Adam Hochschild on history and the orange man: "We haven't had a figure exactly like him before"

Author and historian says we haven't quite hit "American Midnight" — but the crucial turning point is upon us

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published October 24, 2022 5:45AM (EDT)

President Donald J. Trump (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
President Donald J. Trump (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

What year is it really? On the calendar it says 2022, but time feels broken: Past, present and future all seem to be colliding. This disorientation often feels alien and monstrous — but could also be productive and radically recuperative.

America and many other parts of the world are under siege by illiberal forces that are seeking to end democracy under the banner of right-wing populism and other authoritarian visions. Such forces are old and new at the same time. 

In the United States and many other parts of the world, right-wing street thugs and paramilitaries have staged marches and engaged in acts of violence against their "enemies" — which include Black and brown people, immigrants of all races, LGBTQ people, liberals and "socialists," Jewish people, Muslims and other targeted groups — as part of a reactionary revolutionary project to enforce "tradition" and "conservative" values and return their societies to a mythic past of "greatness" and "unity". 

It is clear that Donald Trump still aspires to be an authoritarian strongman and fascist, looking to some of the worst such leaders in history as his role models. To that point, Trump's coup attempt on Jan. 6 had echoes of Adolf Hitler's Beer Hall putsch and the Reichstag fire, both of which preceded the Nazi seizure of power.

In other parts of the world, right-wing populists and neofascists like Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey and, most recently, Giorgia Meloni in Italy have risen to power.

Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine has been accompanied by rhetoric about the rejection of liberal democracy along with "political correctness," "diversity" and "multiculturalism," often describing such values as "cosmopolitan" and by implication feminine and weak. Putin, Orbán and other authoritarian leaders are idolized as role models by many American "conservatives." 

The QAnon conspiracy cult also continues to gain influence within the Republican Party and "conservative" movement. It is hardly a new phenomenon: It draws on centuries-old antisemitic beliefs such as the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and the "blood libel" that Jewish people murdered Christian babies, which can trace their origins at least to the European Middle Ages.

In the United States and other Western societies, wealth and income inequality have reached extreme levels not seen since the Gilded Age, where a very small number of people control the majority of the world's resources.

In these examples and others, we see the unvanquished ghosts and demons of the 19th and 20th centuries (and even earlier) reanimated for the 21st century and amplified by social media across an interconnected global society. Today's Western-style democracies and societies appear to lack the civic immune systems required to effectively resist these forces — and are running out of time to develop them. 

History offers many lessons in dealing with such crises, and historian and journalist Adam Hochschild is among our most valuable instructors. His books include such bestselling and award-winning titles as "Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves," "King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa" and "To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918."

Hochschild returns to early 20th-century history in his newest book, "American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy's Forgotten Crisis." His essays and other writing have appeared in such publications as the Atlantic, the Nation, the New Yorker, Mother Jones and the New York Review of Books.

In this conversation, Hochschild locates Trumpism and the rise of American neofascism and other reactionary revolutionary forces within a much longer continuity of American history and unresolved struggles over democracy, freedom, truth, reason, progress, equality of opportunity, and civil and human rights. He describes Donald Trump as an almost unique figure in American history, which is why he is so popular among his followers — and so dangerous to the country's democratic institutions and culture. 

American society, Hochschild says, would be more democratic, more humane and more prosperous for most people if progressive movements had not been crushed during the latter part of World War ! and its immediate aftermath. Toward the end of this conversation, Hochschild reflects upon the importance and meaning of "social democracy" and says that tradition can still help American society weather its multiple overlapping and potentially existential crises.

Given the world's democracy crisis and so many other troubles, how are you making sense of it all? How are you feeling? 

It's been up and down these last few years. The fact that we came within such a hair's breadth of getting Trump for the second time scared the hell out of me. Government inaction in the months after that was deeply depressing. I did feel somewhat heartened that the Manchin-Schumer deal unleashed a lot of money that will help the country.

Having a president who recognizes that global warming exists and is actually trying to do something about it just reminds me of how lucky we are compared to a couple of years ago. But we also saw George Floyd murdered for all the world to see, and that was a reminder of just how far we have to go as a country. These tough years for many people here in the United States and the world have also seen an explosion of wealth inequality. These years have seen the greatest transfer of wealth from bottom to top in modern American history.

How are you using your intellectual tools as a historian to get leverage on these events, to make the larger picture more coherent and more intelligible? 

I love writing about history, and I have to say that it was a great comfort to me to have the privilege of writing this book during the pandemic. So many people were unable to work. Their jobs were shut down and they did not have the privilege of working from home. If I'm writing a book and telling people about a time in history that they may not know about, I feel like I am being somehow useful. The pleasure of doing that just keeps me going.

In times of trouble and tumult we often hear the phrase that "history is being made" or that these are "historic events." What does that actually mean? I feel like that language should be unpacked and interrogated. 

I find satisfaction in feeling the echoes of that earlier time period in the present. None of the conflicts that divided the United States 100 years ago have gone away: They're just here in different forms.

