News & Politics

Trump's White House Is Eerily Reminiscent of the Red Scare of 1917

Five ways history is repeating itself.

Photo Credit: Spencer Means/ Flickr

Progressives are outraged that America’s president represents fear, ignorance and the arrogance of white mediocrity. Donald Trump's first year in office has been marked by tumultuous cabinet shakeups and firings, attacks on the free press, the rise of white nationalism, and devastating legislation that puts the most vulnerable groups in the country at risk. But this isn't the first time the U.S. has seen a period of fear and persecution. There are clear similarities between Trump's White House and the first Red Scare, which took place 100 years ago. 

Let’s start from the beginning. The business mogul known for appearing in porn flicks and plastering his name on skyscrapers made it clear in 2015 that he was coming for Hispanics. He opened his presidential campaign claiming Mexico sends its worst people to the U.S. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us,” he said in June 2015. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” He claimed the United States would eventually need a wall to stop them.

This press conference ushered in the age of Trump. He launched a campaign of fear and persecution that is on par to rival other periods of government-orchestrated social purging in America’s history.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

One hundred years ago, the nation also faced a looming Russian menace. President Woodrow Wilson attacked every leftist media outlet, social outlier and any critic who might have had connections to Russia. The only difference is that Trump has cuddled up to the Russians. As in 1917, fear and social anxiety loom over the country, but this time, the threat has a seat in the White House. When historians look back on Trump's first year, they will notice the glaring similarities of the Red Scare and now.

Here are five ways Trump's first year mirrors the first year of the Red Scare of 1917-1920.

1. Distrust of the Left

Trump's ascendancy to the White House created an atmosphere in which liberals are vulnerable to harassment and attack. His constant onslaught of the media via Twitter has turned legitimate criticism of his administration into "fake news." This type of delegitimization of media is not a new phenomenon in American society. It first appeared when the Espionage Act of 1917 was enacted, giving the Postal Service power to censor and check for suspicious media.

Today, Trump uses Twitter to attack the free press, critics like sports journalist Jemele Hill and to promote Fox News programming as a pseudo-state media similar to President Woodrow Wilson's Committee of Public Information. Reporters covering Trump in Washington, D.C., have been met with hostility for asking simple questions or clarification on ambiguous policy.  

2. Disgruntled White Working Class

From 1914-1920, African Americans looking to escape the racial terror, lynching and segregation of the South fled northward with the hope of a better life. But what they found were angry whites, housing discrimination and job insecurity. Tensions rose and the burgeoning white working class mixed with an influx of Eastern European immigrants who wanted to hold on to the north. They feared black migrants would take their jobs.

Fast-forward to 2017. A disgruntled white working class stands behind Trump blaming their stakes in American society on Hispanic immigrants, black Americans and other non-white groups. White nationalist groups like the Traditionalist Worker Party have been streamlined into the so-called alt-right. The idea of whiteness and what constitutes a true American played a role in the economical clashes in the north then, as it did during Trump's rallies in 2016.

3. Rise of Racial Terror

Black Americans and Irish Americans were up for the same jobs and competed for the same housing on the South Side of Chicago in the early part of the 20th century. In 1917, Chicago was one of many ravaged by race riots during the Red Summer. East St. Louis was the site of one of the largest race riots in American history. Dozens of African Americans were killed and 6,000 homes were burned to the ground as a result of a black man being accused of killing a white man.

Last year, there wasn't a race riot of this magnitude, but there was an uptick of racial attacks on black people. A man traveled from Maryland to New York to take his rage out on black people, murdering 66-year-old Timothy Caughman with a mini sword. Bowie State University student Richard Collins III was killed by a white supremacist while waiting for a bus. White nationalist James Alex Fields drove his vehicle into a crowd of bystanders and counter-protesters during the Unite the Right rally, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and wounding 19 others.

4. The Value of Loyalty

President Woodrow Wilson led the charge for a new definition of national loyalty. There were "millions of men and women of German birth and native sympathy who live amongst us," he said. "If there should be disloyalty, it will be dealt with a firm hand of repression."

Today, protesters from Antifa or the Black Lives Matter movement have been named public enemy number-one by the right and the FBI because of their criticisms of Trump. The term "black identity extremists" was created to describe activists associated with black liberation movements. Last year, Trump called peaceful NFL players who were protesting against police brutality "sons of bitches" for not standing during the national anthem. He saw their kneeling or fist-raising as an act of disloyalty toward him and the nation.

Months after the election, Trump continued to launch Twitter assaults on former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton. He went after Sen. John McCain when he voted against the Republican health care bill last year. Trump went after Sen. John Lewis for questioning the validity of his presidency. He went after Rep. Frederica Wilson after she criticized his dismissive remarks to the widow of a fallen soldier. 

To disagree with Trump is to disagree with American values.

5. Pushback on Groups That Challenge Trump's All-White Idea of America

In one year, Trump has made clear his predilection for white supremacy and his anti-multicultural views.

Hispanics were not his only targets. Muslims were next. A ban on majority Muslim nations was the only way to thwart terror—even though white men commit the most domestic terror acts. Then his administration came for black, trans and poor people by labeling black activists as extremists, reversing policies protecting trans people and taking away social programs that help the poor.

With legislation targeting Muslim immigrants, a proposed wall to keep Mexican immigrants out and a trans ban in the military (now blocked by a judge), Trump wants a less diverse and more heteronormative America.

Again, he used Twitter to lambast Muslims after terror incidents. London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a vocal Trump critic, was subjected to Twitter attacks after the London Bridge terror incident last June. In November of last year, Trump retweeted anti-Muslim propaganda videos from far-right British figure Jayda Fransen. Yet he was neutral after the Las Vegas shooting that was carried out by a white shooter in October and claimed 59 lives.

During the Red Scare, there was a fear of immigrants that resulted in the passage of the Sedition Act of 1918—really just an amendment of the Espionage Act of 1917. Instead of Muslims being made a public menace, German Americans were attacked. The entire German department of the University of Michigan was dismissed, based on suspicion of disloyalty.

Trump carries on this xenophobic tradition, with new allegations claiming he would rather have immigrants from Norway than from “sh*thole" places like Haiti, El Salvador and several African countries.

Ricky Riley is an Atlanta-based journalist. Check out his work on Blavity, Atlanta Black Star and Mint Press News.