Why wartime propaganda posters are timely in Trump's America

PHOTO: Reuters

NEW YORK - Fear-mongering can be a thing of beauty. That is one of the surprises of a new museum show of century-old wartime propaganda to mark the 100th anniversary of the US entry into World War One after it declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

Equally unexpected is the show's relevance to today's America under the Trump administration, according to curators of "Posters and Patriotism: Selling World War I in New York," which runs until Oct. 9 at the Museum of the City of New York.

"We had a centenary to explore," said curator Steven Jaffe.

"But as we started looking at these amazing posters, we realised that many of the issues that engaged Americans in 1917 seemed oddly fresh, oddly timely. Nationalism, diversity, tolerance, immigration, free expression, political expression, either in the press or in free speech," he said.

Trump sworn in as 45th US president

  • President Donald Trump assumed power Friday with a fiercely nationalistic vow to put "America first," declaring a new political era after being sworn in as the 45th US head of state.
  • Hundreds of thousands of people stood in the rain-splattered National Mall to see the 70-year-old Republican billionaire take the oath of office and deliver a stridently populist call-to-arms.
  • Former US president Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn arrive for the inauguration of President Trump.
  • Former US president Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
  • Former US President George W. Bush and his wife Laura.
  • Bush put up a struggle with his poncho.
  • American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a donor to the Trump campaign.
  • Senators Bernie Sanders and John McCain.
  • "From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land," Trump said, promising an end to business-as-usual in Washington.

    "From this moment on, it's going to be only America First."

  • "Today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, DC. And giving it back to you, the people."
  • While the US capital city no longer provides official crowd counts, the turnout was visibly smaller than for Barack Obama's two inaugurations, in 2009 and 2013, with sections of the Mall and bleachers along the parade route left empty.
  • And as the incoming leader rallied his supporters for the swearing-in, throngs of his opponents also converged on Washington.
  • Most of the protests - by an array of anti-racist, anti-war, feminist, LGBT, pro-immigration and marijuana legalization groups - were noisy but peaceful, though sporadic violence marred the day.
  • Between 400 and 500 masked, black-clad protesters carrying anarchist flags smashed windows, lit fires and scuffled with riot police in downtown Washington, blocks from the parade held in Trump's honour, with over 90 people arrested for vandalism.
  • Even the peaceful protesters were intent on spoiling Trump's party - letting out a deafening roar as the presidential limousine known as "The Beast" rolled by on the way to the White House.
  • "Not my president! Not my president!" they yelled, as the pro- Trump crowd in bleachers across the street chanted "USA! USA!".
  • Trump's inauguration caps the improbable rise to power of the Manhattan real estate magnate who has never before held elected office, served in government or in the armed forces.
  • His speech was far from the typical optimistic inaugural address that tries to bridge political divides and lift Americans' gaze up to the horizon.
  • It was a deliberate and striking contrast from the uplifting message of Obama, the outgoing president who was among the dignitaries in attendance.
  • Obama and his wife Michelle departed the Capitol by helicopter moments after the swearing-in ceremony, turning a page on eight years of Democratic leadership in the White House.
  • At a Congressional luncheon afterward, Trump led a standing ovation for his defeated election rival Hillary Clinton, saying he was "honoured" that she and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, attended his inauguration.
  • When Trump descended the escalators of his glitzy New York tower in June 2015, his run for office was roundly dismissed and even mocked.
  • Trump and First Lady Melania Trump dance during the Armed Forces ball at the National Building Museum.
  • Trump, the first lady Melania Trump, US Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen cut a cake after dancing at the Armed Services ball.

"All of these things, both in terms of the United States and also some of the movements that are sweeping across Europe, really started emerging out of these posters that (are) 100 years old. We didn't expect that."

Organizers grouped the posters, which were produced by New York artists under the direction of the federal government's war-era Division of Pictorial Publicity, to encourage visitors to explore timely political themes.

While the centerpiece is an iconic finger-pointing Uncle Sam declaring "I want you," there are also striking posters challenging US immigrants, "Are you 100 per cent American? Prove it! Buy government bonds" and an outpouring of anti-German images.

"There was a real intolerance toward German-Americans, fears that German-Americans would be disloyal to the United States, be loyal to their homeland, Germany, that they would engage in acts of sabotage and espionage and terrorism," Jaffe said.

"Very reminiscent of some of the rhetoric we have today about Muslim-Americans and other peoples of the world who are seen as political or economic threats to our integrity and well-being."

The French Embassy is a main sponsor of the event, which spotlights New York City as the incubator of wartime propaganda aimed at cultivating loyalty, duty and sacrifice.

"It is certainly is relevant, especially with what's going on in the world today," said Rima Abdul-Malak, the embassy's cultural attache.

The show also features historical maps dividing New York into ethnic neighborhoods, and photographs including one of a captured German U-boat submarine that was transported to the city and put on display in Central Park in 1917.

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