Rachel Maddow on Donald Trump and Elon Musk's Shared Obsession

Tim Dickinson / Rolling Stone
Rachel Maddow on Donald Trump and Elon Musk's Shared Obsession Elon Musk and Donald Trump. (photo: CNBC)

The MSNBC host discusses her new history of fighting fascists at home, and the tough lessons for our modern politics

Rachel Maddow’s new book explores a dark episode of American history, one that flies in the face of our sanitized national narrative about the United States being the unalloyed champion of democracy that crushed foreign fascism during World War II.

Prequel examines the rise of home-grown fascism in America in the 1930s and 40s — as well as notorious infiltrators from Hitler’s government who cultivated and funded the movement, even capturing hearts and minds among members of the U.S. House and Senate.

The book lays out terrifying plots by fascist militant groups — with names like the Silver Shirts and the Christian Front — and highlights a cadre of would-be America Fuhrers, strongmen who wanted to rule as authoritarians at here home. Most importantly, Prequel introduces readers to a forgotten cast of American heroes who fought back, working to expose these dark machinations, and who ultimately defanged and defused America’s domestic fascist movement. (The book builds off of Maddow’s hit podcast, Ultra, that she discussed with Rolling Stone on the eve of its launch a year ago.)

Maddow spoke again with RS this week, diving into the dark themes and brave characters of her book — and the stark resonance of its lessons amid the increasingly naked fascist threats in America’s contemporary politics.

The book is titled Prequel, but you don’t draw many explicit parallels to our current timeline. You don’t, for example, compare the charismatic populist strongman Huey Long to Donald Trump, or measure the reach of the massively popular radio host Father Charles Coughlin against a Tucker Carlson type. You don’t even link the original “America First” movement of the ‘30s and ’40s to its current MAGA iteration. Why did you leave those dotted lines for readers to connect?

That is an excellent question. And I’m glad that you are leading with it. The idea of the title is that it’s not about the bad guys. It’s about the good guys. The instruction manual, directly-relevant-to-today stuff, is in the Americans who were fighting against the ultra-right movement of their time. There has been a previous episode — that we were unaware of — that can inform our own decisions now about how to combat it in our own time. I don’t want to be the one to define the extent of the echo of the ultra-right guys from the late ‘30s and early ‘40s in the guys we have today.

I’d argue that current events are forcing your hand. We no longer have creeping fascism; it’s bursting through the walls like the Kool-Aid Man. In just the past couple of weeks, Trump has told us the authoritarian danger America would face from a second term.

There’s a reason that everybody’s starting to use some of the same red-hot language to describe what we are seeing. It feels like we’re at a “break glass in case of emergency” moment — the way people are talking about what’s happening in our politics. Trump and Trumpism has always been based, to a certain degree, on the transgressive thrill of saying something you’re not supposed to say — something that shocks and upsets people. But now there’s more seriousness about it. He’s not saying “I was misunderstood” or “I didn’t mean it” — or “I was joking when I told Russia to do that.” There’s no playing around.

Trump is saying immigrants are “poisoning the blood” of America. He’s saying my political opponents are “vermin” — and should implicitly therefore be exterminated. He’s saying, I want my critics in the media and the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff put on trial for treason — the punishment for which he then reminds us, explicitly, is death. He wants, according to Washington Post reporting, to invoke the Insurrection Act to be able to use the military against civilians on Day One. It’s as inflammatory as anything he’s ever said in the past. And he’s sketching this out as the grounds on which he wants to be running for the Republican nomination, and for the presidency. This is the territory that we’re in.

Adding to the resonance of the ‘30s — in this era of rising anti-semitism — Elon Musk seems to really want to fulfill his casting as a latter-day Henry Ford.

I don’t know what’s going on in Mr. Musk’s capacious brain, I don’t know what his aims are. It’s not like he’s just giving interviews saying this stuff. He seems, deliberately, to be doing this stuff on the platform that he’s running.

