Tales of Trump Nation: Searching the Past for Suitable Inspiration

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump acknowledges the crowd at a rally, Wednesday, June 29, 2016, in Bangor, Maine.(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

1. Bliss Was It in That Dawn to Be Alive

In the first installment, we saw how some leading Trump supporters first gathered at Arlington National Cemetery to pay their respects to our national heroes and then, in a separate ceremony, banded together to consecrate themselves as sentinels for freedom — that is, as new heroes for a new time.

Yes, the men and women of Trump Nation were brimming with energy, enthusiasm, and a steely sense of high purpose. As they surveyed the 2016 political environment, particularly the presidential landscape, they knew that the odds were against them, even if at least one poll from June 30 showed their man winning. But that was okay; they had defied the odds before — and won.

Yet beyond the vagaries of polls, up and down, the Trumpeters knew that the historic wind of the Zeitgeist was at their back. That is, the grand zephyr of nationalism and patriotism: It was the energy that gave them the strength to push on. It was an energy that comes when a people wake up and realize their own strength.

So of course, the June 23 “Brexit” vote — which left pundits and pollsters dazed and confused — was heartening for Trump Nation. As a matter of fact, Britain’s vote of independence from the European Union came as no surprise to Trump believers. After all, they had seen the same thing in the US in the last year; in contravention of all the experts, they had seen the rise of Trump Nation — indeed, they had helped to make it happen.

So the Trump Army could see that the issues they were grappling with were more important than the penny-ante concerns about the budget deficit, or the tax rate, or the amount of “diversity” on college campuses.

Instead, the Trumpeters were playing for bigger stakes. They were demonstrating the vast sense of possibility that comes when a people decide to declare their own destiny.

Such heady thoughts were further crystallized in a June 28 New York Times op-ed by Marine Le Pen, leader of the French nationalists; Le Pen wrote with her usual blunt clarity about Britain’s vote to assert its own ancient sovereignty:

British voters understood that behind prognostications about the pound’s exchange rate and behind the debates of financial experts, only one question, at once simple and fundamental, was being asked: Do we want an undemocratic authority ruling our lives, or would we rather regain control over our destiny? Brexit is, above all, a political issue. It’s about the free choice of a people deciding to govern itself. Even when it is touted by all the propaganda in the world, a cage remains a cage, and a cage is unbearable to a human being in love with freedom. [emphasis added]

In emphasizing the importance of freedom, Le Pen rebuked those who said that Britain might suffer economically from its decision. Yes, of course, it’s possible that the island nation will take a dip in its aggregate accounts — even if, as we know, the gains from globalism have been mostly concentrated for the enrichment of the top one percent. So it’s far from clear that some downward squiggle on a chart — important as that might be to George Soros and his hedge-fund ilk — will have any effect at all on the well-being of ordinary Britons. In any case, though, as one British nationalist said, “Better to be poor and free than rich and living under Sharia law!”

For his part, Donald Trump himself was immediately alert to the implications of Brexit. After the vote, asked about possible similarities between the UK and the US, he said, “I think I see a big parallel … People want to take their country back.”

Meanwhile, other observers added their voices as well. One such was Pat Buchanan, a figure destined to be remembered in history as the gutsy and visionary Proto-Trump. On June 27, describing the larger worldwide populist phenomenon, Buchanan noted, “It is an anti-insider, anti-Clinton wave, and Trump could ride it to victory.”

The next day, June 28, Phyllis Schlafly, an early Trump supporter, went further:

Everyone agrees that Donald Trump is the big winner of the vote. As The New York Times conceded, the “leave” voters are “eerily similar to Donald Trump’s followers, motivated by many of the same frustrations and angers.”

We might pause to observe that both Buchanan and Schlafly have one thing in common: They are well-read. They have studied their history, and that deep knowledge informs their judgments.

2. Santayana’s Warning

The Harvard historian George Santayana is remembered mostly for one quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” By now, those words are somewhat of a cliche, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t true. Santayana’s point, of course, is that those who don’t know their history will suffer from the cost of that ignorance. And we can observe, with wistfulness, that such has been the fate of Britain in recent decades.

