FLIRTING WITH FASCISM
“Perhaps America will one day go fascist democratically…” William L. Shirer
Long before the unsavory American politician, Patrick Buchanan, was accused by the just-ever-so-slightly less unsavory American politician, William Bennett, of “flirting with fascism,” the country had a rich history of doing that very thing.
There is a keen and almost pathetic sense one gets from the words of many liberal American commentators insisting Mr. Bush’s war measures represent a heart-wrenching departure from the nation’s traditions. I beg to differ.
Flirting with fascism has been an important historical current since the founding of the Republic. Certain underlying attitudes and tensions, almost like buried toxic sludge, have regularly bubbled to the surface over two and a quarter centuries.
As to thinking that the election of a Democrat will change everything, well, that is twinkly-eyed, “Look what the Tooth Fairy gave me!” stuff. Mr. Gore doesn’t raise his voice against the ugly excesses, and Mr. Clinton set a dreadful, bloody precedent in Kosovo. And where is the indignant voice of major newspapers and broadcasters, the self-anointed, Fourth-Estate protectors of rights, over the murder and torture and mistreatment of prisoners?
It has often been observed that there is a kind of perpetual adolescence in America, and there is an peculiarly adolescent quality to fascism. Whether it’s in the emotions that center on uniforms, puppy-love hero worship, and drum-crashing spectacles, or in the belief that there are easy answers to society’s difficult problems, especially through the application of force. Fascism is generally associated with the notion that a people are special in some way and have a destiny or birthright to claim, given only the necessary, daring leadership. Hyper-patriotic, chest-thumping displays are typical behavior. Fascism lingers in the territory of misty, adolescent dreams about power, courage, and invincibility.
The observed niceties of Mr. Bush’s snatching and torturing people only outside the boundaries of America’s Constitutional protections, for example, is part of a long tradition of brutality-under-legalism where it’s convenient or profitable. During the first century of the new republic, the Supreme Court deemed the Bill of Rights as applying only to federal matters. Since individual states at that time were responsible for virtually everything touching people’s lives, the Bill of Rights was pretty much a parchment nullity. Which is exactly how it was treated by slaveholders and others, including Andrew Jackson, the president closest to being a genuine madman, when he practiced large-scale ethnic cleansing of native Americans.
Right at the country’s founding, some tendency towards what we now call fascism was evident. Of course, there was slavery. Dr. Johnson’s apt remarks about “drivers of Negroes” speaking of liberty and patriotism’s being “the last refuge of scoundrels,” were shafts aimed directly at Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and other Virginia “gentlemen.” And lest there be any misunderstanding on that, the incomparably-honest Johnson hated both imperialism and slavery decades before America even thought about being a separate country.
The American Constitution avoided the glaring issue of slavery, only quietly allowing the small population of slave-holders to enlarge their representation in Congress by counting each slave as three-fifths of a person represented. To further secure the interests of slavery, the Senate was designed to give disproportionate power to states with small populations. One might call this the backwater bias of the Constitution, and, to this day, it assures that truly parochial, uninformed politicians fill many important committees, committees that are the real power in Congress (For non-American readers, this is so because rural Congressional seats often tend to become lifetime sinecures, and appointments to committees are based on tenure).
Contrary to a common belief, the intellectually-advanced world of the late 18th century had already passed judgment on slavery. It was not an acceptable institution among the thoughtful and morally considerate. Men like Jefferson understood this, being in communication with many thinkers in Europe, and that’s why he felt compelled to write some noble-sounding rhetoric against slavery while continuing all his life to enjoy its benefits. Even with two hundred slaves, Jefferson was so addicted to luxury that he died in debt, often buying new silver buckles or a fancy new coach rather than paying old debts.
So too Madison, although his words on the subject ring with considerably-less nobility than Jefferson’s. The “father” of the Bill of Rights advocated all his adult life the mass deportation of black slaves to Africa (as did Jefferson), if and when by some miracle they were liberated and only providing their owners were fully compensated for lost property. Never mind that many slaves had been born in the United States, some going back more generations than many planters, or had grown to have attachments in the course of their lives of forced exile, off they all would go to Africa.
Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence (amended by other committee members and edited down mercilessly by members of the Continental Congress) actually included a lengthy, whining effort to blame Britain for imposing the slave trade on the colonies, as though there could be a trade without ready buyers. Of course, by the late 18th century, the slave trade was beginning to put downward pressure on the value of Virginia’s human holdings. After all, breeding slaves itself would become a business, and the laws of supply and demand worked even for human commodities. When Congress later put a moratorium on the trade, it was with this economic reality in mind, and not with any urgent sense of morality.
