Essays

How Trump Trades on Nostalgia for a Mythic White America

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The Leather Federation Advertising Trade Card (c. 1890) (all photos by the author unless otherwise noted)

Racist sentiments often coexist with a mythologized past of a pure America inhabited only by white Christian people. In this myth, the white Christians have a God-sanctioned privilege to the land in which laws were designed by white people, enforced by white people, and intended for the harmonious white citizenship. In the past year, we’ve heard the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, say: “We can bring the American Dream back. That I will tell you. We’re bringing it back.” At the same time, we’ve heard his inflammatory rhetoric against numerous ethnic and religious groups, and seen his discriminatory practices against black people in his rentals and casinos.

Nostalgia and bigotry have a long history in American culture. Previous research for my book on American visual culture and the influence of Chinese immigrants has led me to recognize the particular relevance of 19th-century American advertising cards, before magazine advertisement supplanted them in the early 20th century. The cards encouraged particular attitudes towards social and ethnic groups, and the endurance of their cultural ideologies reveals much about a continuing political strategy in the US utilizing nostalgia to encode bigotry.

While some advertising card companies commissioned images specific to their products, more frequently a business representative would select from hundreds if not thousands of images from an advertising trade card book. In most instances the image on one side of the card had no relationship with the product being promoted through text on the reverse side. An image of a wintery landscape chosen by the Wenger Carriage Company seems easily correlated with its marketing of sleights; we are less convinced when the identical wintry scene advertises the Los Angeles Soap Company.

Los Angeles Soap Co
Trade card for Los Angeles Soap Company

A striking example is found in “The Leather Federation of San Francisco” trade card (circa 1890). The snowy image is not a straightforward wintery vista but is styled like a montage. Perhaps because it reflects a season not lived by people in California, the image is less a document and more an idealized remembrance of a past time, a nostalgic fantasy of good old days.

But turn the card over and a different America asserts itself in the two paragraphs of text that ostensibly explain the merits of footwear manufactured by the ‘Boot and Shoemakers’ White Labor League.’ Affecting the most polite language, the card attempts to elevate and refine its message of segregation and exclusion, “‘respectfully’ call[ing] attention to the public,” with the stated intention merely “to show the superiority” of the White Labor League’s product “over the Chinese and Eastern Shoddy.” The latter, the card claims, is sold by “unscrupulous dealers.” The shift of denigration from Chinese (and Eastern) people to the company’s product nevertheless reinforces a dichotomy between “us” and “them,” and by legitimating White Labor, reveals the racial prejudice rippling through the advertisement.

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The back side of The Leather Federation Advertising Trade Card (c. 1890) (click to enlarge)

At first glance, the card’s two sides might seem disjunctive: one side picturing a past, ideal America, the other an immediate, racist one. But a short reflection reminds us that seeming dichotomies often support one another. That the little image of the log cabin in the snow appealed to the Boot and Shoemaker’s White Labor League is indisputable. But why? Certainly there is no direct relation to its product. The appeal must reside in the implications of the image.

The image’s remoteness, reinforced by the blanket of snow, creates a layer of ‘purity.’ Human presence is alluded to only by the cabin itself and the smoke curling up out of the chimney, encouraging viewers to imagine the past as a time inhabited only by self-reliant settlers, autonomous pioneers coded as white. The nostalgic vignette accommodates a myth of national origin that imagines a time of harmony within an all-white nation of founding fathers. It paves the way for historical inaccuracy, insisted upon by people who want to forget that the nation was never all-white and attempt to maintain a white hegemony that’s riddled with violence, beginning with genocide against the indigenous peoples and continuing through the enslavement of African people, annexing Mexican land into the US border, and labeling Chinese people as coolies to justify excluding them from citizenship — a ploy that lasted in various forms until 1964.

An unequivocal statement issued in a letter to the Farmers’ Alliance of California in 1891 by Alex Sullivan, General Secretary of the Boot and Shoemakers’ White Labor League, strips bare the hostility beneath the flowery words of the card. In this official statement, Sullivan stressed that buying products with the League’s stamp would help support white shoemakers and their families. Further, the stamp indicates the fundamental racist exclusivity desired by this League, as it equates whiteness with a superior product: “No manufacturer using this Stamp is permitted to employ Chinese in the making of Boots or Shoes, and for this reason our stamp on a Boot or Shoe is the only positive proof that it was made by White Labor.”

White Labor League
An 1891 letter to the Farmer’s Alliance of California, written by the Secretary of the Boot and Shoemaker’s White Labor League, affirming that the company does not employ Chinese people. (via illinois.edu) (click to enlarge)

This tiny trade card sheds light on a phenomenon that has emerged in the current presidential race. The card exemplifies that one fundamental feature of that imagined past, when used politically, has been to imagine the nation inhabited or governed only by white Christian people.

Listening to the speeches given in the Republican primary race in 2015 and the rhetoric continuing into Trump’s year as presumptive presidential candidate, we have repeatedly heard, on the one hand, messages of racism and calls for partitions coupled with, on the other hand, an image of regaining a better America, a more American America, existing at some unnamed point in the past. Let’s examine both parts of this equation.

