Although they disliked the communist U.S.S.R., the conservative presidents of the 1920s did not stress ideological distinctions between friends and foes in the way conservatives did during the Cold War. In Coolidge’s words, “We are independent, detached, and can and do take a disinterested position in relation to international affairs.”
And, like Trump today, the presidents of the 1920s embraced protectionism with little regard for its geopolitical consequences. In 1922, Harding signed the Fordney-McCumber bill, which created the highest tariffs in American history. Then, in 1930, Hoover signed Smoot-Hawley. The United States also refused to forgive its former allies’ war debts. Coolidge’s notorious line—“They hired the money, didn’t they?”—may be apocryphal, but it captured the spirit of his policy.
When Trump, in an interview after the G7, complained that “we have been taken advantage of as a country for decades by friends and enemies both,” and when National-Security Adviser John Bolton tweeted the now-famous photo of German Chancellor Angela Merkel glaring at Trump alongside the caption, “Just another #G7 where other countries expect America will always be their bank,” they were echoing Coolidge.
There are obviously important differences between Trump’s foreign policy and American foreign policy almost a century ago. In the 1920s, for instance, when America’s standing army was small, presidents prided themselves on their anti-militarism. Today, America possesses the world’s largest military, by far, and Trump is not only vowing to expand it, but almost casually threatens war.
But what links Trump and the conservative presidents of the 1920s is their view of all foreign governments, regardless of ideology, as alien and predatory, and their desire not to bind America to any of them. It’s no coincidence that, in both eras, this obsession with American sovereignty has followed disillusioning wars, nor that, in both eras, it has coincided with a panic about immigration. Both Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” and Harding’s, “Back to Normalcy,” evoke nostalgia for a time when America, and native-born Americans, were more clearly masters of their own fate.
In both eras, as well, the insistence that foreign governments have cheated America is bound up with the insistence that foreign people have cheated Americans. As vice president, Coolidge warned that “the unassimilated alien child menaces our children,” and that “biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend.” The Second Klan reached its peak in the 1920s, riding a surge of xenophobia to enroll millions of members. And in 1924, Congress passed sweeping immigration restrictions. Hostility to immigration was widespread among rank-and-file conservatives of the era, as it is today.