It’s a peculiar week to write one of these columns. The election is being held after my deadline, and results may or may not be known by the time anyone reads this. Therefore, it’s impossible to discuss results, and anyway, I’m just completely sick of the whole thing, as I’m guessing you are. Oh, for the boredom of elections past.
You don’t need Sherlock Holmes to tell you things are fraught. It’s probably the most important election in our lifetimes. It feels like somebody says this every two years, and it is usually hyperbole, like a RomCom’s going to win an Oscar, or the Jets are going to win the Super Bowl, but I think we all have the feeling that it’s for real this time. Whenever election season rolls around, somebody’s bound to tell you that this is the most important election of your lifetime, blah blah blah.
Only this time, it’s actually true.
It’s unlike almost any other time in our history, rivaled only by the fraught elections during Reconstruction, and the 1940 election where isolationist and Nazi agents—yes, Nazi agents right here at home—were sewing division and trying to get us to side with fascism, and keep us out of World War II. We’ll come back to this, but first, Reconstruction.
After Lincoln’s assassination, Vice President Andrew Johnson, one of Honest Abe’s “team of rivals”— he was a Southern Democrat — ascended to the presidency. Initially emboldened enough to favor “Forty Acres and a Mule,” recompense to the newly freed slaves, he did a U-turn. From History.com: “In 1867, following the American Civil War and the abolishment of slavery, the Republican-dominated U.S. Congress passed the First Reconstruction Act over the veto of President Andrew Johnson. The act divided the South into five military districts and outlined how new governments based on universal suffrage for men were to be established.”
The war had freed the slaves, but Johnson allowed the instigators, primarily plantation owners who were now without the free labor of slavery, to remain free and unindicted for the treasonous act of attempting to destroy the Union. Instead of land and mules, former slaves got poll taxes and lynchings. “Uppity” Blacks were reviled and threatened.
But the 1868 and 1870 elections were not the last time we stood so divided. The more recent example is the 1940 election when isolationists and Nazi agents worked hand-in-hand with the German Reich to keep us out of what would become World War II.
Yes, it is a true, if forgotten, story. You can hear it all on “Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra,” a remarkable podcast series that delves into the largely unknown, and mostly forgotten events that took place from 1938 to 1940.
Fascism (a noun the dictionary defines as “an authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization” that “tends to include a belief in the supremacy of one national or ethnic group, a contempt for democracy, an insistence on obedience to a powerful leader, and a strong demagogic approach”) was on the rise, much as it is today. Just listen to ultra-right-wing congresspeople like Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene who unabashedly lobby for a Christo-Fascist government. It’s reminiscent of the line spoken by a character in the Amazon Prime streaming series, “The Boys,” a sci-fi show set in contemporary times, but the “Storm Front” character is an ageless superhero from the 1930’s, who, when confronted with her fascism, unapologetically explains that people love the message, “They just don’t like the word Nazi.”
(BTW, the show is the antithesis of the Marvel Cinematic Universe where superheroes are do-gooders. Here, they are egotistical, maniacal, and malevolent. If you’re into comedy, sci-fi, superheroes and explosive decapitations, and I mean really, who isn’t, then “The Boys” is for you.)
But back to our story.
A Republican Senator from Minnesota named Ernest Lundeen, was being paid by Nazi agent, George Sylvester Viereck, to keep us at each other’s throats, and out of the war. When Lundeen’s airliner mysteriously crashed in 1940, among the remains of the passengers (including two FBI agents who were trailing him), was the speech he was scheduled to deliver that night. A speech given to him by Viereck, and written in Berlin.
Lundeen was not alone in Congress or in the nation at large. The biggest media star of the day, Father Charles E. Coughlin, an antisemite from Detroit, used his Sunday night broadcasts to vilify Jews (“All Jews are Communists, and all Communists are Jews”) and foment civil war. His “Christian Front” had chapters all over the U.S., and had sympathizers in law enforcement and the military. The militia was well-armed, and blew up munitions factories here before the FBI interceded.
So, everything old is new again, including a dangerous flirtation with fascism.
©2022 Jon Sinton
VOL. 112, NO. 45 - Nov. 9, 2022