Fascism in America
A feature, not a bug
February 21st, 2021
The other day, Robin Chopineaux posted a video link on Facebook to an Oscar-nominated short from 1939 titled A Night at the Garden. For those of us over the age of about 50, chances are we’ve seen that seven minute video, or at the very least heard of the German-American Bund, the America First!ers Party, and the Ku Klux Klan.
The video is something of a masterpiece of understatement. It shows what to all appearances is a standard American patriotic rally. The opening shot shows police fire hosing a crowd outside of Madison Square Garden. The marquee proclaims this night to be a “Pro-American Rally.” A parade marches in with flags, there’s a huge backdrop of a full-length George Washington striking a ridiculously heroic pose. The crowd of 22,000 recites the pledge of Allegiance, and sings the national anthem, and then the speaker, wearing the sort of uniform that the world would quickly learn to know and hate, takes the podium. The crowd, as one, gives him a stiff-armed salute, palm down, fingers extended. Yes, THAT salute. Granted, most of the country was still using that very same gesture when saluting the flag, but The American salute, called “the Bellamy Salute” was essentially identical to the Seig Heil salute in Germany, although the similarity was coincidental. Congress finally abolished it in 1942.
But the pledge at this rally is recited with a distinctly German accent. And the opening speaker, one Fritz Kuhn, begins by evoking guffaws and snorts of disdain from the audience by explaining how he has been demonized by the press. The “Jewish-controlled press.” What a fascist of today would call “the liberal media.” He explains that he, and his audience, are the true Americans who simply want the country returned to those who founded it. He goes on to evoke a “white, Gentile-ruled United States.” Yes, he said “ruled.” Like the fascists of today, the Bund had little or no use for Democracy. He wished to “free” unions from Jewish Moscow-directed domination. At that point an individual jumps onto the stage, apparently with the aim of attacking Kuhn, and a couple of hundred of the 1,700 cops at the rally gleefully subdue him. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the assailant was “a 26-year-old plumber’s helper from Brooklyn named Isadore Greenbaum charges the stage and yells, ‘Down with Hitler.’
He is beaten up by Bund guards and his clothing is ripped off in the attack before New York police officers arrest him for disorderly conduct. (In court that night, the judge said,“Don’t you realize that innocent people might have been killed?” Greenbaum responded, ‘Don’t you realize that plenty of Jewish people might be killed with their persecution up there?’)”
Substitute “liberal” for “Jewish”, “Democrat” for “Moscow” and MAGA for “bring America back” and it’s indistinguishable from a Republican rally of today.
Halford E. Luccock famously said, “When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled ‘made in Germany’; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, ‘Americanism.’”
The coda to the German-American Bund may be predictive of near-future events here. Germany attacked Poland some seven months later, triggering World War II, and a wave of anti-Germanism swept the country. Support for the Bund collapsed. Kuhn was found guilty of embezzling the Bund to the tune of $14,000, jailed, and eventually stripped of his citizenship and shipped back to Germany after the war to be tried under denazification rules in post-war West Germany.
America does have a history of murderous right wing populists.
In 1829 Andrew Jackson was elected president, and the inauguration quickly descended into mayhem. Per wikipedia: “Jackson left on the west front of the Capitol,for the crowd had broken the ship’s cable and surged forward. He proceeded to mount a white horse and rode up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. While this happened people were climbing in through the windows to get into the White House.
“The White House was opened to all for a post-inaugural reception and was filled by the public even before Jackson arrived on horseback. Soon afterward, Jackson left by a window or a side entrance, and proceeded to Gadsby’s, later called the National Hotel. The crowd continued to descend into a drunken mob, only dispersed when bowls of liquor and punch were placed on the front lawn of the White House. ‘I never saw such a mixture,’ said Joseph Story, then a justice of the Supreme Court: ‘The reign of King Mob seemed triumphant.’ The White House was left a mess, including several thousand dollars worth of broken china.”
It seems that vicious right-wing populists and treasured national structures don’t get on well, no matter how patriotic the mob thinks it’s being. Several thousand dollars back then was a lot—Gold was only $13 an ounce.
In 1933, the United States saw a kind of a half-assed coup against Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then in office less than four months. Smedley Butler, then America’s most decorated Marine, was supposed to lead this fascist coup, supported and underwritten by many business leaders of the time, including the Bush family, J.D. Morgan, the Scaifes, and other movers and shakers who were terrified of FDR’s proposed New Deal. However, Butler was witness to the attack upon and massacre of the Bonus Marchers by Douglas MacArthur at the behest of then-president Herbert Hoover, and grew alienated from fascistic authoritarianism. He revealed the plot (which the ever-servile New York Times dismissed as “a gigantic hoax” but Congressional committee findings later reveal that, inept as it might have been, the attempt to overthrow the United States government was a real thing.)
A lot of the offspring of those would-be insurrectionists are prominent in today’s GOP. And most of them hate liberals, Democrats and socialists with the same passion as a Jackson supporter, a member of the Bund, a business leader in the Depression, or a member of MAGA today.
Fascism isn’t an invasive force in America, and neither is it anything new. It’s a feature of America, an an opportunistic disease that become dangerous when the host organism is weak. The fascist regimes of the 30s and 40s so disgraced the concept that fascists refuse to self-identify as such. Call them “conservatives.” Call them “libertarians.” Call them “patriots.” Or Proud Boys. Or Qanon. Anything but what they actually are.
Don’t think that just because they wave American flags and chant American patriotic oaths and songs that they aren’t deadly enemies to everything America stands for.
“They walk among us.”