Obviously, there’s a compounding upset to the fact that the richest man in the world and the leader of the Republican Party are trafficking in this stuff at the same time — and in what seems to be a mutually reinforcing way. The real question is for people who are doing business with Twitter, but also for the Republican Party. They’re the ones who have to answer for whether this is what they want, too.

Your book is about a hidden Nazi plot to propagandize America. But you also write about how the Nazis were fascinated by American ideas, and inspired by Jim Crow segregation, detailing the ways that Nazis were pulling from our culture.

Some of the worst elements of this ideology were traveling, not East to West, but West to East. With Henry Ford, it was not just his personal anti-semitism and his effectiveness as an anti-semitic propagandist in the United States, but his global influence. By the time Hitler became Chancellor, the German language edition of Ford’s book, The International Jew, was in its 29th printing.

To understand his impact, and the influence of Jim Crow apartheid, and the influence of things like lynching and the other extra-legal and pseudo-legal enforcement of American law [on Hitler’s Germany] is to understand that fascism was not a foreign thing. The book Hitler’s American Model is a real contribution to the heavy-duty history of this period.

African American newspapers were very overt about these connections in the ‘40s. And Black GI’s coming home from fighting World War II were very overt about it. But America’s historians have been reluctant to go there ever since.

You have an amazing quote from the Black poet Langston Hughes, which I’d never seen before: “The fascists is Jim Crow peoples, honey.”

Yeah. And he’s right. And it’s taken a long time for us to be able to name that as what it is. A lot of the mainstream history has dismissed these American fascists who I write about, and it said, It was not a serious thing. They’re doing so on the basis of an implicit assumption that fascism just speaks Italian or German. Well, it doesn’t. It also speaks American-accented English.

Why is it important that we grapple honestly with this warty history?

You never beat something like this permanently. It’s a recurrent thing. It’s really hard to be a 250-year-old democracy. Every democracy itself carries within it the seeds of dissent. Given the fissures in our diverse society and the political frustrations of democracy, there’s no reason to think of us as immune to any of the things that have subjected other democracies around the world to authoritarian overthrow or evolution. It’s the siren song of authoritarians everywhere: “I alone can fix it.” Just put me in charge. I can be efficient and crush your enemies. It’s a secret cabal that’s responsible for everything that’s bad in the world, and I’m the one who can defeat the cabal.

At heart, your book lays out a mosaic of American heroes, who worked in concert to resist that siren song, or to expose its grave dangers.

These Americans who went before us, and fought fascism, got no reward for it — except saving the country. I’m wanting to say thank you now.

I want to give folks a taste of a couple of the characters. They seem like they could each inhabit an HBO noir series. Tell us about Leon Lewis?

Leon Lewis is fantastic. He was running a spy operation for a decade, where he had fellow WWI veterans infiltrating violent pro-Nazi groups in Southern California. A lot of fascist activity was happening in the out in the open. Groups were running Hitler Youth summer camps at American parks and holding Nazi-style rallies. But what you couldn’t see is that they were also stealing U.S. military weapons from armories on the West Coast, or they had an advanced plot that was going to start with the murder of a number of prominent Jews in Los Angeles — many of them associated with the movie business. They had a plan to display their bodies, hopeful of setting off nationwide pogroms. They were working with a national fascist group called the Silver Shirts on plans to set off revolutionary, accelerationist violence that they hoped would set off a race war, and would ultimately result in a state of emergency and the government being overtaken by force.

What was Lewis’ background? Under what auspices was he investigating?

He was a lawyer. And he worked for a very early iteration of the Anti Defamation League, the ADL. But he personally took it upon himself to recruit these WWI veterans and what he uncovered was dramatic. But what was worrying about what Leon Lewis and his spies discovered was the fascists had local law enforcement on their side. When he confronted even the FBI with what his spies uncovered, more often than not what Lewis heard back was, Well, we’re more on on their side than we are on yours. And Jews are communists. And these guys may be a lot of bad things, but they’re anti-communist. And so they’re all right with us. A lot of cops and national guardsmen were, in fact, affiliated with these extremist groups that were planning the violent overthrow the U.S. government.

