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American Midnight by Adam Hochschild and Our Own Worst Enemy by Tom Nichols

January 1, 2023

How much can fear and anger distort our democracy? How willing are we to put political power of democratic principles? How committed are we, really, to the foundational ideals of the American experiment?

This book pairing was coincidental. I came to American Midnight through my interest in World War I. And I’m a fan of Tom Nichols as a rational, level-headed voice amidst all the noise of our political media. It turned out that these two books have a lot in common. They’re both about how the politics of grievance can lead to the rise of illiberal ideas and push a democracy toward authoritarianism.

One book focuses on 1919. The other is about now.

American Midnight: The First Red Scare, 1919

I’d always thought that the end of Great War kicked off the Roaring Twenties, like a decade-long victory party. In reality, the early 1920s was a nasty time for the United States. It saw unprecedented racial violence, xenophobia, fear mongering and a trampling of civil liberties. American Midnight is about this dark wrinkle in American history.

The end of the Great War simultaneously brought millions of American soldiers back home and ramped down wartime mass production. As a result, the number of available jobs declined rapidly.  

 Returning vets also found themselves in competition with immigrants from Eastern Europe and Blacks who had fled north as part of the Great Migration (written about beautifully in Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns).

This economic competition stoked resentment among racial groups and socioeconomic classes. At the same time, organized labor was gaining power, putting workers in conflict with owners. And overseas, the Bolsheviks had come to power in Russia, which ratcheted up suspicions of the growing socialist movement and Communist Party in the U.S.

It was a powder keg that didn’t take long to blow.

The summer of 1919 was dubbed The Red Summer for the violence that broke out across the country as Black servicemen returned to their communities. After having just put their lives in peril for their country, they were less willing to submit to intimidation from whites. Race riots broke out in thirty-eight American cities, small and big. Millen, Georgia. Pickens, Mississippi. Bisbee, Arizona. Longview, Texas. Port Arthur. Charleston. Norfolk. Indianapolis. Knoxville. Syracuse. Austin. Philadelphia. Omaha. Baltimore. New York. Four days of violence in Washington, DC. Chicago saw over 1,000 Black family homes burned.

But The Red Summer was just a few months in a long reign of terror against Blacks by hateful white mobs. Hundreds of Black men, women and children were lynched between 1917-1923. Black homes, businesses, even entire Black towns were destroyed. The East St. Louis Massacre. The Elaine Massacre. The Ocoee Massacre. The Rosewood Massacre. The Tulsa Massacre.

Most of the violence against Blacks at that time was carried out by disorganized, impromptu mobs. But organizers of hate saw opportunity in the violence. Stoking fears about the dangers of integration, the dangers of Black communities, the dangers of Black men around white women, they presented a solution: the KKK. After nearly dying off in the decades following the Civil War, the KKK found a resurgence starting with the 1915 release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the blockbuster film in which the KKK is literally the savior. Membership in the terrorist group grew through the decade; by 1924 it had reached 4 million.

World War I was also a time when labor created more organization and gained more power. Dependent on continuous production, President Woodrow Wilson established the National War Labor Board in 1918, requiring managers to negotiate with unions. But after the war, as the labor market shrank, this relationship grew strained.

Looking to lock in gains from the war years, organized workers went on strike in several major industries — steel, coal, meat, telephone operators. But it was poor timing for a strike. With high unemployment, plenty of Americans were willing to cross picket lines for work.

Employers and politicians played on rising suspicion of Bolshevism to paint the strikers as socialists or at least Communist sympathizers (the origin of the word “pinko”), and used the strikes as evidence that there was a massive Communist presence in the U.S. attempting to overthrow the government. This was not completely unfounded — there was a relatively small Socialist movement, a small-but-active Communist party (about 50,000 members), and proclaimed anarchists milling about. But the threat was hardly existential.

Still, politicians saw an opportunity to whip up fear for their benefit, and the government’s response was oversized and draconian. This first Red Scare led to a shocking crackdown on free speech and civil liberties, particularly among Italians and Eastern European Jews, including mass deportations, illegal surveillance, imprisonment and torture of Americans by the government, and the infamous Palmer Raids in 1919 and 1920.

American Midnight is a cautionary tale. It shows a moment in our history when Americans let economic pressures, racial tension, fear and anger all get swirled together in a combustible cocktail that resulted in massive American-on-American violence, a repression of civil liberties, and a large-scale violation of the values our country was supposed to be modeling.

It pairs well with Our Own Worst Enemy because it is a case study in what we’re capable of when we let fear and anger drive us. Almost every war is accompanied by anti-democratic tendencies: rampant nationalism, crackdowns on civil liberties, persecution of minority groups, a rise in suspicion of The Other, whoever that might be. It’s not good, but it is unfortunately normal during wartime.

In Our Own Worst Enemy, Tom Nichols proposes that there’s evidence that this has changed. He sees a new willingness of large swaths of the population to embrace anti-democratic ideas without the war.

Our Own Worst Enemy: 2021

Nichols lays out a compelling case that the forces of illiberalism are coming from within the house. While in the past it required wars to stoke the fear, resentment, and mindless nationalism that led us to authoritarian behavior, our modern mix of political polarization, click-for-a-fix media models, narcissism and general ignorance seem to be doing the trick.