History is always happening, even at times when it feels stuck. There are tensions building and nasty things are afoot. In "American Midnight," I write about how these tensions were building here in the U.S. in that period from the end of World War I through the early 1920s. Nativists were against immigrants. Whites were against Black people. Business was against labor. Then there are these moments where things seem to be happening more rapidly and something dramatic happens that crystallizes the public mood. The murder of George Floyd was one such recent moment.

When I am writing, I am living emotionally in the time period I'm writing about. I find satisfaction in that. I also find satisfaction in feeling the echoes of that earlier time period in the present. None of the conflicts that divided the United States 100 years ago have gone away: They're just here in different forms.

What year is it really? The Age of Trump is utterly disorienting. We know the calendar year, of course, but the feeling and experience of the past and present colliding can make it feel difficult to locate ourselves relative to history.

I believe it depends on where you are and who you are in this society and world. If you're a young Black man walking down the street on a dark night in Chicago, and a car full of cops comes by, it may feel like it's 1870. If you're a journalist who is able to express themselves through their freedom of speech and rights, then it really is 2022. Wanting and needing the freedom to say what you want, to think critically and be investigative and probe deeply, it really is 2022 — you are not being repressed or censored in the way journalists were during the earlier decades of the 20th century. If you're a labor activist who is trying to sign people up for a new union at Amazon or Trader Joe's, maybe it feels like 1930, where we hadn't yet gotten to the surge in the labor movement that happened under the New Deal. 

One way I have oriented myself during this democracy crisis is to lean into my study of history. It is frustrating and disheartening to see the professional politics watchers and pundits, who are supposed to know the fundamentals about America's history, repeat narratives that do not pass the most basic critical inquiry. Many of them treat the Age of Trump and neofascism as a surprise or shock, when the facts of American history are clear: This not something foreign to the country's political and social history. I wonder if that ignorance is just a performance or if the professional smart people really do not know these things.

I think one of the problems is that the writing we do tends to get read by people who agree with us already and who don't need convincing. The problem is how to reach the ones who do need convincing or whose minds could be broadened. That's why I put a lot of emphasis on trying to write history in a way that makes use of narrative techniques and catches readers up in the story of it. I really try to tell history through the lives of individual people, rather than just sitting back and looking at broad historical trends. When people reach out to me after reading one of my books, they tell me that those human stories really pulled them in.

How do we locate the Age of Trump within the larger story or American history? What chapter is this?

It's a middle chapter, because we're not at the end yet. We've made some progress and I think that we took some steps back. There are areas of life in this country where we've not had much progress and other areas where we have seen much progress. One of those areas I have focused on is the distribution of wealth. As a society we have been backsliding on that terribly since around 1970. We've reached the point where the two or three richest people in this country — Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos — have as much wealth as the bottom half of the population combined, which is more than 150 million people. Such a situation is unparalleled in the country's history.

I think we've advanced in some other areas. My wife and I were civil rights workers for a brief time in the South in 1964. At that time, Black people in the South couldn't vote. Of course Black Americans have the right to vote now, but of course there are strenuous efforts being made to take their right to vote away through voter suppression, voter nullification and such things. In terms of the labor movement, the country has slipped backward too. Not too long ago, 30 percent or so of working Americans were in unions; now it is much lower. But history is always a matter of moving forward and backward, and then trying to figure out what we can do to move forward again.

What are some of the continuities between the period you were writing about and today?

Some of the continuities that I identified in the book that we see in different forms today involve that old tension in American life between nativists and immigrants. In this context, "nativist" means the people whose ancestors got here one or two generations ago being resentful of those who are now arriving. A hundred or so years ago, that meant tensions around European immigrants and questions of whiteness. As you know, Jews, Poles, Italians and other white "ethnics" had not yet become white in the eyes of the white people who were already here in America. The tensions of the color line, where whites are resentful of Black people's advances and progress is still very much with us in this country. The tension between business and labor is still with us too.

And of course, questions of women's rights and equality are unresolved in this country, with the most obvious example being how this right-wing Supreme Court just struck a huge blow against women's reproductive rights and freedoms. The right-wing militia groups and what they represent are also nothing new in American history either. 

How do you locate Donald Trump in this American story? Here I mean not just the man — that is a superficial error that too many political observers are making. My concern is about what Donald Trump represents and symbolizes.

One strand of Trump can be traced to European fascists like Hitler and Mussolini. Another strand connects to the country's long history of snake oil salesmen, flimflam artists and con men.

I wish that I had a perfect comparison for Donald Trump to somebody in the country's past. In many ways, we have not had a figure exactly like him before. One strand of Trump can be traced to the European fascists and leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini. Trump, like them, knows that if you can target a whole group of people as a villain or some type of enemy, you can gain power. Another strand of Trump connects to the country's long history of snake oil salesmen, flimflam artists and con men who are trying to sell you a magical cure for your troubles. Trump also connects to conspiracy theories. He is also a P.T. Barnum-esque figure, a showman who travels around entertaining his public.

Trump basically has endorsed QAnon, which is fundamentally just the antisemitic "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" updated for today. Trump also has connections to the Ku Klux Klan and blatant appeals to whiteness that we saw after the Civil War and through to the 1920s, the Red Summer and beyond. 

