Why are the MAGA Republicans the most dangerous fascists in U.S. history?
The U.S. has had several fascist leaders and movements in its history, but the danger of MAGA looms larger than them all. From left: Silver Legion leader William Dudley Pelley in fascist uniform; Henry Ford receives a medal of appreciation from Nazi Germany for his work in the U.S. to spread anti-Semitic views; radio priest Father Coughlin rails against communism and Judaism; famed aviator Charles Lindbergh offers a fascist salute at an America First rally. | Illustration: People's World

Back in the 1930s and ’40s, and even before that, there were fascist operatives in the U.S. with significant followings. Their aim was to destroy the U.S. government and remake America in their own image.

William Dudley Pelley, leader of the fascist Silver Legion and the Christian Party during the Great Depression, espoused many of the same things put forward by Christian nationalists of today. He relied on right-wing followers to provide the soldiers for his movement and dressed them in silver shirts, modeled on Hitler’s Brownshirts and Mussolini’s Blackshirts.

His anti-Semitic party promoted a program full of the kind of positions backed by the modern-day religious and fascist right. The torch-light paraders in Charlottesville who Trump said were “very fine people” would have felt at home in Pelley’s movement.

Some know about the 1933 Wall Street “Business Plot” to remove President Franklin D. Roosevelt and replace him with a military dictator, but most have forgotten these days about another planned fascist revolt that involved figures at the highest levels of power in Washington.

In the 1944 “Sedition Trial,” dozens of people were charged for plotting to undermine democracy with help directly from Hitler’s Germany—a scheme that involved several sitting members of the U.S. House and Senate who were using taxpayer dollars to pump Nazi propaganda into American homes. Connected to these figures were well-armed groups who schemed to kill Roosevelt and install a fascist dictatorship.

Unfortunately, the judge died during the proceedings, leading to a mistrial. Furthermore, the war had turned against Germany at this point, and with the Justice Department slow to prosecute the case in the first place (Doesn’t that sound familiar?) the whole matter was dropped.

There was an attempt to start up the prosecutions again during the Truman presidency, but it’s been reported that when he saw how many still-sitting members of Congress had been among the Nazi plotters, he ordered again that the whole affair be swept under the rug.

Other fascist and pro-Nazi figures active at the time included people like Charles Lindbergh, the aviator, Fr. Charles Coughlin, the infamous right-wing radio priest, and, who could forget, the big American capitalist, Henry Ford. Friendship with Hitler’s Germany was a cause dear to them all.

Lindbergh was a prominent voice in the isolationist and racist America First Committee, lending his name and support to it. At its peak, the organization had over 800,000 members and 450 chapters across the country. He openly espoused anti-Semitic views, opposed U.S. aid to Britain following Hitler’s attack, and encouraged Germany to invade the Soviet Union.

Coughlin was a Roman Catholic priest who had a radio show with 30 million listeners that he blasted daily with extreme right-wing propaganda. There was no internet or television in those days, and the population of the U.S. was only 130 million, so you can see how influential Coughlin was able to be.

He was so much of a problem that FDR called the Pope to complain about him, but the Pope himself was not, at that time, so sure that he actually wanted to be known as an anti-fascist. So, the Vatican didn’t do much at all to help out Roosevelt.

Coughlin told his listeners that ballots would eventually become useless and would have to be replaced with bullets. “It is fascism or communism,” Coughlin repeatedly told his listeners. “We are at a crossroads, and I take the road to fascism.” The “Christian Front,” which was guided by his broadcasts, worked with the German-American Bund, attacked organized labor, and promoted boycotts of Jewish businesses. Hundreds of National Guard and NYPD officers were members.

It was Henry Ford, however, who stood out as one of the most influential fascist leaders of the era. Known as the inventor of the iconic Model-T Ford automobile, the capitalist entrepreneur was one of the most prolific English-language fascist writers of all time. He was one of those men who felt they would make the greatest of dictators if only the masses could be made to see it.

By 1918, he was already writing that Jews were responsible for everything wrong with the world. High on the list of Jewish crimes, he said, was their role in supporting the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. In the U.S., he said, Jews had ruined culture, music, and baseball.

He ran his own anti-Semitic newspaper in Michigan and distributed half a million copies of his book, The International Jew, to his huge network of car dealerships and subscribers. He did more than any other fascist leader to take anti-Semitism mainstream in the U.S.

Ford was the only American, in fact, the only non-German, that Hitler wrote about in his Mein Kampf. When a reporter from the Detroit News interviewed Hitler in his office in Munich, she came back to the States describing how the Nazi leader has a portrait of Ford hanging on the wall behind his desk. Hitler told her, “Ford taught us how to be the most effective anti-Semites.”

In picking out Nazi sympathizers in those days, people often said one should look at the pictures they have in their offices or on their walls. A better question in some cases would have been, “Of what Americans do famous Nazis have pictures on their walls?”

False narratives let fascists in the door

These figures and their movements fought tooth and nail to either keep the U.S. out of World War II altogether or, if not, then to enter the fight on the side of Nazi Germany. The narrative so many of us grew up with was that we in the U.S. were the anti-fascist “good guys” who defeated the evil fascists overseas and made the world safe for democracy. Obviously, though, not everyone here at home was on board with that mission.

False narratives like that one eventually open the door to fascism coming back in. The fact that the socialist Soviet Union played the leading role in the defeat of fascism abroad while the U.S. played a very helpful but auxiliary role is forgotten today, despite the fact that it was well known at the time the Second World War was actually fought.

