Republicans Want to Go Back to the 1920s

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.


Subversion in a Republican White House

What happened to the Republican vigilance against efforts to undermine our Constitution through internal subversion?

There are still some of us around who remember the attacks against free speech by the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joseph McCarthy, and also the focus on the loyalty of government employees. All of that was to unearth Communist-led conspiracies to undermine our Constitution from within. Politicians like Richard Nixon based their careers on protecting America from internal threats.

The end of the Cold War, as the Soviet empire fell apart, reduced national fear of international Communist subversion and brought a swelling tide of divisive partisanship. An amazing forty-five-year continuity of bipartisan support for national foreign policy allowed us to avoid nuclear war while resisting the spread of Communism. With the failure of a major external threat, bipartisanship declined rapidly during the Clinton years. The initial response to the terror attack of September 11, 2001, brought a patriotic and unifying response by both parties to the leadership of George W. Bush. Unfortunately, bipartisanship was damaged by Bush’s determination to overthrow Sadam Hussein and then challenge the loyalty of Democratic critics during his reelection campaign. The rise of the TEA Party during the Obama administration accelerated partisanship that refused to cooperate with moderate Republicans as well as Democrats.

Unfortunately, this Republican-generated extreme partisanship became a homegrown attack on our Constitution. Refusing to negotiate and compromise in order to find bipartisan solutions was seen as virtuous adherence to principle in TEA Party circles. As a result, the Republican Speaker of the House became powerless, unable to overcome divisions in his party to do anything other than pass entirely symbolic repeals of the Affordable Care Act. The Republican party that had been so vigilant against internal subversion became notable for demonizing opposition rather than trying to work constructively.

Of course, there are extremists on the Democratic left who also resist compromise and reasonable cooperation. Some of them have adopted the mantra that Democrats need “to fight like Republicans” against the policies of Trump. Their numbers and influence do not compare with the impact of Republican practice under Obama and now Trump.

Partisanship that is called principled because efforts at compromise are vilified should be seen as subversion of our Constitution. Why? Because the checks and balances of our system require cooperative efforts for the system to work. Since the end of the Cold War, our system has been moving toward crisis because of our own internal politics after the threat of international subversion seemed to disappear.

Enter the phenomenon of Donald Trump. Running for Congress or the Presidency as a “Washington outsider” and promising to shake up things people don’t like about Washington has become an American tradition. Yet those outsiders always had some form of experience in state and federal governance. Trump had never run for office before or taken an oath to be a faithful public servant. Lacking practical experience in diplomacy, military strategy, intelligence, or any field vital to national security, he asserted that he knew more than generals. For every issue, he said he was smarter than those who had spent careers in complicated fields and that he would solve problems that had seemed intractable with remarkable speed.

During the campaign in 2016, Democrats were targets of espionage that stole documents and released them on WikiLeaks in order to hurt the Democratic candidate. Rather than acknowledge this attack on American sovereignty, Trump eagerly used stolen inside information without once showing reservations about encouraging continued attacks. He used anything against political opponents that would help him win. Winning clearly was his sole measure of what was ethical. In fact, when asked after the election if he thought he had sometimes gone too far, he dismissed this valid question with: “I won.” Meanwhile, he routinely expressed admiration and approval of Vladimir Putin, the enemy of America who was behind espionage intended to interfere in the election.

Promising to bring dramatic change, Trump’s promises centered on undoing the accomplishments of Obama and undermining normal operations in Washington. America has experienced many revolutions at the ballot box that dramatically changed direction from a previous administration; but even in those revolutions there was essential continuity from one administration to another. Making a central point of systematically counteracting nearly everything done by a previous administration is overt subversion of the essential reliability of government that results from partisanship out of control.

But the situation is even worse. Republican insensitivity to subversion through out of control partisanship has even made them vulnerable to tolerating a president who is clearly mentally unbalanced and under the influence of an American Rasputin. Trump’s attacks on our allies, his efforts to destabilize NATO as Russia is trying to reestablish its empire in Eastern Europe, and his strategy of lies and false information combined with extreme attacks on responsible media reflect the growing power of Steve Bannon in the White House.

At the CPAC meeting on February 23, Bannon was brazen enough to reveal his plan for Trump’s administration. The goal of “deconstructing the administrative state” which Bannon espouses is not the traditional Republican attack on “Big Government,” a concern for limiting the power of government that goes back to the founding of our system. The strategy is intentional subversion of 75 years of foreign policy leading to a more peaceful world. He wants to return to the kind of nationalism that led to two horrendous wars in the twentieth century.

