Wolfsonian Exhibit "The Politics of -Isms" Shows the 2016 Election-Cycle Baloney Is Nothing New

Ever spent an afternoon asking Cuban exiles what they think of President Obama and his Democratic comrades? The responses would probably sound something like this:

"That communist has driven this country into ruin," one gray-haired patron yells as he sips café con leche at the counter of the inimitable Versailles on a recent weekday.

"He's just like Fidel, giving our money to the poor," his friend Rudy chimes in.

Another bystander, wearing plaid trousers and a matching fedora — known as Peña in his intimate Versailles circle — adds that a "vote for Hillary would be another four years of the same communist Obama policies."

That's pretty strong language, particularly coming from individuals who suffered under a brutal communist regime, but it's a rhetoric that most South Floridians — especially those with Cuban-American roots — have heard countless times.

"He thought something along the lines of what Hitler was proposing would work in America."

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But in a more liberal part of town, you might hear the words "fascist," "xenophobe," and "Nazi" thrown around just as loosely when referring to the other side. And during one of the most emotionally charged, divisive election seasons in recent history, many observers wonder whether this kind of incendiary name-calling has ever happened before.

It's a question the Wolfsonian-FIU set out to answer with "The Politics of -Isms," a library exhibit featuring 32 propagandist pamphlets, cartoons, magazines, and other ephemera that opens this Monday and continues through the end of the year. It's a meditation on American communist, socialist, and fascist ideals during the 1930s.

"With the election coming up, there have been a lot of labels assigned, so we thought we would play with that a little bit," says Frank Luca, the Wolfsonian-FIU's chief librarian and curator of the exhibition. "We thought we'd turn back to the 1930s, when terms like 'communist,' 'socialist,' and 'fascist' were used because they were actual movements, and give people a chance to reflect on how they were used then and how they're used now."

Historical context is important when evaluating "The Politics of -Isms." The '30s was an unstable era in world politics. The Great Depression was ravaging the lives of millions of Americans. Germans were drifting toward Nazism. And Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union was trying to lead an international revolution.

Despite the gravity of the global political situation, American propaganda was relatively lighthearted. Cartoons, caricatures, photomontages, and drawings drew supporters to the Communist and Socialist Parties, which were then identified as the most progressive.

The Wolfsonian show displays the work of artists such as William Gropper, Hugo Gellert, Theodore Scheel, and Mitchell Siporin, illustrators who were actively involved or merely sympathetic with the Socialist and Communist Parties of America.

"Many of these artists were prominent, well-known figures," Luca says. "They did caricatures because there was a lot to caricature and lampoon during that time period."

The exhibit, laid out in glass cases in the museum's seventh-floor library, presents artfully drawn images of publisher William Randolph Hearst, radio personality Father Charles Coughlin, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt as its main protagonists. Most are caricatures that attempt to reveal what these figures truly represented with their political vernacular. For instance, a calendar leaf drawn by Scheel reveals a gluttonous Hearst riding the United States of America as if it were a bull, with Nazi swastikas for spurs on his boots. In the early 1900s, Hearst inherited millions and used his small fortune to build a media empire. Though the publisher briefly ran for president as a Democrat in 1904, his politics had shifted dramatically by the '30s.

By then, Hearst sympathized with fascist ideals. During a meeting with Adolf Hitler, he even arranged to print Nazi propaganda in his newspapers with no criticism or commentary. "He thought something along the lines of what Hitler was proposing would work just as well in America," Luca says.

Many of the images portraying Hearst suggest he was two-faced. In one drawing by an artist who's listed only as W.S., Hearst hides behind the American flag — yet a flash of his hair, swept to the side, suggests the publisher frequents the same barber as his Nazi comrades. In a periodical illustrated by Esteban Soriano, Hearst's penchant for laying off American workers is highlighted with a banner displaying "Let Them Eat Pink Slips."

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a book by Elizabeth Dilling, The Roosevelt Red Record and Its Background, portrays President Roosevelt standing at the forefront of an army of communist and socialist leaders. Among them are Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs, Stalin, and Karl Marx.

Left-wing artists took another tack. A cartoon published by the New York Labor News Company depicts the thunderbird, Roosevelt's symbol for the National Recovery Administration, drawn to resemble a mustached capitalist boss, dragging his workers by the neck. "Many Communist Party leaders viewed Roosevelt's policies as a regression," Luca says.

It's hard not to draw distinctions between World War II-era propaganda and the discourse of modern campaigns. Today Facebook and Twitter are ablaze with propagandist language that often results in name-calling and low blows. Caricatures of Donald Trump reveal a big head and a short temper, while Hillary Clinton is branded as both a socialist and mustached nazi.

A bombastic, fear-mongering businessman is threatening civil liberties and human kindness, while a lifelong politician is accused of being both too conservative and too liberal when it comes to running the country. At Versailles, old Cuban exiles still refer to Clinton as a communist despite all evidence to the contrary.

While the communist, socialist, and fascist movements are viewed by many as dead, the same propagandist tactics remain one of the most useful weapons for denigrating a candidate. If we've learned anything from "The Politics of -Isms," it's that not much has changed in the past 70 years.

"The Politics of -Isms"
Thursday, August 18, through January 22, 2017, at the Wolfsonian-FIU, 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-531-1001; Open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday noon to 6 p.m. Admission costs $10 for adults and $5 for students, seniors, and children aged 6 to 12; children under 6 get in free.