Did We See This One Before?: Rachel Maddow’s 'Prequel'

Date: 2024-03-20T14:03:58+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

Hank Kennedy reviews ‘Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism’ a new book on U.S. fascism and anti-fascism by MSNBC television host and political commentator, Rachel Maddow, arguing that key omissions and inaccuracies undermine Maddow’s analysis of U.S. fascist movements. 

Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism by Rachel Maddow has been a runaway success. The book is a New York Times-bestseller and received critical praise in the Times and in the Washington Post. Maddow has toured the country and been interviewed on CBS and NPR promoting the book, which serves as a companion piece/sequel to her podcast Ultra. In short, it’s been a mini-phenomenon. 

Prequel spotlights the fight against such U.S. fascists as the Silver Shirts, the German-American Bund, the Christian Front, and pro-Nazi propagandist George Sylvester Viereck. Viereck’s story is the most unnerving for believers in the sanctity of U.S. institutions. The one-time poet enlisted several Senators and Congresspeople in his scheme to flood the United States with Nazi propaganda. None of those elected officials were ever charged for their part in the plot.

So far, only the libertarian magazine Reason has escaped Prequel-mania. Reviewer Brendan P. Buck correctly points out that Maddow’s focus is scattered. A chapter on the influence U.S. segregationist laws had on Nazi German treatment of Jews has nothing to do with the rest of the book. The argument presented that Louisiana demagogue Huey Long was a potential fascist is weak. The Long presented by Maddow is an ideologically incoherent opportunist, not a hardened fascist. This characterization is furthered by a quote from architect Phillip Johnson, then a member of the fascist Gray Shirts: “[Long] was so individual and chaotic that there was no way of getting along.”1 World War I is treated as being nearly synonymous with World War II. Although most of Buck’s review is sound, I loathe the idea of giving a magazine that once promoted Holocaust deniers like Austin J. App and James J. Martin the last word on U.S. fascism. Also, there are other issues with Maddow’s book as history and as politics that Buck left unaddressed. Buck does not criticize historical inaccuracies contained within Prequel. And understandably for a libertarian writer, a “radical for capitalism,” he has nothing to say about Prequel’s erasure of the U.S. Left and its role in fighting domestic fascism. 

Maddow’s choices in how to present information can be puzzling. As an example, she reports that Christian nationalist Gerald L.K. Smith was “characterized as ‘a viper,’ ‘a leech,’ ‘anti-Christian,’ and ‘anti-God,’ by a fellow clergyman…”2 The fellow clergyman in question was Father Charles Coughlin, one of the most infamous American fascists of the 1930s. Another instance of omission occurs in the book’s epilogue. Maddow writes that Norma Lundeen, widow of pro-Nazi Senator Ernest, “married another U.S. senator, this one from Oregon, a high-ranking Ku Klux Klansman.”3 The Senator was Rufus C. Holman, who in addition to his Klan membership, also praised Adolf Hitler on the Senate floor saying Hitler “broke the control of these internationalists over the common people of Germany.” Holman was a famous U.S. fascist sympathizer. By not naming either Holman or Coughlin, Maddow looks like she is either trying to hide something important from the audience, which I don’t believe she is, or that she and her researchers are negligent. 

On the subject of negligence, there are some factual errors throughout the book that, while not glaring, are irritating for readers aware of history. Maddow states that Huey Long “was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1930, but he insisted he could simultaneously hold on to the governorship until 1932…” Long was elected Senator in 1930, during his gubernatorial term, but he never attempted to hold both offices at the same time. The Louisiana Senate seat remained vacant until Long’s time in the governor’s mansion was over. Another error occurs when she writes that North Dakota Congressman William Lemke’s Union Party presidential candidacy “was mostly a vehicle for [Father] Coughlin, who was Canadian-born and unable to run himself.”4 Since Coughlin’s father Thomas was a U.S. citizen, Father Charles Coughlin would be a natural-born U.S. citizen, regardless of his Canadian birth and therefore could run for President. This error is particularly galling given that Maddow cites the biography Radio Priest: Charles Coughlin, the Father of Hate Radio which lays out the circumstances of Coughlin’s birth early on. In Ultra, she also claims that Nazi-sympathizing Congressman Jacob Thorkelson was defeated by a Democrat rather than actually losing a Republican primary to pacifist Jeanette Rankin. Maddow’s mistakes in Prequel and Ultra are bothersome for knowledgeable readers and damage Maddow’s credibility.

