Politics

The American Fascists of the 1930s Who Foretold the Capitol Riot

Including a plot to overthrow the U.S. government and kill members of Congress.

A black-and-white photo shows a crowd giving a Nazi salute to a swastika banner as it is carried past a row of U.S. flags.
German American Bund members hail the swastika banner as it is paraded in Madison Square Garden at a rally in 1939. Bettmann/Getty Images Plus

This article is adapted from Fucked at Birth: Recalibrating the American Dream for the 2020s by Dale Maharidge, excerpted with permission from Unnamed Press, copyright 2021 by Dale Maharidge.

On Jan. 14, 1940, the FBI arrested 17 members of the Christian Front on charges of plotting to overthrow the U.S. government. Twelve U.S. congressmen were “marked for death,” said FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, for operating “a secret organization which specialized in training men for the projected revolution.” Two of the 17 were U.S. military reservists; one was a national guardsman. Of those not charged, the Anti-Nazi League identified 27 New York City policemen who were members.

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I’ve long been a student of the 1930s and contemporary hate movements. In 1985, I spent months immersed in meetings with a group of armed men in Sacramento, California, who wanted to overthrow the government. In 1996, I wrote in a book about the anger among working class people in Youngstown, Ohio, with a prediction that it would be channeled into right-wing hate, not unlike the rage seen in prewar Germany. I finished writing the following section from my book just a few months before the siege on the Capitol. If you knew history, what happened on Jan. 6 didn’t come as a surprise. Nor did the reports last week that amid the siege, certain members of Congress and the vice president were, once again, marked for death by far-right insurrectionists. The Christian Front vanished amid World War II. But in spirit, it never really went away.

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The economy will form the contested terrain in the years 2021 to 2024. The hoped-for “V”-shaped recovery, in which the economy would bounce back at the cessation of the pandemic, clearly isn’t going to happen for the bottom three quintiles of Americans. The question is if it will be a “U,” which is an uphill recovery that occurs slowly, or a repeat of the 1930s: the big D.

We’ve been overdue by two or so decades for a depression, if one adheres to the long-wave theory, posited by Nikolai Kondratiev (also spelled Kondratieff), a Soviet economist. His theory holds that capitalist economies look like a decadeslong roller coaster: They ascend in a boom, hit apex, and then come way down in a bust. Kondratiev documented five of these long waves dating to the 1700s. Each cycle lasted 40 to 60 years. Many modern economists dismiss Kondratiev, who died in prison under Stalin in 1938. Yet Kondratiev is surfacing more and more in conversation. Robert Samuelson, a business and economics columnist for the Washington Post, wrote in the early summer of 2020, just before he retired:

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I regarded Kondratieff’s long waves with scorn and skepticism. The long waves seemed, at best, too long and too diverse to qualify as a genuine economic cycle. At worst, they were junk economics, a clever idea that, the more it was examined, the more it would be found wanting. I haven’t joined the Kondratieff camp just yet. But I am a lot more open-minded. What I do know is that the existing framework of economics has not served us particularly well. … We are at a dangerous moment.

If we are entering Kondratiev’s valley, the danger would be to assume that things will turn out with some form of progressive populism prevailing in the wake of Donald Trump. A bad economy with deep unemployment could result in a battle between progressive populism and an authoritarian who capitalizes on dark populism. If a noncrazy and smart Trump comes along, he or she could eclipse the threat that Trump presented to American democracy. (Translation: say hello to President Ted Cruz or President Josh Hawley.)

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We think of Twitter, other social media, Fox, and the One America News Network as being drivers of far-right ideas such as QAnon, that they have amplified feelings and actions that heretofore would have remained in the shadows. But in the days of the Christian Front—long before there were social media platforms and television—right-wing and fascist ideas thoroughly infiltrated American culture. An early activist who recognized how these ideas spread was the Rev. L.M Birkhead, a Unitarian minister from Kansas City. In 1935, Birkhead traveled to Europe to investigate the authoritarian governments of Italy and Germany. In Nuremberg, he went to the offices of Der Stürmer, the anti-Semitic newspaper that was a core component of Nazi propaganda, whose founder and publisher was Julius Streicher, a fervent anti-Semite. Streicher, a favorite of Adolf Hitler, would later take part in giving orders during Kristallnacht in 1938; his moment in the klieg lights of hate would end with his hanging by the Allies at Nuremberg Prison in 1946.

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“I had come … to discover there were anti-Jewish groups and leaders in America about whom the American public does not know and American anti-Semites who hope through Streicher’s help and inspiration to duplicate his plans and techniques in the United States,” Birkhead wrote in a dispatch for the Baltimore Sun.

