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The History of Democracy: Fascist Movements in U.S. History

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In this installment of "The History of Democracy," Tracy Ross and Dr. David Pizzo discuss fascist movements throughout American history.

In their next installment of The History of Democracy, Tracy Ross and David Pizzo, Murray State professor of history, discuss fascist movements throughout U.S. history. Pizzo focuses on the common tendencies, personalities, and ideas of these movements from the late 19th century to present-day.

"Everyone tries to make sense of everything that's happening right now -- the shift to far-right politics all over, not just in the West. Americans often ignore our own legacy and history of those things. America itself had a lot of these tendencies that ended up playing out differently," Pizzo begins. To put context behind the topics mentioned throughout this discussion, Pizzo references the following books:

"The last time we talked about Mussolini, the U.S. business press in particular, was incredibly excited when Mussolini became leader. There are all these flowing portrayals of him as someone who's disciplined in labor, getting Italians back to work, uniting the nation. There was an unfortunate alignment of his rise and movie culture, [which created] some of the first celebrities. Mussolini managed to very carefully craft an image of a friend to businessmen and celebrity get-it-done kind of guy that played very well with the press," Pizzo explains.

"In the U.S., we had our own people that I would argue had very clear fascist tendencies. Certainly, Henry Ford; he was very anti-semitic. He believed in paying his workers well, this idea of Fordism, but his politics were fairly terrifying. Charles Lindbergh had very similar opinions. Very much pro-German, as was Ford. When the Nazis took power, Ford was sending Hitler birthday checks into the late 30s, when I assume his board of directors told him 'please stop sending Hitler Happy Birthday cards with money in them.'"

"We of course had our own fascist organizations like the Silver Shirts," Pizzo continues, "the German American Bund -- which was not a fascist organization per se, but it really got captured by far-right elements. In 1939, they held this striking rally in Madison Square Garden to thousands of people. It was enormous," Pizzo says. "Father Coughlin [perpetuated] anti-immigrant and anti-semitic ideologies broadcast every night on the radio. I think people like Huey Long represent in some ways the closest we've gotten to fascism. Certainly on the local level. He may not be fascist, but he was certainly fascist-adjacent in terms of his populism, patronage politics, and very deep racism."

Unlike Weimar Germany, America's two-party system and the long term stability of its democratic structure made it very difficult for a brand new fascist movement to arise. The concern for many analysts in the early 20th century, as described in Roberto's Coming of the American Behemoth, was that "fascist tendencies would capture an established American political party. The potential that one party could be captured would be dangerous because...with the winner-take-all system, that party would be a contender to have tremendous influence in a way that fringe would not."

Around this same time was the rise of the second Klan, which "according to its rosters in the 1920s," Pizzo explains, "numbered 15% of eligible people. Which to their math, was about 4 to 5 million. That may be an overstatement. Heck, it may be twice as many. This was a mass organization that dwarfed the first Klan back in the 1870s. It was an open, upper-middle-class, respectable organization that hated Catholics and Jews and Black people. [They] dominated not only the South; the second Klan was even stronger in the North, actually. Indiana was sort of ground zero for all of this."

"From the 1870s [during] the period of the first Klan up until the 1960s, nearly 5,000 people were lynched in the U.S.," Pizzo continues. "Those are the ones that could be confirmed. 72% of those people were Black. The white people...were lynched for reasons related to activities connected to Black people. This was a system of racial public terror. This was not some fly-by-night thing happening in the woods. These were public events where trains were literally ran to the site, carnival barkers showed up, concessions were sold. These were massive, public events in Georgia, Virginia, and the North as well. This was going on year after year after year. It was a public culture of terror designed to over-awe Black citizens who had been emancipated but whose status was essentially declaimed during this entire period."

"There were also these enormous violent explosions, like in 1917 in East St. Louis...Tulsa in 1921...the most grotesque of these was in 1919. In 1919, there's a huge wave of Black activism and unionization that is responded to with extreme terror and violence." The Elaine Massacre in Phillips County Arkansas would result in anywhere from 100 to 300 civilians dead after "the National Guard comes in and puts down what they view as a Black uprising, but what is essentially lynch violence escalating into mass violence," Pizzo says. 

