We’ve Seen It All Before


“[They] are most easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact. Their newspapers and propaganda carefully cultivate every fissure of disunity, every crack in the common front against fascism. They use every opportunity to impugn democracy… Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection.”

Bradley Hart's book coverSounds like someone knowledgeably writing about modern Trumpist Repugnicans, or maybe even any (all?) of the populist, conservative parties worldwide. It was actually written in 1944 by Henry Wallace, 33rd Vice-President of the USA. He was commenting on the American pro-Nazi fascists. Before WWII, they had millions of followers in organizations like America First, Silver League, the German-American Bund, and similar groups. Many of them continued their subversive activities even while the USA was fighting Germany.

It’s a part of American history detailed in Bradley Hart’s book, Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s American Supporters in the United States (Thomas Dunne Books – St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2018). It’s not the first book I’ve read on this dark chapter in American history, merely the latest, but what has always puzzled me is how the lessons learned in the 1930s and ’40s about the right and their subversive activities seem to have been forgotten: today, the pro-Nazi right is again on the rise in the USA.*

Hart draws on “recently opened archives and personal papers,” adding a new dimension to the story, documenting in eight chapters the various groups, organizations, and individuals who promoted and pursued various ideologies that, if not specifically pro-Nazi helped Germany’s aims. These include both American politicians, businessmen, university student organizations, spies, and religious leaders. The support for the Nazis in the USA was strong for many years. It still is, although today’s neo-Nazis are mostly sad, puerile imitators of that ideology, with little more than hate and a poor education to collectively sustain them.

It wasn’t just these organizations that promoted racism and fascism in the USA, but also several well-known personalities pushed it (or promoted aspects of it, like anti-Semitism): Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh are among the most notable, but there were rightwing Christian pastors and churches working for groups like the Christian Front, a pro-Nazi religious-political organization run by the deeply anti-Semitic Father Charles Coughlin. Other pro-Nazi advocates at the time included the Kansas minister Gerald Winrod, Louisiana’s Gerald k. Smith, and others.

Today, the American, pseudo-Christian Talibangelists and fake Evangelists promote many of the same ideologies, although they focus their bile on Muslims more than Jews (when not promoting themselves and demanding money from their gullible followers). These are deeply anti-democratic, pro-authoritarian theocracy lobbyists. They still continue to promote Trump as the winner of the election he lost, and to spread Trump’s lies about election fraud.

Trump is not generally viewed as anti-Semitic, at least in public, although like his profession to Christian faith, it’s highly suspect. He has tweeted what many consider anti-Semitic remarks such as those he made in 2019:

In August, Donald Trump tweeted that Jewish Americans who vote for a Democrat are guilty of ignorance or “great disloyalty: “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” Many commentators wrote that this assertion echoed the anti-Semitic trope that Jewish Americans have “dual loyalty” to Israel.

However, his anti-Muslim bigotry is well established in the public record. In 2017, he retweeted “…a series of anti-Muslim propaganda videos shared online by a high-ranking official in the ultra-nationalist UK political group Britain First” as CNN reported. By spring 2018, barely two years into his term, media had documented “86 Times Donald Trump Displayed or Promoted Islamophobia.”

The actual Nazis in Germany encouraged their American supporters and even launched an official Nazi political organization called the Gauleitung-USA, based in New York City, in 1931. However, after Hitler was appointed Chancellor in ’33, the organization was dissolved and replaced by the German-American Bund. That group included an armed wing modelled after Hitler’s Sturmabteilung (SA), trained to use force. Another group,  Friends of the New Germany, which had recruited around 5,000 members between 1933 and ’35, was also absorbed into the Bund.

The groups and their leaders published disinformation and invented conspiracies against the government and those they considered liberal or left. In 1940 they said President Roosevelt was a Jew who had changed his name from Rosen-feld. They warned that immigrants were secret Jewish Communists infiltrating the USA. They attacked what they alleged was the liberal and leftwing media. Similar to the Trumpist birther conspiracy and rightwing attacks on immigrants as Muslim terrorists.

The obvious parallels with US President Donald Trump and his supporters today, coupled with the rise of modern neo-Nazi organizations, racism, isolationism, and repressive authoritarianism among them cannot be missed. The Nazis did not go away when they lost the war: they remain among us, festering and spreading. In his review of the book, Robert Siegel writes,

First, Hart reminds us of how many Americans found fascism and anti-Semitism either attractive or unobjectionable when those isms were spreading rapidly across Europe. According to a 1939 Fortune poll that he cites, 13 million Americans agreed with the statement that Jews should be deported “to some new homeland as fast as it can be done without inhumanity.” Second, it is impossible to read about the 1930s without comparing those times to today’s Trumpian nationalism and modern-day calls for mass deportations, to be conducted of course “without inhumanity.”

As Hart documents, one of the reasons the Nazis failed to spread their ideology further in the pre-war years was the concerted efforts by US intelligence agencies such as the FBI and The Office of Strategic Services (OSS: the CIA was not established until 1947). However, today many of those agencies have been subsumed into the current political administration to act not for the American people but rather to advance the ideological goals of the regime, so their ability to curtail rightwing terrorism has been crippled. Whether that changes under the incoming president remains to be seen.

The German rightwing nationalists in the early and mid-1920s — the volkisch (populist) movement — were balkanized into small, angry, noisy but disconnected groups, all squabbling to be seen as the main force, the prime spokespersons for the pro-volkisch electorate. It’s very similar to the American rightwing today with its disparate, blustering groups like the Proud Boys, KKK, Booglaoo Boys, the incel, anti-masker, anti-vaxxer movements, and others. They came together only after Hitler’s release from prison.

