President Donald Trump is unlike any president in modern times. We often hear that his behavior and his statements are unprecedented. While that may be true on the national stage, there was a prominent figure in San Francisco in the 1870s who Trump could have used as a role model.
His name was Denis Kearney.
“Denis Kearney was a very odd figure,” says Gary Kamiya, who compared the 19th-century San Franciscan to Trump in San Francisco magazine. “He ran a draying company, which meant that he had wagons that would haul goods around. And he was opposed to the workingman’s cause.”
One example of Denis Kearney’s anti-labor stance was his support of Chinese workers coming to San Francisco in Gold Rush days, expressly because they worked for low wages, making them competitors to the resident white population.
When thousands of white workingmen attacked the dock where the ships from China arrived, Kearney was part of a citizen’s vigilance committee that drove the rioters away.
But soon after this, Kearney changed sides.
“He had this double attack that was very similar to Donald Trump,” says Kamiya. “He simultaneously attacked ‘corrupt businessmen’ in the same way Trump attacked Hillary Clinton as being a ‘fat cat,’ and ‘Washington establishment.’ Kearney began raging violently against speculators, and ‘blood sucking capitalists and their Chinese slaves.’”
Those hard-working Chinese laborers that Kearney had supported were now the scapegoats for unemployment.
Remember when candidate Trump told supporters who roughed up protesters that he would “defend them in court” if they got arrested? Kearney’s routine was to always conclude his tirades with this call to action: “The Chinese must go!”
“And all of the men, and they were all men, in the audience, would roar their approval,” says Kamiya. San Francisco was plagued with riots.
“Hundreds and thousands of men stormed across San Francisco in these appalling, basically race riots, beating up any Chinese person that they saw on the streets, burning down Chinese laundries, just wreaking havoc,” Kamiya relates. “And in fact, they had to bring the police in and basically block off each end of Chinatown and prevent these thugs from going in and wreaking even more mayhem in Chinatown.”
At times Kearney would turn his wrath on others, such as banker Charles Crocker. Kearney once led a mob to the top of Nob Hill, where Crocker and others had enormous mansions.
“They were just up there like Trump Tower,” says Kamiya with a chuckle, making men like Crocker highly visible targets for Kearney’s mobs.
“Kearney thundered, ‘If I give an order to hang Charles Crocker, it will be done!’” says Kamiya. He also threatened to give Crocker “the worst beating with sticks that a man ever had!”
But there was no hanging of white capitalists and no beating with sticks. Kamiya says the mob was “much more content to burn down the laundries of helpless Chinese, who would not be protected by the police. They knew if they tried to do anything to Charles Crocker’s mansion that they would get their own heads cracked.”
Such bluster, again, reminds Kamiya of our new president.
“All of Trump’s positions, when running, about how he was going to ‘drain the swamp’ of capitalists and greedy speculators and blood suckers — no sooner did he become elected President than he immediately appointed all the heads of Goldman Sachs and every other Wall Street institution. He’s basically reflecting his own position, which is being a businessman. A rich, crony businessman.”
Like Trump, Kearney got into politics, even sending a large delegation from his Workingmen’s Party to the 1878 California Constitutional Convention. Kamiya says his proposals didn’t get very far in Sacramento, with one major exception.
“One thing that he did get through – that he played a key role, certainly – was the now infamous Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which basically froze Chinese immigration into the United States until the 1940s.”
The Workingmen’s Party also attracted international attention.
According to Kamiya, Karl Marx, co-author of The Communist Manifesto, took note of the Workingmen’s Party. He cheered their reactions against capitalism, which he said had “reached its pure exploitative form, in its purest state. With shameless rapidity it has reached this state in California.”
Marx’s prediction that the Workingmen’s Party would topple capitalism didn’t come to pass. And Kearney returned to his roots as a businessman.
“In fact, in what has to be one of the more hilarious reversals,” chuckles Kamiya, “later in life he opened an employment agency! Which I just find priceless.”
If Kamiya had to succinctly describe Kearney, what would he say?
“He was supremely opportunistic,” he concludes, “another parallel with Donald Trump.”
Denis Kearney, having abandoned his “friend of the worker” past, died a rich man in Alameda, in 1907.