It’s not just that in my part of the world today brings the earliest sunset (that is, the earliest nightfall) of the year. Nor just that the Israelis are doing unto others as has long been done to their ancestors. Nor just the stalemated conflict in Ukraine and the return of mass slaughter to Darfur. It’s not even the shadow of Orange Jesus looming up big and ugly on the horizon.
These are all hurricanes of horror (well, the last a portent thereof). I have in mind a lesser affliction but nonetheless a real and worrisome one—the slow drip, month after month mounting up to years now, of a spirit of sadness over the land, a spirit of distrust, of general discontent, sometimes of rage. A malaise.
The Unspeakable M-word
I use the m-word advisedly, remembering well how it haunted the late Rosalynn Carter’s husband when it got stapled to a speech he delivered in that summer of American discontent, 1979. (Contrary to myth, the speech went over well and “malaise” itself did not appear in the text. Ronald Reagan supplied it later to contrast with his beams of sunshine.) Pundits left and right have agreed ever since that Americans do not like to be told, per Jimmy Carter’s urging, that material consumption does not bring happiness, that their neighbor’s need ought to be a high priority, that it might be time to buckle up and buckle down to face some serious music. No, it is ever morning in America and free markets lift all boats and I am good and we are the best so God bless America.
Why then, after forty years of this fantasy, the sadness? The gloom? The resentment? Why can’t we return to the good old days when everybody rallied together, sure of a common identity and committed to a common cause? Because the good old days usually weren’t. If any one era has that glow in memory it’s the time of “the good war,” 1941-45.
Peel back the surface, however, and you’ll see a grimmer reality. As William Klingaman lays it out in his recent The Darkest Year: The American Home Front, 1941-1942 (2019), the United States in the first months of World War II was a snake pit of interest groups all seeking to turn wartime to maximum advantage. It was a year of fear, dislocation, turmoil, and deepening—not narrowing—divides. And that, notably, at a moment when the country’s percentage of foreign-born was the lowest in a century.
Franklin Roosevelt and Frank Capra managed to work their magic to bring some harmony out of the chaos. The first created a materiél juggernaut that won the war and both together nurtured a sense of an urgent cause to rally around. But film noir thrived at the time for a reason. Japanese Americans paid the most immediate price, and Joseph McCarthy reaped great benefit—and then the whirlwind—a decade later.
The Aftermath of Total War
Yet the conditions of total war don’t apply today so we need to find another analogy. The 1920s will do. Not the Twenties of flappers and ballyhoo and the radically new in the arts and literature and popular entertainment. At least not only that. Rather, the 1920s that Daniel J. Goldberg brings to light in his tellingly entitled account, Discontented America (1999).
This America was “sour, fearful, and pessimistic,” and it was born out of World War I. More precisely, out of response to the draconian measures instituted to fight it and under anxiety over what came in its wake. The aftermath included acute inflation, severe recession, and labor militancy met by violent repression.
There was Bolshevism in Russia and a “Red scare” at home. Vicious anti-Black riots ran down the nation’s midsection, from Chicago to St. Louis to Tulsa. Add to this (as Goldberg unaccountably does not) the shock left by the influenza epidemic of 1918-19—which struck over a quarter of the American population and killed at least one person out of every 200, probably many more—and you have one traumatized country.
People floundered about, and lashed out accordingly. They turned against the moralism, idealism, and internationalism behind Woodrow Wilson’s war aims. Hence the election of Warren “Return to Normalcy” Harding, he of the corrupt Cabinet and a mistress in the White House cloakroom. Hence also the rejection of the Versailles Treaty. People turned against the big government that had commandeered the railroads, regulated big industry, and protected labor unions for war purposes. But not against big government repression of dissenting opinion or the enforcement of “100% Americanism” against anything that looked foreign. By the election of 1924 it was clear: the Progressivism that fed half the war fever was dead, the nativism that fed the other half was alive and well, married to an agenda of unbridled consumer capitalism.
Going After Foreigners
Goldberg is at his best in unpacking the nativist crusades that loom large in this picture, specifically the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the momentous National Origins Act of 1924. The new Klan thrived in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest and targeted Catholics, Jews, and immigrants as well as Blacks. Its heart was middle-class middle America, the “real America.” Under its white sheets were Methodist morality police seeking to restore a Protestant nation with “one flag, one school, one Bible.” Interestingly, Protestant Fundamentalists were not part of this movement, being more concerned with evolution than Prohibition, fighting to restore true Christian religion. The Klan was about civil religion.
As for immigration reform, the National Origins Act both dramatically reduced the number of newcomers admitted and skewed them heavily toward people of northern and western European origin, away from the southern and eastern Europeans that had dominated the tide since 1890. Japanese, as earlier Chinese, were banned entirely. Support for the new system came from intellectuals as well as crackpots. It claimed the warrant of science, sounded warnings of “race suicide,” coddled up to eugenics, crimped existing ethnic institutions, and was most popular in precincts with the lowest foreign-born populations.
Our Own Time
Certain features on our scene don’t match up with this picture. Labor unions are weak but rising, not strong and being beaten down. Progressives have not met their Waterloo although the elections of 2024 might deliver that, 100 years later on the dot.
But it’s the similarities that jump out, no? Inflation. Dislocation. Distrust after the forced conformities post-9/11. Disappointing wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. Above all, a goodly share of the population ready to pounce on the foreigner and the radical, on the “vermin” at home and “rapists” abroad that a former president promises to, respectively, exterminate or put in concentration camps, thus delivering real Americans their “retribution.” What better describes Donald Trump than Goldberg’s characterization of the Klan: “bitter, humorless, and fearful of all things foreign.”
The gurus line up to show what’s wrong with this picture—that, for instance, inflation has been exaggerated and is settling down nicely after some post-pandemic disruptions. But such nostrums underestimate the trauma that the pandemic inflicted on the American psyche, a trauma compounding for many the long aftershock of the Great Recession of 2008. The trauma registers not just in the familiar deaths of despair and falling life expectancy but in falling hopes for the future, a faltering sense of control—personal, institutional, governmental—over one’s life prospects. Thus, the popularity of conspiracy thinking: “something or somebody’s running this thing, and into the ground!” Thus, the clinging to guns as the last bastion of self-defense in me against the world. And thus the rough beast rising, a messiah eyeing his second coming. Advent is the season to consider the apocalyptic.
For a more hopeful prospect, consider that, after the Great Crash smashed up the American 1920s, the nation turned to Franklin Roosevelt. But in the same year, 1933, Germany turned to Hitler. We’ll meditate on that next time.
Until then, Steve, your old gray garb is in season for a reason.