Behold, Fake History
Behold America: A History of America First and the American Dream, Sarah Churchwell, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018, £20, 356 pp., h.b., reviewed by Leslie Jones
According to Sarah Churchwell, Professor of American Literature in the School of Advanced Studies of the University of London, the American dream once denoted the principles of liberty, justice and economic equality, of curbing unbridled capitalism, as in the Progressive Era and the New Deal. It was about idealism v materialism, “about how to stop bad multimillionaires, not how to become one”.[i] These dubious contentions, an implicit criticism of President Trump, recur like a broken record throughout Behold, America. According to Churchwell, a naïve, self-styled social democrat, the concept was subsequently hollowed out and it now means rags to riches, the so-called “Alger ethic’. Needless to say, she fails to explain how liberty can be reconciled with equality without resorting to tyranny.
Historian Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) bears some resemblance to Behold America, although Churchwell does not cite it in her selected bibliography. But, like Hofstadter, she perceives links between American nativism, isolationism, economic protectionism and racism. She depicts Donald Trump as a latter day W R Hearst or Citizen Kane.
Like so many in the academic community, Churchwell is alarmed by the rise of populism in western democracies. For her, the concept of “America first” means, essentially, “ugly ultra-nationalism”.[ii] “This was not a book I planned to write”, she confides. The election of Donald Trump in 2016, “the global face for these movements”, was clearly the trigger. For the author, Trump is steeped in a conservative discourse, informed by eugenics, that only welcomed the immigration of “Nordics”.
Fred C Trump, a “hyphenated German-American”, allegedly espoused a “racehorse theory of human development”. His son Donald believes, correctly, that intelligence is substantially heritable. Indeed, Professor Jordan B. Peterson has recently characterised psychometrics as the most robust component of contemporary psychology. He maintains that Trump, having succeeded in several cognitively demanding domains, must have high intelligence. Yet according to Churchwell, as early as 1923, Walter Lippmann demonstrated that IQ tests are merely “an instrument for classifying a group of people, rather than “a measure of intelligence”’.[iii] We were reminded at this juncture of Arthur Jensen’s coruscating review of The Mismeasure of Man (by palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould), entitled ‘The Debunking of Scientific Fossils and Straw persons’.
Some earlier social scientists and commentators, notably those of the Frankfurt School, struggled to comprehend the appeal of fascism. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer posited the notion of the ‘authoritarian personality’. In Drift and Mastery (1914), Walter Lippmann, one of Churchwell’s heroes, maintained that pure democracy leads “to a dangerous populist nationalism, to mob rule and the rise of dictators”.[iv] Lippmann warned that “An uneducated but literate democracy would…elect the incompetent, the corrupt and the fascistic”.[v]
Lippmann was attacking “America’s blind faith in individualism, in the undisciplined…natural person as the source of all wisdom”.[vi] Dorothy Thompson, a widely read columnist on the New York Herald Tribune, thought likewise that supporters of the Union Party, founded in 1934, were the same type of people that supported Hitler, namely “the dispossessed and humiliated of the middle classes…”.[vii]
The author evidently despises ordinary people and shares Lippmann’s lack of faith “in the unsophisticated man, in his basic kindliness…” [viii] The ubiquitous notion “of some golden past when unsophisticated people ran the country just fine” poses the perennial threat of a populist demagogue.[ix] Democracy requires supervision by the intellectual elite. Or, to quote John Dewey, “Public education is the soul of the American Dream”. As Churchwell herself notes, H L Mencken “became famous for insulting the ‘rubes’ and ‘yokels’ of the Middle American ‘booboisie”. And “smug cosmopolitan elites”[x] still sneer at rural populations for supporting Donald Trump and his slogan of “making America great again”.
During the 2016 Presidential election, Trump allegedly declined to dissociate himself from an unsolicited endorsement by David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He pointed out that the violent and bigoted behaviour of the extreme left (Antifa) is indistinguishable from that of the extreme right (the Klan etc), as in the Charlottesville riots. On this flimsy evidential base, the author insinuates that the 45th US president is sympathetic to what the St Louis Post–Dispatch, in 1923, called “the American Fascisti; known as the Ku Klux Klan”.[xi] In The New York Review of Books (October 25 to November 7, 2018), Adam Hochschild, in similar vein, calls Trump “…the first American president in history endorsed by leaders of the Ku Klux Klan”.
Concerning Churchwell’s credentials as historian, she states that “On 13thMay 1939, the ocean liner St. Louis set sail from Hamburg, Germany, with 937 passengers on board. Nearly all of them were Jews fleeing the Holocaust…”[xii] Granted, the political oppression of the German Jews dates from 1933. Yet the Shoah, the systematic mass murder of the Jews, did not begin until 1941.
Demonising whites is today an acceptable form of racism. May God bless America.
[i]Churchwell, p 75
[ii]Churchwell, p 87
[iii]Lippmann, cited Churchwell p 107
[iv]Churchwell, p 34
[v]Churchwell, p 110
[vi]Churchwell, p 35
[vii]Churchwell, p 237
[viii]Lippmann, cited Churchwell, p 34
[ix]Churchwell, p 39
[x]Churchwell, p 89
[xi]Cited Churchwell, p 131
[xii]Churchwell, p 253
Dr Leslie Jones is the Editor of QR