LBJ’s Very Trumpian Campaign of 1948

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Even as early as 2016, pundits began writing that the signs and precursors of Donald Trump’s rise to power had been there all along, visible to all who had eyes to see. Although I’m no pundit, I did my share of this, too. And I stand by it. Historical analysis is the best guide, sometimes the only guide, we have to try to understand the ever-unfolding present.

(I also stand by cognitive psychology when it says we should avoid overvaluing hindsight. It turns out that almost everyone has eyes to see when it comes to explaining things after they occur.)

Still, you don’t want a specific interpretive framework to take over everything you think. Even though Trumpism’s treasonous assault on our democratic institutions dominates the whole political horizon right now, it will, in all likelihood, be rebuffed and turn into a touchstone that future historians will use to try to understand new trends.

So when I took up Robert Caro’s epic biography The Years of Lyndon Johnson over the summer, I did so fully intent on taking it neat. I just wanted to read the thing from cover to cover, from as neutral a perspective as possible, not writing little notes in the margins about Trump and Trumpism.

For the most part, I’ve succeeded. Caro’s five-book biography is a love letter to American politics, and it can be cherished by any observer of that drama, from the left, right or center. Caro takes you into a sprawling, Tolstoyan embrace of our country’s political life and transports you straight to the heart of Texas’s Hill Country, where LBJ’s unlikely rise to power began. It is a huge story of naked ambition, played out in uniquely American terms. It teaches much of broader interest along the way–about geography, about elections, about media, money and influence, and, of course, about power. But the core of the story is very much LBJ’s story.

Caro’s work stands alone, excellent on its own merits. But his main argument is, like all good history, relevant to the present. Politics changed in fundamental ways as a result of how LBJ sought, gained and used power, Caro writes. And in LBJ’s watershed career, nothing was more of a watershed than his 1948 campaign for the U.S. Senate. The things he did to win that race left deep marks on our political culture.

Most of LBJ’s legacy has nothing directly to do with Trump. But then again, what does? Trump is such an accidental phenomenon. He wouldn’t have become anything if our culture didn’t already value swagger, wealth, celebrity, egomania, and other, far less endearing character traits before he came along. Writing long before Trump evinced any interest in politics, Caro draws out several of LBJ’s features that helped prepare our political culture for Trump’s arrival. We’re constantly hearing how Trump is breaking with time-tested traditions and setting new precedents. LBJ’s 1948 Senate campaign, though, shows that most of the tricks in the Trump playbook were not actually new.

Here are the ways I noted LBJ prefigured Trump in Caro’s account of the 1948 Senate campaign.

