On Monday night, February 20, 1939, a huge crowd of nearly 30,000 Americans packed into Madison Square Garden in New York City. Another 20,000 milled around outside, The crowd was orderly, at least for a while, but eventually became resistive, particularly after the main speaker began calling them to action.
On the platform uniformed guards stood watch, while “storm troopers” in the crowd “wore overcoats to conceal their uniforms.” Red and black and white flags were displayed everywhere. A large portrait of George Washington was suspended from the ceiling.
Under the guise of “Americanization” American democracy was under attack.
Police – more than 1,500 officers were on hand – expected trouble and had the Garden under tight lock down. One counter demonstrator was beaten and arrested. Event organizers claimed the principle speaker, a uniform wearing rabble rouser named Fritz Kuhn, was the subject of an assassination plot.
Celebrated reporter William S. White described the scene in newspaper accounts that appeared across the country. “In a Nazi demonstration that filled vast Madison Square Garden leaders of the German-American bund stood last night under the sign of the swastika to denounce ‘international Jewry,’ some members of the Roosevelt cabinet, and any American alliance with European democracies.”
Reaction was mixed with many defending the rally on free speech grounds even as the pro-Nazi gathering came at a time when Germany had rearmed, annexed Austria, taken over Czechoslovakia and imprisoned thousands of its “undesirable” citizens, particularly Jews. Oregon Republican Senator Rufus C. Holman, stoking class and race division, actually proposed in response to the gathering an end to immigration “until we can assimilate the discordant elements already here.”
Holman, who had been an officer in the Oregon Klu Klux Klan in the 1920s, would later say during a Senate speech: “I have always deplored Hitler’s ambitions as a conqueror. But he broke the control of these internationalists over the common people of Germany. It would be a good idea if the control of the international bankers over the common people of England was broken, and good if it was broken over the wages and savings of the common people of the United States.”
I thought about Rufus Holman, Fritz Kuhn and “the common people of the United States” while reading about the big confab of the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) in Dallas recently. CPAC once was a rather staid, establishment conservative outfit, with its annual meetings offering up servings of standard rightwing red meat for those Americans who still believe Barry Goldwater was a prophet and Gerald Ford a liberal squish.
Once at the fringe of the conservative movement, CPAC is now, as Texas Monthly described it, offering “a violent blueprint for seizing power.” This is now the conservative mainstream, a neo-fascist movement in thrall to violence and in support of coup plotter.
The principle CPAC speaker was, of course, the man who would be president again. “We have to seize this opportunity to deal with the radical left socialist lunatic fascists,” Donald Trump declared to rapturous applause. “We have to hit them very, very hard. It has to be a crippling defeat.”
With uniformed Proud Boys standing by and Hungarian dictator Viktor Orbán thrilling the radical right multitudes with his anti-Semitic, anti-democratic, pro-Christian nationalist rhetoric, Trump repeated for the ten-thousandth time the Big Lie about his election defeat. He lamented the poor insurrectionists facing jail time for attacking the U.S. Capitol. He pitied his vast legal exposure. The crowd went wild.
“If somebody has doubts whether progressive liberals and communists are the same, just ask us Hungarians,” Orbán earlier told CPAC. “We fought them both, and I can tell you: they are the same.”
Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at the non-profit group Right Wing Watch told The Guardian: “Rightwing leaders, and especially the religious right leaders in the US, love Viktor Orbán for the same reasons they love Vladimir Putin. This overt embrace of Christian nationalism, willingness to use strongman tactics and the power of the government to enforce so-called traditional values about family and sexuality.”
The cold civil war in America ratcheted up a big notch with the most prominent conservative conference in the country embracing a thug like Orbán and it went into overdrive when the FBI subsequently served a search warrant on Trump’s Florida compound.
To say we have entered uncharted territory is to understate the peril of the moment. The darkest forces on the fringe right are calling for war and the crowd that yesterday slammed Democrats for wanting to “defund the police” today wants to eliminate the FBI.
Perhaps only one thing seems perfectly clear – the GOP elite, every bit as much at the grassroots, is sticking with the party’s would-be Viktor Orbán.