Nichols postulates that despite surviving centuries of conflict with foreign powers, democracy might be most vulnerable in a time of relative prosperity and peace.

There is a growing disillusionment with the world, with the “elites” that run it, with the immigrants that are ruining it, with the fools on other side of the political fence, with “the system.” This anger and resentment is stoked by politicians for their own gain, amplified by the media for profit, and exacerbated by technology. But it is from, for, and by The People.

“Liberal democratic government, with its notions of equality, tolerance and compromise, is under assault from political movements and ordinary citizens who believe their interests and their futures are being subverted by malign forces at home and abroad. These citizens are turning to illiberal and antidemocratic alternatives, including a gamut of aspiring demagogues whose appeals run from know-nothing populism to blood-and-soil nationalism.”

Nichols sees this around the world: Bolsinaro in Brazil. Erdogan in Turkey. Trump in the United States. Fueled by an angry and resentful populism, electorates are turning to increasingly authoritarian leaders. Importantly, this isn’t a reaction to foreign threats.

“The citizens of the world’s democracies now must live with the undeniable knowledge that they are capable of embracing illiberal movements and attacking their own liberties as a matter of their own free will, rather than as the result of disaster or foreign conquest.”

It’s not a left/right issue. He points out that the views of “enraged populists on the right” and “would-be revolutionaries of the left” are often indistinguishable. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren make populist appeals that, stripped of the context of political parties, sound like Trump.

It’s a politics of grievance. Of outrage. Of fear. Of misinformation. Where the main point of the news is not to create an informed populace, but an angry, embittered one. Someone is shafting you. There is a global cabal aligned against you. A system rigged against you. The world is in flames and about to get worse.

The big problem, regardless of the flavor, is that “populism is inherently divisive, as it singles out specific groups as distinct from the people.” Elites. Big corporations. Wall Street banks. Immigrants. Journalists. Intellectuals. The media. The Woke. Rednecks. Silicon valley. Academia. Globalists.

Once everyone is sufficiently riled up, and once they have an identified enemy. They just need a savior. A person who speaks their language, articulates their grievances. A person who is both animated and animating. A person who can lead them from the wilderness.

The danger is that this person can also be an ignitor. It doesn’t take much for that savior, once everyone is sufficiently riled up, to point a finger at the aforementioned enemy and say, “Get em!” Nichols asks us to consider that just before the 2020 Presidential elections, a third of Americans said it is justifiable to use violence to advance political goals.

He points to Trump’s “American Carnage” inaugural address as an example of an attempt to create a coalition of the aggrieved. Trump painted an apocalyptic landscape, (“Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories, scattered like tombstones”) despite the relative prosperity of the country. He blamed a “small group in our nation’s capital.” He told them he was coming to town to clean up the swamp and give them their country back.

I would point to his speech, four years later, as an even better example. In that speech, he would claim that the people had been cheated, the election stolen by “radical-left Democrats” and “the fake news media” and “big tech.” That “For years, democrats have gotten away with election fraud.” That the electoral system a “criminal enterprise” etc.

Nichols notes the “signs of a growing irrational and illiberal self-indulgence” among voters and the people they elect. QAnon members on ballots and in government. Legislators who have made multiple attempts to bring weapons onto the floor of the House. Officials who don’t just trample the norms of democratic ceremony, but are seeking to rewrite the rules of our democratic system altogether.

Very little of this, Nichols contends, is rooted in true grievance. It’s not an army of the poor marching on the Capital, women marching for the right to vote, or the Civil Rights movement. These are grievances largely “rooted in notional injustices and imagined dangers.” A rage that “comes overwhelmingly from cultural insecurity, inflated expectations, tribal partisan alliances, obsessions about ethnicity and identity, blunted ambition and a childlike understanding of the limits of government.”

This is an insightful and thought-provoking book. Nichols, a former Republican (who laments that the current party bears little resemblance to the conservative party he once supported and worked for), can come across as bit of a grump. At times a bit of a scold. But he’s level-headed. It’s hard to dismiss him as a Chicken Little.

Even as we’ve passed an election where QAnon candidates, election deniers and vapid celebrity grandstanders were pretty roundly defeated, we shouldn’t rest easy. Nichols calls the current variety of demagogues the “prototypes” and warns that they’ll be back. Because “they’ve seen a demonstrated market for what they’re selling.” As others have pointed out, Trump wasn’t the problem — he was a symptom.

“When successive generations in democracies across the world think it is less and less essential to live in a democracy, with the youngest citizens among us the least interested in democracy, that’s not just trouble, but trouble for the foreseeable future.”

To bolster our democracy, he offers a range of solutions, from how we define the role of our political parties, to the role of the military to the role of social media. It’s not enough to say this is an uplifting book overall, but it’s good to know we’re not totally hosed.

Hyperbolic statements about the end of democracy, the existential threats to the country, assaults on our way of life — they can help us head off trouble or they can be used to justify troublemaking. We should all be very wary of the finger-pointers, whether they’re politicians, bloggers, or a news media website where most of the stories are aimed to stoke culture wars. The more riled up The People get, the more susceptible we become to demagogues. The more likely we are to turn on our fellow Americans. And the more likely we are to discard the stated values of our democracy.

If American Midnight is a historical cautionary tale, Our Own Worst Enemy is a cautionary tale in real-time.

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