Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here
Alan Singer, Hofstra University
Sinclair Lewis titled his 1935 novel about a fascist threat to the United States It Can’t Happen Here. The novel tells the story of “Buzz” Windrip, who defeats Franklin Roosevelt for president in 1936 after a campaign based on stoking fear, promising unlikely economic reform, and championing patriotism and “traditional” values. Philip Roth developed a similar theme in his 2004 novel The Plot against America. This time it is 1940 and FDR is defeated for reelection by the real life aviation hero and pro-German “America First” anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh. Both books are works of fiction, but the domestic fascist threat to the United States prior to World War II was all too real. Unfortunately, and frighteningly, it may be all too real in the United States again today.
On February 20, 1939, an estimated 22,000 American fascists held a pro-German, pro-Nazi rally in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The rally coincided with George Washington’s Birthday and was advertised by the German American Bund as “True Americanism and George Washington Birthday Exercises.” A 30-foot high image of Washington was on the podium spanned by Nazi swastikas.
James Wheeler-Hill, the national secretary of the Bund, opened the Nazi celebration by welcoming “My fellow Christian Americans.” Speakers denounced the press, radio, and cinema for being in “hands of the Jews” and demanded a “white, gentile-ruled USA.” To demonstrate their patriotism, the assemblage pledged allegiance to the American flag and stood respectfully for The Star-Spangled Banner — while offering the Nazi Sieg Heil right-armed raised palm out, salute. Over 1,700 New York City police officers were assigned to patrol the Garden and nearby streets to prevent clashes with counter-protesters.
While historians continue to debate the precise conditions that contribute to the rise of fascism and what makes particular countries especially at-risk, during World War II the United States War Department saw domestic fascism as a genuine threat to American democracy. In 1945, it issued a memorandum called “Fascism!“ where it addressed the prospects of domestic fascism. “At various times in our history, we have had sorry instances of mob sadism, lynchings, vigilantism, terror, and suppression of civil liberties. We have had our hooded gangs, Black Legions, Silver Shirts, and racial and religious bigots. All of them, in the name of Americanism, have used undemocratic methods and doctrines which experience has shown can be properly identified as ‘fascist.’” The War Department warned, “An American Fascist seeking power would not proclaim that he is a Fascist. Fascism always camouflages its plans and purposes . . . It would work under the guise of ‘super-patriotism’ and ‘super-Americanism’”
The memo concluded, “The germ of Fascism cannot be quarantined in a Munich Brown House or a balcony in Rome. If we want to make certain that Fascism does not come to America, we must make certain that it does not thrive anywhere in the world.”
In medical terms, fascism can best be described as a syndrome rather than as disease. It is identified by a number of indices or symptoms, and not one specific descriptor. Historian John McNeill of Georgetown University argues that previous fascist movements have to one extent or another been rooted in an ideology of hyper-nationalism or super-patriotism, promoted militarism, glorified masculinity, violence, and youth, worshiped a cult of the powerful leader, and idealized a mystical national “golden age” in the past that could be reborn. As mass movements they often defined themselves by what they were not, immigrants, communists, socialists, homosexuals, or Jews. Fascist leaders and political parties tended toward the theatrical and were prone to purge any dissidents. Although frequently used as synonyms, Fascism and Nazism are not the same thing. Nazism was an especially virulent anti-Semitic variety of fascism.
What McNeil leaves out, and what I think is even more important, are the economic causes of fascism within capitalist societies that enable fascist movements to achieve power. They are nearly always the product of economic distress, either of a particular group, or the entire country. Successful fascist movements involve alliances of the dispossessed with powerful business and financial interests that use mass movements to pacify discontent, to displace blame for social distress onto easily victimized scapegoats, and to eliminate radical alternatives. In Germany and Italy in the 1920s and 1930s socialists, communists, and labor unionists were the first targets of the fascists.
In the United States today we witness some of these same tendencies with nasty verbal attacks on Muslims, inner-city minorities, immigrants, and political opponents, and as rightwing populism is used by wealthy capitalists and their supporters as a way to eliminate regulations on industry and finance and to reduce taxes on corporations and the mega-rich. The Constitution was designed by the nation’s founders with a series of checks and balances to prevent a movement like fascism from taking power. However the checks and balances system may not be working as one party, a party influenced by extreme rightwing forces, controls all three branches of the national government and a majority of state houses and has been using that unblocked power to suppress opposition votes.
Today fascist and neo-fascist movements are on the upswing as populist discontent, often manipulated by powerful economic interests, embraces militant nationalism and scapegoats immigrants, cosmopolitans (including Jews, gays, and left-intellectuals), and ethnic and religious minorities for economic stagnation, income inequality, unwanted cultural change, and their sense of displacement. While hatred and bigotry are frightening by themselves, the greater concern is that these movements could propel anti-democratic forces into power as they did in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s and in Russia in recent decades. Benito Mussolini in 1922, Adolf Hitler in 1933, and Vladimir Putin in 1999 all rose to power through legitimate means and then moved to undermine democracy.
In the United States the ugliness of the alt-right and neo-Nazi groups was on display at their August 2017 “Unite the Right“ rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia. Marchers carried Nazi-style torches and chanted “White Lives Matter” and “Jews will not replace us.”
Although President Donald Trump denounced the outbreak of violence in Charlottesville, former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke claimed Trump inspired the rally and called his election a “turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back.”
In recent months tens of thousands of rightwing Poles with allies from Slovakia, Hungary, and Spain, marched in Warsaw under banners declaring “Europe Will Be White” and “Pray for Islamic Holocaust.” Demonstrators chanted “Pure Poland, White Poland” and “Refugees Get Out.” Weeks earlier, outrage when images of Anne Frank were used to insult members of an Italian soccer team based in Rome, exposed a history of anti-Semitic and racist taunting at matches. In recent elections, openly fascist or neo-fascist political parties have made significant inroads in Germany (Alternative für Deutschland); Hungary (Jobbik); France (Front National); Greece (Golden Dawn); the Netherlands (Partij voor de Vrijheid); Italy (Lega Nord); Denmark (Danish People’s Party); and Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs). Rightwing “populism” in these countries and the United States share many of the same anti-democratic, anti-intellectual qualities as the Islamic fundamentalist movements they denounce and use as a ploy to rally supporters.
Populism has gotten a bad name because of these developments. But populism is not inherently rightwing, anti-intellectual, and anti-democratic. The labor movement of the 1930s, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and women’s rights movements for the last two hundred years have all been populist movements promoting democratic values and social justice.
Fascism did not arrive in the United States with the election of Donald Trump. However, it is worth quoting the War Department memo again as a conclusion to this blog.
“Fascism is not the easiest thing to identify and analyze; nor, once in power, is it easy to destroy.” However, according to the War Department, “it is important for our future and that of the world that as many as possible understand the causes and practices of fascism in order to combat.” The memo stressed four points:
- Fascism is more apt to come to power in time of economic crisis;
- Fascism inevitably leads to war;
- it can come in any country;
- We can best combat it by making our democracy work.