We can start our survey by observing that for thousands of years, one European or another has had the idea of dominating the whole of the continent. First it was the Romans and their Empire. Then it was Charlemagne; then Charles V and his son Philip II of Spain; then Louis XIV; then Napoleon; then Hitler. Meanwhile, the British, on their island, opposed all these efforts at European “unity.” The English wanted to have a role in Europe, to be sure, but for the most part, they just wanted to be left alone on their island — and they had no wish to confront one giant superpower on the mainland.

That was a clear enough vision of English independence, and it guided the skill and bravery of such British heroes as Francis Drake, the Duke of Marlborough, Horatio Nelson, Pitt the Elder and Younger, and Winston Churchill. Each man, in his different era, stood tall for the sovereignty of his country. And to this day, each is hailed as a national icon.

And yet then, in recent decades, the British faltered; they forgot the lessons of past, and they fell into a trap from which they nearly could not recover. The issue, of course, was the European Union, that faceless empire based in Brussels. The Eurocrats have none of the military talent of the Romans, nor the charisma of Charlemagne, nor the demonic intensity of Hitler, and yet they do have an imperialist style of their own: In their steady relentlessness, they have the same grandiose ambition as the empires of yore.

Of course, the European Union was not a military power.  The siren song of the EU, instead, was trade and the prosperity that comes with it.

So in 1975, Britain, democratic as always, held a national referendum on whether or not it should join the EU, or, as it was then called, the European Communities. The vote was a landslide in favor of entry; the vote in favor of “In” was more than 2:1. Interestingly, among the supporters was Margaret Thatcher, then-opposition leader of the Conservative Party.

That was more than 40 years ago, when the “European Project” as it was often called, was just a trade arrangement between nine independent countries, mostly huddled along the Atlantic ocean. Little did Thatcher know that the EU would soon balloon into a continent-spanning 28 countries, with a common currency, common laws, and common courts. (Of course, a critic might point out that cancer, too, starts small.)

Even more ominously, the EU bureaucracy would then take on a life of its own. Like a Frankenstein monster, it was soon giving orders hither and yon — even as, of course, as we have recently seen, it couldn’t protect its own borders.

For her part, Thatcher soon realized that she had made a mistake in supporting the EU. By the late 1980s, when she was prime minister, she had swung into full “Euroskeptic” opposition. In a famous 1988 speech in Bruges, Belgium, she outlined some of the problems of the EU to a stunned and hostile audience. She began by stating, forthrightly as always, what she was in favor of:

My first guiding principle is this: Willing and active cooperation between independent sovereign states is the best way to build a successful European Community.

Note the key phrase: “independent sovereign states.” It was that very independence and sovereignty, of course, that the Eurocrats in Brussels were trying to smother, seeking to create, instead, a “United States of Europe.”

Yet for the most part, Thatcher’s was a lonely voice. Her own party, bewitched by the promise of trade-profits, was mostly pro-EU, and the Tories indeed deposed her in 1990. Thereafter, Thatcher, though still loyal to her party, proved to be a steady opponent of the accelerating “European Integration.”

Moreover, she applied her Oxford education to her anti-Europe efforts; as she wrote in 2003, recalling Napoleon, Hitler, and all the rest:

What we should grasp, however, from the lessons of European history is that, first, there is nothing necessarily benevolent about programmes of European integration; second, the desire to achieve grand utopian plans often poses a grave threat to freedom; and third, European unity has been tried before, and the outcome was far from happy.

Yes, that’s right: As expressed in her terse British understatement, she was asserting that the outcome of European empire-building has always been “far from happy.”

Thatcher died in 2013, so she did not live to see Brexit — which she would have adored. Still, after the wobble of 1975, her record was clear: She was a stalwart champion of British independence. And perhaps, we might even venture, she would relate to the song lyrics of her fellow Briton, Roger Daltrey of The Who, and declare: We won’t get fooled again. 

So we can see, from this little parable, the advantage of knowing history. Thatcher and her country might have made a mistake in supporting the EU back in the mid-70s, but they both came to their senses before it was too late.