Some Republicans have been future-oriented — G.W. Bush’s campaign in 2004 used the de facto slogan “Moving America Forward” and Marco Rubio’s 2015 campaign slogan was “A New American Century” (the same slogan used since 1997 by a neoconservative think tank). And some Democrats adopt the rhetoric of nostalgia — John Kerry’s “Let America be America Again.” But, overwhelmingly, Republicans have been obsessed with returning America to a never specified time in the past. How often have we heard the call for a “return” to “make America great again”? A quick scan of recent news finds:

The repetition of key words is obvious. Besides the predictable “American” found in four of the five examples above, three also cite the word “dream,” (Carson implies something like a dream state or a coma with his slogan’s baffling use of the word “revive”). But three of these slogans use a less traditional word: “restore.” This concept is at the heart of the Republican vision of governance. In fact, as early as 2014, Peter Beinart’s article in The Atlantic noted this very point. Titled “The Republican Obsession With ‘Restoring’ America: Why So Many Conservatives Have Nostalgia For an Era That Wasn’t All That Golden,” Beinart adeptly points out “Restoring it is a metaphysical impossibility. To restore something, it must have existed before. And never in its history has America offered ‘economic opportunity for everyone,’ not even in the Edenic days of President Reagan.”

Now that we have established the backward-looking preference of the Republican Party, what remains to be seen is what comprises their vision of the past that they hope to project into the present and future America. Like the 19th-century trade card, those promoting the past also leave out particular groups of people. No one can fail to see this in the speeches of the presumptive Republican presidential candidate.

Donald Trump has repeatedly propounded his vision of a United States circumscribed with barricades and reinforcements at the borders. The candidate calls on citizens to vigilantly protect the nation both physically and ideologically for the purpose of maintaining and furthering a white hegemony. Facts about Muslims, and Mexicans — historical facts — have as little relevance to him as current realities.

Take, for example, Trump’s plans for excluding Mexicans and Muslims from immigrating to the United States (it is not clear what he plans to do about those who are already US citizens). In his presidential announcement speech, June 2015, he said:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best … they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Concerning Muslims, Trump again wielded a broad brush to make his point. Trump read from a statement he had released earlier at a rally in Charleston, South Carolina on December 2015:

“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”

Trump, gloatingly referring to the above comment a year and a half later, after the violent slayings at the nightclub Pulse Trump, tweeted on June 12 2016:

“Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!”

And the next day declared in a speech in New Hampshire on June 13:

“When I’m elected, I will suspend immigration from areas of the world where there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe or our allies until we fully understand how to end these threats.”

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Trade card for “A Fine Sleigh,” Wengler Company Carriage Factory, Pa.

These particular ambitions are not isolated but signify the greater program intended by Trump’s. We see this in the constituency his plans appeal to and in his reluctance to dissociate from the racist demographic of his supporters. In February 2015, Trump was famously endorsed by Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and waited several days before disavowing the endorsement. Several months later, when interviewer John Heilemann asked Trump if he would repudiate new support from Duke, Trump replied: “Sure I would do that if it made you feel better.”

And when white supremacist leader of the “American Freedom Party,” William Johnson, was chosen as a Trump delegate, the campaign claimed the choice was a “computer error.” Johnson, who resigned as delegate when the appointment became controversial in the media, clarified that his group is not Republican, but nevertheless said, “We agree with a lot of the things he says. … Not everything he says, and we’re not Republicans, but we agree with him primarily because of his anti-immigration stances.” Johnson, who, besides being a white supremacist leader, is also a lawyer, stated that he strongly wanted “a white ethno-state, a country made up of only white people. How large that is, I don’t know. But I think that’s the only way western civilization and the white race will survive.” And in an interview he added, “I think Trump’s candidacy is helping move us in that direction.”

The American National Super PAC released a press statement branding Trump as its “Great White Hope.”

Successes of individuals with non-white heritage is as threatening to white nationalists and to Trump as any failures, perhaps even more threatening. Trump refused to acknowledge the competence of US District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel, a man of Mexican heritage. Curiel is presiding over the two class-action lawsuits against Trump University. In a transparent attempt to not recognize the judge from Indiana as a fellow American citizen, Trump insists instead on referring to the judge as Mexican and has called Curiel a “hater,” tweeting that Curiel is “totally biased against Trump.” In an interview, CNN correspondent Jake Tapper asked Trump: “If you are saying he can’t do his job because of his race, is that not the definition of racism?” Trump’s circuitous reply: “But we’re building a wall. He’s a Mexican. We’re building a wall between here and Mexico. The answer is, he is giving us very unfair rulings, rulings that people can’t even believe.”

Trump and other Republican leaders evoke a mythic America as a backdrop to tacitly contextualize current problems to appear as if they stem from a non-white population. These politicians make use of the same strategy as those 19th-century trade cards, which implied a pre-modern time while not locating when or where that time occurred. In fact, utopias can never be sited in any real time.

The Victorian trade card becomes our primer, warning us of the hidden racism that can lurk in illusions of a past American utopia. Utopia becomes a context into which racist assertions of a purer past can be inserted and that seems to have really occurred, and so racism becomes naturalized. For us, unlike for its 19th-century audience, this hand-held card’s utility is not as advertisement; more urgently, it serves as a graphic reminder: beware of all those who deliberately confound patriotic sentiment with exclusionary solutions.

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