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The Fascist Game: A Conversation on the Origins of the American Modern Right

Two men wearing black robes, hoods, and hats with skulls and crossbones stand in front of a table holding weapons.
In this 1936 photo, police officers exhibit the robes and weapons of the Black Legion. Black Legionnaires conducted a terrorist campaign in industrial Michigan as the Committee for Industrial Organization attempted to organize labor. Legionnaires spoke of staging a coup d’état to overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt and establish a fascist dictatorship. Courtesy Firestone Library, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J.

In the December 2018 issue of the Journal of American History, Joseph Fronczak offers a transnational reinterpretation of the origins of the U.S. modern Right in his article, “The Fascist Game: Transnational Political Transmission and the Genesis of the U.S. Modern Right.” Whereas historical works on U.S. conservatism generally present the modern Right as a post–World War II, homegrown project, Fronczak points to the Great Depression years and, by engaging with recent trends in fascist studies, contextualizes the making of the U.S. modern Right within the broader formation of the interwar global Right. During the age of fascism, political actors on the right in the United States looked abroad for solutions, drawing on a transnational exchange of political ideas, concerns, and practices.

In this piece, Stephen D. Andrews, the managing editor of the JAH, and Fronczak discuss the piece and its implications.

Fascism is sometimes seen as almost inseparable from its European context, to a degree that makes it seem inapplicable to politics in the United States. How do you see differences in the way fascism operated in the United States from other places?

I think the question of national difference is the key to what I was trying to figure out with “The Fascist Game.” One of the lessons I take from the great literature on French fascism (I’m thinking of works by the likes of Robert Paxton, Robert Soucy, Chris Millington, even Zeev Sternhell, who’s very different from the rest) is that it’s a trap to think in terms of national fascisms. Not only did 1930s fascism bleed over national boundaries, it wasn’t practiced in any one way inside a nation’s boundaries. The whole thing was a transnational blur. And perhaps more to the point, after 1932, 1933, fascism became a politics interested in the whole world: there was suddenly a lot of talk of the construction of a fascist world, fascism as the light of a new age, even world domination. For all the historiographical framing of fascism as a sort of ultranationalism, you understand more of how fascism worked during the 1930s by thinking about the collective transnational making of fascism than by thinking in terms of comparative national or continental histories.

Focusing on a place like the United States helped me to see how in the mid-1930s countries other than Germany and Italy, countries outside of Europe, suddenly took leading roles in shaping fascism’s meaning and in making fascism meaningful the world over. After the Nazis’ rise to power, fascism became less Eurocentric, paradoxically, because the global Right began working towards the Nazi example. This is a point that the historian of Argentina Federico Finchelstein makes well in his books on fascism and populism.

I go so far as to argue that it was by working towards a fascist ideal that local rightwing movements also worked towards each other—that they converged or homogenized or, in a sense, globalized, and made together what we might think of as the global Right. And that sense of connectivity has been sustained even in our post-fascist age. I think that to understand today’s political movements on the right—even those that are avowedly nationalist—you have to think of them as interconnected, as players in a global Right. You can see this most obviously when Steve Bannon visits Marine Le Pen or collaborates with Italian neo-fascists or talks with AfD. But it’s important to recognize that Bannon’s itinerary mostly just makes legible what is a much deeper dynamic of solidarity of purpose and similarity of worldview running through the global Right since the age of fascism.

You show that fascism was a form of popular politics. How was it practiced and how did it shape American politics and culture? How did that influence extend beyond the 1930s?

Other historians have made the point, but I think Eric Hobsbawm put it best that “the major difference between the fascist and the non-fascist Right was that fascism existed by mobilizing masses from below.” Unlike the “traditional reactionaries” of conservatism, fascists felt at home in the democratic and popular politics of modern times.[1] What’s most striking to me about this insight is that it captures how fascism was empowering for the popular Right, “the base.”

This mobilizational aspect of fascism took off in the mid-1930s. In the article, I argue that before 1934, the prevailing meaning of fascism was a form of government, authoritarian and dictatorial, and that then around 1934 it was transformed into a form of politics, violent and participatory. Fascism became something much more dangerous and immediate, more sanguinary, more imaginatively hateful. Fascism also became something much more readily practiced throughout the world—one certainly didn’t need to control the state to exercise fascism, one could do so in the streets.