Even worse, “the administrative state” is not just the Obama policies that Trump and his inner circle want to attack. The heart and spirit of the American “administrative state” is the United States Constitution. Bannon’s rejection of our Constitutional and democratic system is not just talk. His role in the hasty and incompetent travel ban is just the first act of aggression to subvert the Constitution. Bannon’s voice sounded loud in the words of the attorney representing Trump in federal court when he claimed the President’s action was beyond judicial review.

What has happened to the Republicans who once battled so mightily against the threat of internal subversion? Why haven’t they been shocked at Bannon’s openly stated policy of subverting our Constitutional system? Why are they tolerating the reemergence of the Soviet empire under a new Stalin with active support within the Oval Office? They were so disgusted at actions of Bill Clinton in the Oval Office, so why aren’t they raging against bringing the cancer of Bannon and his supporters into the heart of the executive branch where upholding the presidential oath to the Constitution should be the first priority?

There are processes to defend our Constitution and our Democracy — but they require Republicans in Congress who value their oath to the Constitution over momentary partisan advantage. Are John  McCain and Lindsey Graham the only remnants of the Republican party so intent on defending our nation internally and externally?

It is tragic to see the Party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Reagan become the agent for undermining the United States Constitution.

Showing Respect by Talking Back

This article was originally published on

Respect for the Bible has been a hallmark of Protestantism. The authority of the Bible justified actions of many reformers who broke away from medieval traditions and promoted wide spread reading of the book that was made available in a variety of languages for all to read and interpret for themselves. Today most Protestant services feature reading from the Bible that ends with congregational affirmation that it is “the Word of God.”

Talking back to the Bible may at first sound like disrespect. When my nine-year-old grandson doesn’t do what his parents tell him with the promptness they expect or complains about their instructions, he is told to “drop the attitude.” Obedience is taken as a mark of respect and children are still taught that “back sassing” is not acceptable.

When it comes to the Ten Commandments or instructions in the gospels, obedience traditionally is seen as the right response to the eternal truth and authority of the Bible. Modern views that want to build self-esteem rather than focus on inherent sinfulness or soften harsh injunctions in Deuteronomy are taken as efforts to overturn scriptural authority.

More traditional societies – such as many in Islam, or very orthodox Jewish groups, or countries where authoritarian governments retain power – find the behavior in democratic countries disrespectful. A belief in freedom of speech goes along with encouragement to speak up for oneself. In ancient times people were executed for criticizing political leadership because acceptable etiquette meant bowing and fawning before those in the elite. Democratic societies like ours expect “due process” as well as free speech, so that there is no one in authority who can avoid multiple channels for complaints, grievances, and appeals that question actions and statements by those in authority.

Parents must insist on obedience from young children in order to protect them. Yet parents know they need to encourage the budding independence and development of self-confidence by gradually loosening boundaries as the child matures. Talking back becomes more appropriate with maturity and is the basis for supportive and interactive relationships as young people become adults. With talking back comes the possibility of real conversation, a genuine mutual sharing rather than a one-way relationship.

A traditional view of the Bible as a collection of eternal truths and commands to be obeyed seems to me to be a religious attitude that assumes a perpetual spiritual childhood that must yield to authority. Not only do people grow up, but, over millennia and with advances of human knowledge and capacity, the human species has matured through cultural advancement. Should we assume that God expects humanity to remain in perpetual childhood? Does the Bible hold possibilities for seeking conversation with God that fosters the increasing maturity of the species?

Every semester I try to teach undergraduates how to read history. Of course they don’t want to listen because they are sure they know how to read. Yet they think history is mainly factual information to be learned by rote. What they most want is a “study guide” which tells them which items to memorize. I try to show them that all history is interpretation of carefully selected information that supports the historian’s views. The key is to encourage students to ask questions that turn their reading into an investigation – into a mystery to be solved or a game to be played. The result is application of mental energy to inquiry and understanding rather than memorization. This can also be described as having a conversation with the reading.

