Symposium | What Compares to Trump

A Cautionary Tale…Perhaps

By David Nasaw

The election results exploded like a bombshell—and still there was little surprise. The opposition party, the party of no and never, had been planning, hoping, dreaming of this moment for nearly a decade and a half; now it was here. Not only was Franklin Delano Roosevelt gone and buried, but his successor, Harry S. Truman, had showed no signs that he was capable of leading his party to any future victories.

The first national elections since the German and Japanese surrenders should have been a moment of triumph, of national exhilaration: The soldiers were home again, the economy was booming, production was up, unemployment was down. But the electorate, instead of reveling in victory and the return of peace and prosperity, was day by day, it appeared, growing more anxious about the future. In the months leading up to the 1946 midterms, anti-New Deal, anti-Truman politicians of both parties and sensation- and ratings-seeking newspapermen, like Drew Pearson, Walter Winchell, and Westbrook Pegler, now being broadcast via the radio waves, frightened voters, on an almost daily basis, by linking together a master conspiracy narrative that combined stories of Soviet espionage in Canada, Red Army troop movements in Iraq, subversion in eastern Europe, political intimidation in western Europe, and labor militancy, strikes, and meat shortages at home.

The most respected leaders of the Republican Party joined in the attacks. Senator Robert Taft, the acknowledged leader of the Republican Party, declared in May of 1946 that the Truman Administration “had asked Congress to pass legislation that bordered close on the Communistic line.” The examples he offered of “Communistic” legislation included the peacetime draft, price controls, and national health insurance. In September, he warned that “for years the New Dealers have tried to teach our people that communism is a kind of liberal democracy” and lamented that the nation stood “in danger of losing all the purposes and ideals for which we fought” a world war. When, in August 1946, President Truman suggested that the United States should consider legislation to admit some of the million displaced persons still in refugee camps in Germany and Austria into the United States, Mississippi Democratic Congressman John Rankin declared that there were already “too many so-called refugees pouring into this country, bringing with them communism, atheism, anarchy and infidelity.” His House colleague, Ed Gossett of Texas, introduced legislation to cut existing immigration quotas by half for the next ten years.

The strategy of accentuating American fears with fake news, fear-mongering, and outright lies paid off for the Republicans in 1946. For the first time in 18 years, they carried both houses of Congress—and by substantial margins, 246 to 188 in the House, 51 to 45 in the Senate. Richard Nixon in California and Joseph McCarthy were but two of the dozens of Republicans who defeated incumbent Democrats in the West and Midwest. In New York, Thomas Dewey, the Republican governor and 1944 presidential nominee, was reelected with a far greater margin than the voters had given any Democrat, including Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Grand Old Party was in control now. The Republican reign from 1946 to 1948 would prove a nightmare for the New Dealers. The President tried to carry on, if not extend the legacy of the New Deal, but was defeated by a new generation of know-nothings, fools, liars, anti-Semites, racists, and fear-mongers. Programs for national health insurance, a decent minimum wage, a “poor man’s tax cut,” anti-lynching legislation, increased aid for education, and a federal housing program were each defeated, more often than not, after being falsely labelled “Communistic.” In their place, the Republican Congress, with the valuable assistance of Southern Democrats, passed Taft-Hartley, stalled civil rights legislation, turned back attempts at immigration reform, and instituted new tax cuts for the rich. In foreign policy, a new era of bipartisanship reigned supreme. The President, having learned from the 1946 defeat the power of anti-Communism, jumped on the Cold War bandwagon, and with the support of the Republicans, instituted a new loyalty program, created the CIA, and formulated and executed a foreign policy doctrine, so aggressive that even Senator Taft feared it might entangle the nation in overseas wars that were easily avoidable.

The Republican reign lasted but two years. Harry Truman’s campaign against the do-nothing 80th Congress was shockingly successful. The Democrats in 1948 not only held on to the White House, but won a sizable majority of seats in both houses of Congress and elected enough governors to control 29 of 48 states. But their victory was, as far as New Deal progressives were concerned, a pyrrhic one that could not, and did not, undo the damage of the preceding two years. Taft-Hartley would not be repealed; Truman’s federal housing and civil rights programs were not passed; discriminatory immigration laws were not changed; and there was no attempt to soften the impact of the loyalty programs or reduce the authority or range of the newly created CIA and national security state regimes. What the American citizenry got in their place was a reenergized, bipartisan anti-Communist, anti-Soviet campaign that would, in June of 1950, blossom into the Korean War and unleash a dramatic, unprecedented, peacetime revolution that dramatically shifted federal spending from domestic to military programs.

Historical analogies are, by definition, false, as history does not, contrary to Lord Acton’s oft-cited maxim, repeat itself. But that is not to say that progressives cannot learn something from the midterm elections, seventy years ago, when mendacity, fear-mongering, fake news, and the Republican Party triumphed, and changed the political discourse in such a way that even an oversized Democratic Party victory two years later was not enough to undo the damage.

The Democratic Party under FDR had been the party of hope and had succeeded in spreading the message that with a strong, competent government in place, the nation, despite Depression and war, remained fundamentally strong, resilient, and prepared to meet any challenges that might come its way. The Republicans, in 1946, had replaced that discourse with its polar opposite. The nation was weak, unprepared, uncertain, probably incapable of solving present and future problems or confronting the threat of Communist subversion at home and aggression abroad.

The Democrats won back the House and the Senate in 1948 by becoming the party of “no” and bashing the “Do Nothing” Republican-led 80th Congress. They did not, however, focus their attention on explaining what they would do if elected, and why. Nor did they even attempt to counter the anti-Communist, fear-mongering rhetoric that the Republicans had used against them in 1946. On the contrary, they reinforced that rhetoric by bending it to their own purposes and charging that Communists had taken over the Henry Wallace presidential campaign and were using it to subvert American democracy.
The Democratic Party victory of 1948, while chock-full of sound and fury, signified next to nothing in the long run. There would be no extension of the New Deal, no grand social programs enacted. In 1950, the Republicans regained 28 seats in the House and five in the Senate. In 1952, effectively playing their anti-Communist card, they elected an ex-general as president and won a majority in both the House and the Senate.
If there is a lesson progressives can draw from these events, it might be that, to paraphrase Naomi Klein, “No is not going to be enough.” The Democrats may do very well in 2018, but their victory will be both short-lived and hollow if they do not offer voters a positive program that is both visionary and doable and changes the political discourse back from one based on fear of the future to one founded on hope for a better one.

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David Nasaw is the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Professor of History at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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