As far as how the influence of fascism and Depression-era popular politics extended beyond the 1930s, I think Hobsbawm’s point about mobilizing from below is what stands out. Set aside questions of what counts as fascist, and instead focus on the mass mobilizations on the right during the era. In the mid-1930s United States, the Right radicalized and mobilized to counter its enemies such as the New Deal state, Committee for Industrial Organization (cio) unionism, and Popular Front cultural politics. In the article I argue that this was the genesis of the U.S. modern right. It was most apparent in the industrial battlefields, where capital turned to popular mobilizations to fend off industrial labor organizing efforts. By taking on the role of bodyguard for the interests of economic elites, the popular Right accrued more and more power within the Right. This made the U.S. modern Right (or what we usually, rather awkwardly, call “conservatism”) a fundamentally unstable political bloc. That instability has defined the U.S. Right since, and it’s never been more apparent than now.

We usually think of U.S. modern conservatism as a post-World War II phenomenon. Once you pull the modern Right back into the interwar era, it brings up the question of fascism, because fascism was the interwar Right’s exemplar of mass mobilization. The point is not that the modern Right at its moment of genesis in some essentialized way “was” fascist, but rather that the Depression-era U.S. Right was part of a global circuit of political ambitions, beliefs, and mobilizational causes that was without doubt triggered by and driven by fascism. Like New Deal progressives and leftist internationalists, whose cosmopolitan influences are well recognized, American rightwing partisans during the Depression shaped their thought within a transnational swirl of ideas, information, and practices.

You mention the cultural transmission of political ideas and practices. Was there something about this historical moment that allowed fascism to move so effectively?

Yes. People learned about fascism by taking part in mass culture. The transnational transmission of fascism wasn’t really the work of well-networked intellectuals or well-connected organizations, which is how more functionalist intellectual histories usually suggest that ideas move around in the world. Rather, common people fashioned their own takes on fascism from what they found in the intellectual commons of mass culture: in the daily newspaper, newsreel cinema, and broadcast radio.

The interwar era was a golden age of mass-circulation daily newspapers, and they were full of international news agencies’ reports, foreign correspondents’ filings, and syndicated photos. These newspapers were daily primers in how to act out fascism. Local people in places like New York and Chicago and Minneapolis and Atlanta—just like people in Paris, Algiers, Buenos Aires and Havana—figured out fascism by learning about it in mass media, and then they put what they learned into practice. Even a negative story on fascism abroad was a how-to guide to fascist performativity in the right hands.

This mass cultural circuitry for politics to course through was quite specific to the world of “modern times.” I remember the magical experience of reading for the first time Lizabeth Cohen’s history of interwar industrial workers’ encounter with mass culture, The Making of a New Deal. Cohen recognized that common people didn’t passively receive what mass culture transmitted to them, but that mass culture had dimensions that were empowering—and politicizing!—for common people. Cohen gave her readers an epic of national class formation—of the American industrial working class present at its own creation—and showed workers actively “making a New Deal” by inventing a new center-left political base based on their encounter with mass culture. I think a parallel process took place on the right. And what fascinated me in researching the Right’s reaction to Cohen’s working-class insurgency was how cosmopolitan it was. The Right’s cosmopolitan political imagination grew out of the popular Right’s own encounter with mass culture at a moment when visions of fascism dominated the news.

We think of fascism as a movement that emerges in the 1930s. Was there a longer political history that shaped the context for the popularity of fascist politics in the US?

I actually think that the mid-1930s worked more as a moment of political innovation and creation than as an era that relied on inherited political traditions. The economic depression itself generated such a sense of rupture from the past and smashed to ruins the old world order of classical liberalism. And then the era’s political creativity on the left—whether you think of New Deal experiments or the ideological mixing of Popular Front politics at the New Deal’s left end—also prompted the Right to abandon politics of backward-looking reaction, or conservatism in its etymological sense. Instead, the Right sought to create new politics. In the United States, as elsewhere, the Right didn’t so much look to a national past to fashion its politics, it looked out into the contemporary world.

My starting point for “The Fascist Game” was Alan Brinkley’s classic, beautiful, learned Voices of Protest. Brinkley would answer your question emphatically in the affirmative. In the book, he argues that both Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin represented a last gasp of an old, dying, distinctly American populist tradition. However, there’s also the question of how technology shapes our politics. This is something that is perhaps more obvious than ever in the age of Twitter and Trump. Father Coughlin on the radio during the Great Depression makes for a telling analogy.

