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Trumpists of the Past

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I’m glad I’ve developed the reputation as a go-to person for journalists to interview when discussing horrible Americans of the past. In this case, I was asked to provide some context for this Vice piece on the early 20th century Texas congresscritter Thomas Blanton, who was almost unbelievably awful and who almost got kicked out of Congress for inserting profanities into the Congressional Record.

Blanton’s voice was one of the loudest in the anti-union choir. In one instance in October 1921, as Pennsylvania representative William Burke gave a pro-union speech in favor of an upcoming railroad labor strike, Blanton interrupted, shouting, “You are a liar!” Burke, in turn, called him a “damn liar and a dirty dog,” and their congressional colleagues observed that “there was a movement to mix it up physically.”

In short, Blanton didn’t come to Washington to make friends.

During the same month as that dust-up with Burke, Blanton entered some remarks into the Congressional Record concerning a labor dispute at the United States Government Publishing Office, or GPO. Some non-union printers wanted the GPO to be an open shop, i.e. not require its workers to be union members. Blanton supported the non-union printers, including one named Millard French, who worked for George H. Carter, then the Public Printer of the United States. French had written an affidavit to Carter that, in part, recalled verbatim an argument between him and union printer Levi Huber. Blanton sent the entire affidavit to the Congressional Record.

Unfortunately for Blanton, French and Huber had sharp tongues, and their conversation included some unseemly language. For example, there was this, from Huber: “G-d Dn your black heart, you ought to have it torn out of you, you u___s- of a b -. You and the Public Printer has no sense. You k his a and he is a d__d fool for letting you do it.”

That’s what he inserted and, yeah, it was silly to threaten to evict him from Congress. But it was 1921. Anyway, Blanton, who represented a district that was based around Abilene, was a real piece of work.

Blanton refused to apologize for the obscenities and vowed to fight the resolution, claiming he had submitted the letter to prevent the United States from becoming “Sovietized,” and had appropriately censored the language in the letter so that “any woman or any child could read all that I have printed without a single blush of shame.” He also argued that he was being unfairly targeted, particularly by his fellow Texan representatives, who he claimed were attempting to stop him from running for a Senate seat. (It’s unclear whether this was true, though Blanton did run for Senate in 1927 and didn’t get elected.)

As I state in the piece, like Tea Party politicians today, the only electoral threat Blanton was ever going to face was from the right. So he had no reason to temper his lunacy. In other words, Trumpism has a long background in American history and it’s kind of amazing we haven’t descended down this path more often.

Indeed, even though Blanton’s “vile” indecency was splashed all over the front page of the New York Times, he was reelected to Congress in 1922, 1924, and 1926. The House was briefly freed of him in 1928, after that failed Senate run, but the respite did not last long, and Blanton returned to terrorize the House once more in 1930. He was finally voted out in 1937, went on to practice law in Washington, DC, and in Texas, and died in 1957.

So, while many voters certainly don’t care much about “decency” now, they also didn’t care about it in 1921. Trying to shame voters by calling out a politician’s crassness or pugnaciousness is not just a useless tactic, but could potentially backfire. Like Blanton, Trump’s base seems to enjoy it when he taunts world leaders on Twitter. They don’t mind his so-called “locker room talk” because they believe that he, like Blanton, would put his job on the line to prevent the United States from becoming “Sovietized,” or whatever the modern equivalent would be. He can call immigrants “animals” and claim they “infest” the United States all he wants, if that’s what his voters want to hear. Decorum is an illusion, and arguing about it is often a waste of time.

Yes.

Incidentally, Thomas Blanton is also the name of one of the guys who blew up the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. No relation, but maybe we should watch out for guys with that name.

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