The full title of your new book is "American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy's Forgotten Crisis." Who has forgotten this history?  

I'm always interested in forgotten history because I think every country in the world likes to have a glowing, shiny, upbeat version of its past and things it wants to forget. For example, look at the outpouring of grief and loss because of Queen Elizabeth II's passing. She is being almost canonized as some type of perfect person when in reality the British Empire, which she symbolized, has its origins in imperialism, chattel slavery and other crimes against humanity. America is no exception to that yearning for a simple shiny version of its past.

There are so many parts of America's history that many people would like to overlook by instead focusing on hagiographic or mythical stories about the founders. We do so at our peril. Many of the dark forces that I write about, from 1917 to 1921, that very repressive time in our country's history, are still with us today. Moreover, those dark forces could be triggered and inflamed even further, depending on political developments or some great crisis here or abroad. 

How do you make sense of these right-wing attacks on history and the creation of Orwellian thought-crime laws across red-state America?

There are many parts of America's history that people would like to overlook by focusing on hagiographic stories about the founders. We do so at our peril.

We've seen it before. We've also seen periods of time in this country where those types of thought crimes and suppression were not even necessary because history was so sanitized and written by the powerful. There weren't books like "The 1619 Project" to challenge those narratives. The right wing didn't have to start banning books because there were relatively few bannable books, in their eyes. The fact that the right wing in America is so outraged and wants to ban books today is really a testimony that there are a lot more books out there today which are challenging power and the dominant narrative. That is an improvement and a good thing, compared to decades before. 

I don't want to summon this outcome into being, but the truth-telling you are advancing in "American Midnight" may get it banned in some parts of this country.

Many of the books that have been banned in recent years have been targeted because they talk openly and honestly about race. Books that discuss women's rights, human sexuality, the LGBTQ movement and history have also been targeted by the right wing. I don't know if my book will earn the right-wing's ire. But then again, I do discuss America's long history of racial violence, which basically means white violence. The so-called race riots of 1919, the Red Summer, really should be called "white riots" because that's exactly what they were.

Can you highlight some of the profiles of resistance to these forces of evil that you feature in "American Midnight"? 

It is always more interesting to try to tell history from the bottom up, as well as from the top. In "American Midnight," I was drawn to the resistors during what was a very unequal and oppressive time in the country's history. In the book I spend a lot of time on Emma Goldman and Kate Richards O'Hare. I also would make a deep bow to Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. Du Bois, who were brave and tough in how they chronicled the racial injustice in this period. Another of my heroes in the book is Louis F. Post. He has not received much attention. He was a government bureaucrat who saved thousands of people from being deported. There are those bottom-up stories, stories of those who fought against the repression, if you go looking for them, 

Eugene Debs is certainly another hero from this period. He was somebody who spoke out strongly against World War I and in favor of racial and social justice of all kinds. Debs spent three years in jail for his beliefs and received almost a million votes for president while he was in jail. Those are the kinds of stories that I love to look for and then weave into a larger tapestry of history.

A fundamental and critical question: What is history? And why does history matter?

History formed who we are, and unless we understand how we came to be, we're not going to be able to make a turn for the better. Unless we understand how we got to where we are right now, we're not going to be able to understand the dangers we face, the possibilities we face and find heroes and heroines to inspire us. Those are some of the reasons we need to study history.

What are some things we can do to fight back against the right and its thought-crime campaign? Fascism and other authoritarian systems gain power and sustain themselves by attacking critical thinking in order to disorient the public.

You have to push back against the thought-crime impulse. People need to organize, join school boards, support libraries. It is so important right now to support the teachers and librarians who want books to be available to the public, because they know the importance and power of critical thinking. It's tough in these small rural communities where there aren't a lot of people who feel that way. The more we can do to support the people who are fighting these battles, the better. Supporting the independent news media is also a critical part of this struggle for truth and history and democracy. 

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The struggle for social democracy is a key theme in your new book. Many Americans may not be familiar with that concept, or at least with what it means. How would you explain it to them?

A full-scale democracy involves much more than being able to vote. Real democracy means having a far larger measure of social and economic equality.

Different people use that word in different ways. To me, social democracy means that a full-scale democracy involves much more than just being able to vote. It's not just a matter of having the rights that are there in the Bill of Rights. Real democracy means having a far larger measure of social and economic equality. This means that medical care is a right, for example. Access to a truly meaningful social safety net is part of social democracy too. Access to higher education, if you qualify, should also be a right. I can't help but wonder whether we wouldn't have some of those things, or more of those things, here in the United States if the left had not been so ruthlessly crushed in this 1917 to 1921 period that I write about.

Given the democracy crisis and ascendant neofascism and other overlapping challenges, what time of day is it right now in the American story? Is it midnight?

I don't think we're at midnight yet. But let's put it this way: If we go one direction we're heading for midnight and if we go another direction, then we're heading for noon.

How do you want people to feel after they have read "American Midnight"?

I want them to feel inspired by some of the heroic figures they met. I want them to feel surprised and a little bit angry that they didn't learn about this in that American history class in high school. I want them to go out and vote and organize.


By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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