Bernie Sanders' presidential bid is frequently likened to the 1920 campaign of Eugene Debs, the union leader and Socialist Party candidate who won nearly 1 million votes while serving time in prison for urging resistance to the draft. Sanders, who has called Debs "the greatest leader in the history of the American working class," keeps a plaque celebrating the five-time presidential candidate in his Senate office, and he once recorded a 30-minute documentary about Debs' political career, which he fought hard to air on Vermont public television. But Sanders' rhetoric, ideology, and campaign coalition suggest a far more recent political model for his outsider campaign: Jesse Jackson's 1988 run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
On Monday, Donald Trump unveiled a plan to block Muslims from entering the United States. On Tuesday, he suggested he might have been okay with the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Almost immediately, critics looked for historical parallels. The Philadelphia Daily News put him on its front page with the headline "The New Furor," while the New York Daily News' Shaun King wrote that Trump has gone "full-blown Nazi." Even Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling got in on the game, calling Trump worse than Voldemort.
Comparing Trump to Hitler doesn't really do justice to what made Hitler Hitler, but it also lets the country off the hook. Trump isn't introducing the idea of discriminatory immigration bans and internment campsto an innocent nation. These are American ideas, with a long dark history of being used in American elections by politicians we now hold in high esteem. As one of Trump's New Hampshire co-chairs, state Rep. Al Baldasaro, put it, improbably in defense of Trump, "What he's saying is no different than the situation during World War II, when we put the Japanese in camps."
It's a history worth grappling with, because as Richard Reeves' 2015 history, Infamy, makes clear, Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Exclusion Orders were deeply influenced by the pressures of electoral politics. It was a governor's race in California that brought the issue to the fore in 1942. Two years later, it was a looming presidential election that compelled Roosevelt to keep the camps open long past the time the government knew they were unnecessary.
White California politicians had for years used the presence of people of Japanese descent as a political wedge, but the matter blew up after Pearl Harbor. Ironically, Reeves explains, the push for internment started with a man who would one day become a liberal icon as a Supreme Court justice, then-California Attorney General Earl Warren:
The first public call for all American Japanese, aliens and citizens, men, women, and children, to be moved into "concentration camps" was on January 14, 1942, in the Placerville Times, the newspaper in a small town forty miles east of Sacramento. Two weeks later, on January 29, California's attorney general, Warren, who had been an important voice for moderation essentially switched sides, issuing a press release that read, "I have come to the conclusion that the Japanese situation as it exists in this state today, may well be the Achilles Heel of the entire civil defense effort. Unless something is done it may bring about a repetition of Pearl Harbor."
Governor Olson, a Democrat who expected that Warren, a Republican and a member of the whites-only Native Sons of the Golden West, would be his opponent in the election of November of 1942, did the same thing, testifying before a congressional hearing a week later, saying: "Because of the extreme difficulty in distinguishing between loyal Japanese-Americans, and there are many who are loyal to this country, and those other Japanese whose loyalty is to the Mikado, I believe in the wholesale evacuation of the Japanese people from coastal California." Then he gave gave a statewide radio address, saying, "It is known that there are Japanese residents of California who have sought to aid the Japanese enemy by way of communicating information or have shown indications of preparation for Fifth Column activities."
Other elected officials were happy to inflame Californians' fears of the Japanese other. One congressman proposed sterilization; another called the conflict with Japan a "race war." Advocates for internment didn't just defend it as an extraordinary circumstance—they described it as wholly consistent with American ideals. Per Reeves:
In Los Angeles, Mayor Fletcher Bowron, after dismissing all employees of Japanese lineage, declared, "Right here in our own city are those who may spring to action at an appointed time in accordance with a prearranged plan wherein each of our little Japanese friends will know his part in the event of any possible attempted invasion or air raid...We cannot run the risk of another Pearl Harbor episode in Southern California." He later added, "There isn't a shadow of a doubt but that Lincoln, the mild-mannered man whose memory we regard with almost saint-like reverence, would make short work of rounding up the Japanese and putting them where they could do no harm."
Not unlike Trump's false claim of seeing "thousands" of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks from rooftops, the hysteria over the Japanese-Americans was fueled by a number of false reports over their activities, including allegations from coastal residents who swore they'd heard their Japanese neighbors sending radio signals to the enemy. And it wasn't just California politicians feeling the electoral pressure to put Americans in camps. As Reeves tells it, Roosevelt knew as early as May 1944 that the Japanese Exclusion Orders were unnecessary, and that it would be okay to shut down the camps. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes told him that keeping the camps open would be a "blot upon the history of this country." But FDR had the voters to consider:
Two weeks later Roosevelt refined his thoughts in a memo to [Secretary of State Edward Stettinius] and Ickes: "The more I think of this problem of suddenly ending the orders excluding Japanese Americans from the West Coast the more I think it would be a mistake to do anything drastic or sudden. As I said at Cabinet, I think the whole problem for the sake of internal quiet, should be handled gradually." Ickes and the others knew what he meant: after the elections.