I believe the Bible should also be read interactively so that we raise questions, challenge old views, and test the continued validity of old rules. Some interesting questions can come up. For example, the Ten Commandments tell us that God does not want to be equated with images, leading most theologians and scholars to conclude that one message to be heard is that God is beyond human imagination. Yet there is in Christianity a popular image of God as looking human, having white hair and beard, dressed all in white, and sitting on a throne. This image can be traced to the Bible. Another example that puzzles me is how the Old Testament speaks of a God of anger, justice, and mercy – but never about God laughing. Jewish comedians are many in our society and humor can be found in the Old Testament. Why doesn’t God seem to have a sense of humor? Why doesn’t God laugh?

Asking such questions leads to an interactive rather than merely compliant approach to the Bible. Marcus Borg referred to making the Bible our primary ancient partner in conversation. That is what I mean by talking back to the Bible.

Finally, anyone who is convinced such an approach is disrespectful needs to read the many laments in Psalms and other places in the Old Testament. Oddly enough people have softened the impact of the first words of Psalm 22 because Matthew places them in the mouth of Jesus toward the end of his suffering. There is nothing pious or respectful about calling out to God that you have been abandoned. Some have tried to use Matthew to suggest Jesus lost hope at the end – but Jewish and Christian traditions are filled with such cries of complaint that are still within a context of devotion to God. This is an extreme form of talking back that has scriptural support.

As citizens in a democratic society, we are accustomed to speaking up and talking back without taking it as disrespect. It’s time to apply the same expectation to the Bible.


A History Teacher Credo

One of the challenges in teaching history to college freshmen is overcoming the ingrained tendency to view history as a set of facts to be memorized. Far too few students REALLY KNOW how to read. They don’t experience reading as intellectual engagement with other minds, as an interactive experience. Therefore, they are often confused and struggle to understand what I mean when history is presented as a mentally active sport.

I have tried to explain my approach by writing a credo that guides my teaching. To get points across, I use current events to illustrate that past issues and patterns are recurring in the present in updated forms. The election campaign of 2016 and now the Trump Presidency are providing daily examples of why historical patterns must be recognized in order to comprehend political and social issues that will impact student’s lives as they become functioning adults in American society. The danger is that students will only perceive that my political views represent bias when the point is to expose them to a variety of opinions as they form their own views rather than passively mirror the ones they grew up hearing.

Here is the credo that is intended to help students view history interactively:


Expectations for this History Course

This course will present information and interpretations from the textbook along with insights and interpretations from the knowledge and personal experiences of the instructor. You do not have to agree with all that you hear – but you are expected to learn information, understand there are many competing interpretations, and that you must choose which competing values will guide your lives. Informed and active participation in current affairs will be strongly encouraged as the appropriate application of historical knowledge.

Key principles will be:

  1. History is not about a dead past but the living present.

Events from millions of years ago, as well as events in recent memory, make our lives what they are. Events we participate in during our lifetimes shape the future for next generations and the next million years.

  1. Information about the past is important, but putting it to use today and for the benefit of tomorrow is most important.

You inherit the benefits and problems from previous generations. You cannot avoid shaping important developments today – either by inaction or by taking right or wrong actions. It is better to be informed and work to shape the world in positive directions than to be carried with whatever tide sweeps us along.

  1. Our personal and cultural identities are tied to current variations in patterns that are tied to the entire history of the human species – and the future of the human species.

We are all migrants whose ancestors came from Africa and who keep wandering over the entire planet. Human beings have lived differently in the past and will continue to change ourselves and the earth. We have always changed the planet as we changed how we lived and must become increasingly aware of how decisions today increasingly effect the future of this planet and all life on it.

  1. Learning to distinguish reliable historical sources and interpretations is an essential skill for informed participation in our political system.

The convenience of information through social media and other Internet sources has promoted a deluge of propaganda, false information, and hoaxes that informed citizens must recognize on their own because the Internet does not filter out bad sources of information. All kinds of extremist groups (terror groups, racial supremacists, radical political movements) use false information to attract followers. Learning historical skills and accurate historical information is becoming increasingly important in the contemporary world.


I have become increasingly concerned about the impact of the Internet. Students are drawing most of their news of current events from social media, especially Facebook. The good news is that Facebook is beginning to perform a limited editorial role to eliminate obvious misinformation and propaganda.

The increasing spread of false and manipulative information — overt propaganda — over the Internet plus the success of Trump’s political attacks on responsible media outlets makes it increasingly important for Americans to understand and use skills of historians and journalists. Social and political values that hold together our society are under attack by manipulative Internet propagandists.

Knowing history and the skills of the historian are more important today than ever.

