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San Francisco’s Donald Trump

What a dismayed city can learn from the strange career of a 19th-century demagogue.

Members of Denis Kearney’s Workingmen’s Party riot against Chinese immigrants in San Francisco in 1877.

 

Editor’s note: Read more post-election reactions here.


For San Franciscans reeling
from the election of a man who represents the opposite of everything they stand for, it may be a source of either consolation or shame to know that we once had our very own Donald Trump—a populist rabble-rouser, combining inflammatory appeals to disaffected workers, denunciations of corrupt politicians, and virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric. This man, Denis Kearney, forged a movement so powerful that it briefly carried all before it: “Time was when men hung on the words of Denis Kearney as though every syllable contained some panacea for the ills of life,” wrote the Los Angeles Herald of that man in 1902.

In July 1877, America was going through a period of economic crisis and unprecedented political turmoil known as the Great Upheaval. Radical working-class and agrarian movements and violent protests sprang up across the country, and San Francisco was not immune to the unrest. On July 24, thousands of workers took to the streets, burning Chinese laundries and beating Chinese. The next day, 5,000 men tried to burn the piers where Chinese immigrants landed. Only a hastily formed citizens’ militia armed with pick handles drove back the rioters.

Kearney, an Irish-born drayman and property owner, was one of the members of the so-called Pick-Handle Brigade. Though he had earlier given speeches blasting workers as lazy, extravagant, and overpaid and defending Chinese immigration, Kearney abruptly switched sides after battling the workers during the riots. Suddenly he began raging violently against corrupt tycoons and their Chinese “slaves,” denouncing the “thieving capitalists” and “lecherous bondholders” who had rigged the system, ending with his trademark closer: “The Chinese must go!”

Kearney’s political about-face was just as confounding as former pro-choice Democrat Donald Trump’s reincarnation as an anti-abortion Republican and “birther” wingnut. And like Trump’s double message of attacking Hillary Clinton as a corrupt Washington fat cat while blasting Muslim immigrants and other ethnic scapegoats, Kearney’s two-headed assault on “miserable felonious bank-smashers” and “moon-eyed lepers” galvanized workers. 

Kearney’s new Workingmen’s Party of California attacked “thieves, speculators, land grabbers, bloated bondholders, railroad magnates, and shoddy aristocrats,” but he was no leftist. Capitalism itself was not the culprit, but rather corrupt plutocrats who would not play by the rules (shades of “Crooked Hillary”), along with the reviled Chinese. 

As with Trump, Kearney made frequent recourse to threats of physical violence at his public rallies. Indeed, at the outset of his career Kearney used his followers to suppress a genuinely socialist party, the Workingmen’s Party of the United States, which was competing for the same audiences in the sandlots (see: Sanders, Bernie). “You will have to mob these white Sioux and white pigtail men first,” Kearney roared. “You will have to shoot them down in the street, before you begin on the Chinese.” His followers chased the socialists off the sandlots and smashed their wooden platform.

Just as Trump benefited enormously from media outlets (Fox News, Breitbart, right-wing talk radio) that served as his mouthpieces, so Kearney was elevated by the San Francisco Chronicle, which became his most important mainstream sponsor. And like Trump, Kearney had a showman’s sense of spectacle. The symbols of the hated fat cats were their opulent Nob Hill mansions. On October 29, Kearney led a mob of 3,000 followers up to Charles Crocker’s mansion on California and Taylor. The railroad magnate had recently erected a 30-foot-high “spite fence” that blocked a neighbor’s access to the sun. Raging that this was a perfect example of the disgraceful arrogance of the rich, Kearney threatened to give Crocker “the worst beating with the sticks a man ever had” if he did not tear down the fence, yelling, “If I give an order to hang Crocker, it will be done!” (A late-19th-century version of “Lock her up!”) Of course, many of Kearney’s apologists insisted that his violent threats were not to be taken literally: “What little things they did say were only used as metaphors,” one follower averred.

But Kearneyism, as the movement was known, was far better at demonizing economic scapegoats than it was at actually improving workers’ economic prospects. Although it won a third of the seats at the 1878–1879 California Constitutional Convention, Kearney’s party had almost no impact. His framing of the economic crisis, which blamed everything solely on the evil character of “shoddy aristocrats” and other gothic villains, was too superficial to translate into actual policies. Furthermore, it inevitably tended to elevate Kearney himself to the cultlike status of workingman’s savior—never mind that he was actually a bourgeois businessman. “I am the voice of the people,” he supposedly once said. “I am the dictator until the people put someone else in my place.” 

Fed up with his inflated ego and his autocratic ways, Kearney’s peers abandoned him, as did the Chronicle. By 1881—four years after its birth—the Workingmen’s Party of California was defunct. Kearney made several attempts to reenter politics, but he had more success in his natural setting of the business world, running an employment agency and operating a wheat pit in the San Francisco Produce Exchange until he died, a rich man, in 1907.

In the end, Kearneyism achieved nothing—with one important exception. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which froze Chinese immigration until 1943. Kearney’s incendiary rantings doubtless played some role in these actions. Which leaves us with one final disturbing parallel. The Chinese Exclusion Act is an earlier version of the “beautiful wall” that Trump has vowed to build on the Mexican border. Few believe that Trump can build such a wall; some doubt whether he even wants to. But how many walls, between countries or between human beings, will remain when the latest apostle of division has exited the stage?

 

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

 

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