I defer on Long, but I think that Coughlin was working in a hyper-modern and global political context. He was a master of the new medium, the radio, and he was interested in the wider world beyond the United States. I argue that he was much more sharply an ideological antisemite already in 1934 than is apparent in Brinkley’s generous accounting. Coughlin was a Roman Catholic priest, born in Canada, living in Fordist Michigan, broadcasting nationally, intrigued by German Nazism and Italian Fascism, and warning against an international conspiracy of bankers hell-bent on ruling the world. He contrasted what he called “gentile silver” and Rothschild gold. He subtly conflated “international bankers” and “Jews,” as when he insisted that revolution was necessary unless every “international banker” could be “converted.” Converted from what, precisely? It was politically savvy, of course, to leave such things unsaid. All of which is to say that I think the modern, ideological antisemitism of the interwar global Right explains Father Coughlin more vividly than does any suggestion of regional provincialism recycling old populist stereotypes.

You bring up antisemitism. How do antisemitism and racism function in these political ideas and practices? Does it differ from the European experience?

I was struck by how easily ideological hatreds jumped tracks: how politically engaged people can quickly skip from targeting one hatred-figure to another. Jim Crow racism and its contemporary antisemitism reinforced each other. They borrowed grammar, imagery, and logic from each other, and of course they both insisted on scapegoating vulnerable people for vast systemic problems of political economy.

In Atlanta, for example, there were blackshirts who crafted a working-class white supremacism. What intrigued me most was that they decided to become blackshirts instead of presenting themselves as Klansmen. In the 1930s U.S. South, why put on black shirts instead of white sheets? They chose to express their claim of white supremacy not in a heritage politics bound by the U.S. Southern past but rather through the medium of a radically modern and global politics, fascism. The consequences of their doing so were, I think, rather profound. Instead of putting themselves forth as inheritors of a regionalist or nationalist political tradition, they asserted themselves as authors of a new global politics. By becoming blackshirts, they connected their political projects to Europe’s radicalized Right and rendered themselves part of a new global Right. Indeed, such choices were what produced this global Right.

You discuss fascinating events and figures that have faded from our historical memory such as the 1934 Wall Street plot to stage a coup and install a fascist dictatorship in the United States, the terrorist network in industrial Michigan known as the Black Legion, and the blueprint for “modern strikebreaking” called the Mohawk Valley Formula. Why aren’t things like the Wall Street plot, the Black Legion, and the Mohawk Valley Formula more prominent in our political history?

There are several reasons, all of which are important, some of which have to do with the production of the archive, but I think the one that’s most relevant for your readers has to do with how historians look back on the past from their present. This point often makes people queasy, because it invites charges of “presentism.” But the present is useful for historians because it can serve as a check for the accuracy of what we’re writing about the past. It’s always worth asking, could the present plausibly have derived from the history we’ve written?

The historiography of the U.S. modern Right is at a fascinating moment because the previous generation of books produced a golden age of scholarship, yet the portrayal of conservatism in that historiography doesn’t explain today’s Right too well. Rick Perlstein, author of one of those rare popular history books that academics generally endorse (Before the Storm), wrote a historiographical essay in the New York Times in 2017 to this effect, suggesting that historians, “[t]he professional guardians of America’s past,” had “advanced a narrative of the American right that was far too constricted to anticipate the rise of a man like Trump.”

I started writing “The Fascist Game” well before the rise of Trumpism, but already when I began I was interested in what I saw as a dissonance between the conservatism of this historiography and the more visceral, much more impassioned and ready-for-a-fight, much more globally imaginative popular Right that I knew growing up and that I thought was at work in the Tea Party moment of the early 2010s. The Tea Party in particular made me think about how even the threat of violence, even the hint of violence, shaped politics and also about how fundamentally unstable this political bloc we call “conservatism” has been for decades. As I progressed, I became more and more interested in writing an origins story that could conceivably lead to today’s Right. “The Fascist Game” was my attempt to write a history of the actually existing Right of today.

One of the most interesting things you discuss is the Mohawk Valley Formula, which was described as the choice to “play the fascist game.” How did it work and what was its legacy for political culture in the US?

Strikebreaking Mohawk Valley Formula-style was to mobilize a popular movement to crush the strikers rather than rely on Burns Agency goons and hired thugs. Mobilizing a popular movement transformed industrial warfare from a management-labor dispute into an ideological struggle waged throughout the entire social theater, politicizing the public. The formula, then, systematized the dynamic that I think was central to the making of the modern Right: the tying together of high capital and popular movements into one political bloc.