Back-sassing and Communication

The Risk of Talking Back

I was born in the South and grew up in a small city, but my parents came from rural Georgia and most of my uncles, aunts, and cousins still lived on farms. Poor and uncouth as we were, our children were taught basic politeness. A central rule enforced by adults was that children should never back-sass.

I just looked that term up in my online dictionary and it was not there. Sassing was defined. My term, so characteristic of old-fashioned Southern lingo, is not considered current.

It’s time for people to be reminded — by seeing the classic Paul Newman film Cool Hand Luke (1967, Warner Bros.-Seven Arts). The movie describes life in a Southern road gang, what we called a chain-gang. White prisoners found out what it was like to be an African-American in the South as they had to show subservience at all times. Officials were spoken to with deference — “Yes Sir Boss.” Any behavior not properly subservient — asking a question, trying to explain oneself, or stating an opinion — got you knocked down or worse for the sin of “back-sassing the Boss.”

The most famous part of the movie was the Captain’s response to Luke. When the Captain talked about how he tried to be nice, even though he handed out severe punishments. Luke said, “I wish you wouldn’t be so nice to me Boss.” After a brutal punch, the Captain complained about how his generosity failed to get desired results. Pointing to the fallen Luke, he said, “What we have here is failure to communicate.” Communication to him meant victims never questioning the rules or the right of authority figures to require obedience without question.

The Necessity of Obedience

Parents know that obedience is necessary for children because their immature judgment requires adult supervision to keep them safe. As children grow older, teaching them manners becomes important, especially courteous response and obedience to adult authorities like teachers and police.

But even the authoritarian needs when dealing with children must be tempered with appropriate explanation and the opportunity for self-expression. As children grow and assert natural independence, they must be able to communicate without suppression and feel that adult authority figures listen to them.

The problem is that many societies and very old-fashioned families insist on extremely authoritarian compliance without question. The United States is a democratic society operating within a constitution guaranteeing freedom of expression. Even so, there are religious, education, and political groups that hold up authoritarian standards for belief and behavior. At church, school, and in public debate democratic speech that challenges “sacred cows” can meet suppression and force that prevents open communication.

Talking Back is not Back-sassing

Part of the discourtesy of back-sassing, as viewed in the South of my youth, was an impudent tone associated with it. When I titled my book of Bible studies Talking Back to the Bible, several people told me their first response was to expect an attack on scripture. Traditional Protestant belief emphasizes the “Word of God” found in reading the Bible. Reverence and obedience are the expected response to “eternal truth” found in scripture. People also expected a book with that title to favor “historical criticism” which many Protestants view as intending to discredit the Bible.

Talking Back, as I see it, means “speaking up” — an attempt to establish genuine communication that goes both ways as opposed to suppression as communication goes only one way. Marcus Borg described the authority of the Bible as being the “primary ancient conversational partner” for Christians (Reading the Bible Again for the First Time).

As a teacher, I try to encourage interaction in the class room to engage students — engagement is a major emphasis at Georgia Gwinnett College where I teach history. When students begin to speak up for themselves, they inevitably challenge the teacher’s presentation, giving an example that can encourage others to speak up also. The students I worry about are those who will not talk in class. They remain passive in spite of all efforts to bring out their views. They also resist efforts to get them to ask questions. As a result, passive students don’t read directions for assignments carefully and don’t perform well.

My personal experience of teachers over the years was that when I found one who encouraged me to speak up and talk back, we developed a relationship that invariably helped shape my life through the personal influence of the teacher as well as the subject matter being taught. I was fortunate in always finding such relationships at every educational level.

As a lifelong student of the Bible, I also found that challenging rather than merely obeying what I found in scripture led to a sense of relationship with God that has grown over the years. However, many of those I meet at church feel intimidated by this approach to scripture. In an effort to reach people with such a point of view, I published an article: “Showing Respect by Talking Back to the Bible,”

Basic Philosophy

This article explains the philosophy of whatever you find on this blog. Our values are also explained under the About tab.

It is not possible to talk about American history, religion, and education without getting into current events — which leads directly to politics. I have strong political loyalties which will show, but my purpose is not to advance political partisanship. Pursuit of truth through honest exploration and open communication is our goal. After a political campaign and now a presidency increasingly built on spreading lies and fake news, the standards of professional history are increasingly needed. Basing opinions about religion, education, and historical debates on a search for accurate information in reliable sources, explaining them evenhandedly and with respect for honest differences of interpretation is increasingly in demand. This is the standard we will pursue whole-heartedly.