What Might Eugene Debs and Donald Trump Share?

What Might Eugene Debs and Donald Trump Share?

What Might Eugene Debs and Donald Trump Share?

Trump, too, may campaign from a prison cell.


Donald J. Trump has been trampling presidential precedents right and left as he slouches toward Washington. Among them: the first indicted candidate ever. Also: the first candidate who wants to be president so he can pardon himself.  

If Trump is tried and deservedly clapped in the hoosegow before he has a chance to pardon himself, there’s one record he cannot chase: becoming the first presidential candidate ever to campaign from a prison cell. That distinction belongs to the great labor leader Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party’s 1920 candidate.

When the party nominated Debs that year for his fourth run for president under its banner, he was doing hard time in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta. His crime: violation of the Sedition Law, a measure President Woodrow Wilson, worried about the unpopularity of America’s 1917 entry into the war in Europe, rammed through Congress. 

The conflict in Europe had settled into a stalemate after three years of slaughter. Neither side seemed capable of winning. As it turned out, it took the intervention of fresh American troops to tip the balance for the Allies and bring the war to an end in November 1918. The cost: more than 116,000 Americans killed in action.

Debs, a fiery orator, had opposed Wilson’s intervention from the start. In a June 1918 anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, he talked himself into some very serious trouble.

In his speech, he said, among other things: “They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people.”

Nearly one thousand citizens were arrested for violations of Wilson’s 1918 Sedition Act. This law, upheld by the US Supreme Court, banned all “abusive language intended to cause contempt, scorn…as regards the form of government of the United States or Constitution …urging any curtailment of the war with intent to hinder its prosecution; advocating, teaching, defending, or acts supporting or favoring the cause of any country at war with the United States, or opposing the cause of the United States.” Debs was arrested, tried, and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

So now Trump (who would be horrified to find himself in Debs’s company) presents himself as another free speech martyr for attacking, inter alia, Biden and his “band of closet thugs, misfits and Marxists.” 

If Trump does become the second American presidential candidate to campaign from a prison cell, America will face a great comedown from Gene Debs.  

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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