  1. He discovered the power of lying, emphatically and all the time. In 1948 Johnson was running against Coke Stevenson, a beloved former two-term governor known as “Mr. Texas,” who was deeply admired for his discipline, work ethic, and integrity. Flinty and stoic, Stevenson refused to campaign for elections tit-for-tat for the same reason some Civil War generals refused to use spies–he thought it was low and unbecoming of a gentleman. He was determined to win clean by running on his record alone. Johnson, who knew he was far behind Stevenson in early polls, sniffed out an obscure issue having to do with a controversial labor law and turned Stevenson’s reticence on it (Stevenson was reticent on everything) first into an innuendo then into an outright lie. By the end of the campaign, Johnson was openly accusing Stevenson (Mr. Texas!) of being a communist. Johnson’s campaign managers told Caro in interviews that they knew they were lying, but they also knew they could count on Stevenson’s refusal to speak up for himself. Since he would just sit there and take it, they repeated the lie about Stevenson thousands of times over the course of several months. It appeared in speeches, newspapers, radio shows, mailers, ads, and even in the mouths of “missionaries”–local people paid to spread lies in their towns’ gathering places. Basically the core of LBJ’s campaign was that one lie, told over and over. See Orwell on how all authoritarian regimes use this tactic.
  2. He normalized name-calling. While Trump feels compelled to coin denigrating nicknames for all his opponents, LBJ was more of a dabbler. He did it when he thought it was necessary. But unlike Trump, he could leave off the schoolyard insults and and impersonate a statesman when he needed to. In 1948, mostly because LBJ didn’t have a policy angle for getting to Stevenson, he started calling him “Old man” (Stevenson was 60, LBJ 40) and “Do-Nothing Stevenson.” Eventually, he stopped using Stevenson’s real name, only using the nicknames, and his supporters followed suit. Sound familiar?
  3. He used the power of spectacle–and the spectacle of power. Coke Stevenson drove thousands of miles along Texas’s long, dusty roads in his own car to meet his supporters in 1948. Johnson’s aides wanted their man to cover more ground, so they leased him a helicopter. (Actually, Johnson’s friend at the helm of contractor Brown and Root, Herman Brown, paid for most of it.) In a proto-Trumpian touch, Johnson had his name painted on the side of the big Sikorski S-51. In 1948, helicopters were brand new. They hadn’t even been used in combat in World War II, just three years before. But Caro records how Johnson showed remarkably little interest in the main questions that would occupy an ordinary man’s mind about the contraption–Is it safe? Will it work? “When they were up in the air, what Johnson was watching was not the control panel but the faces of the people on the ground,” Caro writes. Johnson took to calling out through a PA system, “Hello down there! It’s your friend Lyndon Johnson.” His was a voice from on high. And it worked. “[A]s he neared a town where a landing was scheduled, he could see below him not only people running through the streets toward the landing site, but, in the countryside outside the town, plumes of dust moving along dirt roads. Farmers . . . were racing to see the helicopter land.”
  4. He courted the ignorant. Who can forget Trump’s brash admission in 2016 that he loved the “poorly educated!” LBJ did too. Or, he knew he needed their support. Caro recalls that, once LBJ had Texas’s business leader sewn up, he went after the rural demographic: he knew he had to aim “squarely at unsophisticated farmers.” And, since he calculated there was no time to bring them up to speed on the issues, he would appeal to their emotions instead: “He had to make them angry at [Stevenson],” Caro recalls. How did he do this?
  5. He used fake news. In August 1948, LBJ’s staff created a fake newspaper and mailed it to 340,000 rural mailboxes. They calculated that, while it wouldn’t fool many city dwellers, it might just work among country folk. And, Caro reports, they were right. Most rural Texans who received the Johnson Journal gave it the credibility of a newspaper simply because it looked like a newspaper. And of course it was stuffed with lies, innuendo and propaganda written to look like straight political reporting. In Trump’s case, fake news is more sophisticated and a lot of it is provided free of charge by volunteers. But it’s not new.
  6. Repeat, repeat, repeat. At a critical point in the campaign, Texas business leaders asked Johnson to start giving populist speeches about Stevenson and his (fake) labor supporters, decrying them as “racketeers,” “goons,” and “mobsters.” The precedent for this demagoguery had been set by one of Johnson’s former opponents, W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, who would “just drum, drum, drum with his little catch phrases–” a contemporary observed, “‘labor leader racketeers, ‘Communist labor leader racketeers’, . . . You just wouldn’t think there would be that many ways to get ‘labor leader racketeers’ into a sentence.” But it worked. Johnson, who was at first loath to stoop this low, found the little catch phrases indeed caught on, and before long the voters were using them spontaneously despite their lack of connection to reality. “Voter fraud,” anyone?
  7. He was fueled by narcissism. All of Johnson’s campaigns were emotional rollercoaster rides, Caro relates. The man had huge ups and downs (and not just in the 948 campaign). But his biggest ups all came in one of two varieties–either humiliating his subordinates or basking in the adulation of crowds. “People who had known him for years,” Caro write, “said they had never seen Lyndon Johnson so ‘high'” as when he was being adored by an audience. And the helicopter gave him this rush over and over. “He really thrived on the helicopter,” recalled a friend, “and the crowds that would come out. He was energized, he was really charged up.” Who knows, if fist pumping had been a thing in 1948, maybe there would have been some of that too.
  8. He used the military as a prop. Unlike Trump, who connived to avoid military service, LBJ actually did a hitch. As a U.S. Congressmen in 1941, he had told his supporters that, if war broke out, he would take up a rifle and fight on the front lines alongside their sons, husbands and brothers, “in the mud and blood with your boys,” as he put it. What he actually did was to arrange a cushy Naval reserve commission as a Lieutenant Commander and spend five and a half months driving up and down the U.S West Coast mostly partying with a friend, occasionally drumming up contracting business and building political connections. On a brief fact-finding trip to the South Pacific in June 1942, he did in fact experience combat on an Army Air Corps B-17 bomber. He didn’t really do anything except be inside the B-17 as it got shot up by Zeroes for 13 minutes over New Guinea, but eye-witnesses said he was exceptionally calm. Although the crew, who took heroic measures to get their crippled plane back to base, went unrecognized, LBJ was awarded a Silver Star–the military’s third-highest honor–for his ride along. Unsurprisingly, Johnson immediately began to embellish the episode, and by the time he ran for Senate in 1948, he was telling crowds that he had fought extensively with their boys throughout World War II. He wore his Silver Star on his lapel and would hold it high for the crowds to see. He told flat lies (“I was in the jungles of New Guinea.”). His most shameless acts, though, were his deliberate use of war veterans as campaign props, and not just any veterans. Caro reports that LBJ’s campaign manager was given the specific task of seeking out vets “whose service and sacrifice had been dramatized by the loss of a limb” to introduce Johnson’s speeches. Eventually, there was hardly a man with all his limbs, Caro writes, trotted out to introduce LBJ. Trump, whose only positive regard for military service seems to be based in movies, does not miss a chance to bask in the glow of military honor, at least as he narrowly and cynically conceives of it.
  9. He transformed the election campaign into an amoral contest to be won at any cost. One of the reasons Caro made an entire book in his series about the 1948 Senate campaign was to draw an historic contrast between Johnson and Stevenson. Stevenson, in Caro’s estimation, was the last of his kind–a politician who felt a duty to present himself honest and unadorned to the tribunal of the vote. There was something hard and Roman about him. And, not to get all sentimental, but there was something hard and Roman about American politics writ large. Not after LBJ though. LBJ introduced the idea to American politics that the ends justified any means when it came to winning a campaign. And Americans, it turns out, kind of liked this idea, sleaze and all. When Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis used to say, “Just win, baby!” this meant, “Cheat if you have to,” and we all knew that. Not to give him too much credit, but Trump and his enablers are sort of the Oakland Raiders presidency. The thing about our democracy, however, is that it falls apart once everyone starts pursuing victory at all costs. Rules are the glue that hold institutions together. If you normalize the idea that they are mere impediments to winning, you’ve started down the road to obliterating democracy. Without a culture of rule-following, there are no rules.
Johnson used his Sikorsky S-51 to land in hundreds of small Texas towns on the 1948 campaign trail. Sometimes if he saw a lone farmer in a field he would tell his pilot to set down for a handshake. LBJ’s good friends at Brown and Root picked up most of the bill for his chopper.