I think you’re exactly right to bring up the idea of “the fascist game” when talking about the Mohawk Valley Formula. When I read labor journalist Benjamin Stolberg’s claim in the Nation in 1937 that industrial capital was choosing “to play the fascist game,” I thought this conveyed fascism as situational stratagem. The notion of fascism as a game to be played captured much of how fascism worked in Depression-era America. I’ve never thought that fascism worked as a dyed-in-the-wool identity; as I wrote, I thought it worked as something people toyed with, learned from, winked at, made use of when handy, and then dodged from when it became inconvenient. I think it’s fair to say that historians have brushed off this sort of talk of fascism, but I think that doing so is based on the assumption that there was somewhere—Europe—where fascism existed without contestation and confusion.

Stolberg’s metaphor of fascism as a game also posed fascism as something of a bet, a gamble. What he recognized was that the fascist game gave agency to the popular Right —high capital couldn’t control the vigilantes, volunteers, and other actors they’d mobilized. Stolberg’s thoughtful phrase is: “A social movement is never a conspiracy. It lives and learns and crystallizes.” This means being careful to not just think of the modern Right as the project of businessmen, with common people following their lead—perhaps even duped into acting against their interests, as some would have it—but taking seriously common people as original authors of the modern Right, freely choosing to ally with high capital against their political enemies.

You describe fascism as “participatory antidemocracy” and advise us to look at the role political violence played in people’s “respective political economies.” Is violence at the core of fascist popular politics?

Federico Finchelstein makes a good argument for the sacralization of violence as what sets fascism apart from other big ideological -isms. One of the things that violence in our politics does is expose the falsity of much of what we say. Violence reveals. I spend quite a bit of time in the article explaining the antilabor violence in Minneapolis in 1934. A prominent vigilante who relished strutting around in a beret, boots, and a revolver belt insisted, after the bloodshed was over, that he’d only engaged in strikebreaking violence out of altruistic concern for the families who needed food and the poor farmers who needed to sell their produce. I think his choice of paramilitary fashion and his choice to engage in violence betrays more of his political imagination and his ideological bedrock than does his choice of words. Indeed, I think this is an example of how people use words to hide their politics.

Words often conceal, but violence reveals. This is what was at the heart of my intentions in writing the article as I did. I am much more skeptical of what people say than I think most historians of ideas are. In the realm of politics, I think it is a good rule of thumb to think what is said is a lie unless it is demonstrably true or said in good faith. I was struck by how the strikebreaking movements that mushroomed all over steel country during the Little Steel strikes had the most anodyne, respectable formal identities, like “the Citizens’ Committee” or the “John Q. Public League.” The moderation of their vocabulary indicated the radicalism of their task. So the trick is to constantly put in conversation what people say with what else they do, and to draw conclusions from the whole.

Finally, regarding the idea of fascism as participatory antidemocracy: This takes us back to Hobsbawm’s insight that fascism was driven by the mobilization of the masses on the right. The popular violence of strikebreaking in these years was wildly participatory and it profoundly empowered common people on the right, the popular Right. The central paradox of fascism is that it was a mechanism for common people to assert themselves politically, yet they did so largely to repress the political assertions of other common people, people like Lizabeth Cohen’s hopeful industrial workers in Chicago. In this way, one of the most significant legacies of fascism is not in what fascism achieved, made, or accomplished—or where “it happened”—but in what it fended off from happening.

Further reading:

Directly referred to in the conversation are the following books: Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression (New York, 1982); Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (Cambridge, Eng., 1990); Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (London, 1994); and Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (New York, 2001).

For books by the scholars mentioned, see Federico Finchelstein, From Fascism to Populism in History (Oakland, 2017); Brian Jenkins and Chris Millington, France and Fascism: February 1934 and the Dynamics of Political Crisis (London, 2015); Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York, 2004); Robert Soucy, French Fascism: The Second Wave, 1933-1939 (New Haven, 1995); Zeev Sternhell, Neither Right nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France, trans. David Maisel (Berkeley, 1986).

Readers interested in thinking about the legacies of fascism for the present could turn to Enzo Traverso, The New Faces of Fascism: Populism and the Far Right, trans. David Broder (London, 2019). Finchelstein’s From Fascism to Populism in History also has many insights on present politics and its relation to the Depression-era past.

Joseph Fronczak is a lecturer and research scholar in the History Department at Princeton University, and he is currently a fellow at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University. He is writing a history of antifascism, Everything Is Possible: Antifascism and the Makings of a Global Left during the Great Depression.

[1] Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (London, 1994), 117.