The story begins with Father Charles Coughlin, the Detroit-based “radio priest” who at his peak reached as many as 30 million weekly listeners. In 1938, Coughlin’s magazine, Social Justice, began reprinting “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” a forged tract about a global Jewish conspiracy first popularized in the United States by Henry Ford. After presenting this fictitious threat, Coughlin’s paper called for action, in the form of a “crusade against the anti-Christian forces of the red revolution” — a call that was answered, in New York and Boston, by a new organization, the Christian Front. Its members were among the most enthusiastic participants in a 1939 pro-Hitler rally that packed Madison Square Garden, where the leader of the German-American Bund spoke in front of an enormous portrait of George Washington flanked by swastikas.What happened in 2016 is that Donald Trump was able to excite the enthusiasm of this crowd while still getting the votes of millions of ordinary Republicans. Most "Trump voters" after all were just Republicans, some of them not at all enthusiastic about Trump but hostile to Hillary and her perceived agenda.
The Bund took a mortal hit that same year — its leader was caught embezzling — but the Christian Front soldiered on. In 1940, a New York chapter was raided by the F.B.I. for plotting to overthrow the government. The organization survived, and throughout World War II carried out what the New York Yiddish paper The Day called “small pogroms” in Boston and New York that left Jews in “mortal fear” of “almost daily” beatings. Victims who complained to authorities, according to news reports, were “insulted and beaten again.” Young Irish-Catholic men inspired by the Christian Front desecrated nearly every synagogue in Washington Heights. The New York Catholic hierarchy, the mayor of Boston and the governor of Massachusetts largely looked the other way.
Why hasn’t the presence of organized mobs with backing in powerful places disturbed historians’ conclusion that the American right was dormant during this period? In fact, the “far right” was never that far from the American mainstream. The historian Richard Steigmann-Gall, writing in the journal Social History, points out that “scholars of American history are by and large in agreement that, in spite of a welter of fringe radical groups on the right in the United States between the wars, fascism never ‘took’ here.” And, unlike in Europe, fascists did not achieve governmental power. Nevertheless, Steigmann-Gall continues, “fascism had a very real presence in the U.S.A., comparable to that on continental Europe.” He cites no less mainstream an organization than the American Legion, whose “National Commander” Alvin Owsley proclaimed in 1922, “the Fascisti are to Italy what the American Legion is to the United States.” A decade later, Chicago named a thoroughfare after the Fascist military leader Italo Balbo. In 2011, Italian-American groups in Chicago protested a movement to rename it.
Since at least the 18th century there has been a sort of conspiracy to keep the public discourse clean of extreme anger and hate, a pact among public-spirited types to keep the front pages and the election debates high-minded and rational. Those who would not play by these rules were, at least the theory went, kept out of the limelight, and out of the White House. Perlstein is saying that pundits and historians have mistakenly assigned too much authority to this pact, and not paid enough attention to fringe elements that refused to play by those rules.
One of the questions raised by Trump is whether those rules have broken down, whether in the era of Twitter and Facebook a politician can bypass the keepers of the national superego and reach straight out to the voters, especially the angry voters. Whether, in our world, the line between "respectable" political actors with mainstream appeal and the fringe has broken down completely. I don't think it has yet, but if the trend away from mainstream media and toward cranky websites continues, I worry that it may.