In closing, I want to be clear about one thing: By dabbling in history and drawing some ho-hum-looking comparisons between Trump and LBJ, I am not trying to downplay how bad Trumpism is for us. Trump’s amplification of LBJ’s foibles (along with other, more toxic faults) has brought our system of governance and politics to the brink of ruin. So, in putting some key facts down in black and white, I am merely attending to one of Orwell’s cardinal reasons for writing: the “[d]esire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.” If posterity is to recover from the sickness of Trumpism, we need to understand now how it got here. Part of it, at least, got here in a helicopter.

P.S. Actually I want to be clear about one more thing. Lyndon Johnson was a reprehensible man defined by naked ambition, but unlike Trump he was also enormously complex. He was capable of superhuman levels of work, and he constantly fought and won political battles that looked unwinnable. He was much more than Trump’s political Vorgänger, as my post might suggest. I called Caro’s books about LBJ Tolstoyan, but there was something more Dostoevskian about LBJ himself–something deeply mysterious at his core that drove him to demonic exertions of will. He remains worthy of study. Trump, in contrast, is a one-dimensional clown. As many serious historians will bother setting down his biography as will serious personages bother attending his funeral. Zero.

James Baldwin’s Path to Liberation

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

James Baldwin’s 1963 essay “The Fire Next Time” is one of the greatest essays in the history of American letters. Long before the New York Times‘s “1619 Project,” Baldwin argued with electrifying power that America’s racial reckoning could only be achieved through courageous introspection and extensive public education. Americans are “still trapped,” Baldwin wrote, “in a history which they do not understand.” And only when a large majority of them stopped believing the lies and omissions that made up their country’s founding story could our national life be made sane and decent.

One big lie was this: The European colonization of America was a fundamentally good start at building a democratic republic. Although the project has required modifications over the years, the basic approach was sound.

A related omission was this: In the beginning, there were only freedom-seeking settlers, striving alone by the sweat of their brows to tame a wild land. Okay, there were Indians, too, who helped the settlers, but the enslavement of African people came later, as America’s economy expanded. The “peculiar institution” became a tragic subplot to our founding narrative, which anyway was made negligible by the passage of the 13th Amendment.

