The Return of American FascismRoundup
Sarah Churchwell is chair of public understanding of the humanities at the University of London, and author of “Behold, America” (Bloomsbury)
In 1933 Mussolini Speaks, a “cine-biography of Il Duce,” received its Broadway premiere on 10 March, only five days after the Nazi Party seized control of the Reichstag, and six days after the inauguration of Franklin D Roosevelt as US president. “Who is this modern Caesar?” asked a national advertising campaign for the film; “What is his secret of success?” Mussolini Speaks promised to sell fascism as just another version of the American Dream: “The past does not exist,” said Il Duce, and Americans were ready to listen.
Produced in Hollywood, the film was made with Mussolini’s full cooperation and met with rave reviews. To be sure, it showed “only a glorified Mussolini”, admitted the Boston Globe in representative terms, but, “Mussolini rises above personality. He is a great figure, perhaps one of the greatest in the world today.”
The US greeted Mussolini with widespread enthusiasm in the interwar years; as early as 1926, the nation’s favourite magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, was offering paeans to his “masterfulness” and the “impressive commercial renaissance” fascism had enabled. The cover of the issue offering this panegyric featured a Norman Rockwell painting of Benjamin Franklin signing the Declaration of Independence, but no one seems to have minded that the magazine swerved from celebrating democratic republicanism to applauding fascistic dictatorship with the turn of a page.
The role that patriotic symbolism, mass entertainment and a corporate state might play in an incipient American fascism was clear to astute observers at the time. In Sinclair Lewis’s novel, It Can’t Happen Here (1935), an American fascist dictatorship is brought about by the “Corporatist” party, led by the reactionary populist Buzz Windrip. Windrip takes power by forging alliances with media giants, including Father Prang, a character based on Father Charles Coughlin, whose weekly radio show was listened to by millions of Americans at its height in the mid-1930s. Coughlin was virulently, and conspiratorially, anti-Semitic, disseminating the (fraudulent) Protocols of the Elders of Zion and confirming Nazi accusations of a Jewish-Communist plot for world domination led by a cabal of “international bankers”. Windrip whips his crowds to a frenzy with patriotic music and populist jingles about clearing the “rot” in Washington, taking power thanks to the carnival he’s created. “Great showmanship,” the reporter who serves as Lewis’s resistant voice of liberal democracy observes of Windrip’s performance. “PT Barnum or Flo Ziegfeld never put on a better.”
Or, he might have added, Leni Riefenstahl, whose tour de force of cinematic propaganda, Triumph of the Will, had been released earlier that same year. Decades before reality television, Riefenstahl invented a type of reality cinema for Hitler, admitting that the famed Nuremberg Rally itself was designed to work as a film spectacle: “The preparations for the party congress were made hand in hand with the preparations for the camera work.” Fascist reality was shaped by, and for, the entertainments of mass spectacle.
Whatever one’s opinion of Donald Trump, there is no denying that his political success to date represents its own kind of triumph of the will, one built on a political carnivalesque. Trump’s manifest need for the adoration of his crowd, his desire to exhibit to the world the cheering hordes of his political rallies, may seem like an ersatz copy of the authentic rallies of fascist leaders of yore. The fact that show business is at the heart of Trump’s unstable political project sometimes leads to the argument that Trump isn’t fascist, but merely an entertainer. Fascism was always about entertainment, however: the deep root of its poison was that it made hatred entertaining.
comments powered by Disqus
- Merrittocracy with Keri Leigh Merritt: Kevin Kruse on the 2020 Election
- Radical Protests Propelled the Suffrage Movement. Here’s How a New Museum Captures That History
- Not Every U.S. Presidential Race Has Been Decided on Election Day. Here’s What to Know About America’s History of Contested Elections
- Control, Alter, Delete:Hong Kong Activists and Academics are Hurrying to Digitize Historical Records
- Voter Fraud, Suppression and Partisanship: A Look at the 1876 Election