History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.
This quote has been attributed to Mark Twain, but there seems no good evidence he coined it. Theodor Reik, an early student of Sigmund Freud who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, crafted a line with a similar sentiment in a 1965 essay. In any event, this aphorism has been embraced by MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, who has often brought a historian’s perspective to the current events she examines on television. And this maxim is the mantra for her latest podcast, Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra, which showcases an eerie similarity between the American fascist movement of the 1940s and the political extremism of the moment. She has found some damn frightening rhymes.
Maddow has a talent for resurrecting the dark chapters of the past and turning history into enlightening and entertaining fare that prompts us to think about the present. In 2018, she produced a documentary called Betrayal: The Plot That Won the White House, which showed how Richard Nixon secretly schemed to sabotage Vietnam peace talks in order to win the 1968 election. It was a well-executed chronicling of one of the great acts of political perfidy. That same year, she released Bag Man, a brilliant podcast that told the tale of Spiro Agnew’s corruption. As she demonstrated, Nixon’s veep operated an extensive criminal enterprise out of the White House—and most folks forgot about it after Agnew pleaded nolo contendere to just one charge of felony tax evasion and resigned. Both productions echoed modern-day currents: Trump’s effort to cover up the attack Moscow mounted against the 2016 election to help him win and his years of successfully skirting a variety of laws.
Now Maddow has found another pattern. In her recently released eight-part podcast, she excavates a troubling piece of history: how American politicians plotted with violent extremists to undermine the US government and advance the aims of a foreign power—that is, the Nazi government of Adolf Hitler. Yes, in the years before World War II, elected officials made common cause with antisemites, would-be insurrectionists, and Nazis to pursue political power. Sound familiar?
The riveting story starts with a mysterious airplane crash in rural Virginia in 1940 that left no survivors. Aboard was Ernest Lundeen, a Republican senator from Minnesota, as were an FBI agent, another FBI employee, and a Justice Department prosecutor. Lundeen had been on his way home, where he was scheduled to give a speech demanding the United States stay out of the burgeoning Second World War. In the draft of the speech—which was found at the crash site—Lundeen hailed Germany and its culture and ignored Hitler’s violent march through Europe. Worse, the speech had been ghost-written by a Nazi agent named George Sylvester Viereck, who the FBI was investigating. In fact, news reports noted that Lundeen himself had been under investigation by the feds. And Lundeen was not alone. A newspaper called PM revealed that sitting members of Congress were helping Viereck disseminate German propaganda throughout the United States.
In that first episode, Maddow sets up the grand sweep of the podcast:
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.
In subsequent installments, she details the rise of a violent authoritarian force. She focuses on Father Charles Coughlin, a priest with a radio show with a massive audience. He was a fan of Mussolini and was virulently antisemitic. As Maddow notes, “Coughlin reprinted a speech by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels about how Jews are the real aggressors, and Gentiles everywhere are just victims of the evil Jews. Coughlin translated that Goebbels speech from German into English, then published it word for word in his newsletter under his own name. Coughlin organized boycotts of Jewish businesses under the slogan ‘Buy Christian.’” After Kristallnacht, he said the Jews had it coming. He also proclaimed democracy was doomed and advocated the “road to fascism.” His weekly radio show drew tens of millions of listeners.
Coughlin did more than spread hatred on the airwaves. In 1938, he called on his devotees to create a militia that he dubbed the Christian Front. Chapters sprung up across the nation. The Boston unit of the Christian Front was especially strong and distributed antisemitic literature throughout the city. Its leader met with Nazi Germany’s representatives in the Untied States. In New York, the Christian Front stole military-grade weaponry, constructed bombs, and conducted paramilitary training. The goal: overthrowing the US government and establishing a dictatorship that resembled Nazi Germany. When the FBI conducted mass arrests, alleging the Christian Front was plotting to mount an armed rebellion, it was front-page news across the nation. Coughlin claimed he had no knowledge of this scheme. When the Justice Department lost its case against the would-be insurrectionists—the feds had screwed up the prosecution—Coughlin insisted it was all a “hoax.”
The podcast tracks other right-wing, pro-Germany fanatics who blew up a munitions plant and spread Nazi propaganda, amassed weapons, and cooked up plans to conduct a coup—much of this subversive activity escaping the attention of federal and local law enforcement. (The FBI was more focused on chasing communists.) Perhaps most worrisome is the chapter of the story that zeroes in on members of Congress who subverted democracy by using their offices to dispense Nazi propaganda to millions of Americans.
The operation was run by Viereck, who spent millions of dollars in money he received from Nazi Germany. As Maddow notes, “His very, very well-funded mission in the United States was two-fold: to try to keep the United States from getting into World War II, but also to soften us up, to mess with us, to make us just less effective as a country, by finding and exploiting what the Germans called ‘kernels of disturbance’ in the United States.”
Viereck provided antisemitic material to the Christian Front. Yet his biggest accomplishment was influencing Congress. He wrote pro-Germany speeches for Lundeen and arranged for them to be published in American magazines and newspapers. Lundeen pocketed the fees paid for these articles. Viereck also had Lundeen use his congressional mailing privileges to send these pro-Nazi speeches to large numbers of Americans. And when the Justice Department raided Viereck’s apartment, the feds discovered evidence revealing that the Nazi frontman had been working with a load of other senators and representatives—mainly members of the isolationist America First Committee, which opposed the US entering World War II—to pump out Nazi propaganda to the American public through congressional mailings. Millions of Americans received pro-Nazi, anti-interventionist material via this operation.