FDR, for instance, devoted more than one of his famous fireside chats to the heroic role of the Soviet fighters, especially at the Battle of Stalingrad, where Hitler’s eventual defeat became inevitable.

It is clear then that the threat of fascism is nothing new in America, nor is it really new in the history of any of the so-called democracies of the West. The fascist strain exists in all capitalist countries, and it rises and falls directly in proportion to a variety of political and economic factors.

At times in the past, that fascist strain was more influential in the U.S. than at others, although it never was able to actually seize power.

MAGA trumps them all

Despite the long history of fascism in America, nothing in that history measures up to the current fascist danger embodied in Donald Trump and his MAGA movement. The individual fascist leaders in our past were influential and reflected awful strains in our body politic. But they were only ever able to form third political parties that never gained much traction in general elections. In fact, the first time Trump ran for president, he also ran on an independent line and didn’t get too far.

So, the question is: What’s so different today? What makes MAGA far more dangerous than any of the fascist movements mentioned so far? The major difference is that, for the first time in U.S. history, fascists have achieved control of one of the two major political parties, the Republican Party.

It has been transformed from a right-of-center party and right-wing party into an outright fascist one, enabling fascist ideas to become much more acceptable. Its history of racism, anti-communism, and anti-labor politics in the 20th century, which were of course exemplified by Ronald Reagan, launched it well on its way to becoming the fascist party it is today.

We have a major political party saying openly that immigrants, Black people, criminals, gangs, and others need to be “rounded up” by the military and put into concentration camps. It’s the way to make our streets safe, GOP Trumpites are saying. The Army needs to be called up to shoot protesters, others declare.

  • Communists, Trump says, must also be “rounded up.”
  • Major press organizations, including networks like NBC, must be shut down.
  • Elections are of no real importance; they are all corrupt anyway so what we need is a “strongman” to put everything back in order.
  • LGBTQ and transgender people are destroying America’s traditional lifestyle and culture.
  • Unions are corrupt; workers can trust that they will do better without the interference of unions and should negotiate directly with their bosses themselves. Bringing back child labor is a good idea, too. It’s already been done in a number of GOP-run states.
  • All civil servants must be fired and replaced with loyal fascists. The Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 plan includes that plank.
  • Social Security, unemployment insurance, and all benefits paid for by working people themselves just make people lazy and should be eliminated. Taxes on the rich should be reduced further.
  • Books that espouse things other than Christianity should be banned. Many are already banned in numerous GOP states. George Orwell’s 1984 has just made the blacklist in at least three states.
  • Women’s bodies need to be controlled by right-wing lawmakers and judges, not by themselves.

A mass fascist party

The list goes on and on, but what is different now is that these ideas are being put forward, sometimes in milder or disguised form, not by some small sect but by one of the two major political parties.

In the past, fascist outfits like the Christian Front and the Silver Legion occupied the fringe; their size paled in comparison to the GOP today, which is a mass party. Members of the GOP are “respectable” lawmakers, not funny “crazies” who run around in silly-looking uniforms. Now, everyone can more easily and more comfortably get on board with fascist ideas because one of the two storied political parties is putting them forward.

Another thing different from the past is that the MAGA fascist GOP movement has so many more enablers—top political figures who either are too cowardly to oppose the fascist garbage generated by Trump or who themselves want to put those ideas forward because they see them as the secret to their success.

Also, different today is that much of the media portrays the rise of the MAGA fascist GOP and the fight to stop it as just another political contest, not as a life-and-death struggle to save democracy. The stepped-up racist and anti-communist rhetoric used by the right and too rarely challenged by the corporate press also legitimizes the extreme right and its policies.

When Roosevelt was president, he explained to the people how it was in the nation’s interest to team up with the Soviet Union to fight fascism, which we did, successfully. Today, politicians put forward ideas of false equivalencies between fascism and communism or socialism. That disarms people ideologically and weakens the fight against fascists.

People are plied with false information that tells them NATO is fighting for freedom or that a proxy war against Russia fought in a decidedly undemocratic Ukraine is a fight for democracy or that spending billions on war rather than peace promotes freedom. “War is Peace” is an Orwellian slogan, not at all a useful one in the struggle for democracy.

We cannot be effective at fighting the fascists when we, as anti-fascists, are not telling the truth or failing to insist that everyone in the anti-fascist coalition tell the truth. The lies of the fascists can’t be fought with just another set of lies. A case in point: It is difficult for liberal political leaders to convince the people of their seriousness about fighting the MAGA fascists when they support the policy of genocide in Gaza.

It is clear that the danger posed by the MAGA fascists is unprecedented and exceeds any of the threats we have faced before in the U.S. The People’s World is committed to doing battle against MAGA fascism. Other sections of the media are doing it, too. We wish the rest of the press will do the same. The free press in our country has been a guarantor of democracy, and now more than ever it must continue in that role. We are not covering a typical election horserace this year. We are covering the fight between fascism and democracy.

All the movements, labor, and all its allies, must reject anything and everything that divides people, including ideas that equate fascism and communism.  When communists, socialists, and democratic-minded capitalists got together in the last century, they defeated the greatest worldwide fascist threat to have arisen up until that time. This time, fascists will have control of nuclear weapons, something they did not have in the last century.

All of us, in our towns and cities and communities, must engage with our friends, co-workers, neighbors, and families every chance we get, alerting them to the need to unite and fight.

And we must turn out in unprecedented numbers in 2024 to defeat all the MAGA fascists up and down the line. We can’t afford to stay home. The stakes are too high. We can defeat the fascists, and they know we can do it.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the views of its author.

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John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.