A ‘model’ decade it was not, by any stretch of reason

Samuel Damren

This is the third commentary in a series examining two periods in our history Donald Trump claims were “great” compared to the present era: 1900–10; and the post-World War II era through the 1950s. 

The second commentary compared the absence of women’s rights, a social safety net, government oversight of working conditions, severe limitations on educational opportunities, and the rampant racism 1900–10 compared to today’s laws and policies..

The comparison of additional factors in this commentary will strengthen the conclusion that the decade cannot serve a model to “Make America Great Again.”

The economy was booming in 1900-10, but no more so than it is today. The “Gilded Age” consolidated disproportionate wealth in 1 percent of the population just as it has today.

However, unlike today, there was no middle class. Eleven out of 12 American families lived in poverty.  Approximately 12 percent of Americans live in poverty today.

In 1900-10, some 46 percent of Americans owned a home. The figure is deceptive because the vast majority of homes were in rural areas and (to be kind) modest.  In urban settings, most Americans rented and (to be accurate) lived in slums.

Today’s prospective homeowners feel burdened by excessive mortgage interest rates. However, securing affordable financing to purchase a home in 1900-10 was simply impossible. Borrowers were required to make a 50 percent down payment and pay off the principal balance in 5 to 6 years.

Government loan support through FHA and Fannie Mae did not exist until the late 1930s. Those programs, bolstered by the creation of Freddie Mac in 1970, made affordable mortgage financing available to the hundreds of millions of Americans who now own homes.

Immigration policy, the incendiary issue of 2024 politics, was vastly different in the decade of 1900-10.  But not in the way you suspect.

The borders were essentially open to all immigrants who could pay an immigration charge upon entry and were not suffering from contagious disease.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service did not exist.  

From 19-10, roughly 9 million immigrants were naturalized in the United States and increased the country’s population to 92 million. The sheer number of immigrants was amazing. By 1910, nearly one out of every 10 Americans had immigrated to the country during the prior decade.

If that rate of immigration were applied today, 33 million Americans out of the current population of 335 million would have been naturalized from 2012-22. The actual number is 8 million; roughly one out of every 40 Americans.

A majority of the immigrants in 1900-10 were non-English speaking economic refugees from eastern and southern Europe. One might speculate that because the immigrants were white, they were welcomed.

That supposition would be wrong.

Instead, so-called “nativists” publicly denounced the newcomers as immoral brutes, dumb, and criminal. If Catholic, then based on the bigoted assumption that they would place loyalty to the Pope above allegiance to America, nativists portrayed immigrants as security threats.

In fervent opposition to today’s immigrants, MAGA Republicans use the same playbook to impugn people of color and Muslims.

Reliable crime statistics do not exist for the decade 1900-10. The FBI did not come into existence until 1908 with 34 agents in total. Many crimes on the “books” today were either not crimes in 1900-10, went unreported or were not charged.  For example, marital rape was not a crime; child abuse was  seldom reported.

Race riots of the era involved white mobs attacking blacks, including the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 in North Carolina where a white mob murdered black elected officials and took over city government in a coup d’etat.

Based on the historical record, it is hard to understand why anyone would claim that the decade 1900-10 could possibly serve as a model to “Make America Great Again.”

But it depends on perspective. When Trump assesses the benefits of the era, he is thinking how Americans like him, rich business elites, were treated then and what liberties they enjoyed compared to the present day.

Rigorous financial and banking regulation did not exist in 1900-10. Many prominent judges and elites endorsed the “laissez-faire” approach to business long championed by Justice Stephan Field in the late 19th century. Some went so far as to regard government regulation as the confiscation of property rights.

Trump’s attitude toward the financial fraud case presided over by Judge Arthur Engoron in New York is emblematic of that mindset.  

Trump remains angered that any court should oversee his business practices. As to misrepresentations in loan applications, he asserts the banks were on notice to perform their own due diligence. As a consequence, and New York statutes notwithstanding, there was no obligation for him to be accurate or truthful.

Trump displayed the same Gilded Age attitude to the court and E. Jean Carroll in her recent defamation case.

From Trump’s perspective, Carroll was and is a person of “no account” who lacks  standing to hold him “to account” for allegations he “vigorously and strongly”denies. It was and is Trump’s position that his denial should have ended the case before it ever commenced.

As a person of “stature and wealth,” Trump also believed and believes that once the trial commenced he was entitled to provide testimony when he desired, regarding whatever issues he chose and without the constraint of rules and procedures that apply to others.

It was inconceivable to Trump that such deference was not fully accorded him by the trial judge.