America First: Make America Nostalgic Again

By Philip G. Payne

McKinley won election during the depression of 1896 and then oversaw an economic renewal and victory in Spanish-American War of 1898.

The 2020 presidential election marks not just President Trump’s re-election bid, but also the 100th anniversary of another presidential election marked by deep divides in America. 

A century after Warren G. Harding defeated James Cox we can see patterns that illuminate American politics.  The 1920 election pitted Republican Harding against Democrat Cox, both of whom were Ohio newspaper publishers, in an historical quirk in an election full of historical quirks and firsts. 

Although Cox’s name was on the ballot, the election was widely seen as a referendum on the presidency of his fellow Democrat, Woodrow Wilson.  During his two terms, Wilson had led the country through a series of domestic economic reforms and the Great War. 

Both Harding’s victory in 1920, and Trump’s victory a century later, are seen as the triumph of conservatism and isolationism over progressivism and internationalism; both pitted the politics of nostalgia against the disruption of the present. 

The 1920 election found Americas deeply divided along lines that we find familiar a century later.  In 1920 the industrial revolution had transformed America into an urban nation filled with new immigrants – over 20 million people from Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe. In 2020, Americans continue to deal with disruption, this time in the form of digital and information revolutions (sometimes understood as a fear of losing our jobs to robot overlords), globalization, and immigration. Buried within these large trends were what we would call culture wars, clashes over race, gender, and religion – ultimately identity.  What does it mean to be an American? 

Threatened by events they couldn’t control, voters in both centuries longed for a simpler time. This helps explain the popularity of campaign slogans from both centuries:  Return to Normalcy, America First, and Make America Great Again.

There is a political tradition of  voters protesting against the winds of change. In 1896, William Jennings Bryan led a left-leaning populist movement against the staid conservativism of William McKinley. The issue: the nature of money. The Financial Panic of 1893 brought to a head an array of long-standing grievances of farmers facing debt, automation and competition. Bryan and the populists wanted inflation, in the form of the coinage of silver, to relieve debt and deep economic reforms. McKinley won on a platform of protective tariffs and solid money in the form of the gold standard.

These economic tensions reemerged a decade later when the Bankers Panic of 1907 called into question the power of Wall Street bankers. The 1907 Panic was the result of a failed attempt to corner the market of shares of the United Copper Company, leading to the collapse of several Wall Street banks before spreading throughout the economy. The Panic subsided only after J. P. Morgan intervened to shore up the markets. The Treasury Department’s inability to handle the financial crisis, combined with the reliance on Morgan to stabilize the economy, facilitated the political momentum that created the Federal Reserve Board.  

Cartoon depicting Eugene Debs running for president from his prison cell in Atlanta. Debs was serving a prison term for protesting World War I when he ran in 1920.

In 1912, presidential hopefuls continued to debate the money trust.  How much power should be concentrated in the hands of Wall Street financiers? The election pitted the incumbent president William Howard Taft, a Republican, against former Republican President Teddy Roosevelt running as a third party candidate on the Progressive Party ticket.  In the wings was socialist and labor leader Eugene Debs (the same Debs whose picture reportedly hangs in Bernie Sanders’s office).

Taft campaigned as stalwart conservative, Roosevelt as a progressive looking to preserve capitalism by overhauling it, and Debs as a democratic socialist who saw big business as a threat to democracy. As a result of the split, Democrat Woodrow Wilson won. During his first term, Wilson signed the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, the Federal Reserve Act and other legislation designed to deal with the rise of big business and the money trust.  All of these positions should sound familiar to anyone watching politics in 2020.

However, the Banker’s Panic was not the only shock to the body politic during the 1910s.

The Great War called into question the cost of being a world power.  Americans attention turned to foreign affairs in 1914 when war broke out in Europe.  Wilson pledged to keep the United States out of the war, especially since the American population had many immigrants from the warring nations.  Wilson won re-election in 1916 as a peace candidate but in 1917 Wilson led the United States into the war against Germany in response to submarine warfare, submarines being one of the new technologies used during the war.  He promised it would be the “war to end all wars.”  During the peace negotiations, Wilson proposed 14 Points, including the League of Nations, as part of the Treaty of Versailles.  However, Wilson’s war proved to be unpopular at home and Wilson suffered a stroke while campaigning for the treaty, hindering him from selling the American people on the Treaty or the League.  Thus, in 1920 the nation entered a presidential election with a lot of uncertainty.

So it was that voters in 1919 found themselves in one of the more unsettling and uncertain years in American history. The president of the United States had suffered a stroke and disappeared from public life, although he did not rule out running for a third term. Thus, the Democratic Party struggled to find a candidate, eventually settling on James Cox, Ohio’s governor as well as a newspaper publisher. 