In 1938, Birkhead released a list of 800 “anti-democratic” organizations in the United States that were aligned with the Nazis and fascism. He maintained one out of every three Americans was being reached by fascist materials, some of the propaganda coming from Germany. The social media/television equivalent of that day was radio, a new technology that became widespread in the 1920s. By the 1930s, the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, a Catholic priest, became the first far-right media star in America. His radio hate ministry reached 10 million listeners in 1934. In 1938, his show used anti-Jewish propaganda, and made false claims. I wrote about what happened next in Someplace Like America:

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In New York City, radio station WMCA declared that it would no longer broadcast Coughlin unless he provided an advance script. He refused. In Germany, the Nazi press rose to Coughlin’s defense, and a headline in the newspaper Zwoelfuhrblatt blared, “Americans Not Allowed to Hear the Truth.”

A new organization had begun to form, dubbed the “Christian Front,” in opposition to the “popular front” organizations of the left. The Christian Front attracted anti-Semites. On December 15, 1938, six thousand people gathered in a New York City auditorium to cheer Coughlin and boo Roosevelt. On December 18, the Christian Front organized two thousand “Coughlinites” to march on WMCA.

Up to this point in the Great Depression, observers had warned of an emerging fascist trend in the United States, but there had been little evidence of mobilization. Now, violence began. Coughlin called for the formation of “platoons.” On May 21, 1939, pro-Coughlin picketers, who maintained a daily vigil at WMCA, marched to Times Square, where they started a “series of running fist fights,” according to the New York Times, targeting people who were selling anti-Coughlin publications.

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In February 1939, a Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden drew 20,000 people. It was sponsored by Fritz Julius Kuhn’s German American Bund. That gathering was recounted in the 2017 documentary film, A Night at the Garden, directed by Marshall Curry and produced by Laura Poitras. The vintage footage resembles newsreels of Hitler, complete with swastikas and a sea of arms raised in Sieg Heil. The only difference from Leni Riefenstahl is that the rear of the stage was bedecked with American flags.

Thuggery was rampant in New York City through 1939. It was documented in the best piece I’ve read on this period, “The American Fascists,” a 9,000-word Harper’s Magazine article published in 1940 by Dale Kramer, a newspaperman from Iowa who wrote nine books, ranging from a study of farm protest movements to biographies of Heywood Broun and Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker.

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After doing a lot of digging, Kramer wrote:

An analysis of police court records reveals an amazing story—to a large degree kept from the public by a belief on the part of newspaper editors that the less said about it the better. Gangs of young hoodlums rove subway platforms late at night insulting Jews. A favorite tactic is to make jibes at a Jewish girl in the presence of her escort; the swain, thus provoked, attacks and is beaten by superior numbers. One youth, Irving Berger by name, was dangerously stabbed in such a fight in Grand Central station.

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An offshoot of the Christian Front was the Christian Mobilizers. The two groups had numerous members. “In August the police, who by now were keeping a ‘fever chart’ of fascist doings, reported to Mayor [Fiorello] LaGuardia that 50 meetings with total attendance of over 20,000 were being held weekly,” Kramer wrote. The police reporter in Kramer was interested in hard facts. “More than [230] persons were prosecuted during the summer of 1939 in connection with the outbreaks and 101 were convicted. The record shows, somewhat ironically, that more persons felt the weight of the law in fighting against the fascists than fascists themselves. Prosecutions stood: fascists 106, opponents 127.”

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A depression is gasoline on fire for hate movements in any era and place on earth. The economy, stupid, as James Carville famously said in 1992. Dealing with hate groups is really a question of economic fairness, that if a broad range of Americans are sharing in the wealth of a society, hate groups remain at the margins and have trouble recruiting new members. I’ve published the final paragraph of Kramer’s article elsewhere, but it bears revisiting, both for its prediction (accurate, but off only in that it would take decades for it to transpire), and its message.

It will take time for a powerful movement to organize itself out of the confusion caused by the war. But the [technique] of prejudice politics has been so well learned that should economic insecurity continue there can be no doubt that the American people during the next decade will be forced to deal with powerful “hate” movements. Great vigilance will be required to preserve our liberty without giving it up in the process.

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Joan Didion once said that “if you keep the snake in your eye line, the snake [isn’t] going to bite you.” Fascism is like a reptile. We ignored history. We took our eyes off the snake.

As Philip Roth conjured in The Plot Against America, the 1930s could have had a very different end. Our current economic struggle is not the only way this moment compares to the Christian Front’s heyday. How the 2020s conclude is an even more profound challenge than what was faced in the Great Depression. The Boogaloo Bois, Proud Boys, and their variants present a far greater danger than the Christian Front for multiple reasons: Today’s fascists are fueled by the approval of a former president; they are vastly larger in number, better armed, and widely scattered; and they have the internet to keep connected. Their 1930s counterparts were relatively bumbling. They never came close to invading the Capitol.

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