The day may come when I try to write an essay about all the big reasons why “The Fire Next Time” is so great. It clearly evinces what we would today call a strong “through-line,” describing what it means to be black (and white, and other colors) in America. I have already written a little bit here celebrating the moral clarity of Baldwin’s writing. I find his essays comparable with Orwell’s and Camus’s; the beauty of Baldwin’s writing shines with unmatched beauty in “The Fire Next Time.”

But every time I read Baldwin’s greatest essay, I get caught up in the trenchancy of its individual sentences and paragraphs. I can’t take the whole thing in. Today is such a day.

Before Baldwin became a writer, he was a preacher. His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (which I reviewed here), is a fictionalized account of how this happened and how he lost his religion in relatively short order.

James Baldwin at home in southern France (Image: NBC)

The stumbling block, as we learn in “The Fire Next Time,” is that Baldwin, in the maturity of his thought came to believe that, “If the concept of God has any validity or use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this,” he writes, “then it is time we got rid of Him.” In the end, Baldwin rejected not only his own charismatic-Christian version of theism, but indeed the whole idea of being tyrannized by a heavenly father.

As I picked up “The Fire Next Time” recently and read (again) about Baldwin’s path out of religion, it occurred to me that his key turns of mind are like stations of the cross. They guide reflection. Although Baldwin’s prose is incisive in this passage, which spans barely three pages, each crisis of faith he describes broadens out into an expansive critique of theism as a whole. These are the stations in Baldwin’s path of liberation:

  1. Notice that large groups of sane people believe differently than you. Most of Baldwin’s high school peers were Jews, he recalls, and they evinced no compunction whatsoever in ignoring the Christian Gospels. This came as a shock to the young Baldwin, who grew up believing you either had to accept Christianity or consciously reject it. He did not know that simply ignoring it was an option. Interesting news indeed.
  2. Accept the human authorship of the Gospel texts. Baldwin’s Jewish friends pointed out to him something he hadn’t learned in church–that the Biblical texts he thought of as divine were in fact written by ordinary men long after the reported events occurred. Although many Christians eventually come to accept the textuality of the Gospels, this topic tends not to be discussed early on in one’s “faith journey.” Blind, passionate belief is a more effective starting point for religion.
  3. Read the Gospel message for what it says. Jolted out of complacency by his friends’ disbelief, Baldwin reads with new eyes the pamphlets he’d brought to school in search of converts. Repent! they said. Be washed in the blood of the Lamb and win eternal life! “[T]hey were indeed,” he wrote, “unless one believed their message already, impossible to believe. I remember feeling dimly that there was a kind of blackmail in it.” Believe what I say based on faith, or go to hell: blackmail doesn’t come any starker than that.
  4. Question the genuineness of “divine inspiration.” Christian faith, for many people, is primarily a system of defense mechanisms against doubt, and Baldwin had one such tactic at the ready when confronted with the human authorship of the Gospels–namely, that the authors of the Gospel texts were “divinely inspired.” Well, as an anointed preacher, Baldwin knew something about this kind of confidence trick: he was, as he put it, “behind the curtain.” “I knew,” he reflects, “how I worked myself up into my own visions, . . . .” Divine inspiration is really just human flimflammery baldly asserted as authority, and Baldwin knew it.
  5. Reject the very idea of thought crime. As a born-again convert and later, as a preacher, Baldwin says, “I spent most of my time in a state of repentance for things I had vividly desired to do but had not done.” I know what he means. I was a teenager once too. The idea that an all-seeing God can convict someone for thoughts arising in the privacy of one’s own minds is morally repugnant. All modern dictators aspire to it.
  6. Reject the Biblical doctrines of race and slavery. The authors of the Gospel texts were not merely human, Baldwin realized; they were white. Unsurprisingly, they encoded a racial hierarchy of white supremacy in their sacred texts, which Baldwin experienced as a concrete reality. He reflects, “I knew that, according to many Christians, I was a descendant of Ham, who had been cursed, and that I was therefore predestined to be a slave.” When Baldwin witnessed Catholic priests blessing young Italian men in New York leaving to go fight for Mussolini and fascism in Ethiopia, he could not fail to appreciate that the church’s racial hierarchy was still very much alive. Indeed it was demonstrably sadistic in its desire to kill and subjugate black Africans.
  7. Give no one a religious pass for their cruelty. Baldwin’s father, who was also a preacher, abused him physically and psychologically. Naturally, Baldwin hated him; they were locked in a lifelong grip of fearful hostility. Both were intensely pious, but what good had it done them?–The very center of their lives was a jagged, painful ruin. One of the last times Baldwin’s father struck him, knocking him across the room, Baldwin realized that “all the hatred and all the fear, and the depth of a merciless resolve to kill my father rather than allow my father to kill me–I knew that all those sermons and tears and all that repentance and rejoicing had changed nothing.” The saving power of the Gospel is said to be able to redeem a whole world of lost sinners, but it couldn’t even help two of its most ardent believers stuck in a small apartment together in Harlem.
  8. Follow the money. Baldwin learned early on that the church–any church–is a money-making racket. There may be fine talk and rousing songs there about saving your soul, but it’s your dollars they really want. “I knew how to work on a congregation,” Baldwin recalls, “until the last dime was surrendered–it was not very hard to do–and I knew where the money for ‘the Lord’s work’ went.” His senior pastor owned a Cadillac. The congregants owned next to nothing and were constantly on the verge of starving.
  9. Reject the learned masochism that the church demands. The worst part of the idea of an almighty God is not his ability to convict one of thought crime, although that is repellent enough. The ghastliest evil of the Gospels is that God commands the faithful to rejoice in all the tyranny, crime, outrage and tragedy he is pleased to visit on them. Heaven will balance these debts, says the church, so just bear up, like Job. As Baldwin instructed the youth in his congregation, their “copper, brown, and beige faces” staring up at his, he said he felt he was “committing a crime in talking about the gentle Jesus, in telling them to reconcile themselves to their misery on earth in order to win the crown of eternal life.” And this is merely the most common social expression of God’s demand for abasement. On an individual level, it is far worse: God creates us sick, the theory goes, and commands us to be well–and to love him for it. This is pure, sadistic evil. If you poisoned your own child with an illness, commanded him to heal himself and then sat back to observe his tears and pain–all the while demanding an endless string of apologies and “I love yous,” you would be guilty of several real and heinous crimes. But God gets a pass. Go figure.
  10. The church is a mask of self-delusion. “When we were told [in church] to love everybody,” Baldwin writes, “I thought that that meant everybody.” But then the pastor told the congregants they should never, under any circumstances yield their bus seats to white people, even a the old or infirm. Although Baldwin appreciated the political salience of this rule, he wondered how it had managed to vanquish the Gospel’s doctrine of radical, transformative love. “What was the point, the purpose of my salvation if it did not permit me to behave with love toward others, no matter how they behaved toward me?” Baldwin asked. The church’s official promotion of selfless love was really a smokescreen for tribal animosity, Baldwin came to understand–“It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair.”
  11. Religion is an instrument of political power. “The spreading of the Gospel . . . was an absolutely indispensable justification for the planting of the flag,” Baldwin writes. “Priests and nuns and schoolteachers helped to protect and sanctify the power that was so ruthlessly being used by people who were indeed seeking a city, but not one in the heavens, and one to be made, very definitely, by captive hands.” Questioning the authority of the ruling religious ideology by anyone, Baldwin observes, “contests the right of the nations that hold this faith to rule over him.” Challenge the faith, and the state will most certainly come down on you.
  12. Christian civilization has proven to be suicidal. Baldwin shuddered at the horror of the Holocaust, less than a decade gone by when he traveled to Europe to seek a new home in 1950. “Millions of people in the middle of the twentieth century, and in the heart of Europe–God’s citadel–were sent to a death so calculated, so hideous, so prolonged that no age before this enlightened one had been able to imagine it . . . .” But that was not the breaking point for Baldwin. It was the nuclear moment that he said changed “the nature of reality and [brought] into devastating question the true meaning of man’s history.” Christendom was the Leitkultur that produced nuclear weapons as man’s crowning glory. “We have taken this journey, . . . to the threat of universal extinction hanging over all of the world,” Baldwin writes, “and arrived at this place in God’s name.” What kind of God was that to crown mankind in this way?

So there are only 12 stations of the cross, not 14, in my re-reading of Baldwin’s path to liberation. So be it. Two more might weary the point.

And what is the point? That you cannot pattern your life on any of the frauds perpetrated in holy books–that you are much better off trying to make your own way even if you feel unmoored from tradition and set off alone from the people around you.

In another essay, “In Search of a Majority,” Baldwin showed, however, that he had not entirely dropped the concept of God despite his very public renunciation of Christianity. But he qualified that the idea needed to be made bigger. He wrote:

To be with God is really to be involved with some enormous, overwhelming desire, and joy, and power which you cannot control, which controls you. I conceive of my own life as a journey toward something I do not understand, in which the going toward, makes me better. I conceive of God, in fact, as a means of liberation and not a means to control others.

