EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.
Along rivers prone to overflowing, people sometimes talk of preparing for a 100-year flood—a dangerous surge of muddy, debris-filled water so overwhelming it appears only once a century.
In our political world, we are now seeing a 100-year flood of toxic debris. The sludge washing ashore includes President Trump’s continuing cries of “fake news!” and “traitors”; his rage at immigrants and refugees; his touting of an “invasion” at the southern border; and his recent round of attacks on “the squad,” four young congresswomen of color who, he raged, should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” (Three of them, of course, were born in the United States.) When he talked about the fourth, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a legal immigrant from Somalia, the inflamed crowd at his July 17 reelection rally in North Carolina began spontaneously chanting, “Send her back! Send her back! Send her back!”
Donald Trump, of course, has a long history of disliking people of color, going back to the days when he and his father tried to keep them out of their New York real estate dynasty’s apartment buildings. Presidents, however, usually find it politic to keep such feelings under wraps. Nonetheless, Trump’s particular brand of xenophobia, racism, and media hatred isn’t completely unprecedented. The last time we had a similar outpouring from Washington was almost exactly 100 years ago and it, too, involved a flood of angry rhetoric and a fear of immigrants—and it included repression on an enormous scale.
Fear of Immigrants, 1917 Version
The 100-year flood I’m thinking of lasted for three violent years during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson—from early 1917 to early 1920. Except for lynchings in the Jim Crow South, it would prove to be the harshest burst of political repression and fear-mongering in either 20th- or 21st-century America. It began suddenly when the United States entered the First World War in support of England and France and against the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Schools, colleges, and universities abruptly stopped teaching the “Kaiser’s tongue”—a move loudly backed by the ever-strident former president Theodore Roosevelt. Iowa forbade the use of German over the telephone or in public. In Shawnee, Oklahoma, a crowd burned German books to mark the Fourth of July. German music being out, marriages took place without Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March.” Berlin, Iowa, changed its name to Lincoln. Chicago’s Bismarck Hotel became the Hotel Randolf. Families named Schmidt became Smith and Griescheimer, Gresham. The hamburger became “the liberty sandwich.” German shepherds were redubbed Alsatian shepherds.
My grandfather was a Jewish immigrant from Germany and spoke German with his children. Now, however, they were terrified to do so on the street. In his 20s at the time, my father desperately tried to get into the Army, for a uniform was obvious protection from mob violence—and violence there was. In Collinsville, Illinois, for example, a crowd seized Robert Prager, a coal miner, and lynched him because he had been German-born. (He had tried to enlist in the Navy, but was turned down because of his glass eye.) In Washington, when a man failed to stand up as “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played, a sailor right behind him shot him dead.
Congress rushed the draconian Espionage Act to a vote two months after the country entered the war. It outlawed anything that would “cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military.” There was, however, not the slightest danger of mutiny among American troops sent to the Western Front in France. Many were so eager to fight that their commanders found gung-ho rear-area soldiers “deserting to the front.” Nor was there much danger of espionage. In those years, only 10 people would be charged under the act with being German agents.
The president who oversaw this particular 100-Year Flood was no Donald Trump, not in his manner anyway. Rabid invective was hardly Woodrow Wilson’s style. He carefully kept his image as an above-the-fray idealist by outsourcing inflammatory rhetoric to others, such as his special emissary to Russia, Elihu Root.
A corporate lawyer and former secretary of war, secretary of state, and senator from New York, Root would prove the prototype of the “wise men” who moved between Wall Street and Washington to form the 20th-century foreign policy establishment. “Pro-German traitors” were threatening the war effort, Root declared to an audience at New York’s Union League Club in August 1917. “There are men walking about the streets of this city tonight who ought to be taken out at sunrise tomorrow and shot for treason.… There are some newspapers published in this city every day the editors of which deserve conviction and execution for treason.”
Fake news indeed! The actual bullying of those newspapers Wilson left to Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson, of Texas. The Espionage Act gave the Post Office great powers over the press. Newspapers were censored, editors jailed, and publications shut down, most famously Max Eastman’s The Masses, the Greenwich Village radical monthly that was one of the liveliest magazines this country has ever seen. Some 75 newspapers and periodicals either had specific issues banned or were forced to close entirely.