Although eugenics and non-consensual experimentation are often thought of outside of American soil, the U.S. is no stranger to the two practices. "The 20s and 30s are the golden age of eugenics in the United States," Pizzo explains. "The James Whitman book Hitler's American Model, in grueling grim detail, lays out all the ways the Nazis viewed the U.S. as the model to be emulated. They sent fact-finding missions here to study race law in Virginia or Alabama to figure out how to exclude people who had been fellow citizens -- in this case, Jews -- from communal life. This is not me saying Virginia causes the Nazis; that would be overstating the influence of the U.S. But it's clear that Germany at least saw the U.S. as a fellow traveler on this path. There were complaints in Congress that the Nazis had left us behind. We were the leading country in the world in terms of forced sterilization and eugenics measures against immigrants or other undesirables, and now the Nazis are leaving us behind."

"The last thing I'll mention, which I feel like is probably the least understood and known in the U.S., is this history of medical experimentation on primarily Black people. [In] the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment...people were observed with syphilis even when treatments were available and allowed to die. In that case, U.S. government authorities literally impeded the VA from treating them. It's not just that they were watching them die, it's that they made sure that no one else did anything about it."

"My own father, who did his residency in Durham, North Carolina in the 1970s, remembers doctors on rounds forcibly sterilizing [Black women]. The women were signing these [waivers], but they had just come out of surgery and were given an X on a form and agreeing to have their tubes tied with no consultation. You don't have to take my dad's word for it; there are many lawsuits pending," Pizzo says. Just this past month, a whistleblower went on record saying that in detainment facilities along the Southern border, federal ICE agents and facility employees have been forcibly sterilizing immigrant women in custody.

Where is all of this fascist history in our textbooks? Pizzo explains that "to be fair, there's a lot of American history. A lot has happened. It's a big country. An enormous amount of very good work has been produced. But ultimately, one of the ironies of this current push for patriotic education [is] we already have that in many ways. Curriculums from birth really tend to emphasize patriotism. It's only gotten worse in our lifetimes insofar as Texas, the second biggest textbook buyer in the nation after California, at their request and demand had all kinds of words, incidents, or events purged. The word 'slave' barely appears in those texts at all. It's replaced with 'labor migrant.'"

"History's always been very political," he continues. "The battle over who can control it has always been going on in schools. I think patriotic education has been how it's worked since basically the beginning. Things like [American fascist movements] do not fit. The Elaine Massacre, Father Coughlin, the second Klan, where do you put that? I feel like this stuff was in my textbooks, but it was like a little blue box. We know these things happened. We neither connect them to our present moment nor actually put them in this wider field of terrifying political developments, movements, and practices in our country."

"None of this adds up to saying the U.S. and Nazi Germany or Mussolini-led Italy are identical. I'm not saying that. What I'm saying is there are these tendencies, organizations, personalities, ideas, movements, and acts of violence [throughout our history] that should make the last few years very unsurprising to us in some ways. The 1920s is not that long ago. There are many people alive who remember the events I am talking about in our country now," Pizzo concludes.

Tracy started working for WKMS in 1994 while attending Murray State University. After receiving his Bachelors and Masters degrees from MSU he was hired as Operations/Web/Sports Director in 2000. Tracy hosted All Things Considered from 2004-2012 and has served as host/producer of several music shows including Cafe Jazz, and Jazz Horizons. In 2001, Tracy revived Beyond The Edge, a legacy alternative music program that had been on hiatus for several years. Tracy was named Program Director in 2011 and created the midday music and conversation program Sounds Good in 2012 which he hosts Monday-Thursday. Tracy lives in Murray with his wife, son and daughter.
Melanie Davis-McAfee graduated from Murray State University in 2018 with a BA in Music Business. She has been working for WKMS as a Music and Operations Assistant since 2017. Melanie hosts the late-night alternative show Alien Lanes, Fridays at 11 pm with co-host Tim Peyton. She also produces Rick Nance's Kitchen Sink and Datebook and writes Sounds Good stories for the web.
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