human rights revolutions. So-called conservatism that idealizes the 20s represents denial of change, not attempts at genuine change.
What’s wrong with trying to deny the change experienced since 1920? It is a political strategy that ignores the ongoing rate and pace of change that is perhaps the leading issue of our time. Recognizing the problem of accelerating change which bombards every social, economic, and political system with wave after wave of revolution is imperative. Denying change by refusing to believe science or claiming to follow conservative principles is symptomatic of unhealthy paralysis of ability to adjust to ever-revolutionizing reality. Extreme defensiveness coupled with attacks on those who challenge untenable positions are symptoms of change-denial.
The more Trump and his supporters look to the 1920s as the model for answers, the more their hostility will grow and change-denial will become increasingly untenable. NATO is weakening as a new Stalin uses the Internet along with traditional brutality to undermine democracies and expand Russian domination. This is a particularly bad time for paralysis in the United States because of change-denial.