The feds arrested Viereck. A prosecutor named William Power Maloney won a conviction. He also indicted an aide to Rep. Hamilton Fish, a virulent America Firster, noting this aide was a key participant in the campaign to spread Nazi propaganda. Fish decried the investigation and called it a smear. But his aide was convicted. Then Maloney indicted nearly 30 other people, mainly Nazi sympathizers who had schemed to overthrow the US government, for sedition. The group included Viereck. Maddow sums up the case:
What Maloney had identified in the course of his investigation was essentially a dual threat. It was ultra-right organizations plotting violence, arming themselves, planning, and in some instances, carrying out violent attacks. Basically, American fascists who in many cases were being actively supported by the Hitler government. But it was also members of Congress, members of the America First movement, also helping the Hitler government. In their case, helping them to launder Nazi propaganda and send it, in bulk, to the American people.
America Firsters in Congress howled about this prosecution. “These people are no more guilty than I am!” exclaimed Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, one of the most influential Republicans in the nation. Sen. Burton Wheeler, another powerful force in Washington and a leader of the America First movement who was a participant in the Viereck operation, pressed the Justice Department to fire Maloney, and it did. But his replacement, O. John Rogge, issued new indictments and proceeded with a trial that charged these defendants with plotting to set up a Nazi government in the United States.
The trial didn’t start until 1944, when the US was well enmeshed in the war and the America First movement had evaporated. But it was still important for those members of Congress who had colluded with a Nazi agent to undermine this case. Sen. Gerald Nye, an America Firster, helped the defendants plot courtroom strategies. Wheeler hailed the indicted and sent one of them money. A Republican senator named Bill Langer denounced the prosecution and called the defendants “political prisoners.” Their goal was to prevent a full reckoning of the prewar collusion between American right-wingers and Hitler’s government. Fortunately for them, the mass sedition trial quickly devolved into a circus that was delayed by countless absurd defense motions and stunts. Then the judge died. A mistrial was declared, and the Justice Department elected not to start anew. The Nazis got off. Their collaborationist pals on Capitol Hill were in the clear. Or so they thought.
John Rogge didn’t give up. He went on to collect evidence in Germany that detailed the Hitler government's plot to undermine American democracy. These documents cited American businessmen, right-wing American fascists, and members of Congress. This included legislators who worked with Viereck. But there was no more case. Still, Rogge drafted a report that identified 24 members of Congress connected in some form with the Nazis. Yet President Harry Truman deemed this report too hot to make public. It was buried.
Portions, though, leaked out to reporters, according to the podcast, including “the Nazis' plan to interfere in the 1940 presidential election, their funding of influential right-wing media in the United States, [and] Father Charles Coughlin writing to the Hitler government and sending an emissary to Berlin to ask the Nazis to help him here in his war at home against Roosevelt and against the Jews.” When Rogge publicly commented on the leaked information, he was fired, apparently due to pressure from Wheeler. On Meet the Press, Rogge declared that he was canned to protect the legislators named in the report and that he was concerned the American legal system was not up to the task of countering fascism.
Maddow comments on this:
What John Rogge saw, what he had been up-close to in his prosecutions, was an entrenched ultra-right movement in this country, opposed to democracy, which saw violence as a legitimate means of achieving political aims. One that had support not only among some parts of the far-right media, but also among elected political leaders on the right. He saw alongside that a criminal justice system that was simply unable to deal with that threat. What do you do as a country when you are faced with that?
Catch that rhyme with today?
We’re still waiting to see if the criminal justice system can fully deal with the attempts to overturn the 2020 election and deter further anti-democratic action. Moreover, Donald Trump’s recent call for terminating the Constitution, his vow to pardon the January 6 rioters if he returns to the White House, and his hobnobbing with an antisemitic rapper and a white nationalist all demonstrate an authoritarian impulse, as he retains the support of tens of millions of Americans. MAGAism does reflect elements of fascism, and the American political system has not yet been able to neutralize that threat.
This is not the America of 1940s. Nor the Germany of the 1930s. But looking back at those eras can help us get a handle on how to deal with the current challenges to democracy. Ultra is a warning. But it also contains seeds of hope—that is, hints of what can be done to thwart such dangers.
Let me note that Maddow’s podcast is far richer than the description above. There are characters and episodes that seem ripped out of movies or novels. It is drenched with courtroom intrigue, journalistic drama, and thriller-like action. All rolled into a cautionary tale that deserves to be remembered, especially these days.
As Maddow says in the final episode:
One of the uncomfortable truths that you find in the dark corners of our history is that fascism happens, recurrently. Movements, and demagogues, and media figures and elected officials promote elements of fascism, antisemitism, hatred of minority groups and immigrants, worship of strongman leaders, wishing for the end to elections, the end to rule by law— it comes up, repeatedly. It has a certain appeal to a certain percentage of the country, in a fairly dependable way. And seeing that history of recurrence—in some ways, of course, it's horrifying—but it can also be instructive and practical. Because previous generations of Americans have confronted this same type of threat before us. And learning what they did gives us some lessons learned about what works and what might not work.
The events covered in Ultra occurred eight decades ago. But they call to mind what William Faulkner said about history: “The past is never dead. It's not even past."
Got anything to say about this item—or anything else? Email me at email@example.com.