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Before The Donald, there was Big Bill of Chicago

Mayor William Hale Thompson, like President Trump, made promises he could not keep. He called opponents names. He belittled them. He lived for the cheers. He admired foreign foes.

Chicago Mayor William Hale Thompson in 1915.
Sun-Times file photo

As we enter the final phase of this campaign season, it has become apparent to me that the history of politics in Chicago and the current occupant of the White House have much in common.

In 1915, William Hale Thompson was elected mayor of Chicago. His father was a successful real estate developer who had left his son a substantial fortune.

Big Bill had a reputation as a playboy and a fine athlete. He was well liked in social circles and rose in Republican politics as someone who would change the system. He promised to be a reformer, although most reform organizations doubted his intentions.

He promised prosperity while condemning labor unions. When it seemed convenient, he also attacked immigrants and Catholics. When it was not useful, he praised them.

Judge Harry Olson opposed Big Bill in the GOP primary and was roundly defeated. Thompson went on to beat the Democratic candidate, Robert M. Sweitzer, in 1915 and began his career as mayor of the city.

Thompson made promises and the crowds cheered. Promises he would not and could not deliver on. He called his opponents names and belittled them. He played on his carefully crafted image as a cowboy, athlete and hero.

When World War I broke out, Thompson endeared himself to those who opposed the allied forces. He attempted to win the huge German and Irish votes in Chicago by posing as an anti-British politician. Even after the United States entered the war in 1917, Thompson refused to invite French General Joseph Joffre to the city.

Thompson’s school board long refused to remove a textbook that praised Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Thompson was called a traitor.

He attacked Dr. Theodore J. Sachs, one of the founders of the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium, and tried to use it for patronage. He did the same with the city’s school system.

When Thompson was reelected in 1919, the city broke out in one of the worst race riots in history. But he initially refused to ask for aid from the governor, Frank Lowden, another Republican, because he hated him and differed with him politically.

In 1923, he decided not to run again as scandal shattered any plans for a third term. But just to prove that you actually can fool the people more than once, or twice in this case, he was elected again four years later, in 1927, and made an alliance with Al Capone.

Thompson was a demagogue. He fouled the city’s reputation, and when he finally left office in 1931, after losing to Anton Cermak, he took the Republican Party with him.

William Hale Thompson was the last Republican mayor of Chicago.

The similarities with the current inhabitant of the White House are many. A scientist like Dr. Sachs, who devoted his life to the poor, was destroyed and committed suicide. Respect for science was null and void in Thompson’s Chicago, just as it is in Trump’s White House.

Scandal, lies and exaggerations mark both administrations. Both men expressed respect for foreign leaders who did not or do not have America’s interests in mind.

The need for applause, affirmation and admiration also mark both Thompson and Trump, and they both enjoyed a series of sycophants.

All of this led to the end of the Republican Party in Chicago. One wonders where it will lead nationally now for the GOP.

Dominic A. Pacyga is a Chicago historian. He is working on a new study of the city’s politics. He is the author of several books, including “Chicago: A Biography.”

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