Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The History of the American Far Right

Interesting article in the Times by Rick Perlstein on the history of the American right. I think he is spot on that the sort of "alt right" characters who seem so scary now in the light of Trump's campaign have been with us for centuries. This is part of his account of the 1930s:
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.

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.
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.

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.


Shadow said...

I read much of this article yesterday, and my takeaway was that it is history at its most incompetent (and ideological). It explains nothing about the present while painting others on the right (and center) with a wide and damning brush. This is cherry picking designed to trigger a certain reaction. One could as easily make the case that Trump won because he was traveling from town to town selling elixir out of the back of a wagon at the time a new group of voters who, having lost their jobs to globalization and the financial crisis, were looking for a palliative. But that would be an inadequate explanation too. You summed it up best when you said the many republicans (and right of center independents) from many different points of view chose to vote for Trump rather than Hillary or a democrat. Why that happened would be a far more interesting and honest article.

G. Verloren said...

@Shadow Flutter

I haven't read the article, but from the excerpt and John's commentary, I'm not so sure that looking to the past isn't helpful here, even if it doesn't give us the whole picture all in one place, but rather just one piece of the puzzle.

I mean, would we even be having this conversation if a Democrat had won? (Or more accurately, if a Democrat who did win the popular vote had not fallen prey to the weird mechanisms of the Electoral College?) Fascism is a firmly right wing movement, and Republicans have an established history of both tolerating and openly supporting fascists, which is important to bear in mind.

When 30 million people - roughly 10% of the population today, but just a little bit under a quarter of the population in 1939 - read magazines and listen every week to radio shows which spread agendas of hatred and fascism, and then commit organized violence against minorities in some of the biggest cities in the nation, with the tacit approval and allowance of the authorities, that's incredibly noteworthy, and it draws some startling parallels to the present day.

You want to know why people chose Trump rather than Clinton? Looking to the history of the Republican party's involvement with Fascism gives insight to at least a part of the equation, if not all of it.

Yes, of course Trump selling his snake oil to ignorant people desperate for a cure-all to fix their woes is a big part of the equation. But so, too, is the sinister influence of Fascism on a not insignificant portion of the population. And so too is the repeatedly demonstrated willingness of huge numbers of "ordinary" Republicans to get into bed with Fascists in order to achieve their own ends.

You don't have to be a full blown Nazi to be a Nazi Collaborator, after all. You don't have to be a member of the Gestapo dragging innocent people out of their homes - you just need to be willing to turn a blind eye to those who are. You don't need to be the one who pulls the trigger or operates the gas chamber to be complicit in mass murder and genocide. You just need to be more willing to vote for a Fascist than you are willing to allow your political rivals to take office.

And that's what history shows us, if only we think to look back on it. The Republican party has demonstrated to us time and time again that they'd almost always prefer to have a calamity of their own making than a blessing wrought by others. They'll happily help endanger and destroy innocent lives, just to spite their political rivals. They don't care if they don't stand to actually gain anything - if they can't truly win, they'll always settle for just foiling the efforts of others instead. If they can't get their way, they're going to do everything in their power to make sure no one else does either. They'll sell their souls if it means dragging the opposition down to hell with them.

pithom said...

Skimming that article turned me off to reading anything by Perlstein. He understands nothing. The fact it's in the Times makes it more damning.

Veloren, I politely ask you to be more concise and say less nonsense.

"Whether, in our world, the line between "respectable" political actors with mainstream appeal and the fringe has broken down completely."

-Not just yet, but hopefully, it soon will.

G. Verloren said...


More blanket judgements, based on admittedly non-thorough readings? Not going to comment on the actual arguments being presented, just going with ad hominem attacks on the author and the publisher?

Gee, it's a good thing we have you around! Thanks to your intrinsic superiority over others, you're able to automaticall discern the merit of an argument without even reading it, based purely on who composed it and disemminated it!

No need to waste time with any of that silly "logic" nonsense! No need to risk admitting that even in a flawed argument, some elements might still hold true! Just dismiss it wholesale and out of hand!

As for your "polite asking" regarding my own commentary, I regret to inform you that I am disinclined to acquiesce your request.

I must also politely remind you that your lack of attention span does not constitute a failure on my part, nor on the part of my logical arguments. If you wish to find demonstrably rational fault with my argumentation, I quite naturally and happily invite you to attempt to do so.

Also, I suppose it doesn't surprise me to learn that a eugenicist is eager to see fringe elements of society legitimized. I fear your hopes will be greatly disappointed, and offer my most polite and utterly insincere apologies for your misfortune.

Shadow said...

Hey G!

I don't disagree with anything you say, but 10% of the population won't elect anyone president by themselves and is probably a smaller percentage than at the time those events referred to in the article occurred. What really torqued me was a historian writing like a political hack.