The American Nazis of the ’30s and ’40s had their enabler politicians, too, especially in the Senate. In 1940, Senator Ernest Lundeen made speeches written for him by a propagandist working for the German embassy.  Hart documents more than two dozen US Senators who were used by the Nazis to”disseminate pro-German and anti-British invective to millions of Americans.” Much like today’s Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham, they advocated for the totalitarian regime and racist ideology they were in thrall to (he’s not called Moscow Mitch without good reason).

After Germany lost WWI, the right spread the myth of the “stab in the back” conspiracy that blamed the loss on socialists, communists, trade unions, and the Jews. The right made themselves out to be the victims of the left and the Jews. Everything bad that happened to their country or their associations was someone else’s fault. Even the failed putsch of 1923 was blamed on others.

This is a lot like Trump blaming his election loss on voter fraud and the Democrats. And like the right everywhere today, the German right turned all political debate into attacks against opponents, often violent, and flung wilder and wilder conspiracies against the government and both the centre and the left, which could not be countered with fact or civil discussion.

The right in Germany had its own ideological media spewing accusations, lies, and hatred. The Völkischer Beobachter was an early newspaper that attacked socialists and the Jews. Hitler took control of the paper in 1921, made it the party’s official newspaper, made it a daily: it became his organ, publishing his speeches and articles. From 1923, another supporting (although not official) paper, Der Sturmer, published even more outrageous lies and attacks, expanding their hatred to Catholics, and pushing for extermination of the Jews.

These newspapers were for Hitler what Fox “news” and Breitbart are for Donald Trump and his Repougnicans: ideologically based, pushing opinion and commentary over actual news, openly supportive of the right, willing to bend or ignore facts and truth, sharing baseless conspiracies to discredit opponents and ceaselessly attacking anyone or association that doesn’t conform to their views. But Trump uses his own medium: Twitter, to spread his falsehoods. According to the Washinton Post, by September 3, 2020, its Fact Checker database had counted 22,510 false or misleading statements in a mere 1,323 days in office. Fox and Breitbart are megaphones, amplifying his congenital mendacity. He still continues to lie about winning the 2020 presidential election and alleged voter fraud.

Trump lost the election, and badly, but not the war. Expect him to use his remaining time to re-group for his return. The post-election period before his ouster will be his “Landsberg prison” time. Hitler was arrested after his failed “Beer Hall Putsch” and ended up serving time (rather comfortably) in Landsberg prison. He used his time to write his autobiography, Mein Kampf, and develop his plans to unite the splintered right. Trump is working to galvanize and unite his followers under a basic theme: the election was stolen. And it’s working.

Of course, no one expects the barely literate Trump to actually write anything longer than a misspelled tweet. But like Hitler in Landsberg, once out of the Oval office I suspect Trump will dictate a rambling, incoherent, self-serving diatribe about his greatness, his vision, and being a victim. It will get turned into a readable (albeit turgid and vituperative) book by subservient, rightwing ghostwriters and editors. While out of office, he will campaign to unite and organize the rightwing American groups and bring them under his own banner for his next presidential campaign, in 2024.

And it won’t be the same-old Repugnicans on the campaign trail. They will be Trump’s party and they will gladly pay to be members.  As noted by Jonathan Blast in The New Republic in a piece titled, The Republican Party Is Dead. It’s the Trump Cult Now:

The president may well be a liability for Republicans, but the GOP belongs to him now, and no one can change that.
Donald Trump will be the first former president not to retire, more or less, from political life since Teddy Roosevelt. He will not repair to Mar-a-Lago, watch Shark Week, and get to work on his memoirs. He has neither the financial nor psychological ability to do so. Instead, Trump will tweet. He will call into the cable shows. He will cultivate an army of followers who can be mobilized and monetized. What he will do with these followers is unclear, but also beside the point. Whether he starts Trump TV, a new vitamin business, or a 2024 campaign, he will want mastery over as large an audience as possible.
There are still people who believe that the party can go back to what it was in 2014. These people are living in a fantasy.
And that is why he refused to concede the election. His next move requires exporting tens of millions of followers with him to his new venture, and the way to do that is to keep pushing the notion that he was not defeated, that he has the secret truth, and that he will share it with his chosen elect for $9.95 a month.

Trump isn’t finished by this loss. He has his rightwing, faithful neo-Nazis, and his Talibangelists who consider him divine to keep him propped up, financed, and preparing for the next round. He still plans to be America’s Fuhrer with their help. And they will be much better prepared for the fight than they were in 2016.

* I also recommend the 2004 book, The American Axis: Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and the Rise of the Third Reich, by Max Wallace. Read a review of it here.

See comments, below, for updates.

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  1. Update: Another thing to consider is the Führerprinzip: the ideological principle in all dictatorships that, as Wikipedia notes, “the Führer’s word is above all written law.” The leader is always right, the leader can make no mistakes. It also means that any of the leader’s foibles, fallacies, or faults get overlooked or even celebrated because they can’t be wrong if he’s always right.

    Mussolini had a similar law: “Mussolini is Always Right” was integral to his Fascist party ideology (as described in the 2019 book, How to Be a Dictator by Frank Dikötter, which documents the cult of personality around eight 20th-century dictators, including Hitler).

    Trump has a similar cult of personality around him. Trump pushes the Fuhrer principle (and absolutely believes in it), and the sycophantic Repugnicans have wholeheartedly embraced it. It explains why Repugnicans and Trump’s followers have consistently ignored Trump’s lies, his philandering, adultery, criminal activities, venality, his illiteracy, his nepotism, and his idiocy.

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