This country has a weird cognitive impairment — we keep forgetting that we’re full of fascists. Our history is loaded with openly bigoted authoritarians who preach their garbage to widespread acclaim, and when the their raging Naziism gets smacked down hard by reality and events, we just blithely forget their sins to keep them on their pedestal.
I am reminded of this every time I fly out of the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. The main terminal is named after Charles Lindbergh, the famous pilot who also just happened to be a white supremacist, an America Firster (AFC), anti-Semite, and, until the stories of atrocities started to trickle out of Europe, a Nazi sympathizer.
While the AFC garnered significant support from middle- and upper- class American gentiles, their highwater mark came on Sept. 11, 1941, when Charles Lindbergh gave a speech at an AFC event in Des Moines, Iowa — a speech that left the permanent stain on his memory to this day.
“The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt Administration,” Lindbergh said, before going on to add later about Jewish-American groups: “Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government,” and that they were the only ones who wanted war over the resistance of the American public who did not.
We know he was an anti-Semite. We still put up statues honoring Lindberg. Where’s a neurologist when you need one?
We as a nation absolutely did not have to go easy on the memory of Kirkpatrick or Elizabeth Dilling, or Gerald LK Smith, or Henry Ford, or Charles Lindbergh, let alone put that last guy’s name on airport terminals. Normalizing such people as mere “anti-communists” or “fundamentalist Christians” or “ultraconservative patriots” or “principled isolationists” was a mistake. So was minimizing them as irrelevant “kooks” or “crackpots.” Both impulses did a real disservice to the nation’s political memory by weakening our antifascist defenses and atrophying our pro-democratic muscles. Gerald LK Smith, for example, had a mailing list of over 3 million names in the 1960s. The Liberty Lobby’s neo-Nazi radio show could be heard on over 470 AM radio stations in that decade. Calling these folks “crackpots” did nothing to stem the torrent of fascist bile they poured into the reservoir of our political culture on a daily basis, bile that was generally ignored as irrelevant by the vast majority of Americans and interpreted as perfectly normal, “patriotic, pro-Christian, anti-Communist Americanism” by the millions of people to whom it appealed.
It was the rare public figure in the Cold War era who would have either a) forthrightly labeled such people “fascists” or b) taken the anti-democratic threat they posed seriously enough to pay much attention to them. Because these fascists were white, because the majority of them were elderly, because the rank and file of these movements was working or middle class, because the wealthy people who funded these fascist movements were usually respected “upstanding citizens,” because most of them were Christians, because they called themselves “patriotic lovers of the Constitution;” all of their violent ideation, all of their hateful bigotry got written off as eccentric personality quirks, rather than features of an organized and enduring fascistic strain in American politics.
I blame the deep scars of the Civil War. In 1865, we were in such a mad rush to “heal” the damage of the war that we papered over the criminality of the Confederacy, and it just became a habit. We have never addressed the poison of racism and anti-Semitism in this country, which allows the infection to persist and flourish, and now it has completely taken over the Republican party.