Maddow's Documentary Follows American Nazis in the 1940s—Does it Miss a Bigger Danger?

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tags: far right, fascism, Father Coughlin, Charles Coughlin, Rachel Maddow

Early in the twentieth century, the philosopher George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But the obverse may also be true. Keen observers of the present are all too eager to ransack the past for prologues and parallels to the traumas of our own time. Hardly a day goes by without someone analogizing the polarizations of the twenty-first century to the divisions, political and moral, that engendered the Civil War; and it was not so long ago that in virtually any diplomatic conflict, memories of “Munich” were hastened to the fore. These are not so much remembrances of the past as they are artful and selective distortions designed to make a contemporary point.

Rachel Maddow plays this game in her recent podcast, Ultra, a production of MSNBC. Its impact will soon be greatly multiplied by Steven Spielberg’s feature film treatment, for which the legendary Tony Kushner is reportedly co-writing the screenplay. Maddow’s eight-part series has excellent production values and vivid language, and it makes skillful use of eighty-year-old newsreel and broadcast recordings. When it appeared in the fall of 2022, Ultra quickly topped the podcast popularity charts.

Maddow, with cowriters and producers Mike Yarvitz and Kelsey Desiderio, tells the story of a fascist plot designed to keep the United States out of the Second World War and in the process subvert American democracy by exploiting what the Germans called “kernels of disturbance”—racial, cultural, and political differences that lead to “national demoralization.” As Maddow tells her listeners,

This is a story about politics at the edge. A violent, ultra-right authoritarian movement, weirdly infatuated with foreign dictatorships. Support for that movement among serving members of Congress who prove willing and able to use their share of American political power to defend the extremists, to protect themselves, to throw off the investigation. Violence against government targets. Plots to overthrow the United States government by force of arms. And a criminal justice system trying, trying, but ill-suited to thwart this kind of danger.

If this resembles our own time, that is the point. Maddow analogizes Trump and his contemporary circle of supporters, inside and outside of Congress, to the Nazi agents of 1940 and their American collaborators, some of whom were indeed sitting congressmen and senators. But this is an entirely wrongheaded historical lesson for those fearful about the state of U.S. democracy today. In the 1940s, the real danger came not from Nazi-friendly Americans but from the spectacular growth of a national security state that threatened civil liberties and turned a blind eye to the power of white supremacy, which flourished for decades in the American South and beyond.

In the first episode, Maddow sucks listeners in with the dramatic story of a mysterious airplane crash that took the life of Minnesota Senator Ernest Lundeen in 1940. Twenty-four others, including a brace of federal agents possibly tailing Lundeen, also died in the crash, whose cause is still unknown. Over the course of the podcast, Maddow explores Lundeen’s extensive collaboration with a Nazi agent, George Sylvester Viereck.

Funded and controlled by the German embassy in Washington and by Nazi higher-ups back in the Reich, Viereck wrote speeches for Lundeen and other legislators, used congressional franking privileges to get them widely distributed, and may even have encouraged actual military sabotage, including an explosion that destroyed the Hercules Powder plant in New Jersey in September 1940, killing more than fifty. On Capitol Hill, Viereck’s collaborators, aside from Lundeen, included Democratic Senator Rush Holt of West Virginia; Republican Senators Gerald Nye of North Dakota and Burton Wheeler of Montana; and important Congressmen like Clare Hoffman of Michigan and Hamilton Fish of New York. By 1940, all were “isolationists,” and some associated with the anti-interventionist America First Committee, whose leading personality was aviator Charles Lindbergh. America First saw President Roosevelt as a perfidious politician leading the nation into war.

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