As today on the US-Mexico border, vigilante groups sprang up across the country. The largest was the American Protective League, an official auxiliary of the Justice Department, which even enjoyed the franking privilege of sending mail for free. With a membership that swelled to 250,000, its ranks were filled with men too old for the military who still wanted to do battle, at home if not abroad. So they regularly broke up anti-war meetings and, by the tens of thousands, beat up or made citizens’ arrests of suspected draft dodgers.
Such was the frenzy in the air that two policemen in Guthrie, Oklahoma, hearing a man reading something aloud that spoke of abuses and oppression, promptly arrested him. When he protested that it was the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson, one cop responded: “Okay, where is this Jefferson? We want him, too!” When a leftist student at Rutgers University refused to speak at a rally to sell war bonds, he was stripped, blindfolded, covered with molasses and feathers, and paraded through town behind a sign that read: “This is what we do with pro-Germans!”
People who opposed the war were prosecuted by the hundreds. Among them were anarchist firebrand Emma Goldman and her comrade Alexander Berkman, put on trial for organizing against the draft. In court, addressing the “gentlemen of the jury,” Goldman asked, “May there not be different kinds of patriotism as there are different kinds of liberty?” Her own American patriotism, she explained, was like that of “the man who loves a woman with open eyes. He is enchanted by her beauty, yet he sees her faults.” The jury found her guilty and the pair was sentenced to two years in prison. “It took a world war,” The Wall Street Journal declared, “to put Goldman and Berkman where they should have been years ago.”
As in the age of Trump, deportation was used as a political weapon. The search for radicals who had never bothered to become American citizens lay behind the seizure of thousands of people in the notorious Palmer Raids orchestrated by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. The government then deported as many of them as they legally could. Goldman and Berkman, for example, were among 249 deportees loaded onto a decrepit former troopship and sent off to Russia.
The ferocity of the moment was so extreme that people were prosecuted for things they said in private. Charles Schoberg, for example, was a 66-year-old cobbler in Covington, Kentucky. Although German-born, he had lived in the United States since childhood and had been both a police officer and city council member. In the spring of 1918, a suspicious local vigilante group, the Citizens Patriotic League, hired a private detective to put a microphone in his shoe shop. An eavesdropping detective, listening in from a nearby building, picked up Schoberg and two friends making sour and critical remarks to each other about the US armed forces. A typical comment was “You can’t hold the Germans back”—not an unreasonable observation at a moment when the Kaiser’s rapidly advancing army looked as if it was about to capture Paris. Schoberg was sentenced to 10 years in prison, one of his friends to seven years, and the other to five.
“The Christian Men to Whom God… Has Given the Control of the Property Interests of the Country.”
This patriotic delirium, however, was more than just an upwelling of public opinion. It was carefully stoked. Vigilante groups like the one that snooped on Charles Schoberg or the American Protective League were heavily funded by big business. And not because the country’s industrial and political elite particularly cared about catching German spies or outing pro-German Americans. They were focused on crushing the labor movement.
In the early 20th century, American workers and their unions had few legal rights and business wanted to keep it that way. During a coal miners’ strike in 1902, the president of a railroad declared that wages, hours, and union recognition should be decided “not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country.”
As the century went on, those “Christian men” felt increasingly threatened. The public imagination had been captured by the country’s most radical union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known to all as the Wobblies. It was led by Big Bill Haywood, a charismatic, one-eyed former miner famous both for using his fists in labor struggles and quoting long passages of Shakespeare by heart.
In 1912, Haywood and other Wobblies organized a strike of 25,000 textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which was victorious despite the police and militia murders of several strikers. A Wobbly-organized walkout of New York City hotel and restaurant waiters that same year, though less successful, still caused consternation when some 800 strikers blocked Fifth Avenue, a central artery of American capitalism. The police had to fire their revolvers into the air to disperse them. An uprising of Colorado coal miners saw more than 70 people killed before it ended in December 1914—and more strikes followed.