Something I do not understand, in which the going toward, makes me better. Amen.

Review of “The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900 – 1914” by Philipp Blom

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

The French have been crazy about bicycles since day one. No sooner had they produced sleek, new sporting bikes in 1899 than they invented the Tour de France, just four years later, to race them. On machines that looked like ten-speeds still look today, the Tour champions zoomed down hills and mountains at 60 mph. Crowds turned out in the thousands to see them.

And the crowds bought their own bikes too. Not those Victorian contraptions with the comically huge front wheel ridden by men with bowler hats, but new machines that looked like what the champions rode. And just like that, ordinary people could really go places. They might not zoom down hills at 60 mph, but they could get on their bikes and reach destinations of their choice at a fraction of the walking time, and on their own schedule. It was a gusher of freedom. How much freedom?

In 1912 a writer in the journal Je sais tout (“I know all”), a popular science magazine, calculated that you would have to be 15 meters (50 feet) tall to walk as fast as a bicycle would carry you. To match a train’s speed, you’d have to be 51 m (168 ft) tall.

It’s enough to give you vertigo.

In turn-of -the-century Europe, society wasn’t changing in small increments anymore. It was changing dramatically, and overnight. The thing about social change, even when fraught and palpable, is that the people going through it can only have the vaguest sense of what it all means. What, for example, does the current “datafication of everything” portend for us denizens of the early 21st century?–We have no idea.

Although I like to believe that we have such a large, generous, and knowledgeable set of public intellectuals at our disposal that we at least can learn from them what kinds of questions to pose about the future, we are probably not much better off than Europeans were in 1914 when it comes to getting a grip on what is really happening to us and what’s waiting around the corner. You would have to live long enough to read the history books of the future, the books that explain large-scale change.

Philipp Blom’s The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900 – 1914 is an outstanding exemplar of this kind of book. Published in 2010, it makes two wonderfully simple propositions: (1) that social change in turn-of-the-century Europe happened so fast and on such a large scale that it was fundamentally disorienting for European civilization, and (2) that the era of this dramatic change is best understood without the (usual) baggage of hindsight.

Yes, we all know what was waiting around the corner for Europeans in 1914, and we can too easily think of the march to World War One as inevitable. But the years Blom narrates were a dreadfully anxious time, and the thing about anxiety is that it occurs because things are not inevitable. Anxiety is literally a fear of what might happen. We can really only get inside the skins of Europeans in 1914, Blom argues, if we do our utmost to imagine how deeply uncertain they felt about their future and, even, present.

Europeans had ample reason to feel uncertain at the turn of the 20th century. For Britons, simply the passing of Queen Victoria’s 64-year reign in 1901 signaled that whatever had seemed permanent and good and established could vanish in an instant. Great Britain’s statesmen went from confidently believing “that the British race is the greatest of the governing races that the world has ever seen,” (as Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain put it) to nearly being beaten by a band of Dutch-South African farmers in the Boer war. Then there was generally having to clean up the messes of the louche, feckless King Edward. As land came to be replaced by raw materials and financial services as the main source of wealth in Britain, the aristocracy, in the space of a generation, lost its 400-year old grip on power.

France was coming off a series of territory-losing wars that marked its fall from scientific, cultural and military preeminence in Europe. To compensate for its very public decline, Paris ruthlessly conquered colonies in Africa, Asia and South America, and, in falsely convicting Dreyfus for espionage, created a grand conspiracy theory that said Europe’s Jews were moneyed outsiders who constantly connived against the native establishment. Et voila: there was a new, multipurpose enemy to be blamed for whatever ailed European societies.

Germany, on the other hand, was on the climb. Formed from various German-speaking principalities only in 1871, Germany’s wealth, population, and industrial output were eclipsing its neighbors at a dizzying speed by 1900. Its emperor, Wilhelm II, was known as Wilhelm the Sudden. He enjoyed stoking the engine of the imperial train’s locomotive to the maximum, sometimes pushing it to its full speed of 145 kph. Wilhelm traveled eight months out of the year, raced yachts, forced his guests to do calisthenics with him. Blom writes, he “had a famously short attention span and constantly wanted to do something.”