It was easy for politicians to invoke internment as a logical solution to fears of a Japanese "fifth column," in part because the nation already had a long and proud history of wholesale discrimination against people of Asian descent. Just 18 years earlier, Calvin Coolidge had signed the National Origins Act, which effectively barred immigration from East Asia and the Middle East, on top of the existing prohibition of Chinese immigration that had by that point been on the books for four decades. Trump is successful not because he's mastered the German formula, but because he's tapping into something that has proven successful before in American history.
On Tuesday, Donald Trump followed up his proposal to ban Muslims from traveling to the United States by telling Time that he might have supported the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Many Republicans have condemned his proposal to bar Muslims from American soil, but the idea of applying principles of internment to the war on terror is not an unfamiliar one among elements of the conservative base either.
This is an actual book from New York Times best-selling author and esteemed Fox News talking head Michelle Malkin, from 2004:
Don Blankenship, the former CEO of coal giant Massey Energy, was found guilty of conspiring to commit mine safety violations on Thursday in federal court in Charleston, West Virginia. However, Blankenship was found not guilty of making false statements to federal regulators in the aftermath of the 2010 explosion at a Massey-owned mine in West Virginia. Blankenship faces up to one year in prison on the conspiracy charge, a misdemeanor, and his attorney Bill Taylor told reporters he will appeal.
The irony of the Blankenship trial was that while the Upper Big Branch disaster—the deadliest in an American mine in 40 years—seemed to hover in the background of the prosecutors' arguments, it was his paperwork after the accident, not his mine's safety record before it, that posed the biggest threat to his freedom. As I reported in October:
What threatens to put the 65-year-old away for decades are two allegedly false statements Massey submitted in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission: "We do not condone any violation of MSHA regulations," and "we strive to be in compliance with all regulations at all times," Blankenship informed investors, even as his company was allegedly outflanking the regulatory system. It's the mining equivalent of busting Al Capone for tax evasion.
"I have all the respect in hell that at least somebody was able to say, 'Wait a minute, that isn't right,'" says Bruce Stanley, who represented Caperton in his suit against Massey. "But he's up for what, a possible 30-year sentence? Well, there's only one count that puts that kind of mileage on it. That's the one that says he lied to Wall Street. When it comes to human lives, he gets maybe a year."
Read MoJo's in-depth profile of Blankenship's rise and fall here.
Last year, a man named Brian Chambers announced a world-changing advance: An international research organization called the Health Sciences Institute had found an incredible cure for cancer hidden in the Book of Matthew. For just $74, you, too, could discover the secret.
That was the breathless pitch emailed to hundreds of thousands of Huckabee's followers in January, beneath a "special message" from the Republican presidential candidate trumpeting "important information." Upon closer inspection, the divine remedy—eating fewer carbs—was never recommended by St. Matthew. Chambers is not a doctor, and the studies on starvation diets he cited make no mention of "cures."
The Health Sciences Institute is part of a company called NewMarket Health, which is just one asset of a Baltimore-based publishing empire named Agora Inc. Agora's subsidiaries and affiliates publish more than 40 newsletters and sell more than 300 books on a range of topics, including biblical health tips, natural-healing supplements, and "insider" investment advice—a mix of ideas the company considers the intellectual equivalent of the marketplace of ancient Athens. To find new readers for its ever-expanding catalog of publications, Agora's subsidiaries have tapped into a network of conservative heavyweights, including Huckabee, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrich, who sell access to their massive email lists to advertise Agora's products.
Gingrich sent out more than a dozen Agora-related emails after he dropped out of the 2012 race, including one from an investment newsletter warning that Obama might seek a third term (sell, sell, sell!). In April, Paul appeared in a 51-minute video for an Agora subsidiary in which he argued that the United States was on the verge of martial law and societal collapse. The libertarian patriarch, whose own Survival Report newsletter once played to its white readers' worst fears, urged viewers to buy a newsletter subscription to find out more. Conservative outlets including National Review and Townhall have also rented their email lists to Agora subsidiaries. While it's not unusual for publications (including Mother Jones) to send sponsored messages to their subscribers, Agora's emails skirt the line between spammy and scammy. An email sent last year to followers of the popular right-wing site RedState on behalf of the Health Sciences Institute claimed that the Obama administration was blocking a miracle cure that "vaporizes cancer in six weeks."
These disingenuous endorsements for dubious products epitomize what historian Rick Perlstein has dubbed "mail-order conservatism," the monetization of right-wing paranoia that started in the 1970s and has flowered ever since a secret Muslim socialist won the White House. Glenn Beck, like many of his talk-radio colleagues, has warned of the collapse of the global financial system while shilling for gold companies. Conservative operatives have created a booming field of "scam PACs," political action committees that ostensibly raise money to help popular candidates but don't produce much more than big checks for direct-mail firms. Confronted by Politico, Erick Erickson, RedState's editor-in-chief, said, "It horrifies me that the list sometimes get[s] rented to some of these guys." And Agora has played the game of stirring up and cashing in on the conservative psyche longer and better than most of its competitors.