Teaching United States History to high school students over the years I tried to impress upon them that “history” doesn’t necessarily repeat itself (as the old adage goes) but patterns (of human behavior, sometimes described as “history”) do. So, we see what appear to be “parallel” periods in U.S. History. The 1920’s have many of the characteristics of the 1960’s (drug/alcohol use, jazz/rock and roll, racial turmoil, generational issues, etc.) and the American Revolution with the Vietnam War (an imperial power thousands of miles away tries to dominate a “ragtag” rebel army fighting on its home turf in a war of attrition), for example. Along those lines, this morning’s (“failing”) New York Times has two stories on the front page which raise the specter of historical parallel which has been lurking around since November 8, 2017 and that is, of course, the Gilded Age and the widespread and insidious government corruption it brought with it.
The lead story in the Times is China Recognizes Kushner as Path to the President and the second lead is Trump’s Staff Mixed Politics and Paydays. Why does all this smack of “Gilded Age” history? Let me give you an excerpt from an Advanced Placement United States History website for starters.
Adding to the problems in Gilded Age politics was the spoils system, whereby a newly elected official distributed favors to his friends, relatives, and political supporters. Often these favors came in the form of government jobs. Nepotism, or giving jobs to one’s relatives, combined with patronage, or giving jobs in payment for political favors, sapped the vitality of government. Besides passing out political jobs to more than the usual number of party cronies, Grant reportedly installed several dozen of his wife’s relations in jobs with the federal government.
https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/topics/gilded-age-scandal-and-corruption/ (Bold, mine)
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? As we watch the Son-in-Law-in-Chief acquire more and more power, it is difficult not to see some parallel. Back in 2007 Jack Beatty, a senior editor at the Atlantic wrote a book about the Gilded Age entitled The Age of Betrayal. (For those who can’t remember their high school U.S. History class, The Gilded Age – a title taken from an 1873 Mark Twain novel – is generally understood to be the post Civil War period, 1865-1900, from Lincoln’s death to Teddy Roosevelt’s accession to the Presidency) Beatty’s book (as summarized by Karen Bacon, an Atlantic staff writer) describes the period this way:
Yet by century's end, sharecropping had replaced slavery as a way to keep blacks working in penury, and the voting rights so recently granted were taken away. The industrialization of the country, which brought so much wealth to so few, left most of the rest struggling to get by as wage laborers, working for someone else in the factory or on the farm. And wealth influenced and co-opted the government at all levels, through unregulated campaign contributions, vote buying, and similar machinations.
Beatty leaves it to others to describe the glamour of the Gilded Age. Instead he makes viscerally clear the grinding poverty, the bloody racial hatred, the violent labor strikes, and the corrupt politics that also characterize that era. And he makes clear, too, the parallels with our own time, where once again a yawning gap has opened between rich and poor, and political influence is available for the taking by anyone willing and able to pay.
(June 2007 in The Atlantic)
Karen Bacon was pointing out “parallels with our own time” writing in 2007! Before the Crash & Obama’s election, before Citizens United, before Trump’s election --- she notes “parallels with our own time.” What we are seeinga decade later, in 2017, is a far stronger parallel to the descriptions presented in the AP U.S. History text and the introduction to an interview with Jack Beatty. One of the first things Beatty points out in that interview is this:
Government for the people, a despairing Rutherford B. Hayes noted in his diary, was supplanted in the Gilded Age by "government of the corporation, by the corporation, and for the corporation."
Ironically, Rutherford B. Hayes, elected in 1876, did not win the popular vote and was given the office of President by a “Special Commission” because the election results were disputed (like our own 2000 election which, of course, The Supreme Court decided). The bottom line here is obvious, with the advent of the Trump phenomena we can see the parallel to the Gilded Age and all its ills --- the corruption via money, the nepotism, the gaping gap between rich and poor, the racial divide, etc.
What “ended” the Gilded Age was, of course, was The Progressive Era --- a time when Teddy Roosevelt’s leadership along with a battalion of “muckrakers” like Jacob Riis, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, and Ida Tarbell, to name a few, energized change that led to better conditions for (generally white) working people with at least some regulation on business. (Some progress was made in rights for women, too, although TR’s imperialism was less than a boon for Asian or Latino immigrants --- even though he was the first environmentalist President, starting the National Parks system, etc.)
Trump and Bernie Sanders sounded like Populist Reformers as they campaigned but we’re seeing that the elected Trump is simply a con man and a liar who is feathering the nest for his family and corporate cronies. What is needed, it seems, are some legitimate Progressive reformers and “muckrakers” to rouse the ire and energy of the public. Whether that’s possible in a nation as divided as ours is remains to be seen, but we may want to look at what “Progressives” stood for in the early part of the 20th century. That may be our own parallel pattern in creating a blueprint for a future. And that’s what we’ll look at in tomorrow’s BLAST.