he 2020 TrumpVirus pandemic that is killing so many of us today has deep roots in World War I and the Woodrow Wilson Influenza that killed 50,000,000 back then.
Along with mass death, both viruses have brought fascism to America. To avoid a full-on replay, we need to know how.
Like today’s TrumpVirus catastrophe, the global pandemic of 102 years ago was almost entirely avoidable. It was not an innocent accident or Act of Nature. It spread from the fascist decisions of one man: Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson was elected president in 1912 as a liberal democrat. He sold himself as a man of peace. But he was (like Donald Trump) a KKK-supporting White Supremacist. In 1915, for no good reason, he sent US troops crashing into Mexico City to “teach a lesson” to “our little brown brothers.”
In 1916, Wilson narrowly won re-election with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” Then he dragged us in.
US involvement in WWI was hugely unpopular. Its best-known opponent was the legendary Indiana-born Socialist Eugene V. Debs. Workers and unionists by the tens of millions saw him as an “American Saint.” Tireless, incorruptible, and charismatic, he drew huge crowds wherever he spoke, and might well have become our first Socialist president in 1920.
But on September 11, 1918, using dubious dictatorial powers, federal agents imprisoned Debs for speaking against the war. Wilson’s Gestapo-style “Red Scare” illegally arrested, assaulted, and murdered countless grassroots organizers, activists, and laborers. Armed federal thugs broke into private homes, trashed offices, and assaulted peaceful protestors. J. Edgar Hoover’s nascent Federal Bureau of Investigations busted citizens who merely criticized Wilson in private conversations or carried his own quotations on placards at public marches.
Wilson’s 1918-1920 federal assault on the US Constitution was every bit as totalitarian as the Nazi takeover of Germany in 1933 or the CIA-sponsored Chilean putsch of 1973. Its purpose was to destroy an American Socialist Party widely embraced as a legitimate alternative to the Democrats/Republicans, and to guarantee Eugene Debs did not become president.
In 1920, Gene got 900,000 votes while locked in a federal prison cell. Had he been free to campaign, with his grassroots movement intact, he might have uprooted America’s two-party system and transformed our political economy forever.
But there was also a virus on the loose. Some 650,000 Americans were dead from the infamous 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic. Like Trump in 2020, Woodrow Wilson caused its spread.
Opinions differ about where the global pandemic originated. But the virus that killed so many Americans erupted in rural Haskell County in southeastern Kansas.
Historian John Barry believes the virus may have crossed from a pig to a farmer. As the flu spread, a local doctor warned federal health officials. Had they not been distracted by war, and had they responded with reasonable medical attention, the area would have been quickly quarantined. Few would have died. The virus might have been a minor footnote.
But Wilson was beating the drums of war. A young farmer brought the disease to the Army’s Camp Funston (later Fort Riley) 300 miles away. The astonishingly contagious virus tore through a cramped, overcrowded camp with more than 50,000 recruits. Soldiers, nurses, and ordinary citizens who took sick in the morning were often dead by nightfall.
By any standard of sanity, the camp and region should have been immediately isolated. But Wilson was hell-bent on war. His hastily constructed, absurdly packed barracks stretched across the nation and became the perfect network for mass breeding and spreading a communicable disease. Countless soldiers stuffed onto deathly trains spread Wilson’s flu like wildfire. Even deadlier ships took it overseas.
Countless previously healthy young men and women were pitched into mass graves or the ocean long before they saw battle. Survivors spread the virus into Europe, then worldwide. It became known as “the Spanish Flu” because only Spain, which was neutral in the war, openly reported on the hideous death toll, which soared into the millions, on their own soil.
Wilson upped the ante by staging mass rallies to sell war bonds. In Philadelphia, some 200,000 gathered. Then at least 15,000 quickly died. Corpses were stacked in the streets, where rats and wild dogs soon roamed. Medicines, caskets, and gravesites disappeared as medical personnel fell dead. Bereaved families hid bodies at home, then dumped them into unmarked mass graves.
As today in Trump’s disease-ravaged backwaters, civilization itself hovered at the brink of collapse.
Alone among big US cities, San Francisco limited 1918’s early death toll with masks and social distancing. But when the flu returned in the fall, skepticism and fatigue won out, and the dead piled up.
Focused on war, Wilson’s network of military camps was perfectly designed to spread the flu, which he caught himself in Paris, 1919. Deathly ill, he approved harsh German reparations that fed the rise of Hitler. A stroke soon followed, debilitating him for the final year of his term. “Madness,” he mourned, “has entered everything.”
(Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt also caught the flu. He recovered, but three years later fell victim to polio, and never walked again).
Had Wilson fought the virus instead of the war, some 675,000 Americans might have been spared their useless, painful deaths. Millions more might have avoided the terrible poverty, pain, and political terror that came with the shredding of the social fabric.
A century later, Donald Trump could also have spared America its viral catastrophe.
Before its arrival, Trump dismantled well-established agencies specifically designed to fight predictable pandemics like this one. When the virus hit, he ignored desperate medical professionals who warned him very explicitly of what was about to happen.
Desperate to preserve the illusion of a booming economy, Trump refused to protect public health. He let vital supplies and equipment run short, then made states fight for them. He promoted untested treatments like hydroxychloroquine (in which he has personal investments), advocated drinking bleach, and attacked Obamacare and other vital insurance programs.
Like Wilson’s pandemic, nearly all the Trump-COVID disease, death, and economic ruination could have been avoided.
Trump’s malignant neglect has not so far killed 650,000 Americans. But he may get there yet with the rapid escalation of the death toll by demanding “business as usual” without sane precautions.
As during WWI, the US has again been at the brink of transformation. Powered by Millennials, the self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders drew in the 2016 and 2020 primaries a dozen times more votes than did Debs a century ago.
In response, like Wilson, Trump demands dictatorial powers. Authoritarian imposition, fascist death squads, illegal assault, wrongful imprisonment, vindictive retribution, armed street thugs, an anti-immigrant “final solution,” and a fascist iron fist are all on the Trump wish list.
Like Woodrow Wilson’s pandemic, today’s TrumpVirus nightmare shreds our health, kills our kin, destroys the heart of our legal infrastructure, the soul of our social fabric, and what’s left of our ravaged civilization.
If this is Mark Twain’s historic rhyming, it demands nothing less than an epic transcendent response … without which our nation and our species might well perish.