We must take note of America’s unique ability to develop populist demagogues — at the rate in which it does — whose condescending vitriol always finds fertile ground through which to germinate and yield nationally catastrophic results.
Donald J. Trump and Trumpism are not unique to the American narrative. In fact, Trump’s archetypical strategy of demonizing opponents and outsiders is the natural and prescribed method by which nativist populists and proponents of Americanism launch their campaigns.
In the 1840s, Lewis Charles Levin, an American politician, native of Pennsylvania, would instigate a thunderous race riot in Philadelphia against immigrants, primarily Irish immigrants and Catholics. You see, Levin disdained the idea of Romanism disrupting the theo-political control of protestant America. So much so that on one particular day, he built himself a makeshift soapbox and began channeling his hate from that mini-platform. His vitriol animated Philadelphia regulars to the point of violence. The riot that ensued, the violence and destruction of property, that of Irish immigrants, Catholics, and Black Americans, were all Levin’s fault. This riot, and his rhetoric, launched his political career even further and on that point, namely, hatred of immigrants and Catholics, he started the Know-Nothing Party; a violent anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic political party. The Know-Nothing Party (they called themselves this because every time they were apprehended by the police for rioting and pillaging, they were asked what political party they belonged to, to which they would say, “I don’t know nothing.”) The Know-Nothing gang and sentiment would spread from Philadelphia to Ohio, New York, Maryland, and even California. Instigating violence against immigrants wherever they went, blaming “outsiders” for economic woes, immorality, pestilence, and the devaluation of American ideals. Shortly before the start of the American Civil War, Levin was institutionalized and died of “insanity.”
And in the 1870s, another demagogue named Denis Kearny, an Irish immigrant who settled in San Francisco, California, would also instigate violence against Chinese immigrants and laborers by blaming them for the city and the state’s financial ruination. In fact, Kearny’s Kearnyism launched a wave of riots in San Francisco that led to the death of many Chinese immigrants and the destruction of San Francisco’s wharf and Chinatown; and its wealth with it. Kearny would later launch a local political movement called the Workingmen’s Party of California, later known as the Socialist Labor Party.
In the 1950s and 1960s, America would again be sabotaged by the likes of Joseph McCarthy, a Republican U.S. Senator, and George Wallace, former governor of Alabama, a Democrat. These two men elevated their political platforms, one, by demonizing anyone who affiliated themselves with Communist Russia. McCarthy’s McCarthyism would be the advent of the Red Scare, a series of witch-hunts that found Americans usually under surveillance, at times by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for minor offenses, like, disagreeing with McCarthy’s tactics or disagreeing with segregationist views. McCarthyism would fan the flames of the FBI’s unlawful surveillance of American citizens, namely, Civil Rights activists, most notably, its incessant obsession and surveillance of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. McCarthy’s nationalistic fanaticism would pit police and federal forces against non-violent Black Liberation movements as well.
George Wallace’s staunch segregationist vitriol would solidify him as a savor of White Rule for Southern Jim Crow aristocrats who despised the idea of a racially integrated South. Wallace pegged Civil Rights activists as agitators, criminals, and unAmerican entities who wanted to disrupt the peace. Wallace would eventually denounce his racist rhetoric, attributing his change of heart to his newfound faith. His poisonous rhetoric, however, was here to stay.
And in 2015-2016, we saw the resurgence of nativist sentiments in Donald J. Trump’s birther movement, attempting to discredit the office and administration of Barack Obama, America’s first African American president. Donald Trump would later accentuate his right of passage by blaming the woes of American society on Mexican Americans and Latin-American immigrants, by calling them criminals, rapists, murderers, and vowing to restore the purity of American identity, namely, American identitarianism, by building a border wall that would protect America from immigrants. Donald Trump would fan the flames of nativism and racism once more by attempting to prohibit certain Middle Eastern immigrants from entering the United States of America in an attempt to thwart the spread of ISIS militancy. He portrayed Muslims from the Middle East as extremists, a dangerous and erroneous strategy. This tactic was used before in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigrant Act of 1924, which barred Chinese and other nationals from entering the country because of their race and nationality. Donald Trump would fall in line with Kearnyism by calling the virulent coronavirus the “China Virus” or the “Kung Flu” virus as a way of demonizing the Chinese to further his ideals and political influence. His followers bought the rhetoric and to this day they repeat his inflammatory and incendiary Levinistic vitriol with pride.
Levinism, Kearnyism, McCarthyism, Wallacism, and Trumpism are nothing new. In fact, if you’re American, there is a very high chance that in the next decade or two, you will fall victim to the influential rhetoric of another demagogue. As the nation’s demographic makeup continues to evolve and white Americans are forced to grapple with their new reality, namely, that they will be a minority in America, we’ll see an acceleration of populist separatist demagogues rising from the shadows and launched into positions of political power and influence on the platform of nativism, anglo-Americanism (cloaked racism), Protestantism, nationalism, tribalism, and hyper-capitalism.
I want to believe Americans are no longer susceptible to this kind of subterfuge but history has shown us time and again just how much they love a good ol’ demagogue, a strong man, who will restore America to its traditionally racially monochromatic and denominationally singular way of life by bending the rules just enough to get things done.
Featured Image by Darren Halstead.