Rachel Maddow, Prequel

Rachel Maddow on the Bit Players’ Big Effects on Promoting American Fascism

Rachel Maddow’s latest book on political history, Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism, weaves varying players past into a singular danger present.

Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism
Rachel Maddow
October 2023

Many pundits who want to make their points heard crank up the hyperbole. In her fourth book, Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism, political commentator Rachel Maddow does the opposite. Here, Maddow, the long-time host of MSNBC’s now weekly The Rachel Maddow Show, shines a bright light on a largely forgotten story of pre-World War II fascism in America. It is an inspired subject choice from Maddow’s hit podcast, Ultra, which covered the same topic.

As an Oxford-trained, poli-sci scholar, Prequel is squarely in Maddow’s wheelhouse. Given the world’s current political state, the book is sometimes somber, but overall, it is engaging, informative, and necessary work.

American fascism and antisemitism pre-World War II, as represented in icons like the hero-aviator Charles Lindbergh and auto magnate Henry Ford, are well known. Also well understood are that the Nazis borrowed heavily from US segregation laws and the US-born, fake science of eugenics. Yet, for a long time, World War II and the Holocaust seemed to put such stories far into Americans’ collective rearview mirror.

Prequel covers some remarkable but underappreciated stories from the same time period, culminating with a criminal conspiracy case. As Rachel Maddow notes, these stories largely concern small-time, “bit” players. Keeping them straight can be challenging. A Cast of Characters and a person-by-person Epilogue helpfully bookend the text. As Maddow notes, taking these people seriously can even be a challenge. There is, for example, a black-and-white photo of what, at first blush, looks like kids at a typical summer camp in New Jersey…except that it happens to be a Hitler youth group in New Jersey.

Elsewhere, some 18 persons, none of whom seem to possess any significant resources or connections, plot to divide the entire United States into a series of “cells”. Then there is the crucial role of the entirely unglamorous practice of franking, a perk for congresspersons that allows them to send out massive amounts of mail free of charge. This is not the stuff of The Bourne Identity, but no matter. These actors will also stockpile military weapons and help advance a massive, German-funded propaganda campaign with help from, it turns out, friends in high levels of the US government.

Prequel largely focuses on the 1930s when Adolf Hitler was still—to many Americans—just a disturbing, faraway world leader, and the US was still firmly isolationist with regard to Europe’s growing conflict. Ultimately, the stories of this web of low-level players do interconnect with bigger players, including the Jim Crow-era dictator/governor of Louisiana, Huey Long, and Father Coughlin, of ’30s-era radio fame. As well-known as those figures are in American history, reading their details is eye-opening. I did not know, for example, that Coughlin had 30 million regular listeners for his radio show, nearly a quarter of the US population at the time.

Certain American citizens thus conspired to work directly with Hitler’s Germany, taking advantage of America’s openness and racist underbelly with propaganda geared to reinforce that isolationism and worse. As Rachel Maddow captures it, a time came when “the threads of isolationism, antisemitism, and fascism were becoming an ominously tight weave.” This includes promoting propaganda that it was Great Britain trying to suck the US into Europe’s squabble—the War was really little more than a “real estate dispute”. One much-used phrase inferred that the only result of entering Europe’s conflict would be to “plow under every fourth American boy”. Further, as Hitler’s and fascism’s victory was inevitable, and democracy was on its way out, why not befriend Hitler?

Indeed, Hitler’s philosophies permeate much of this history. His stated goal was to go for the “big lies”, and his view was that the diversity of the US could be used against it, and the country was “always on the brink of revolution”. As Maddow further illustrates, it was all geared to “make Americans hate and suspect each other” and thus weaken attempts to rally for a war effort and possibly even make the US more susceptible to a future takeover. The moral incentive behind such propaganda included the inevitable use of a certain version of Christianity; even in an early trial for some violent, weapon-hoarding paramilitaries, there are courtroom cries of “Long Live Christ the King!”

Rachel Maddow ably ties these individuals, groups, and movements together and lets the facts speak for themselves, but there is plenty of engaging drama. Who knew that a legend in the direct-mail business, Henry Hoke, would practically become a part-time superhero battling fascists? At other points, incredibly, a pro-fascist, former US Army general testifies before Congress, which transitions into the story of a major film studio head and how that industry was working to counter the fascist movement. It all becomes increasingly clear how this story of “bit” players did, in many ways, permeate the nation’s lean toward fascism.

Maddow conveys much information with astute but spare wording, such as while providing some relevant context, that Puerto Rico “belonged to the U.S., but was not a part of it.” At the end of Prequel, we understand that these actors and their philosophies never entirely disappear. To this day, how the US government ultimately deals with these matters – and does not – is telling. Is America’s story that of a country that overcomes its worst flaws, or is it yet to fully confront its worst original sins?

Rachel Maddow has documented some crucial history here, though her goal is not to directly connect these dots up to the present. Prequel‘s point is the importance of recognizing and better understanding the nuts and bolts of fascism’s past is essential to any effort to repel it. Maddow only briefly and generally references the current rise of pro-fascist interests in the US. She does not specifically mention Donald Trump, who is brazenly advocating for dictatorial powers if re-elected and openly drawing from/quoting Hitler.

Is it a stretch to make that connection? Can one directly connect a movement that cast Great Britain as the bad guys against Nazi aggression with those today that paint Ukraine as the “aggressor” and Vladimir Putin as the “good guy”? Is it a stretch to connect Hitler’s words that the masses will more easily fall to a “great lie than to a small one”, with, for example, the denial of the validity of the recent US Presidential election? For that matter, is it a stretch to connect a movement that quoted Hitler with…well, a guy who quotes Hitler? Well, Maddow’s latest book is called Prequel for a reason.

RATING 9 / 10