The heroes profiled by Maddow are symptomatic of her liberal politics. Her protagonists are two prosecutors, two newspaper reporters, an agent of the Anti-Defamation League, an FBI agent, and a direct mail advertiser. The U.S. Left is nowhere to be found. In relating the fight against the Silver Shirts in Minneapolis, she focuses on a newspaper columnist who exposed the organization in a series of crusading investigative pieces. She does not include the famous story of Teamsters local 544’s battle with the group. Led by revolutionary socialists, the union set up a defense guard to protect union members from attacks by vigilantes, police, and fascists. Due to their successful organizing, the fascist group canceled a planned rally in Minneapolis featuring Silver Shirts chief William Dudley Pelley. Revolutionary socialists also led and organized the protest against the 1939 German-American Bund rally in Madison Square Garden. The 50,000 strong picketers easily dwarfed the 20,000 Bundists in the Garden. The protest helped halt the Bund’s momentum and forced them to cancel rallies in other large cities. Both of these examples constitute an U.S. fight against fascism, yet for some reason they didn’t make the cut.

Maddow’s treatment of World War I is troublesome. Many groups were opposed to the war for different reasons. Socialists and trade unionists viewed it as an imperialist slaughter that would benefit the rich. Famously, Socialist Party Presidential candidate Eugene Debs was sent to prison by the Democratic Wilson administration for his anti-war stance. Secular and religious pacifists opposed all conflicts. German- and Irish-Americans detested the idea of supporting England. Yet when Maddow describes anti-war activists of World War I, it is solely to stress those that were pro-German. She mentions that Germany bankrolled propaganda in 1915 aimed at the U.S. to “to hamper our ability to help our allies,” neglecting to notice that the U.S. was still neutral and not yet a member of the Allies.5 The Germans were not the sole nation interfering in American politics before World War I. The British also financed a substantial propaganda campaign, but you wouldn’t know this from reading Maddow. Maddow writes, “[then-Congressman Ernest] Lundeen made a show of voting against sending U.S. troops overseas in World War I, and he remained a vocal critic of the mobilization even while Americans were dying at the Somme and Belleau Wood and the Marne.” Leaving aside the question of what the difference is between making a show of voting against war and quietly, piously voting against war, whatever happened to the honorable U.S. slogan of “Support the Troops: Bring Them Home”? 

The impression of fascism readers get from Maddow’s work is that it is a foreign import from Germany and Italy, like a Volkswagen or Fiat. Yet U.S. fascist groups were taking advantage of U.S. conditions. Racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Communism, and anti-unionism all have a long history of the United States. The biggest U.S. fascist organization was unquestionably the Second Ku Klux Klan, which had a membership in the millions, far surpassing the Bund, Silver Legion, and Christian Front combined. The Second Klan controlled state governments and influenced the selection of Presidents. If the Second Klan had not collapsed in disgrace due to sex and financial scandals, many of those who were in the Bund and other smaller fascist groups would have joined. The only exceptions would have been Coughlin and his acolytes, given the anti-Catholicism of the Klan. Rufus C. Holman’s example shows how easily loyalties could shift from being pro-Klan to pro-Nazi. The Second Klan, though, gets hardly a mention in Maddow’s work.

Readers will also get little information on the economic motivation behind fascist movements. Despite domestic fascists like Coughlin and Gerald L.K. Smith feigning populism and sympathy for the working class early in their careers, the real class interests of U.S. fascism can be seen in the support from members of the upper crust like Henry Ford and TexaCo’s Torkild Reiber. Fascism in the U.S. was violently anti-Left and anti-labor, like its European counterparts. Their hostility to the Left extended beyond the various Socialist and Communist parties to encompass New Deal liberalism as well. Listening to the speeches given by the German-American Bund at Madison Square Garden, you can hear trade unions described as “Jewish-dominated” and run from Moscow. Fascist sympathizers regularly slurred even the reformist New Deal as “the Jew Deal.” The fascist economic program was for big business and the rich. 