The war changed all that, though. Since almost any industry could now be deemed essential to the war effort, the powers that be had the perfect excuse to come down hard on labor. Previously, such battles, though numerous and violent, had been scattershot: the National Guard suppressing one strike, private detectives another, sheriffs’ deputies a third. Now, business had the pretext for a coordinated nationwide crackdown—and had the backing of the White House.
On September 5, 1917, federal agents raided every IWW office in the country as well as the homes of Wobbly activists. From the group’s Chicago headquarters alone, the raiders took five tons of material, including some of the ashes of the martyred Wobbly songwriter Joe Hill, shot by a Utah firing squad in 1915 after a murder conviction based on much-disputed evidence.
In police vehicles and sealed boxcars, more than 100 Wobblies were brought to trial in Chicago. With more defendants in the dock than at any other trial in American history, all the accused were found guilty on all counts. The judge passed out sentences totaling 807 years of prison time and fines of more than $2.4 million, which, of course, no Wobbly had the money to pay. Along with his comrades, Big Bill Haywood was packed off by special train to the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. “We never won a hand,” that onetime saloon card dealer wrote to radical journalist John Reed. “The other fellow had the cut, shuffle, and deal all the time.”
The list of violent acts against American labor in these years would prove long indeed, but one of the most egregious was against a veteran Wobbly named Frank Little. He had helped organize a strike in Butte, Montana, after a fire in a local copper mine killed 164 miners. Two months later, on August 1, 1917, six masked men entered the boardinghouse where he was staying and seized the crutches he needed for a broken ankle. They then tied Little, still in his underwear, to the rear bumper of a car and dragged him to a railroad bridge at the edge of town, where they lynched him.
A note pinned to his body read: “Others Take Notice. First and Last Warning.” The police made a conspicuously minimal effort to find the killers. Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall cynically coined a pun on Little’s name. In solving labor problems, he quipped, “A Little hanging goes a long way.”
The Real War of 1917 and Today
The crackdown—including heavy press censorship—continued after the First World War ended in German defeat and the troops came home, for it had never really been about the war.
Instead, the 100-year flood of vituperation, threats, and arrests was part of another, much longer war, a struggle against those trying to rectify America’s staggering maldistribution of its bounty. In 1915, the richest 1 percent of the population owned 35.6 percent of the country’s wealth. The biggest threat to their position was the militant wing of the labor movement, hence the Wobblies were among the greatest victims of repression.
Today, the richest 1 percent owns an even greater slice of the pie: 40 percent of national wealth. Sadly, there’s not much of a labor movement left for them to crush, but the wealthy have other targets. Progressives are advocating many measures that would help rectify the gross inequalities of this America of ours, from health insurance for all to free college tuition to bigger taxes on the highest incomes to taxing wealth itself.
Suppressing such efforts is the central aim of Donald Trump and the people around him. And to do so, he has whipped up a new 100-year flood of venom against invasions of undocumented immigrants supposedly ready to steal American jobs, refugees, the “squad,” and black football players who take a knee, among others. His demagoguery has made skillful use of an old American tradition: employing differences of race to make people forget huge differences of wealth. It’s exactly what Southern plantation owners did when they got non-slave-owning whites to join them in fighting for the Confederacy.
Forty-plus percent of the country identifies with Trump, while the rest of us get outraged. He separates children from their parents at the border and puts people in squalid, overcrowded concentration camps and again the country divides into attacking or defending him. The louder the argument, the happier he is, for it keeps the attention off the real war: his ongoing campaign to put yet more wealth not just in the hands of the top 1 percent, but the top .01 percent. Americans who forget about this truly do become his apprentices.
While the rest of us are furiously disputing whether he’s a racist or a patriot, he and his friends are quietly reaping the rewards of a tax cut that was a massive giveaway to billionaires, and his administration is fast-tracking oil pipelines, opening up federal land to drilling and mining, boosting for-profit diploma mills that exploit the poor, and putting foxes in charge of every henhouse in sight from the Consumer Product Safety Commission to the Environmental Protection Administration. These are the issues that the hundred-year flood distracts us from.