‘Fascism Comes to America’ Review: It’s Always Happening Here

Popcorn doesn’t come with books published by respected university presses, but in the case of Bruce Kuklick’s “Fascism Comes to America,” it probably should. This book is as much about Hollywood as it is about movement or ideology. Mr. Kuklick, Penn’s distinguished professor of history and an accomplished historian of thought, applies his expertise to Hollywood’s treatment of fascism. He explains why American entertainers, academics and others often use the word “fascism” to criticize things they don’t like: FDR’s New Deal, the Reagan Revolution and many others.

The contrast with communism is striking. He writes: “The United States attacked the fascists militarily but not the communists. “Yet fascism lives on in America.

thoughts long after the lunar eclipse of 1945.” Films reveal popular opinion in a way that policy analysis does not. Hollywood’s use of farce to portray fascism illustrates the problem at the heart of this book. Hollywood produced several films that satirized communism. One was “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!” (1966), a comedy starring Alan Arkin about the misadventures of a Soviet submarine crew docked off the coast of New England. Another was “Red Heat” (1988), with Arnold Schwarzenegger (Soviet) and Jim Belushi (American) as “buddy-cops” catching a Georgian drug lord. Such ideas based on communism disappeared once the Cold War ended.

The opposite was true for fascism. In the era of Mussolini and Hitler, the Marx Brothers (“Duck Soup,” 1933) and Charlie Chaplin (“The Great Dictator,” 1940) satirized fascism and were successful at the box office. After the defeat of the Axis powers, fascism remained an object of ridicule. For example, Billy Wilder’s “A Foreign Affair” (1948) featured Marlene Dietrich as a former Nazi high-ranking mistress, who, Mr. Kuklick writes, “gave an idea of ​​the incredible opportunities that National Socialist women had.” who had it for American men. . “Stalag 17” (1953) portrayed the Nazi soldiers as the “middle fools” in the POW camp. The film’s success paved the way for one of the biggest hits in American television history, “Hogan’s Heroes,” which ran from 1965 to 1971. The Nazis played Col. Klink and Sgt. Schultz Only twenty years removed, these fictional soldiers were harmless stoos.

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Medieval historians writing shortly after the war ended, Mr. Kuklick points out, did not see fascism around every corner. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in “The Vital Center” (1949), and Richard Hofstadter, in “The Age of Reform” (1955), compared American liberalism to the extremes of the right and to the left. Both advocated what is now seen as arrogant and naive liberalism, but neither politics is classified outside of the mainstream as fascist.

Their silence did not last. The Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal made American historians more concerned about fascism. A younger generation of scholars looked back to the 1930s and 1940s to find parallels with contemporary America. For them, Mr. Kuklick writes, fascism was a “political attack” not a “researched theory.” America’s policies toward Native Americans fit the definition of genocide, according to the judgments of some historians. George Washington, in one study, qualified as an instigator of fascism. The state of Jacksonian “völkisch” democracy appealed to the Nazis. Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy relied on fascists.

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The idea of ​​fascism continued among the creative class and journalists. Tony Kushner’s play “A Bright Room Called Day” (1985) compared Ronald Reagan to Hitler. The 1993 film “Falling Down,” starring Michael Douglas as a former defense industry engineer, introduced America’s “fascist taste” when a mentally unstable counterman shoots a store owner. of guns. Meanwhile, conservative writers such as Jonas Goldberg, in “Liberal Fascism” (2008), and Dinesh D’Souza, in “The Big Lie” (2017), have used fascism to describe the rest of America.

Fascism Comes to America: A Century of Political and Cultural Independence

Written by Bruce Kuklick

University of Chicago Press

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It did not take much power, after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, for the power of the definition of fascism to grow. Two scholars who refused to describe the United States as fascist, Robert Paxton of Columbia University and Timothy Snyder of Yale, advocated for independent judgment. Mr. Paxton’s essay “The Five Stages of Fascism” (1998) described political processes that avoided ideological conformity. Mr. Snyder’s “Bloodlands” (2010) noted the important relationship between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. However after the 2016 election Mr. Snyder wrote articles and books about the fascist takeover, and after the Capitol riots of Jan. 6, 2021, Mr. Paxton wrote a piece in Newsweek titled “I’m Reluctant to Call Trump a Fascist. Until Now.”

Readers may need whiskey to go with that popcorn when they get to Mr. Kuklick’s brief excursus of American government and the Founders’ “pain” over democracy. He speculates that American attitudes toward fascism are one side of an inability to bridge the dangerous gap between the Founders and modern America. The “Constitutional Republic” has given way to democracy, the very virtue that the Founders hoped and planned to avoid. Repeating “democracy” as a blessing and “fascism” as an epithet hides the conflict between America’s respect for the Founders and disregard for the limits they set for democracy. Mr. Kuklick warns. The author’s point is simply that “unthinking devotion to democracy” prevents Americans from learning from the Founders or accepting changes in their government.

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His latest comments about Mr. Trump may point the way forward. For Mr. Kuklick, the former president fails to qualify as a fascist because of his foreign policy (not expansionist) and domestic programs that favored federalism and localism (not nationalism). In addition, Mr. Trump had “only moderate polling support” and was “unpopular with more than half of the electorate.” None of this was true of Hitler and Nazi Germany. The author would have added that the German intelligentsia praised Hitler unlike the American intelligentsia who despised Mr. Trump. Mr. Kuklick thinks it is appropriate to criticize Mr. Trump. But to call him a fascist, he rightly insists, is an understatement.

Mr. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College and is the author of “Benjamin Franklin: A Cultural Protestant” (2021).

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