3. The American People: Their Story, Our History

We, too, have had some close calls over the years, and we have been saved, one could say, only by God’s grace and some desperate quick-fixing.

Trump Nation has been brooding about this dilemma, and it has resolved, in its own highly decentralized way, to up its game. To be blunt about it, the Trumpeters have realized that they need to know more.

Some of them recalled the 2007 debate over immigration, when the Bush 43 administration, working with Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. Teddy Kennedy, attempted to bulldoze “comprehensive immigration reform” into enactment. Back then, nearly a decade ago, the arcane concept of cloture became vital to the defeat of the immigration bill — and thus was vital to the saving of the Republic. The lesson was clear: It wasn’t good enough to be a loyal patriot; you also had to be an informed patriot. And to this day, such slickwillies as Graham must never be allowed to bamboozle the people.

Miraculously, that attempt at “bipartisan” open-bordering was defeated. And then, things started to get better: In 2009-10, the rise of the Tea Party encouraged millions more people thinking about the continuing importance of the US Constitution. And since then, new constitutionalist stars, such as Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee, have emerged and thereby strengthened the country.

Yes, it’s been a lot of work for conservatives, many of them victims of public miseducation, to have to learn all the lessons about civics and the political process. But it’s been essential. And it’s what has saved us.

And of course, there’s still a lot more work to be done. Happily, history is a book — and all one needs to do to learn is to open that book. For example, to read about GK Chesterton’s 1907 poem, The Secret People, is to be reminded that the idea of a “silent majority,” loyally putting up with bad rulers, patiently waiting to be mobilized, goes way back. To read Chesterton’s century-old poem is to be reminded that we’ve been down this road before, many times, as good citizens continued to be abused by the stupidity, even malevolence, of their “betters.”

Trump has shown that he has a strong awareness of this vicious cycle of incompetence and exploitation, as well as of its origins. In a June 22 speech, outlining where the US had gone wrong on globalism, he was nothing if not frank:

We got here because we switched from a policy of Americanism—focusing on what’s good for America’s middle class—to a policy of globalism, focusing on how to make money for large corporations who can move their wealth and workers to foreign countries, all to the detriment of the American worker and the American economy.

Yes, that’s it: We switched from Americanism to globalism. Actually, we didn’t switch — our leaders switched. The mistake is that we, the people let them get away with it.

A few days later, on June 28, in his landmark speech on trade in Monessen, PA, Trump continued the argument:

We lost our way when we stopped believing in our country. America became the world’s dominant economy by becoming the world’s dominant producer. The wealth this created was shared broadly, creating the biggest middle class the world had ever known. But then America changed its policy from promoting development in America, to promoting development in other nations.

Okay, so that’s Trump: He obviously gets it. Now, Trump Nation must do its part. Obviously, it can start by helping him get elected, but at the same time, Trump Nation needs to know more of its own history, so that we don’t get caught in any more globalist traps.

We should begin, of course, with the lessons of the American Revolution and the US Constitution. Yet at the same time, we should realize that the events of the war and the writing of that sacred document have little to do with the subject of economics. Yes, the Revolution, which ended in 1783, and the Constitution, which was ratified in 1789, gave us our start as a nation, but it was only a start. Subsequent generations have had to pick up the torch, and we need to learn from them — what they did right and what they did wrong.

History is a near-endless feast of possibilities, to be sure, but here are a couple of names and incidents that have attracted the attention of Trump Nation:

One name is that of William Cobbett (1763-1835). He was British, but he spent years in America, and he closely identified with the American Revolution. Born poor, and self-educated, Cobbett made himself into a newspaperman by dint of hard work. And while he was something of a rabble-rouser, he was not at all a radical; instead, he believed in recapturing the classic virtues of honest toil, thrift, and community. When the English government shut down one of his publications, he started another one, which he called, ironically and humorously, Two-Penny Trash. In its maiden issue, Cobbett came out foursquare for work — but work that was rewarded:  

