Sarah Churchwell is a Professor of American Literature and Chair of Public Understanding of the Humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Her book Behold America: The Entangled History of “America First” and “The American Dream” was published last year. (October 2020)
The enchanted terms in which F. Scott Fitzgerald portrayed modern America still blind us to how scathingly he judged it. “It was an age of satire,” he wrote, and yet we suppose that the writer who both embodied the Jazz Age and identified satire as its essential feature never employed it himself. Fitzgerald’s sardonic humor and his disquiet—the sense that “life is essentially a cheat and its conditions those of defeat,” as he later wrote—give his best work moral realism and gravitas, grounding the flights of his prose.
The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America
by Daniel Okrent
Nativism has never been limited to its most savage enforcers, like the Klan or neo-Nazis. It always has its “civilized” voices, too, with lobbyists, funders, and advocates giving it respectable cover, domesticating it, putting it in Good Housekeeping rather than in Der Stürmer.
“When Americans think of dictators they always think of some foreign model,” wrote the anti-fascist journalist Dorothy Thompson in the mid-1930s, but an American dictator would be “one of the boys, and he will stand for everything traditionally American.” And the American people, Thompson added, “will greet him with one great big, universal, democratic, sheeplike bleat of ‘O.K., Chief! Fix it like you wanna, Chief!’” A few years later, Thompson said she was reminded of what the Louisiana populist Huey Long had once explained to her: “American Fascism would never emerge as a Fascist but as a 100 percent American movement.”
The real moral exemplum about capitalism and the American Dream to be found in the story of Lehman Brothers is not how they lost touch with their mercantile roots, tempted by the lure of speculative wealth. It is the way in which the South’s investment in the cotton economy profoundly shaped American history from the antebellum period onward, particularly in the slave economy’s legacy of white wealth and black impoverishment, white privilege and black disenfranchisement. Within two decades of the end of the Civil War, the Lehmans had quit cotton factoring and the South, transforming themselves into a Northern finance powerhouse on Wall Street. It is that process of transformation—leaving slavery behind but banking its profits—that is the story not only of Lehman Brothers, but also of the formation of modern American capitalism.
We hear a great deal these days about the right’s hostility to “identity politics.” In this framing, the election of 2016 was a populist backlash of ordinary voters against an aberrant left too concerned with narrow questions about niche groups and out of touch with the troubles of Middle Americans. The good news is that it simply isn’t true that identity politics represents the end of America or of liberal democracy. Nor is it true that identity politics began on the left, or that the Klan was America’s first “identity movement.” The only thing new about “the omnipresent rhetoric of identity” is the voices that have been added to it, reshaping it in ways that alarm and affront those who used to be its sole authors. But it was always omnipresent.