Returning to Minneapolis, this aspect of the fascist program can be seen clearly in the fight between the Silver Shirts and Teamsters 544. A lieutenant of the group, Roy Zachary, was reported as saying “the only way to deal with the unions was to raid their headquarters and destroy them.” This open threat of anti-union violence inspired the Teamsters to use their union defense guard to take on the fascists. Gerald L.K. Smith played a similar anti-labor role as a Christian Nationalist when he received funding from Henry Ford and other auto tycoons to break strikes and bust unions. Father Coughlin stated that “the C.I.O. is pretty well contaminated with leaders who are Red in thought and action.” Journalist John L. Spivak reported in his book Shrine of the Silver Dollar that Coughlin offered a bribe to the president of the United Auto Workers union to split the CIO.

It’s likely Maddow doesn’t mention the economic plans of U.S. fascists due to her own political background. Maddow has described herself as being ideologically an Eisenhower Republican. The Eisenhower period was one of political consensus and conformity, with sociologist Daniel Bell describing it as “the end of ideology,” similar to how Francis Fukuyama would declare “the end of history” in the 1990s. In both cases, they were premature. The labor movement was seen as an interest group to be catered to in the 1950s, not as a vehicle for social change, let alone social revolution. If this is Maddow’s background it’s no wonder she doesn’t spend much time discussing labor, exploitation, inequality, or class. 

The epilogue of the Prequel is incomplete. It lists many of the prominent figures of the book and briefly describes where they ended up. In historian Nelson Lichtenstein’s review of Ultra, he makes the case that the national security state built during World War II was a greater threat to U.S. liberty than any of the pro-Nazi groups Maddow profiles. Very true. The Smith Act, which was supposed to make it easier to indict fascist collaborators, failed in that role. Instead, the Smith Act was used successfully to prosecute the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Party. For added irony, the Socialist Workers Party was the group that led the opposition to the Silver Shirts in Minneapolis and the German American Bund in New York. Historical evidence weakens Prequel’s thesis in another way. The Spanish Anarchist Buenaventura Durruti reportedly proclaimed, “No government in the world fights fascism to the death.” Readers can quibble with Durruti’s assertion, but it remains true that the United States government did not fight fascism to the death. Nazi scientists, including war criminals, were brought to the U.S. as part of Operation Paperclip after World War II.. U.S. intelligence agencies sought out war criminals like Otto von Bolschwing and “Butcher of Lyon” Klaus Barbie to fight the new Cold War with the Soviet Union. Far from fighting fascism, the U.S. perpetuated it by inviting fascist Spain and Portugal to join NATO and the United Nations.

In Maddow’s prologue, she unconsciously makes one of the premier socialist critiques of capitalist democracy. She writes that Prequel will encourage readers to “win our modern iterations of those same recurring fights [against fascism], not to mention the future rounds, too…”6 It’s clear that capitalism will never fight a final victory over fascism. Under a system dedicated to private profits, the threats of fascism and war are eternally recurrent. While fascist Congressional sympathizers of the 30s and 40s like Hamilton Fish, Stephen A. Day, and Robert Rice Reynolds lost elections, they were replaced by figures of the same caliber. One famous example is Joe McCarthy, elected in 1946. The Wisconsin Senator kept a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf in his desk and defended members of the SS who massacred U.S. POWs. As Mark Twain put it, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” 

Despite all this criticism, there are parts of Prequel that are worth reading. Maddow reminds readers that U.S. support for fascism used to be a mainstream (if controversial) opinion shared not just by Brownshirts on the fringes, but industrialist Henry Ford, architect Phillip Johnson, aviator Charles Lindbergh, “Radio Priest” Father Coughlin, and several members of Congress. President Truman’s dismissal of prosecutor O. John Rogge when he attempted to release a report on U.S. politicians who collaborated with the Nazis should prompt a reassessment of liberal hero “Give ‘em Hell” Harry. As Maddow relates it, the trial of the Christian Front’s “Brooklyn Boys” is a portent of the assorted trials of January 6th defendants.

While we on the Left grapple with the rise of a new far right it’s essential to have an understanding of the history of U.S. fascism and a plan to fight the new authoritarians. It’s a pity that Maddow’s book only partially fits that bill.

“Don’t yet rejoice in his defeat, you men!

Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard,

The bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

-Bertolt Brecht, on Adolf Hitler

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  1. Rachel Maddow, Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism (New York: Random House, 2023), 36.
  2. Ibid., 39.
  3. Ibid., 319.
  4. Ibid., 58.
  5. Ibid., xx.
  6. Ibid., xxviii.