Time took some ribbing last week for declaring 2020 the “worst year ever”—a title that surely belongs to, say, the Black Death of the 1353 or the crop-killing gloom of 536. The teasing was deserved. While it’s common in stressful moments to think things have never been worse—and there are plentiful reasons to worry when looking at today’s political horizon, dominated by media-savvy demagogues willing to ignore longstanding legal principles—the truth is that much of what Americans are witnessing today has a precedent, specifically in the bleak 1930s, when the nation was beset by manipulative politicians who exploited cutting-edge technology to expand their power and undermine the Constitution. Much of this history has been buried under saccharine sentiment about the New Deal, but the fact is that the era of Franklin Roosevelt has much in common with the political crises of today.
Elected in 1932 by promising to “reduce the cost of the current Federal Government operations by 25 percent,” Roosevelt actually had little if any governing philosophy at all. He was a brilliant manipulator of people, both in person and en masse, but he combined his affable demeanor with an almost total ignorance of economics and a cynical willingness to exploit his authority. Influential media personalities, meanwhile, convinced that Washington gridlock had paralyzed the country’s response to the Depression, rallied to his side. Columnist Walter Lippmann said America needed “a mild species of dictatorship,” and William Randolph Hearst, who helped ensure Roosevelt’s nomination by the Democrats, financed a film called Gabriel Over the White House, in which the new president took orders directly from Heaven. On inauguration day, a New York Times reporter wrote that Americans were giving Roosevelt “the authority of a dictator” as “a free gift. … America today literally asks for orders.”
In his inaugural address, the president said he would act as if the nation were at war, regardless of what Congress did—and he followed through. He closed banks, took the country off the gold standard, and began dictating arbitrarily how much the dollar would be worth—changing its value each day, and sometimes basing it on “lucky numbers.” He increased government spending astronomically, and balanced that with heavy new taxes, in ways that obstructed the economy’s ability to right itself, and maximized government control over economic choices. He doubled down on make-work projects such as the Works Projects Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which enabled him to funnel money directly to politicians whose support he wanted. And he surrounded himself by what historian Gary Dean Best calls “a plethora of ‘crank’ economists” with nutty ideas about controlling industry.
Foremost among these was the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). Modeled on the economic plans of Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini—who praised Roosevelt’s book Looking Forward as “reminiscent of the ways and means by which Fascism has awakened the Italian people”—it outlawed what the administration viewed as “unfair” competition and established a group of national industrial cartels. Another law, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), sought to raise food prices by paying farmers to grow less, which was dubious enough in a time of Depression and the Dust Bowl, but was worsened by the fact that it conflicted with the policy of another New Deal program, the Resettlement Administration (RA), which tried to move farmers off of exhausted land to places where they could grow more.