In Russia, the Tsar was testing the core proposition of feudalism, which seeks to know how deeply the poor can be immiserated without provoking violent revolt. For the 99 percent, Russia was a cauldron of misery. There were no state schools, illiteracy was the given condition of the masses, and peasants worked the famously unforgiving land without reward. They moved to the city to work in factories and lived like animals, kept so ignorant they could not organize politically despite living cheek by jowl. Women were the most repressed of all: they absorbed the all fury of the violent, alcoholic men undone by the Tsar’s system of mass exploitation.

Though westerners tend to recall the Communist Revolution of 1917 as the day Russia changed, Blom reminds us that that sudden-seeming event was actually the culmination of a tectonic shift that started with the peasant revolution of 1905. That was the day Tsar Nicholas II (only 1/128th part Russian) received the answer to feudalism’s core proposition about keeping the people down. He ignored it. On 22 January 1905, later known as Bloody Sunday, tens of thousands of peasants marched on Nichlas’s palace in St. Petersburg to beg him for the tiniest scraps of democratic rule and workers’ rights. His troops fired on the peasants, and he arrested their leaders, including Father Gapon, a priest who cried out, “There is no God! There is no Tsar!” Just like that, in the course of a week, the idea was born among Russia’s poorest that they need no longer believe the two myths that had propped up feudalism’s power for centuries.

Much of this captains-and-kings history of Europe has been covered in, not least, Barbara Tuchman’s miraculously great 1966 book, The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890 – 1914. (This would be one of my 100 desert island books, by the way.) Where Blom breaks new trail is in his exploration of the undercurrents of European society and the inner workings of–for lack of a better term–the European mind. Everyone was going a little crazy in fin-de-siecle Europe, and some were going very crazy.

Blom devotes an entire chapter to one particular insane person, the German schoolteacher Ernst Wagner from near Stuttgart. One day in September 1913, Wagner woke up, killed his wife and four children, and then calmly went about the rest of his day. He was arrested and tried, of course, but was not executed, as would have been common for such a crime in Wilhelmine Germany. Instead he was institutionalized and studied. By the time Wagner died, 25 years after his crime, he was in regular correspondence with his therapist and, from all appearances, was contrite and nearly sane again.

Naturally, Wagner’s case induced a bout of national soul searching. How had such an advanced, well-governed, culturally gifted society as Germany’s produced such a cold monster? If Wagner, the very picture of a good, docile Bürger, could snap in such a spectacular way, couldn’t anyone?

For Blom, Wagner’s personality was a petri dish of all the strains and anxieties eating away at Europeans since 1900. Moral disorientation was one of these. Writing between 1872 and 1888, Nietzsche had shattered confidence in the Christian morality that had guided Europe’s elites and commoners alike since Charlemagne. Moral “laws,” Nietzsche argued, were really just social fictions backed up by nothing more than the will of those who imposed them. There were no rules decreed by heaven anymore. It was Wagner’s getting dressed and carrying on with the rest of his day after the massacre that illustrated what a fully emancipated, post-Nietzschean man might look like, a man who authored his own moral laws and suffered no compunction over applying them ruthlessly.

One of the reasons Wagner was kept alive by the German state was academic. He proved to be a trove of fascinating information for specialists–an educated, forthcoming man who could describe what it was like to go murderously mad. Since Freud’s publication of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, psychoanalysts across Europe had adopted a whole new paradigm of the human personality that saw it as a miasma of hidden motives and influences, many of them dark, sexual, and violent. Freud prepared Europeans intellectually to accept that their streets were teeming with repressed rapists and murderers, and Wagner brought this lesson crashing home in a visceral way. The fact that he later regained his sanity–or at least a semblance of it–proved more disquieting than reassuring. Had he been sick and then cured, or did he show Europeans that there is a morass of criminal drives inside them all, and a “normal” human life may course in and out of this dark territory?

Further, Wagner’s case showed how European men were being increasingly unmanned, in more ways than one. First, industrial technology and deskwork were rendering masculine physical strength obsolete. Women, suddenly, could do the same work as men, and wanted to. Medical science helped this trend along, providing reliable contraception and safer abortion techniques. Blom underlines that the suffragist movement took off like a rocket as soon as women began to grab hold of a real stake in the world of making and doing and thinking that had always belonged to men. So, it wasn’t just that Wagner’s job wasn’t as safe as it used to be–his whole social realm was poised to be wrested from men’s control.

Second, the increasing specialization of work meant that men no longer plied trades that provided them the feedback of well-made physical products or anointed them with a craftsman’s identity. Labor became alienated. The new men went to an office or stood on an assembly line where their “job” was to integrate with a system, which had its own, bureaucratically defined criteria. Frederick Taylor, the American champion of managerial efficiency, urged this model on Europeans like a prophet, exhorting them, “In the past, Man has been first. In the future the system must be first.” There could hardly have been a louder clarion call announcing the priorities of the 20th century.

