If I asked you to name a candidate in the ’16 presidential election who was running on a platform of law and order, opposition to immigration, and fears of terrorism, who would you think of? I’m not a gambling man, but I’d bet every cent I have that the name rolling off your tongue would be Donald Trump. What if I told you there was another candidate who fits that same description? What if this person was one of the most respected international politicians of his generation? Would you be shocked if I told you his name was Woodrow Wilson, who ran for reelection in 1916?
Okay, I know what you’re thinking—there is no way that Donald Trump could ever be compared to a Nobel Peace Prize-accepting, World War I-winning president. When it comes to foreign policy and diplomacy, I agree completely. Anyone who can be provoked into a rage by the mere mention of a Venezuelan beauty queen from the 1990s cannot be compared to the man who authored the Fourteen Points and created the League of Nations.
However, when it comes to immigration and national security policy, Trump’s proposals bear some remarkable similarities to Wilson’s policies. On immigrants, Wilson said in 1915, “Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.” Granted, it’s nowhere near as bold as “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” but one cannot ignore the common theme: the immigrant group du jour is dangerous—a threat to national security and American values.
Additionally, both candidates thrived on one of the most primal fears of any citizen: war and violence. Americans bore witness to this in 2016 during the first presidential debate when Trump boldly, and repeatedly, declared that the country needed more “law and order.” This echoes Wilson’s oft-repeated 1916 motto, “He kept us out of war,” though it’s worth mentioning that the United States entered World War I the very next year.
The two men also share some unsavory similarities with regard to race relations. Prior to his tenure in the White House, Woodrow Wilson harbored some notoriously racist views. During his time as Princeton University’s 13th president, for instance, Wilson remarked, “The whole temper and tradition of [Princeton] are such that no Negro has ever applied for admission, and it seems unlikely that the question will ever assume practical form.” This is reminiscent of Trump’s early days in real estate, during which he was sued by the Department of Justice for discriminating against would-be African-American housing applicants. (Trump explained during the first presidential debate that these suits had been settled without any admission of guilt. Interesting how he specified there was no admission of guilt…)
Why am I telling you this? Why labor over these eerie comparisons? The answer is simple: if Woodrow Wilson’s campaign promises had no effect on his term in the White House, and if his racial biases did not factor into the decisions he made as President, I wouldn’t bother. Wilson’s racism and nativism, however, didn’t disappear as soon as he stepped into the Oval Office. Given that President Wilson allowed Cabinet heads to racially segregate federal offices that previously had been integrated, and told prominent civil rights activist William Monroe Trotter that this segregation was “not humiliating, but a benefit,” how can we assume that Trump won’t try to do the same with federal employees of Middle Eastern descent? In 1919 and 1920, Attorney General and Wilson appointee A. Mitchell Palmer conducted raids resulting in thousands of warrantless arrests of suspected anarchists, many of whom were arrested solely because they had foreign accents. How do we know Trump won’t attempt to do something similar, arresting thousands of people on the basis of having Mexican names?
If Donald Trump keeps his word, one can only imagine the devastating impact his administration would have on our own campus. With nearly half of our student body identifying as non-white, and another 11 percent consisting of international students, a xenophobic and racist president could have horrific effects on this community. Imagine this—you wake up one day to discover that your undocumented classmate has been detained by Trump’s “Deportation Force.” You go to Sharples and find out that your Muslim friend has been arrested for the crime of practicing his faith. When you go to your first class of the day, you are placed in handcuffs and carted off to jail for daring to speak out against Trump’s policies. If you think that last example was extreme, remember the case of Charles Schenck. He was convicted of violating President Wilson’s Espionage Act of 1917 for protesting against American involvement in World War I. His conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court. In fact, Scheck v. United States coined the phrase “yell fire in a crowded theater” because, apparently, protest was considered dangerous in times of war.
As of now, we don’t know if a Trump presidency will be as similar to his campaign as Wilson’s tenure was to his campaign. But given what I know about a candidate from a century ago, and given Trump’s positions, I’m not willing to hope that the Republican nominee is bluffing. There is too much at stake to make that assumption.