April 13th, 2017
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
American historians’ relationship to conservatism itself has a troubled history. Even after Ronald Reagan’s electoral-college landslide in 1980, we paid little attention to the right: The central narrative of America’s political development was still believed to be the rise of the liberal state. But as Newt Gingrich’s right-wing revolutionaries prepared to take over the House of Representatives in 1994, the scholar Alan Brinkley published an essay called “The Problem of American Conservatism” in The American Historical Review. American conservatism, Brinkley argued, “had been something of an orphan in historical scholarship,” and that was “coming to seem an ever-more-curious omission.” The article inaugurated the boom in scholarship that brought us the story, now widely accepted, of conservatism’s triumphant rise.
That story was in part a rejection of an older story. Until the 1990s, the most influential writer on the subject of the American right was Richard Hofstadter, a colleague of Trilling’s at Columbia University in the postwar years. Hofstadter was the leader of the “consensus” school of historians; the “consensus” being Americans’ supposed agreement upon moderate liberalism as the nation’s natural governing philosophy. He didn’t take the self-identified conservatives of his own time at all seriously. He called them “pseudoconservatives” and described, for instance, followers of the red-baiting Republican senator Joseph McCarthy as cranks who salved their “status anxiety” with conspiracy theories and bizarre panaceas. He named this attitude “the paranoid style in American politics” and, in an article published a month before Barry Goldwater’s presidential defeat, asked, “When, in all our history, has anyone with ideas so bizarre, so archaic, so self-confounding, so remote from the basic American consensus, ever gone so far?”
It was a strangely ahistoric question; many of Goldwater’s ideas hewed closely to a well-established American distrust of statism that goes back all the way to the nation’s founding. It betokened too a certain willful blindness toward the evidence that was already emerging of a popular backlash against liberalism. Reagan’s gubernatorial victory in California two years later, followed by his two landslide presidential wins, made a mockery of Hofstadter. Historians seeking to grasp conservatism’s newly revealed mass appeal would have to take the movement on its own terms.
None of this history is hidden. Indeed, in the 1990s, a rich scholarly literature emerged on the 1920s Klan and its extraordinary, and decidedly national, influence. (One hotbed of Klan activity, for example, was Anaheim, Calif. McGirr’s “Suburban Warriors” mentions this but doesn’t discuss it; neither did I in my own account of Orange County conservatism in “Before the Storm.” Again, it just didn’t seem relevant to the subject of the modern conservative movement.) The general belief among historians, however, was that the Klan’s national influence faded in the years after 1925, when Indiana’s grand dragon, D.C. Stephenson, who served as the de facto political boss for the entire state, was convicted of murdering a young woman.
But the Klan remained relevant far beyond the South. In 1936 a group called the Black Legion, active in the industrial Midwest, burst into public consciousness after members assassinated a Works Progress Administration official in Detroit. The group, which considered itself a Klan enforcement arm, dominated the news that year. The F.B.I. estimated its membership at 135,000, including a large number of public officials, possibly including Detroit’s police chief. The Associated Press reported in 1936 that the group was suspected of assassinating as many as 50 people. In 1937, Humphrey Bogart starred in a film about it. In an informal survey, however, I found that many leading historians of the right — including one who wrote an important book covering the 1930s — hadn’t heard of the Black Legion.
Stephen H. Norwood, one of the few historians who did study the Black Legion, also mined another rich seam of neglected history in which far-right vigilantism and outright fascism routinely infiltrated the mainstream of American life. The story begins with Father Charles Coughlin, the Detroit-based “radio priest” who at his peak reached as many as 30 million weekly listeners. In 1938, Coughlin’s magazine, Social Justice, began reprinting “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” a forged tract about a global Jewish conspiracy first popularized in the United States by Henry Ford. After presenting this fictitious threat, Coughlin’s paper called for action, in the form of a “crusade against the anti-Christian forces of the red revolution” — a call that was answered, in New York and Boston, by a new organization, the Christian Front. Its members were among the most enthusiastic participants in a 1939 pro-Hitler rally that packed Madison Square Garden, where the leader of the German-American Bund spoke in front of an enormous portrait of George Washington flanked by swastikas.
The Bund took a mortal hit that same year — its leader was caught embezzling — but the Christian Front soldiered on. In 1940, a New York chapter was raided by the F.B.I. for plotting to overthrow the government. The organization survived, and throughout World War II carried out what the New York Yiddish paper The Day called “small pogroms” in Boston and New York that left Jews in “mortal fear” of “almost daily” beatings. Victims who complained to authorities, according to news reports, were “insulted and beaten again.” Young Irish-Catholic men inspired by the Christian Front desecrated nearly every synagogue in Washington Heights. The New York Catholic hierarchy, the mayor of Boston and the governor of Massachusetts largely looked the other way.
Why hasn’t the presence of organized mobs with backing in powerful places disturbed historians’ conclusion that the American right was dormant during this period? In fact, the “far right” was never that far from the American mainstream. The historian Richard Steigmann-Gall, writing in the journal Social History, points out that “scholars of American history are by and large in agreement that, in spite of a welter of fringe radical groups on the right in the United States between the wars, fascism never ‘took’ here.” And, unlike in Europe, fascists did not achieve governmental power. Nevertheless, Steigmann-Gall continues, “fascism had a very real presence in the U.S.A., comparable to that on continental Europe.” He cites no less mainstream an organization than the American Legion, whose “National Commander” Alvin Owsley proclaimed in 1922, “the Fascisti are to Italy what the American Legion is to the United States.” A decade later, Chicago named a thoroughfare after the Fascist military leader Italo Balbo. In 2011, Italian-American groups in Chicago protested a movement to rename it.
…Trump’s connection to this alternate right-wing genealogy is not just rhetorical. In 1927, 1,000 hooded Klansmen fought police in Queens in what The Times reported as a “free for all.” One of those arrested at the scene was the president’s father, Fred Trump. (Trump’s role in the melee is unclear; the charge — “refusing to disperse” — was later dropped.) In the 1950s, Woody Guthrie, at the time a resident of the Beach Haven housing complex the elder Trump built near Coney Island, wrote a song about “Old Man Trump” and the “Racial hate/He stirred up/In the bloodpot of human hearts/When he drawed/That color line” in one of his housing developments. In 1973, when Donald Trump was working at Fred’s side, both father and son were named in a federal housing-discrimination suit. The family settled with the Justice Department in the face of evidence that black applicants were told units were not available even as whites were welcomed with open arms.