Henry Ford, Donald Trump, and Mass Marketing Bigotry
Trump is not the first bigoted businessman to consider a run for president after trying to overturn the results of a democratic election.
By Roger Kerson
Donald Trump doesn’t read much. But somehow, he knows a thing or two about old Henry Ford.
In May 2020, Trump visited a Ford plant in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan. The trip took place during the early months of COVID-19, creating an odd backdrop for a presidential speech. Everyone (except Trump) was masked. Instead of the large crowd of factory workers that would typically attend, there were just a few dozen spectators, spread out to observe the company’s social distancing policies. But the setting wasn’t nearly as odd as Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks. He was there to recognize Ford Motor Company and its UAW-represented workforce for rapidly adapting the factory to manufacture medical ventilators. Veering off script, Trump made an unusual statement. “The company founded by a man named Henry Ford,” he said. “Good bloodlines, good bloodlines if you believe in that stuff. You got good blood.”
As was quickly noted by the Anti-Defamation League and others, that’s an astounding – and offensive – thing to say when talking about Henry Ford, the most prolific publisher of antisemitic hate speech in U.S. history. The auto magnate also backed eugenics, a pseudo-science intended to “improve” the human race by selective breeding. Also astounding: Trump made these remarks on May 21, 2020 – exactly 100 years minus one day after Henry Ford began publishing antisemitic propaganda in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. It’s either one of the weirdest coincidences on record – or an improbably precise triple-axel dog whistle to white nationalists (who “believe in that stuff” and revere, rather than revile, Henry Ford). Trump is still at it in 2022, drawing renewed criticism for his complaint that U.S. Jews don’t love him enough, despite all he claims to have done for the state of Israel.
Trump, as it turns out, is not the first bigoted businessman to consider a run for president after spending years – and piles of money – trying to overturn the results of a democratic election. Henry Ford’s life and work has been extensively chronicled, but little has been written about his short and strange political career, which included an aborted run for the White House in 1924. Ford’s first campaign occurred in 1916, when he entered and won Michigan’s Republican presidential primary as a favorite son. In 1918, he ran for Senate as a Democrat, backed by Woodrow Wilson. The president was confident that Ford –a somewhat erratic pacifist – would be a predictable ‘yes’ vote for the League of Nations.
Although far and away the most famous man in Michigan, Ford lost a close Senate race to Republican Truman Newberry (also a wealthy Michigan businessman, but not nearly as famous as Ford – and not nearly as rich). Ford spent the next four years hounding Newberry in Congress, in federal court and by funding campaigns to oust Newberry’s Republican supporters in the Senate. “He hated to lose,” Ohio State University Professor Paula Baker told me. She is one of the few historians to look closely at Ford’s political activities.
Bolstered by a dossier supplied by detectives on Ford’s payroll, a criminal case charging Newberry with excessive campaign spending went all the way to the Supreme Court, where Newberry won. He also prevailed in a vote recount and was cleared of wrongdoing by a GOP-controlled Senate in January of 1922. But the results of the November 1922 mid-term elections – with a chunk of Henry Ford’s money tilting the scales – did not turn out well for Newberry’s Senate backers. Fearing that he would finally be ousted by Ford’s allies, Newberry resigned 12 days after the election. (Michigan had a Republican governor in 1922, so the seat went to James Couzens, then GOP mayor of Detroit and previously a top Ford executive.)
The intertwined stories of Trump and Ford – two self-involved sore losers, both inclined to find scapegoats for America’s problems, neither inclined to take responsibility for their own words and deeds – can tell us something about what has changed, and what hasn’t, over the past hundred years. “There is and has long been a virulently racist and xenophobic element to American electorate. Ford wanted to tap into that,” Josh Pasek, a professor of communications and media at the University of Michigan told me in an interview. “It is clear to me Trump has found leverage in the same forces,” said Pasek, who is an expert on survey research and public opinion.
Like Donald Trump, Henry Ford was sensitive about his image and prickly about negative press coverage. At the end of 1918 – just after his election loss – Ford resigned as president of Ford Motor Company, turning the reins over to his 25-year-old son Edsel. “Henry Ford,” the Detroit Free Press reported, “is going to devote the major portion of his time to his new weekly newspaper and to his tractor plant in Dearborn.”
Similarly, in 2021, not long after his own election loss, Donald Trump announced the launch of Truth Social, a social media platform allowing him to “stand up to the tyranny of Big Tech.” In 1918, with the first U.S. commercial radio broadcast still two years in the future, Ford invested in the best mass media technology then available: a newspaper and some printing presses. He began publishing a new version of the Dearborn Independent in January 1919, rebranded with the tagline “Ford’s International Weekly.”
The following year, the publication took a dark turn with a front-page story titled “The International Jew: The World’s Problem.” For ninety-one weeks, beginning on May 22, 1920, Ford’s newspaper published an unrelenting series of fact-free antisemitic attacks. The articles featured an English translation of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a czarist forgery that purports to be the record of a secretive Jewish cabal making plans for global domination. Spreading these ideas was so important to Ford that he enlisted his entire national network of seven thousand automobile dealers to sell subscriptions.
