Wednesday, August 21, 2019


By Dominique Paul Noth

When Trump originated his MAGA chant (Make America Great Again) my reaction was what the hell was he talking about?  It quickly became clear he would destroy the actual past for his own fabrication and he dreaded building his policies on past American dreams and progress. He found a cadre of voters that knew as little as he did or thought his fact-free style would improve their lives.

He set out to dismantle every good thing previous administrations had accomplished -- and even the good halfway steps they had taken in hope that America would continue to evolve.

Now after nearly three years, the citizens are at a crossroads – try to get rid of Trump now in what is shaping up, as Nancy Pelosi feared, to a one political party impeachment or grind it out until the end of 2020 while Trump kicks up the level of damage to American institutions and principles, destroying our global reputation while banking on an economy growing shakier every day.

His MAGA chant evokes some imaginary US past in his fevered brain, maybe the Gilded Age of the 19th century when business ran rampant, maybe the 1920s when businesses again ran rampant on the way to the Great Depression, maybe some aspects of the Eisenhower years with the widely spread but misleading slogan “What is good for General Motors is good for the country.”

I don’t like going back when the nation has to keep pressing forward, but Trump clearly isn’t thinking of the era when America’s democratic fortitude emerged and scared the right wing half to death – the greatest generation as Tom Brokaw called it – the 1940s after the war. 

Gregory Peck, Celeste Holm and John Garfield confront
a drunken Jew hater in 'Gentleman's Agreement'
Even Hollywood, a studio dream machine built around making money, was forced to confront the changing globe confirmed by World War II.  Suddenly, even the movies with their historic caution began to say things that were universally American in values.  They had done so hesitantly in earlier decades but this time the bite was more socially pronounced.  Trump would have hated the impulses.

The movies remained cautious on what we now call civil rights, making films where Southern theaters could snip Lena Horne solos out of MGM musicals.  The movies were particularly bad for blacks and native Americans and by the 1960s routinely added Hispanics to the stereotypical mix. 

But there were glimmers.  In 1943’s “Sahara,” starring Humphrey Bogart (and not to be confused with later movies of the same title), a veritable United Nations of straggling soldiers gather in the desert to fight the Germans and it is here that a black man is allowed to kill a white man on screen to the cheers of the audience.  The white man is a blond despicable Nazi and the black man is a Sudanese soldier (played by a famous black actor, Rex Ingram). 

Hollywood was in the myth making business but slowly the world was creeping in.  Noted directors and actors went to war and came back with a harder edge.  Even studio solvers from the stage world like Vincente Minnelli could play a dual game – creating one of  the best showcases for black talent in “Cabin in the Sky” (1943) yet sending a valentine vision to GIs of the white America worth saving -- loving, comfortable,  family knit,  untouched by social upheaval.  His “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944) is a great musical, yet what it doesn’t show is alarming.

Turn of the century St. Louis had  a half million residents,  but 35,000 were blacks, and there is not a black face on the screen, much less horror at how many lynchings were taking place around the World’s Fair. The boy next door romancing sweeps away any sense of darkness until a cork face Halloween nightmare Minnelli inserts.

The right wing had an angry counterblast that roiled the nation after the war with (is this where Trump got it?) fears of socialists, Communists and military Armageddon resulting in HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee, which gave rise to such political stars as Richard Nixon) and the McCarthy era. Socially aware Hollywood names were blacklisted for more than a decade in a fever that also served up politically neutral figures whose celebrity was now sought by Quisling replacements.

So rampant was this fever that a staunch Republican like Ginger Rogers would be dragged through the mud for making a homefront drama about women working in factories, “Tender Comrade” (1943),   because the title  could be made to sound so Bolshevik.

Yet “Tender Comrade’ actually represented a flowering of socially conscious Hollywood movies built around American principles like immigration and justice.   Almost all their creators wound up on the blacklist. 

Dreamers confronting reality: Peggy Ann Garner and
James Dunn in 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn'.
Director Elia Kazan, excoriated later for cooperating with HUAC, always urged looking at his films rather than his behavior, because he was 20th Century-Fox’s go-to guy for social dramas. In his first film, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945), set at the turn of the century, a grandmother from the old country in tortured English contemplates how, now that she’s old, she sees what drew her to Brooklyn:

In that old country, a child can rise no higher than his father's state. But here in this place, each one is free to go as far as he's good to make of himself. This way, the child can be better than their parent and this is the true way that things grow better. And this has to do something with the learning, which is here free to all people. l who am old missed these things. My children missed these things. But my children's children shall not miss it.

Weirdly, the same immigrant dream remains 74 years later.

By 1946, returning American veterans confronted the emerging nativism that Trump so typifies in “The Best Years of Our Lives,” from newly observant Hollywood master William Wyler. The encounter then was with an America First boor (sound familiar?).

Then a Hollywood flavored portrait of American middle class anti-Semitism emerged under Kazan in “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947, like “Tree” based on a nationwide best seller). The gimmick is that Gregory Peck pretends to be Jewish to feel firsthand the rejection and humiliation felt by Jews.  The movie simplifies like a lesson play and actually paints over a nasty past when FDR’s state department itself was riddled with anti-Semitism (while McCarthyites later claimed it was riddled with Communists!).

But it contains an interesting excerpt from Peck’s fictional magazine piece after being rejected at the “restricted” (euphemism for anti-Semitic) Plume Inn:

Driving away from the inn I knew all about every man or woman, every youngster, who'd been turned down by a college or a summer camp. I knew the rage that pitches through you when you see your own child shaken and dazed.  From that moment, I saw an unending attack by adults on kids of seven and eight and ten and twelve...  on adolescents trying to get a job or an education or into medical school.   
And I knew that they had somehow known it, too. They, those patient, stubborn men who argued and wrote and fought and came up with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They knew the tree is known by its fruit and that injustice corrupts a tree, that its fruit withers and shrivels.

The allusions back to nature are typical of the era, conjuring up an integrity to Earth that American principles embody in the writers’ minds.  Seldom since have the Founding Fathers been so nobly portrayed.  Seldom since have the purposes of a free education and a free integrity for all people been so artistically explained to the masses of Americans, assuming a universal level of language and interest in the American ideal.

By 1949 even the issue of undocumented immigrants was recognized for what it really was – an exploitation of cheap labor by business owners and their middlemen  (“Border Incident”), a vision of desperate immigrants  that seems to have vanished from the White House.

For all its warts – and the eras of my childhood had many – there was a presumption of universal acceptance of basic principles.   The MAGA of Trump by his own behavior rejects all that.  I fear he is talking to an audience that, because of their own upbringing and indifference to learning and self-education, has no idea what I’m talking about – or what the majority of Americans are fighting to preserve and restore. 

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his DomsDomain dual culture and politics outlets.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.

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