Fascism isn't new in America. Letting it win would be.
Happy September. The election is beginning. The first absentee ballots are about to be mailed. In many states, early in-person voting starts Sept. 18. (Check your state’s schedule and make sure you’re registered here.)
Once again, the presidential election pits a flawed liberal against a fascist. It seems—maybe? far too late?—like we’re nearly ready to have a public conversation about that fact. CNN’s Brian Stelter had Jason Stanley, the Yale professor and author of How Fascism Works, on his show Sunday. (I interviewed Jason last year.) Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it bluntly: “November is about, in my opinion, stopping fascism in the United States. That is what Donald Trump represents.”
Others are still sticking to hilarious obfuscations, like today’s New York Times headline, “Fueling Partisan Passions Through a Summer of Unrest.”
What that story was trying to say was this: Trump—who from the start tried to incite stochastic terrorism against racial minorities and his enemies—is now stoking political violence in the hearts of American cities, in a last-ditch attempt to distract from his economic catastrophe and murderous mismanagement of a pandemic that has now killed at least 185,000 people in the United States and counting.
On Saturday, as hundreds of Trump-flag-waving extremists prepared to barrel through Portland in souped-up trucks—pepper spraying pedestrians, firing paintballs, and attempting to run counter-protesters over—the president tweeted “GREAT PATRIOTS!” When a caravan participant—a member of the violent far-right group Patriot Prayer—was killed in a post-rally street confrontation with an apparent anti-fascist, Trump (and Don Jr.), posted incitement. Trump then defended last week’s double homicide by Kyle Rittenhouse—a 17-year-old white kid who crossed state lines to join a Facebook-organized “militia” targeting pro-Black Lives Matter rioters in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Good-faith rebuttals usually take the form of historian David A. Bell’s Aug. 26 Washington Post op-ed, which argued that Trump “is not a fascist” because he is “a uniquely American threat.” Bell, as all honest brokers must, quickly to-be-sures his own argument to death: noting that “some” of Trump’s followers “belong to a long and sinister American tradition that includes the [proto-fascist] Ku Klux Klan,” and that his “extreme nationalism, his praise of violence, his not-so-coded racism and his insistence on absolute loyalty from his followers all recall elements of fascist ideology.”
Bell’s argument is utilitarian: that most American voters (wrongly) understand fascism to be “the World War II enemy—an alien, foreign ideology” and that “to associate it with a president for whom they may well have voted in 2016, and for whom they may still be considering voting for, is likely to seem absurd.” Putting aside the idea that these same undecided voters would somehow be more inclined to agree that they are the ideological heirs of the KKK, it’s missing the point. It isn’t people considering voting for a fascist who need to be warned. It’s everyone else.
The Long Version
In the 1930s, the most influential American fascists were the Silver Legion of America. Known as the “Silver Shirts” (in the tradition of color-coded far-right paramilitary street enforcers that started with Mussolini’s Black Shirts in Italy), they got their start in North Carolina in 1933, the nadir of the Great Depression.
The group’s founder was William Dudley Pelley, an award-winning short story writer and new-age spiritualist who blamed the Jews for his failure to make it in Hollywood. He hated Franklin Roosevelt, and saw the liberal New Deal as a Trojan horse for what he deemed “Jewish Communism.”
Pelley’s brand of fascism was popular precisely because it was neither alien nor foreign; unlike the clicking heels and Bavarian accents of their fellow Hitler admirers in the German-American Bund, his Silver Shirts promised “an altruistic expression of militant Americanism.” Their slogan was “For Christ and Constitution!”
Though the Silver Shirts started out in North Carolina, the group ultimately thrived in the Pacific Northwest. In part that was because of the region’s deep white supremacist history: Oregon’s founding constitution, for instance, banned Black people from living there; in the 1920s it had been a hotbed of the revitalized KKK.
But more important was the warm welcome the Silver Shirts received from local law enforcement. In Portland, as the researchers Shane Burley and Alexander Reid Ross have documented, the cops at first saw the fascists as allies in their decades-long fight against labor unions, radical leftists, and Marxist groups. By 1937, the head of the Portland Police Bureau’s anti-subversive “Red Squad,” Capt. Walter Odale, had joined a Silver Shirts spinoff group, “American Defenders.”
The Silver Shirts returned the favor: insisting—as Kyle Rittenhouse and the “Kenosha Guard” did—that their paramilitary training would be used only to “assist the police in quelling disorder when it arises.” (Hat tip to Seth Cotlar on that find.) On one occasion, police in Spokane, Washington, sparked a melee by roughing up hundreds of anti-fascist protesters at a Silver Shirt event. Eleven anti-fascists were arrested, but a judge dropped the charges.
Pelley tried running for president in 1936 against both FDR and the liberal Republican Alf Landon, on a platform that included forcing Jews to live in a national ghetto. Shunned by national conservatives, he only appeared on the ballot in Washington State. U.S. Marshals raided the group’s headquarters in 1940. Pelley was ultimately arrested and convicted of sedition after the U.S. entered World War II; he spent his life after prison obsessing over UFOs and dabbling in securities fraud.
But the Silver Shirts’ legacy lives on. One of the fascist group’s leaders, Gerald L.K. Smith, founded the America First Party of the 1940s; one of his associates founded the hate group that became the core of the Aryan Nations. Another Silver Shirt alum, Henry “Mike” Beach, became the major publicist for “Posse Comitatus,” an anti-government group considered the progenitor of the modern militia and Patriot movements.
In other words, there is nothing new or alien about fascism in America. There is nothing new about the police and fascists teaming up against leftist and anti-fascist protesters—nor the police being violent white supremacists themselves. (Read former FBI agent Michael German’s new report, “Hidden In Plain Sight: Racism, White Supremacy, and Far-Right Militancy in Law Enforcement,” for more.)
What is new is having a president who, time after time, takes the side of the fascists and their protectors. Donald Trump is the William Dudley Pelley of our time: a corrupt leader whose base is characterized above all by “ethnic antagonism,” who alleged on national television this week that his liberal opponent is being controlled by “people that are in the dark shadows … [the] people that are controlling the streets.”
Except instead of being a fringe candidate monitored by the federal government, Trump is running the federal government—ordering it to round up anti-fascists, the leaders of Black Lives Matter, and anyone else who he thinks stands in his way. It is why the purportedly anti-federalist militia movement has rallied to his side, and is encouraging the president to invade their states with federal troops under the Insurrection Act: because they are planning to fight all those who dissent against this president alongside them.
That’s ultimately what’s at stake right now: Either we give ourselves a shot at preserving a semblance of representative democracy, or the fascists get a chance to take total control. Those are the only two choices. Every American who can vote will have their say. But we have to be clear about the stakes going in.
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Jonathan Myerson Katz is a journalist and the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the life of Gen. Smedley Butler and the making and breaking of America’s empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.
Photo at top: The Silver Shirts in LIFE Magazine, 1939
Correction 9/3/20: A previous version of this newsletter stated incorrectly that absentee ballots were already being mailed in. The first absentee ballots will be mailed to voters in North Carolina tomorrow (Sept. 4), with other states to follow.