“I think it was true that there was considerable pressure on the Ford dealers in building up circulation,” recalled Ernest Liebold, Henry Ford’s personal secretary, who was assigned to manage the Dearborn Independent. Interviewed in 1953 by Ford Motor Company historians, Liebold was unapologetic about promoting the thoroughly discredited Protocols of the Elders of Zion. “If the Protocols hadn’t been authentic,” he claimed, “we never would have published them.” According to Liebold, “the Jewish articles” were republished in book form to meet reader demand. “We used to have so many requests for copies… it wouldn’t take long and they would all be gone.”
Prior to the 2016 election, many observers, including conservatives, were convinced that Trump’s tirades against Muslims and Mexicans and his outright misogyny would make him unelectable. These predictions did not age well. Similarly, as Ford pondered his options leading up the 1924 campaign, his open embrace of antisemitism did not dim his popularity This was before mass media saturated every household every hour of the day, however, so it’s likely more people knew Ford for his famous cars than for his over-the-top bigotry.
In any case, in July of 1923 Collier’s Weekly published the final results of a presidential “straw poll,” based on door-to-door visits to more than 250,000 subscribers. Although not a declared candidate, Ford finished first, well ahead of incumbent Warren Harding, who was tainted by the Teapot Dome scandal.
In June of that year, citing early returns from the Collier’s survey, The New Republic described “the Ford Boom… [as] without exception, the most serious political phenomenon in the country today.” The unsigned editorial, “Why They Love Henry,” argues that a key reason for Ford’s popularity is “the dwindling prestige of the two major political parties and the men who run them.” The author(s) continue by arguing that:
The country as a whole, and the farmers of the Middle West in particular, have reached a state which almost deserves to be characterized as desperation… The condition of discontent goes far deeper than the Ford presidential boom and may have results more calamitous than putting him the White House. The average citizen… sees Ford as a sort of enlarged crayon portrait of himself; the man who is able to fulfill his own suppressed desires, who has achieved enormous riches, fame and power… Therefore he loves Henry; and is determined to vote for him if can get the chance.
The Nation published a column in May of 1923 on “Why Henry Ford Should Not Be President, followed by a series of letters explaining why he should be elected. Powerful newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst supported Ford – and so did a 35-year-old radical agitator from Germany named Adolf Hitler.
“Ford’s presidential candidacy enjoys complete support from all National Socialists,” Hitler told a correspondent for the Brooklyn Eagle in July of 1923, a few months before the failed beer hall putsch that would land him a nine-month sentence for treason. He was among those attracted to Ford for reasons other than his prowess as an automotive pioneer. “The struggle of international Jewish finance against Ford,” Hitler said, “…has only strengthened the sympathies of the National Socialist party for Ford and has given the broadest circulation to his book, The International Jew, which has been translated into German and eagerly read.”
By 1923, however, the articles Hitler so admired were available in book form but no longer appeared every week in the Dearborn Independent. Towards the end of 1921, Ford announced it was time to stop the “Jewish articles.” Liebold protested, reported Neil Baldwin, author of Henry Ford and the Jews, and other members of the Dearborn Independent editorial staff were mystified. But an ex- employee had a theory.
E.G. Pipp, former editor of the Detroit News, was hired by Liebold (at Ford’s instruction) to be the first editor of the Dearborn Independent. He resigned in April 1920, rather than participate in creating a platform for antisemitism. He began his own publication, Pipp’s Weekly, and used its pages to criticize his former boss. Ford was toning down his antisemitic rhetoric, Pipp asserted, because key electoral states like New York and Ohio had a high proportion of Jewish votes. “Jews make no general attempt to control things in either state,” he wrote, “but they are only human and would not fall for putting their greatest enemy into a high office.”
If that was Ford’s plan, he was unable to stick to it. In August 1923 – just after Collier’s tagged him as the 1924 front-runner– Ford gave an “authorized interview” to the magazine, under the heading “If I Were President.” According to Collier’s correspondent Charles W. Wood, Ford claimed he wasn’t especially interested in running for president but did lay out a platform for what he would do if elected. “Reference to the Jews,” Wood wrote, “was sprinkled quite generously through our entire talk.” For example, Ford asserted that “These Jewish financiers are not building anything… Any institution which ceases to progress belongs by rights to them and they prepare to take it over. Pretty soon you will find them injecting their wonderful embalming fluid into it which they call ‘finance’.” The impact such statements might have had on a Ford presidential campaign remains unknown. After Warren Harding died in August of 1923 and was replaced by Calvin Coolidge, Ford decided not to face the voters.