As Dahlia Lithwick wrote in Slate: “Having witnessed the bulk of the party harden its commitment to protecting Trump at any cost after the January 6th attack on the Capitol, nobody should be shocked to learn that ranking Republicans – without any information about what was seized, or why – were willing to stake their political careers on the claim that it was a lawless, partisan ‘raid.’ The darkest versions of these claims called for doing away with federal law enforcement altogether.”
Or as David Frum noted in The Atlantic: “In the hours since the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s freshest resentments have become the election manifesto of his party, whose leaders are one by one lining up to investigate and punish the Department of Justice for enforcing the law against Donald Trump. Usually, August of an election year is when a party shifts its message from red meat for the true believers to softer themes for the general electorate. Trump is trying to stop that pivot, and after the FBI’s visit, he may succeed.”
We can’t imagine what might happen next for the simple reason we have never been here before. Never before have we had a lawless former president, sponsor of an effort to overturn an election and mired in endless scandal, supported by the most radical elements of one of our major political parties and hoping to reclaim power.
After than big New York event in 1939, the vast majority of Americans rejected the forces of fear and division the rally represented and committed themselves to the preservation of a pluralistic, democratic country, eventually sending sons and daughters to defeat the forces of fascism in a great war that continues to define the modern world.
Today the forces of fascism are again on the march, but they do not march as our would-be dictator claims from the ranks of the party of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Biden. The pressing threat to American democracy comes from the opposite direction, those who would shred the rule of law, while dividing us at every turn with appeals to hatred and violence.
We haven’t seen the bottom with these deplorables because there is no bottom. There is only democracy if we care enough to save it.
For your consideration my carefully curated weekly selections …
Seven years of sex abuse: How Mormon officials let it happen
A stunning investigative piece by the Associated Press. The AP obtained thousands of documents related to allegations of child abuse in Arizona and West Virginia, cases where Mormon Church officials had knowledge of the abuse but did nothing.
“Families of survivors who filed the lawsuit said they show it’s part of a system that can easily be misused by church leaders to divert abuse accusations away from law enforcement and instead to church attorneys who may bury the problem, leaving victims in harm’s way.”
It’s difficult to read, but one hopes this kind of story leads to reform.
How the FBI knew what to search for at Mar-a-Lago
Interesting Q-A with an expert on presidential records.
Q. How do the archivists actually know what’s missing? Isn’t that hard to figure out?
A. The archivists probably have a really keen idea of what is and what isn’t missing, based upon things that they’ve gotten out of other offices, like the vice president’s office and things that got deposited from the secretary of state, for example. There are a lot of papers that are referenced and cross-referenced, multiple copies or multiple things going in and out of offices.
The maddening coverage of the Mar-a-Lago search
I’ve been a fan of the Columbia Journalism Review for years. This piece dissects some of the early news coverage of the big story out of Florida and hits hard at some of the shortcomings.
“After facing criticism yesterday, the Post changed its initial headline – ‘Garland vowed to depoliticize Justice. Then the FBI raided Trump’s safe’ – at least once. It now reads: ‘FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago lands Merrick Garland in a political firestorm’; on Google, it displays as: ‘For Garland, FBI search of Trump property makes it hard to avoid political fray.’ The updates constitute an improvement in that they don’t implicitly accuse Garland of politicizing the rule of law. But they’re far from perfect, resting on DC clichés—’political firestorm’; ‘political fray’—that are worn and passive, offering no insight into who might have started the fire or frayed democracy. This might seem pedantic, but headlines, and language more broadly, matter.”
Good reading to understand some of why the “media” is constantly under fire in the Age of Trump.
A sage for all seasons
From The Guardian archives a John Updike appreciation for Henry David Thoreau and Walden.
“Thoreau was 27 when he took up residence in the cabin by Walden Pond; he had graduated from Harvard 19th in his class, tried teaching, helped his father in the family pencil business, did local odd jobs for a dollar a day, lived with the Emersons for two years as handyman and gardener, left Long Island after a brief spell of tutoring and testing the literary market, and, despite Emerson’s sponsorship and a few poems and essays in the Transcendentalist quarterly The Dial, had made no mark. He emerged from the cabin in 1847 as essentially the Thoreau known to literary history.”
You’ll learn something and may be inspired to read the classic again. Here is the link.
Thanks for reading. Be well.