Thomas Jefferson conducted one of the most ruthlessly-oppressive policies ever undertaken by an American President. Determined not to go to war with Britain over grievances that, afterwards under Madison, caused the War of 1812, Jefferson imposed an embargo on trade with Britain. It was a foolish policy and a vivid example of Jefferson’s intense single-mindedness where he believed he was right.
The embargo crippled New England, most of its trade being with Britain or the British colonies of the West Indies and Canada, and drove hundreds of established businesses into bankruptcy. Opposition to the law was determined, as one can imagine with people’s very livelihoods at stake, indeed it started a serious movement towards New England’s secession from the Union. Jefferson only became enraged and demanded ruthless enforcement. He came down extremely harshly on people who were only trying to earn a living, treating them as though they had committed crimes against the state.
Now, this was the same Jefferson who during an earlier, ineffective, colonial embargo, insisted on ignoring it to import the special English windows he wanted for his pet project, Monticello. This was the same Jefferson who had come to power accusing the John Adam’s administration of tearing at the very fabric of the Republic with its Alien and Sedition Acts, laws intended to prevent the hot embers of the French revolution from starting a fire in America.
The Alien and Sedition Acts were indeed ugly laws, typical of what any American today would think of when he or she thinks of fascism, including the power to throw people into prison for saying or writing anything disrespectful of the national government. Ironically, the Alien and Sedition Acts were never enforced in the same ruthless fashion as Jefferson’s embargo. Only a small number of people suffered seriously under them, while Jefferson put New England into a great depression and arrested anyone who opposed his doing so.
Jefferson was a great admirer of the French Revolution, and he did not cease admiring it even when it started being very bloody. This man who never lifted a musket during the Revolution and who as governor of Virginia dropped all the state’s business to gallop away as the British approached Charlotttesville (there was actually an official investigation into his behavior) was always writing lurid stuff about the need for “blood to fertilize the tree of liberty.” Conor Cruise O’Brien has quite accurately compared some of his expressions admiring what was happening in France to someone admiring the statecraft of Pol Pot.
When the slaves of Haiti rebelled against the French revolutionary government, Jefferson, then Secretary of State, was horrified at the idea of a republic run by ex-slaves. Later as President, he imposed an embargo against Haiti and supported Napoleon’s bloody, unsuccessful effort to restore French control. So much for the Jeffersonian “Empire of Liberty” where blacks were concerned.
So that I may keep this piece to a reasonable length, I’m going to skip to the Twentieth Century, although in doing so I leave behind some rich examples of America’s continuing, lurching dance with fascism.
General Douglas McArthur, who later distinguished himself as a general who would challenge directly civilian control over the military, first achieved some note for leading troops in Washington in 1932, exceeding his authority to beat in the heads of bonus-marchers, veterans of World War l who had fallen on hard times and sought early payment of a Congressionally-authorized bonus for their war service.
During the early Twentieth Century, eugenics became an important movement in the United States. There were many dreadful laws passed that required the involuntary sterilization of those considered unfit to reproduce. The program during the 1930s was huge with tens of thousands of legal victims. It may surprise many Americans, but the program was larger and more developed than one that existed in Hitler’s Germany at the same period. Indeed, it was admired by many Nazis.
If you want to get a real flavor for what was a very prominent strain of American thinking of the time, you should read the startling words of Henry Ford, a truly hateful man. Or you might sample the wisdom of Charles Lindbergh on Nazis.
Speaking of Nazis, there was a Bund movement in America. This organization was popular in the 1930s. At a 1939 rally in New York, the Bund drew 20,000 people. These dashing fellows held special summer camps and marched around in dark uniforms and jackboots just like Ernest Roehm’s gang of thugs, the SA, had in the years leading up to Hitler’s taking power.
The Pledge of Allegiance was given throughout the 1930s with a salute exactly like that of the Nazis with the right arm extended out and slightly upward. Only in 1942, when the pledge first gained some official status in being incorporated by Congress into the flag code and the nation was at war with Hitler, was this practice stopped.
Of course, there were the various massacres of blacks, especially during the 1920s. These were horrific events, complete with hidden mass graves, every bit as terrible as the kind of acts we associate with Kosovo. The Klu Klux Klan became a powerful movement, estimates of its membership in the mid-1920s are 4 to 5 million, at a time when the U.S. population was less than 40% of what it is now, although participation dropped quickly after a series of financial scandals and the start of the Great Depression.
Brandeis University in Massachusetts was founded in 1947 with the aim of creating a Jewish institution for higher learning that would one day compete with Harvard and Yale and the other ivy-league universities. Why would this be necessary? Because at that time these eminent institutions of learning only reluctantly accepted Jews and in small numbers. How did they know people were Jews? The same way the Nazis did, you asked them. And where you didn’t believe the answers, you made assumptions. And note that date, 1947.