On December 7, Ford asked organizers to postpone a national conference of “Ford-for-President” clubs scheduled for later that month in Dearborn. On December 19, he announced his endorsement of Coolidge. “I am satisfied that 90 percent of the people feel perfectly safe with Coolidge,” the auto tycoon said in a prepared statement. “I would never for a moment think of running against Calvin Coolidge for President, on any ticket whatever.” Ford never again ran for public office.
A few months later, in April 1924, the Dearborn Independent resumed attacking Jews, this time singling out Jewish attorney Aaron Sapiro for his work organizing farm co-operatives in California and elsewhere. Sapiro was trying to raise prices farmers received for their goods; the Independent viewed this as conspiracy by “the Jewish ring” to seize control of agricultural production. In 1925, Sapiro filed a $1 million libel lawsuit against the Independent and the Dearborn Publishing Company, both owned by Henry Ford. A mistrial was declared in April 1927, after Ford’s attorneys claimed a juror had been “offered a bribe by a Jew.”
A new trial was set for September, but never took place. Instead, on June 30 Ford signed onto a public apology – without changing a word – that had been drafted by New York attorney Louis Marshall, a leader of the American Jewish Committee. The document claimed, absurdly, that Ford had not paid “personal attention” to the antisemitic articles in the Dearborn Independent and pledged “to make amends for the wrong done to the Jews.”
Shortly afterwards, Ford settled with Sapiro and closed the Independent, turning down an offer from the Hearst organization to buy the newspaper for $1 million. In a dispatch from July 1927, “Speculation is Rife Over Ford Apology,” the Associated Press reported that ‘[s]ome New York newspapers connected the statement with possible presidential aspirations by Ford or business contingencies.”
Ford’s political career was over. But so was the 18-year run of the Model T, which had sold millions of units and made Ford hundreds of millions of dollars. In 1927, the company was in the process of a major retooling to bring out the Model A, new car that would compete with more stylish offerings from other automakers. In 1927, Ford Motor Company was privately held (as The Trump Organization is to this day). There were no outside shareholders to stop Ford from openly indulging his prejudices. But Ford faced the threat of more lawsuits, the demands of his business, and unease within his own family; his wife Clara and son Edsel had resigned their positions as officers of the Dearborn Publishing Company. Facing such formal and informal pressures, he altered his public rhetoric.
In the post-World War II era, boundaries for acceptable public discourse have often been policed by elites who benefit from long-term political and economic stability. In the 1960s, prominent conservatives – including William F. Buckley, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan– denounced the conspiracy-driven John Birch Society. In 2002, Trent Lott was defenestrated from his position as Senate majority leader by his fellow Republicans (hardly a woke mob) after making sympathetic comments about Strom Thurmond’s segregationist campaign for president in 1948. And in 2012, after two straight losses to Barack Obama, the Republican National Committee commissioned a “Growth and Opportunity Project” – more commonly known as “the autopsy” – which recommended shifting the party’s hardline stance against immigration, as well as a softer tone and better outreach to women and minority voters.
“The autopsy said that because there was a leadership of the party that [believed] certain things were out of bounds,” explained the University of Michigan’s Josh Pasek. “Trump ignored all those guard rails; at this point those guard rails are very difficult to re-erect.” Pasek argues that the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, the rise of cable television and the nearly limitless bandwidth available on the Internet have ended the era where a handful of media gatekeepers could determine what hundreds of millions of people hear, read and see. “In some respects, that’s wonderful,” he said. “But we haven’t refound our footing… It is not clear right now that the entire political environment is oriented toward maintenance of a democratic system.”
Unlike Henry Ford, who transformed American manufacturing, transportation, and daily life in cities and on farms, Donald Trump is no industrial innovator. He didn’t change much of anything about real estate or reality TV. But after challenging – and defeating – the Republican establishment, then winning close to half the popular vote in two straight elections, Trump has permanently scrambled the political and media landscape.
Henry Ford’s decision in 1927 to close the publishing business he used to spread antisemitic ideas did not, of course, end such poisonous attacks. Figures like radio priest Charles Coughlin, America Firster Charles Lindbergh – and occasionally Ford himself – kept on beating the same and similar drums. More recently, Pat Buchanan’s ultra-nationalist and xenophobic presidential campaigns in 1992 and 1996 threw a scare into the Republican establishment.
Trump did more than scare establishment Republicans. He beat them. Like Henry Ford a century ago, Trump appeals to millions of desperate people who feel disenfranchised by conventional political options. But unlike Ford, who never won a general election, Trump has demonstrated a path to victory centered on narrow racial grievances, rather than a broad appeal to an imagined “tolerant” electorate.
The former president’s personal and political future is uncertain. But antisemitism and white nationalism now have a growing foothold in the Republican Party, and performative cruelty to immigrants is a growth industry among ambitious right-wing politicians. A river of sewage has escaped since Trump entered U.S. politics in 2015. It’s far from clear how we get it back in the sewer.
Roger Kerson is a Michigan-based writer and media strategist for labor unions, environmental groups and non-profit organizations.