One of the responses of European men was, I suppose, to be expected. Threatened in their very masculinity, they manned up. Blom reports that Europe’s streets in this era were filled as never before with bearded, uniformed men, many seeking to fight duels. Most German industrialists joined the reserve officer corp, and almost all civilian officials had military-style uniforms. Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II converted large ranks of military officers to civil servants, grandly uniformed but unqualified to fill their new roles. Europe’s military men also enlisted industry to produce bigger, badder weapons of all kinds. Germany and Great Britain vied intensely to outdo each other’s battleships, contributing directly to a broader European arms race.

Not yet at war with each other, European armies turned their weapons for the time being on colonial territories in Africa and Asia. But they didn’t just occupy lands, dictate laws, and extract resources. They killed defenseless civilians on a massive scale. King Leopold II of Belgium slaughtered as many as 10 million Congolese between 1885 and 1908, enslaving millions more. Germany, coming late to the Africa game, killed as many as 125,000 Hereros and Namaqua in its colony of Namibia. Modern, wholesale sadism was also in the mind of Ernst Wagner, who wrote copiously about his act of familial slaughter in 1913. What he realy wanted to do, he said, was to destroy the world, or at least rid it of people he considered useless. “I wish I were a giant as big and tall as the mass of the universe,” he wrote, “I would take a glowing pike and would poke it into the body of the earth.” He went on:

A comprehensive reform of humanity is imperative. . . . I have a sharp eye for everything sick and weak. If you make me the executioner no bacillus shall escape. I can take 25 million Germans on my conscience without it being even one gram heavier than before. . . . Pity [for] the weak, the sick, the crippled is crime, is first and foremost a crime against those who are pitied themselves.

Wagner’s family was pitiable, yes, but that was, in his mind, perhaps the main reason they needed to die. How did Europe come to this, where an obscure, insane murderer spoke the fever dreams aloud that would shape the continent’s history for 30 years and cause the death (in a dark coincidence) of 25 million people? It was no simple matter of national strongmen killing their enemies en masse. Europe had lost faith in its own civilization–and lost it so completely that it nearly had to commit suicide before it would regain its senses.

Blom writes, European civilization wound down for a combination of reasons that were immensely complex but clearly interrelated. At the bottom of the unwinding, there was a loss of faith in mankind’s ability to know himself and his world. This crisis of unknowing was the pivot on which all the disruptive trends of the era turned–the drive for speed, the mad militarization, the proliferation of media, the systems-building, the great shifts in wealth and ruling power. As science peered deeper into reality at the turn of the century, it began to discover, for the first time in history, not illuminating facts but deeper mysteries: the subconscious, the atom, the gene, the relativity of space-time, the inscrutability of language. Blom summarizes, in the incisive final chapter of The Vertigo Years:

The new world taking shape in the 1900s was a creature of reason, of experts and scientists, statisticians and engineers. Until this era, reason had demystified the world, tearing away the veils of superstition in the tradition of Descartes, Hume and Kant. . . . Now reason no longer fulfilled this function. . . . If reason was not providing certainty but breaking it down, salvation must lie in instinct, in primeval forces, many intellectuals proclaimed.

In a speech in 1923 Virginia Woolf claimed, somewhat boldly, that human nature itself had changed–and in 1910 at that. “All human relations have shifted,” Woolf announced, “those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.” Blom reports throughout The Vertigo Years on how artists were kicking out at this baffling, comprehensive change and giving it shape even as it was happening. From the weird, crashing atonality of Schonberg’s symphonies to the wild, expressive shaman shapes of Kandinsky’s paintings, something was deeply astir in human nature in 1910, and Woolf may have come as close as anyone to guessing what it was.

“The identities of the ‘new’ men and women of this time,” Blom concludes, “were always torn between old loyalties and new aspirations, between nostalgia and social reality. They were transitory and haunted by fragility, by decline, by impotence, . . . . Change occurred too fast; rationality had outstripped experience.” Change has been happening at an even faster pace since 1914. We should take courage that civilization is still here, but we should also take caution at what civilization can do to itself in times of doubt. If it is not too morbid, perhaps any group, any tribe, any nation would do well to recall that Ernst Wagner killed his whole family and declaimed lunatic prophecies to justify his crimes before he started to wake up and become sane again.