After Word War II, it was common to hear American ex-servicemen say that the U.S. had fought against the wrong side. How anyone could say this, after the revelations of the death camps, is almost unbelievable. Yet I have heard this said by men who otherwise seemed decent, ordinary citizens.
Guilt over America’s treatment of Jews was part of the reason for the government’s postwar support of the new state of Israel. Before the Final Solution – which only started when the 1941 invasion of Russia provided an environment of total chaos to hide the unspeakable work of the Einsatzkommandos – Hitler was willing to deport all the Jews, just as Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain had done in 1492.
Of course, one of the most logical places for them to go was the wide open spaces of the United States, but Americans wanted no part of that. It was political anathema during this period to advocate accepting Jews from Europe. A boatload of Jews seeking asylum in the U.S. before the war was turned away. Although killing Jews at that point in the Reich was not common, treating them as less-than human was a matter of law. America’s behavior very much served to confirm Hitler in his belief that no one wanted the Jews.
America’s postwar support for Israel also had a dark underside. American politicians gladly embraced the benefit of large numbers of Jews migrating from war-ravaged Europe to any place other than America. It was one of those happy opportunities in history, much as with the moratorium on the slave trade, when you can do something utterly selfish while taking credit for noble motives.
The traditions of the American Bund come right down to the militia movements and Aryan “church” movements of our own day. There is absolutely nothing exceptional about these people in American history. Timothy McVeigh has been reincarnated many times in American history. And one should recall that Mr. McVeigh’s most cherished ambition had been to become a Green Beret, the brave fellows who murdered at least twenty thousand civilians – yes, that’s civilians, not soldiers – as part of Operation Phoenix during the war in Vietnam.
The FBI never took a determined interest in these bizarre, violent groups before events in Oklahoma City, an observation which brings me to the dramatic civil-rights movement in the 1950s and early 1960s. Hollywood often portrays the FBI as having been at the forefront of the fight for human rights and dignity. This is utterly false. J. Edgar Hoover hated blacks, would not allow them to become FBI agents, and acted as though a few pitiful communists were a vastly greater threat than the club-swinging, church-going lunatics in the South. Only under intense political pressure did the FBI become more actively involved in the violence against blacks and civil-rights workers.
Still, despite the FBI’s turnaround, Dr. King, one of America’s authentic modern heroes, later was the victim of an ugly FBI project, part of COINTELPRO, reminiscent of the kind of thing South African secret police practiced under Apartheid. Intimate tapes and suggestive, threatening letters were sent to the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize with the intention of shaming him and hopefully inducing his suicide. Visitors to the nation’s capital will notice that Mr. Hoover’s name yet remains in big, shiny letters on FBI headquarters, much as the Confederate battle-flag still waves from official flagpoles in parts of the South.
Some of the Southern states, right into the 1960s, actually had secret state agencies that operated very much like the Gestapo in gathering information about, and intimidating, people concerned with civil rights.
The Southern Baptist Convention, one of the largest fundamentalist churches in America, was founded in 1845 by extreme, pro-slavery interests and has never since been a voice for tolerance or broad human rights. Recently-released recordings of Billy Graham, the nation’s most famous Southern Baptist, talking with the late President Nixon, reveal not only anti-Semitism but an unblinking willingness to see nuclear weapons used on Asians.
There have been many debates over the ethnic-origin questions in the American census. Despite the fact that most Americans are of mixed descent, and despite the fact many are not even aware of their ancestors beyond a generation or two, they are still asked in every census to identify their ethnic/national origins.
After two hundred years of slavery and another hundred years of de facto servitude, breathes there one black person in America without European genes? Are there Hispanic people without American Indian genes, or, going back centuries earlier to Spain, without Moorish genes? Even the English are a hybrid people of early Britons, Romans, Scandinavians, Germans, Norman French, and other bits. Indeed, since it is quite possible all the world’s peoples originated out of Africa, what can be the meaning of such questions? Is ethnicity defined by some arbitrary length of time? Is it defined only by a last name whose national origin almost always hides an immensely-complicated past? What do these intrusive questions achieve that is of genuine scientific or social value?
The same kinds of questions are routinely asked by potential employers to comply with certain federal regulations. Somehow, America has managed to turn an effort at insuring equality of opportunity into another collection of statistics about race. Totally inappropriate forms are supplied by potential employers to be filled with information about the applicant’s ethnic origin/race. They are blunt and insulting, but always come with the official assurance that the information has no bearing on your employment and remains confidential.
That is just a brief reflection on some dark, violent, and unmistakably-fascist events and attitudes that helped shape American history, and there is every indication they will continue shaping it for many years to come. What’s more, William L. Shirer in making his famous remark about fascism and America perhaps never anticipated the possibility of people cozy with fascism coming to power without actually being elected.