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Vigliotti: A tale of two ’20s — morality and the economy

It’s 2020 – hot dog!

As the United States enters a new decade, there is great nostalgia for the 1920s. Life was, undeniably, good and unique then — but what we remember are greed, excess, and avant-garde fashions. Most recently, this was illustrated in the 2013 film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” But there was much more to the 1920s than popular belief tells us, and the truth of that era serves as a lesson for our own times.

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The terrible cost of World War I, coupled with horrific Progressive ideas and domestic policies, left Americans seeking moral stability in 1920, just as the Great Recession of 2008 and eight years of harmful liberal policies left us seeking renewed stability in 2016.

The 1920 conservative Republican presidential ticket of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge promised A Return to Normalcy on American ideals, while the 2016 Republican presidential ticket of Donald J. Trump and Michael Pence promised to Make America Great Again on American ideals. Both tickets correctly understood the American spirit and the American Dream, and in so doing, the possibilities for the American people. The economy, in both times, was key.

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In the 1920s, government and regulations were rolled back. Small businesses and great companies boomed. Unemployment fell. Wages increased. Stocks rose. Telephones, radios, electricity, vehicles, and indoor plumbing expanded dramatically because they became affordable and accessible to even working-class Americans.

Today, government and regulations have been rolled back. Small businesses and large companies are doing well. Unemployment has fallen. Wages have increased. Stocks are rising. Technology has transformed our lives once more, in everything from medicine to driving to entertainment. All of this is at the hands of the American people.

The United States is undeniably doing better as we enter the 2020s than when we entered the 2010s. But what does such success mean for us? While many now want to “party like Gatsby,” the truth is that Fitzgerald wrote “Gatsby” in part to criticize the excesses of his era — which are often the only things we tend to remember.

In the 1920s, profit was seen as a hallmark of civilization and especially of American enterprise, but it was not to be at the expense of people or the nation. It was the honest earning and right use of that profit which mattered.

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In other words, you were allowed to enjoy (not waste) your success, but you were also to reinvest it because it was the moral and patriotic course. Magnates Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, for example, gave away most of their fortunes to good causes. Both were deeply Christian men who understood their success meant moral responsibility — and they gave freely. Both men began life poor and recognized a direct connection between moral living and financial success.

Coolidge, especially, stood as the moral contrast to the excess and injustice of the age. Coolidge was himself deeply Christian and thoroughly patriotic, and this formed the heart of his conservatism. To note just a few examples:

· At a time when too many people praised wealth and indulged only themselves, Coolidge never hesitated to praise God as the source of American existence or promote charity.

· At a time when the KKK was at the height of power, Coolidge expelled Klan members from the federal government, setting up a decades-long war against entrenched racism.

· At a time when Progressives made a pseudo-scientific case for racism, Coolidge took moral action against it.

· While he supported business success, Coolidge rejected business interference in politics.

· When others turned a blind eye to tragedies like the genocide against Christians in Armenia, Coolidge recognized the terror and supported relief efforts for the survivors.

Trump has also sought to do similar things. Although not overtly religious, Trump has not hesitated to attribute American success to God, urging us to “remain devoted to our Creator.” He has taken strong moral stands against abortion and against those who make pseudo-scientific arguments in its favor. He has recognized the plight of Israel and has overseen the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem — and more.

As we step into the 2020s, we have to remember to refuse the path of keyboard warriors, just as Coolidge cautioned Americans against being “carpet-knights” in the 1920s. Wealth, success, and internet trolling are fleeting, but love and kindness are eternal principles to be practiced. We do actually have to act on them. Even the simplest and unknown daily acts of kindness will reverberate in unimaginable ways. Financial success does not replace moral goodness.

In future columns, I will draw on the 1920s again, touching on things like Prohibition and international relations — again, all relevant to our own times. Sadly, Harding died in office, but Coolidge achieved even greater successes. Voters accordingly chose to Keep Cool with Coolidge, giving him a term in his own right in 1924 (Coolidge opted not to seek reelection in 1928).

In the present, Trump and Pence are delivering well, so much so that their reelection promise for 2020 has become Keep America Great. If so, America will roar this year as it did a century ago.

Joe Vigliotti, a contributor to The Flip Side and a Taneytown city councilman, writes from Taneytown. His column appears every other Friday. Email him through his website at www.jvigliotti.com.

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