There's a delightful exercise in the imagination of how H. L. Mencken, the iconic iconoclast of the early 20th century, would have viewed the election of Donald Trump to the presidency.
So much of the scorn that Mencken heaped on the politicians of his day appears startlingly relevant to the politicians of today. He would have reveled in Mr. Trump and the upheaval he has caused in the American body politic.
One of Mencken's quotes widely circulated since the Trump upset is from a column he wrote 96 years ago predicting that, "On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."
The moron observation was the last line of a column that appeared July 26, 1920, in the Baltimore Evening Sun, a newspaper Mencken helped found, excoriating both candidates for president in the campaign of that year: Republican Warren G. Harding and the Democrat James M. Cox, both politicians from Ohio, where Harding served as a U.S. Senator and Cox as governor.
Apart from the ascendancy of a moron — though that may be too benign a designation for the danger that Mr. Trump represents — there were plenty of other similarities between the political campaign season of 1920 and the one just concluded, and perhaps some lessons to be learned.
Neither man won his party's nomination easily. Harding was nominated on the 10th ballot in a deal agreed in secret by the party bosses who picked him over 11 other candidates. Cox — competing against 15 other candidates — didn't get the Democratic nod until the 44th ballot. There also was a third candidate in the presidential race, Eugene Debs, running for the fifth time as a Socialist from a federal prison cell where he was serving a 10-year sentence for violation of the Sedition Act of 1918 in his opposition to U.S. involvement in World War I. Debs garnered 3.41 percent of the popular vote that year, similar to the 3.3 percent Libertarian Gary Johnson got this time around.
The 1920 election occurred against a backdrop of events similar in some ways to the American condition of the past several years, including racial strife, fear of terrorism and a growing trend toward isolationism following World War I.
As in the recent election, neither of the two top candidates was particularly respected or revered. In that 1920 column, Mencken asserted: "It seems to be quite impossible for any wholly literate man to pump up any genuine enthusiasm for either of them. … No one but an idiot would argue seriously that either candidate is a first-rate man, or even a creditable specimen of second-rate man."
Harding was a favorite whipping-boy of Mencken, who often referred to him by his middle name Gamaliel and the incoherence of his public expressions as "Gamalielese."
Mencken's denunciation of Harding's 1921 inaugural speech as "the worst English I have ever encountered" could easily apply to the evidence of an unhinged mind manifest in Mr. Trump's Twitter twaddle: "It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean-soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."
As always, Mencken declared Harding's comments were directed at "a great horde of stoneheads gathered around a stand … the sort of audience that the speaker has been used to all of his life, to wit, an audience of small town yokels, of low political serfs, or morons scarcely able to understand a word of more than two syllables, and wholly unable to pursue a logical idea for more than two centimeters."
Harding won the 1920 election by a landslide with 404 electoral votes, and he was a very popular president until he and his administration were wracked with scandals, including the Teapot Dome scandal and revelations of his prolific extra-marital affairs with various women (sound familiar?), including one that produced a daughter a year before he won the presidency.
Harding died in a hotel suite in San Francisco on Aug. 2, 1923 — 29 months into his presidency. He was only 57 but suffered from various infirmities that his doctors had warned him could be fatal if he persisted in his aggressive womanizing. There was some speculation Harding may have been poisoned. His wife, Florence, who was in the room when he died, refused to allow an autopsy.
G. Jefferson Price III is a journalist who spent 35 years at The Baltimore Sun where he was a reporter, foreign correspondent, editor and columnist.