Trump’s Venom Against the Media, Immigrants, “Traitors,” and More Is Nothing New

tags: immigration, American History, Trump

Adam Hochschild, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of nine books, including King Leopold’s Ghost and Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. His latest book is Lessons from a Dark Time and Other Essays.



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 twentieth- or twenty-first-century America. It began suddenly when the U.S. 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 twenties 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.

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