The second character I wanted to highlight is John Rogge, who steered the Great Sedition Trial — taking the evidence that Lewis and others developed, and turning it into a federal case against members of this fascist plot.

In 1944, Rogge brought the Great Sedition Trial indictment against 29 people who he alleged were involved in plots to overthrow the government and involved in a greater conspiracy that included the German government. Rogge was tireless and he assembled incredible evidence. But he put all these guys in the same courtroom — 29 defendants, dozens of defense attorneys, all the prosecutors, the U.S. Marshals, the reporters. There was no air conditioning. And the trial was absolute bedlam. It lasted seven months, and it was only about 30 percent done — in terms of only the prosecution’s case — when the judge just up and died. Which created a mistrial, and everybody got off.

Then Rogge fought the Justice Department to be allowed to tell the public some of what he’d learned — particularly about members of Congress who were implicated in this plot. But when the Attorney General Tom Clark saw the members of Congress who Rogge had turned up in his investigation, he brought the issue to President Truman. And Truman and Clark said, That report is not going anywhere. It’s going in a drawer. And they fired John Rogge.

We’ve recently watched several successful sedition trials stemming from Jan. 6. Are you encouraged by the capacity of our Justice Department? Are you encouraged by the behavior of voters in response to the information that they’re learning?

In terms of the Justice Department, I was very heartened that the Proud Boys in the Oath Keepers didn’t all get put on trial in the same courtroom all at once. They did four and five defendants at a time. And they got convictions. It’s really hard to get sedition convictions, but they did.

The voter question is still very much an open question. One of the things that happened in the ‘40s, is that through Rogge’s prosecution and a lot of really good journalism and activism the scale and scope of the plot to overthrow the government and side with the Nazis was exposed. And in the elections, particularly in 1944 and 1946, the officials who were part of it, almost to a one, got voted out. Even though the prosecution didn’t work, people used democracy to get rid of those guys. And that was a very hopeful sign.

I’m heartened by what happened electorally in 2022. But the question is whether the modern public is going to issue the same very distinct verdict that they did against the seditionists and the pro-Nazi forces in the lead up to the Second World War.

You were just on Colbert talking about Sen. Markwayne Mullin threatening to throw down in a Senate hearing — and about how the behavior of contemporary authoritarians sits at a Venn Diagram intersection of “stupid” and “disturbing.” Was that kind of stupidity also a feature of the fascist past?

It totally, 100 percent, was. The named defendant in the Great Sedition Trial was Joe McWilliams. And on the radio at the time, they used to call him “Joe McNazi,” because he was so over the top. And William Dudley Pelley — the head of the Silver Shirts — was patently egotistical and ridiculous. He’d puff out his chest and prance around like a little bantam. When a reporter was writing about Pelley and the Silver Shirts in Minneapolis, his editors rewrote all of the stories to make it sound like these were a bunch of clowns, because this guy Pelley — you could never take him seriously. But there were literally tens of thousands of Americans who had organized themselves into armed cells to serve that guy. What we’ve learned is that stupid and dangerous are not mutually exclusive.

Is there a last thing you’d like readers to consider when picking up your book?

I’d just go back to that point about the title. Only Hitler’s Hitler, only the Nazis are Nazis. There’s no modern analogy to that. But there is a modern analogy to Americans who stood up against those forces. And if they can stand up to the most powerful industrialist in the country, Henry Ford, and the consensus national hero, Charles Lindbergh, and the most powerful media figure America has ever known, Charles Coughlin. And do it while 83 percent of the public doesn’t want to fight in World War II. And while Hitler is steamrollering Europe. If they can win against those forces? That’s heartening in terms of what we can do — given what we’re up against.

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