Over a third of American voters still support Donald Trump, incomprehensible as that seems.
I have always had a naive faith in the good sense of the general American public. That faith was shaken in November 2016, and it’s currently on hold until November 7th of 2018, when it will either be revived or permanently destroyed.
This depressing realization– that a third of the country could support (or even endure) this odious man and his thuggish and criminal administration–comes a bit late. It turns out that Americans have never been as impervious to the attractions of fascism as we like to think. A recent book tells us a lot that most of us would rather not know.
In fact, when Bradley W. Hart first started researching the history of Nazi sympathy in the United States a few years ago, he was largely driven by the absence of attention to the topic. Hart’s new book Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United Statesargues that the threat of Nazism in the United States before World War II was greater than we generally remember today, and that those forces offer valuable lessons decades later — and not just because part of that story is the history of the “America First” idea, born of pre-WWII isolationism and later reborn as a slogan for now-President Donald Trump.
Hart’s research was triggered by Charlottesville, and the sight of Americans brandishing Nazi flags and paraphernalia.
Hart, who came to the topic via research on the eugenics movement and the history of Nazi sympathy in Britain, says he realized early on that there was a lot more to the American side of that story than most textbooks acknowledged. Some of the big names might get mentioned briefly — the radio priest Father Charles Coughlin, or the highly public German American Bund organization — but in general, he says, the American narrative of the years leading up to World War II has elided the role of those who supported the wrong side. And yet, American exchange students went to Germany and returned with glowing reviews, while none other than Charles Lindbergh denounced Jewish people for pushing the U.S. toward unnecessary war.
There are a number of reasons this particular element of America’s history is so rarely invoked. There’s the well-knowns “bandwagon” effect, the human tendency to “remember” ourselves as having been on the winning side of conflicts, and to identify with the narrative that emerged after the war: America saved the world! We’re number one! Admitting that a not-insignificant minority of our citizens were rooting for the bad guys doesn’t do much to advance that narrative.
It was also possible for those who had participated in Nazi-sympathetic groups to later cloak their beliefs in the Cold War’s anti-communist push — a dynamic that had in fact driven some of them to fascism in the first place, as it seemed “tougher on communism than democracy is,” as Hart puts it. (One survey he cites found that in 1938, more Americans thought that communism was worse than fascism than vice versa.) Such people could truthfully insist that they’d always been anti-communist without revealing that they’d been fascists, and their fellow Americans were still so worried about communism that they might not press the matter.
If we are being honest, relatively few people are attracted by the the tenets of political ideologies–communist, fascist, socialist, whatever. Then as now, the real motivators are tribal: people who look and pray like me are superior to people who look and pray like you.
Fascism–like communism–appeals to people who couldn’t define its political philosophy if their lives depended upon it. In Hitler’s SS or Charlottesville, the message was much simpler and much uglier. My tribe is better than yours. They supported “Aryan purity” or (White Christian) America.
That tribalism is central to Trump’s appeal. It has been the only consistent thread in what passes for his message, and that tribalism is what at least a third of America supports. On November 6th, we’ll see if enough of us reject it.