President Donald Trump is unlike any American president in personality, but his policies are old and tired. Playing upon fears of economic and cultural change, Trump’s policies and executive orders point to a mix of isolationism and intolerance – the precise practices that contributed to the Great Depression and the Second World War.
The history of Trump’s policies matters because it helps us to understand his motivations and the likely outcomes for our nation. He is promoting policies that are attractive to some but have proved to be disastrous failures in the past, and they will have similar effects today. This cautionary history should encourage us to seek alternatives to what we have seen so far.
Americans in the 1920s felt betrayed by leaders and allies who had taken them into a long and costly war that ended with the strengthening of Europe’s largest empires and a communist revolution in Russia. The settlement negotiated at Versailles created new international obligations that a frustrated U.S. Senate rejected.
Fearing radicals inspired by the Russian Revolution, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer directed a series of government raids against alleged communist sympathizers and other domestic critics, including journalists and ethnic minorities, who challenged traditional American leaders. Thousands of citizens had their rights violated, and more than 500 residents were deported in 1919 and 1920 without due process.
Warren Harding replaced Woodrow Wilson in the White House with a promise to return the country to “normalcy,” which meant a quieter, whiter and more isolated country.
Lynchings continued, the country remained aloof from emerging international institutions (especially the League of Nations), and the inequality widened between wealthy urban merchants and struggling rural famers.
The rich and poor did find common ground on one issue – blaming newcomers for joblessness, crime, and corruption in American society. Anti-immigrant prejudice motivated Congress in 1924 to pass one of the most restrictive bills in the nation’s history, the Johnson-Reed Act, which severely limited immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe and banned all immigration of Arabs and Asians.
Six years later, Congress passed the largest increase in import duties in almost a century, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, choking American trade with foreign countries.
Does this sound familiar? Trump’s early policy decisions have created conditions that are eerily similar to this earlier, ugly era.
Isolationism and intolerance in the 1920s smothered the openness and cooperation necessary for healthy economic growth. Closing markets triggered, in part, the Great Depression, cutting off the country from needed resources, consumers, and allies abroad. Aggressive anti-democratic regimes, especially in Germany and Japan, filled the international vacuum left by the United States.
It took more than a decade from 1932 to 1945 for Americans to recover from the decisions their leaders had made, and even then many families did not regain their prosperity and security until the 1950s.
Americans embraced isolationism and intolerance because they were false solutions to deeper structural problems.
Foreign competitors were rising around the globe, but instead of making necessary preparations and nurturing alliances, voters elected leaders who promised to segregate and build walls. Politicians offered quick fixes to serious problems, which made the problems much worse for nearly everyone.
These are precisely the circumstances we have entered during the past year. Trump has identified some serious problems within American society: economic inequality, social displacement and distrust in established institutions. Millions of Americans feel they have been cheated, and they blame political elites. They are looking for changes that will restore hope and dignity to their lives.
In response, Trump is recycling the repertoire of the early 20th century because it appears to address these contemporary concerns.
His ban on visitors from seven Muslim countries and his moratorium on all refugees is a restoration of the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. His withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his threat to replace NAFTA with high tariffs on Mexican imports echoes the Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930. Trump’s executive order to build a wall on the Mexican border and his denigration of NATO and other alliances is a return to the isolationism of the 1920s.
Of course, Trump has added new tactics for promoting these old policies. He uses social media to reach thousands of people without any mediation or fact-checking. There is no reason to anticipate that the policies of isolationism and intolerance that brought great suffering almost a century ago will fare any better today. In a more globally interdependent and diverse world, we should expect more disastrous results.
History does not repeat itself, but the record is clear. Putting up walls, denying entry to refugees, dismantling alliances and ignoring enemies are recipes for more American suffering, not less. We should avoid making the same mistakes again.
Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. His newest book is “The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office.”
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News.
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