“Nazi dog whistles seem to be embedded in Trump’s conversation, his thinking and his tropes,” according to Sarah Churchwell. “I’m just more and more convinced that he grew up listening to those tropes, and that they are how he thinks.”
She was describing a central theme of Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream, the new book that she envisaged partly as a “decoder ring” for just such “dog whistles”.
It is also a book that Professor Churchwell – chair of public understanding of the humanities at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study – felt compelled to write. At the time of Donald Trump’s election as US president, she had been working on the novelist Henry James.
But as she spent much of 2017 “trying to come to terms with what was happening in my country”, she had a sense that she “didn’t have permission to write about Henry James any more. It felt like burying my head in the sand.”
She told Times Higher Education: “Everybody has to try to fight this fight with whatever weapons we have. Mine are writing and arguing and researching – and now I can go back to James.”
Behold, America traces the history of the two concepts in its subtitle, “America First” and the “American Dream”, which both date back about a century. They came head to head in 1941, Professor Churchwell explained, “when the debate was couched in terms of the American dream of democracy and equality and justice, against ‘America First’ [and] keeping America out of the Second World War”.
Although this has been explored by others, “no one has gone back further than 1941. I’m saying these ideas didn’t start in 1941; they didn’t come out of nowhere…Trump inherited a series of ideas and attitudes which seem to come from his father [Fred]. The world I am talking about is not ancient history, it is the world his father was an adult in. And he has talked about idolising his father.”
In January of this year, Mr Trump declared that he did not want immigrants from “shithole countries” and that the US should “admit more people from countries like Norway”. While many commentators wondered why he had mentioned Norway in particular, Professor Churchwell had no doubt that it was “a specific and conscious choice” designed to appeal to surviving adherents of the ideology of Nordicism (which stresses the biological superiority of northern Europeans over southern Europeans).
Fred Trump seems to have been interested in eugenics and in what one biographer calls “a racehorse theory of human development”. He was one of seven people arrested after a Memorial Day riot in 1927 when the Ku Klux Klan and self-proclaimed fascists clashed with onlookers. Fred Trump was “discharged”.
Professor Churchwell has a strong faith in the ability of education and public engagement to “make people suddenly start to listen…You may not change people’s minds 180 degrees, but you can often give them a little quarter-turn and their perspective shifts a little bit.”
So how does she hope that the fascinating intellectual history she has unearthed might feed into the political debate?
“People who are die-hard Trumpers are not going to read this book,” she acknowledged. Yet Professor Churchwell said that she knows “people who voted for him but wouldn’t describe themselves as racist…They voted for him because they were Republicans, because they liked his tax policy and thought he would help them to stay rich, and because they believed all the smears against Hillary [Clinton].”
If some such people were to read her book, Professor Churchwell suspects that they would not only be “shocked” to discover, for example, “that ‘America First’ is a bona fide Ku Klux Klan slogan”, but might also be led to rethink their attitude to Mr Trump because “there are still plenty of people who don’t want to be associated with a phrase that was explicitly associated with the Klan”.
Yet as well as challenging those who still give Mr Trump the benefit of the doubt, Professor Churchwell said that she believed that her research could provide useful ammunition for progressives.
Today, the term “American dream” has “a very limited meaning, the one that we’ve inherited – about materialism and having a nice house and a nice car”.
Revisiting some of the much less narrow and individualistic meanings that the phrase has had in the past could enable “people who want to argue for regulated capitalism and social democracy and the welfare state in America to turn those arguments on their head and say, ‘That is the American dream’”, argued Professor Churchwell. “We are told that the progressive side is losing in America because we don’t have a message…We just have to recover this older idea of the American dream.”