The object of this publication is to explain to the people of this kingdom what it is that, in spite of all the industry and frugality that they can practise, keeps them poor. The causes of the poverty of the sluggard, the glutton, the drunkard, and the squanderer, need no explanation; poverty is the natural effect of these vices; it is the punishment which God himself has said shall be the reward of these offences against his laws. But this nation is now in such a state that no industry, no care, no ingenuity, no prudence, no foresight, no frugality, can give a man security against poverty. [emphasis added]

And that was Cobbett’s point: The system is riggedHonest workers don’t have a fair chance. As he further explained, wealth has become concentrated into “great heaps,” and that process has created “but two classes of men, masters and abject dependents.” Cobbett’s solution was not violent rebellion; he was a reformer, not a revolutionary. Indeed, late in his life, he was elected to Parliament, where he helped pass the fabled Reform Act of 1832.

Cobbett has been mostly lost in history and maybe that’s not good. Maybe we need more citizens like him: people who will work hard, take an honest stand, fight for what’s right — and win. So today, Trump Nation is studying Cobbett; maybe we need more “trash” publications that speak truly to ordinary people. Indeed, if we get enough of them, then we’ll take this country back.

And there’s more still for Trump Nation to learn. Today, when people hear the words, “labor unions” the reactions are, shall we say, not all positive. But back in the late 19th century, unions, which were then mostly illegal, brought with them the prospect of relief from 70-hour workweeks in dangerous and unsafe workplaces.

So Trump Nation is interested in, for example, the Knights of Labor, founded in Philadelphia in 1869. As its formal name, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor suggests, the union had aspirations for more than just wages and hours. It wanted to play a positive role in the moral and social, as well as economic, lives of its members. It wanted to do good for working people. Is that so bad?

One of the Knights’ projects was the launching of the first Labor Day.

According to Linda Stinson, a US Department of Labor historian, it was in New York City on September 5, 1882, that the first Labor Day was declared. The Knights had no legal permission from the government; they just did it — they declared Labor Day. As Stinson records:

At first they were afraid that the celebration was going to be a failure. Many of the workers in the parade had to lose a day’s pay in order to participate. When the parade began only a handful of workers were in it, while hundreds of people stood on the sidewalk jeering at them.

But then:

Slowly they came: 200 workers and a band from the Jewelers’ Union showed up and joined the parade. Then came a group of bricklayers with another band. By the time they reached the park, it was estimated that there were 10,000 marchers in the parade in support of workers. The park was decorated with flags of many nations. Everyone picnicked, drank beer and listened to speeches from the union leadership. In the evening, even more people came to the park to watch fireworks and dance. The newspapers of the day declared it a huge success and “a day of the people.”

Indeed, there’s a kind of poetry in these earnest efforts of working people to put on a good show. According to another chronicler:

As the day went on, the parade included contingents from the Manufacturing Shoemakers Union No. 1 (wearing blue badges), and an especially well-received contingent from the Big 6 – Typographical Union No. 6 – whose 700-strong delegation marched with military precision (they had practiced beforehand.) The Friendly Society of Operative Masons marched with their band. They were followed by 250 members of the Clothing Cutters Benevolent and Protective Union, the Dress and Cloak Makers Union, the Decorative Masons, and the Bureau of United Carpenters (who marched with a decorated wagon). The parade was filled with banners: “Labor Built the Republic—Labor Shall Rule It” … “Down with the Railroad Monopoly”; and “Children in School and Not in Factories,” among others. The members of the Socialist Singing Society carried a red flag with a yellow lyre in its center. The banner which perhaps summed up the entire procession best was carried by members of the American Machinists, Engineers, and Blacksmiths Union (who wore heavy leather aprons and working clothes). It read simply: “Let Labor Unite.”

More than a century later, we can study these events and see, among other things, the value in creating a culture — a culture that celebrates work, solidarity, and patriotism. That’s what Trump Nation is striving for: The creation of a culture. And so it studies William Cobbett, the Knights of Labor, and many other related topics. We can pray that they succeed — and, if we want, we can do our bit to help.

As one citizen of Trump Nation put it, “Santayana’s warning can be a curse or a blessing: a curse for the unwary, or a blessing to the wise. So let’s be wise!”

This article is the second in a series.


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