Teddy Roosevelt had been working to regain the good graces of the GOP with an eye toward running in 1920, but he died in unexpectedly in 1919. The Great War ended on a deeply disillusioning note for many. The economy hit a rough period with a difficult transition from war to a peace economy. Workers throughout the country stuck. Racial tensions flared across the country, including deeply violent race riots in many American cities as angry whites attacked African Americans, especially those who had moved north during the Great Migration. The new Ku Klux Klan grew rapidly, in part because the Klan of the 1920s had added xenophobia to its racism, making it a leading anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant group.    

Republicans believed Harding looked like a president, an important point in an age when photography was becoming increasingly common and Americans got their news from newsreels at the movie palaces.

Warren G. Harding stepped onto this troubled national stage with a promise to “return to normalcy” and put “America first.” Going into the 1920 election, Harding was not considered a serious candidate to win the Republican nomination, much less the presidency, and yet he did. Harding won the presidency as a long-shot candidate who was best known for garbling the English language and, later, for corruption. More than a few critics pointed out that Normalcy was not a word. 

Harding, by his own admission, liked to “bloviate,” meaning to give long, stem-winding speeches. Harding has been often portrayed as an empty suit manipulated by his ambitious wife, Florence Harding, or his campaign advisor, Harry Daugherty. Harding, many argued, was nominated because he looked like a president should in an age of Hollywood films.  Biographers and historians tend to focus on Harding’s weaknesses as a candidate, arguing that he was a tool of other interests (oil, banks, etc.) who had been selected as the nominee in a smoke-filled room. 

Despite his limitations and weaknesses, Harding struck two chords with the American voters during the 1920 presidential election. First, Harding’s promise to put America First was a clear rebuke to Woodrow Wilson and his League of Nations. Harding and the Republicans would lead the nation away from what would become known as Wilsonian Internationalism. Secondly, Harding and the Republicans ran an old-fashioned front porch campaign in the style of the William McKinley and James Garfield’s campaigns from Harding’s hometown of Marion, Ohio, evoking the familiar campaign style of prior generations.  This nostalgic appeal was juxtaposed with a modern approach, as an advertising firm broadcast Marion’s small-town nostalgia to voters across the country.

Warren G. Harding died in office in August 2, 1923, and Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as president at his remote family farm in Vermont. Harding died a popular president who many saw as having restored calm to a nation torn by war while overseeing an economic recovery.  However, that image soon faded as scandals emerged, both political and personal. His personal life came under question as it was revealed that he drank during prohibition and had carried on extramarital affairs with Nan Britton and Carrie Phillips. The Teapot Dome scandal rocked Washington, leading to prison sentences for many involved, and a decade of Congressional hearings.

The 19th Amendment was ratified just in time for the election. Both Democrats and Republicans targeted women voters, sometimes in ways that showed they were uncertain how women would vote.

What patterns can we see in the 1920 election that help us navigate the 2020 election? Clearly, there are significant differences between the two times. The old saw that history repeats itself does not hold in detail. That being said, there are some patterns. The Trump and Harding campaigns adopted theme of nostalgia (Make America Great Again as well as Return to Normalcy) and isolation (America First) points to the enduring power of those ideas during periods of rapid change. Despite evoking nostalgia, both campaigns used the latest in communications technology to get the message about returning to the good old days out to voters, be it silent films, phonograms, radio, or Facebook. Both elections took place as gender norms were changing. 1920 was the first national election after the 19th Amendment, and old pols feared how women would vote. The 1920s saw the New Woman, aka Flappers. In 2016 a woman won the Democratic nomination to run against Donald Trump.

The anniversary of Warren G. Harding election and Donald J. Trump’s re-election bid share more than simple landing a century apart. In both elections, Americans asked what it means to be an American in a changing world, changes that some Americans feel left out of.  Ironically, the same politics and technology that fuel the change also makes it possible for voters to protest those changes.

Phillip G. Payne is a professor of history at St. Bonaventure University, where he has taught since 1998.  He is the author of Dead Last:  The Public Memory of Warren G. Harding’s Scandalous Legacy (Ohio University Press, 2009)  and Crash!:  How the Economic Boom and Bust of the 1920s Worked (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015) in addition to articles on diverse topics. 

Related Post: Like Writing History with Lightning: The Politics of Nostalgia and New Media

Additional Readings:

Edward Pessen, The Log Cabin Myth:  The Social Backgrounds of the Presidents (1984)

Evan Cornog, The Power of the Story:  How the Crafted Presidential Narrative has Determined Political Success from George Washington to George W. Bush (2004).

John Dean, Warren G. Harding (2004)

Robert Murray, The Harding Era:  Warren G. Harding and His Administration (1969)

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