Commentary Magazine


American Fuehrer in Dress Rehearsal

Hitler has been off the scene less than a year, yet already it is difficult to believe that this flagrant little paranoid could have dominated the drama of Western civilization during its most critical modern period.

For nearly a decade after World War I Hitler seemed to his contemporaries as ridiculous as a candidate for power as Joe McWilliams seemed in 1940 to the disgusted citizens who spat and walked away from his cheap “covered wagon” in Yorkville. Yet Hitler lived to impose his private nightmare upon the world; and Joe McWilliams is only one of scores of more or less pathological, more or less venal agitators who will try to exploit the market for anti-Semitism created by the economic and social tensions of our postwar adjustment.

In appraising our native anti-Semitic demagogues one must not be misled by the fact that their ideological patter consists of easily refuted economic and sociological nonsense. Frequently they talk and act like lunatics, but that does not make them either lunatics or harmless; on the contrary, they must be regarded as potentially serious political forces who, given favoring soil and season, might easily grow and flourish disastrously.

Not in America? Let us remember Huey Long. If Huey Long had not died, the course of American and world history might have been very substantially changed. In the spring and summer of 1935, while Huey was studying his maps and jockeying the pawns of his political alliances, not only Louisiana but all America was still wallowing in a bread-and-circuses relief economy. Huey was the ablest demagogue the depression had produced. With his Share-the-Wealth movement entrenched in Louisiana, he was ready to move into the arena of national politics.

The Kingfish was shot. From the relief economy we moved step by step into the war economy. The showmen of our protofascism went back to selling snake-oil and salvation.

Today, back on the scene again is the brass-lunged fundamentalist showman, Gerald L. K. Smith, who deserted William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Shirts to beat a drum in Huey’s circus, and promptly at his death attempted through copyright to steal the name “Share-the-Wealth.” Major frustrations of American life remain unresolved, and evidently our leading anti-Semitic demagogues see their chance in the economic and social dislocations of reconversion.

Even at this early date, we see an attempted mobilization. With Smith and Joe McWilliams among his aides, Bob Reynolds, ex-Senator, ex-patent-medicine salesman, and ex-circus barker, is currently driving to organize a large-scale coalitionist American Nationalist Party, a kind of protofascist political holding company composed of reactionary Republicans, certain Southern Democrats, and a varied assortment of political cultists, ex-Communists, crackpots, and fully pedigreed gangsters.

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A Pioneer Study

Since experience teaches us to regard such developments seriously, the systematic study of these would-be American Euehrers is very much in order. To that end the resources of social science have been mobilized in the recent studies by the Institute of Social Research at Columbia University, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. Although these studies are still preliminary, the data already in hand are of extraordinary interest and value.

In what follows, the writer draws largely upon the transcripts and analyses of the broadcasts of George Allison Phelps and the Reverend X, of the West Coast, and of the street-corner speeches of Joseph E. McWilliams. These three specimens exhibit, sufficiently for our present “purposes, the three schools of anti-Semitic demagogy from which the majority of the contemporary American practitioners would appear to derive, namely, a corruption of religious fundamentalism, both Protestant and Catholic, salesmanship, especially advertising, and lunatic-fringe politics.

In the Institute’s studies we see the Fuehrer in action, interrupted only by the sociological and psycho-analytic comments of leading authorities in the social sciences, to whom the performance of the agitator is neither novel nor bewildering.

For performance it is! The studies reveal clearly that the key to the understanding of the Fuehrer type is to recognize that his madness has indeed a method, and the method is that of a showman.

The power of the demagogue is not the power of ideas or arguments or economic programs, lending themselves to analysis and refutation by rational counter-argument. It is the enchantment of the emotionally susceptible by the power of a drama created by a talented author-producer-actor, in which the audience are made participants. Under the spell of the performance fantasy supplants reality, the mind is short-circuited, and men are habituated to hatred and thoughts of violence.

A few notes on the biographies and background of the American demagogues before we turn to the description and analysis of their Fuehrer-drama, with its stage-villain Jew and its stage hero-savior offering salvation through sadism.

The three commodities for which there is apparently always a market in our society are holiness, health, and economic Shangri-La’s attained by some kind of funny-money alchemy (Free Silver, the technocratic erg, the Townsend Plan, Thirty-Dollars-Every-Thursday, Share-the-Wealth, Joe McWilliams’ Serviceman’s Reconstruction Plan, etc., etc.). Since the sales formula is essentially the same, the salesmen of these various commodities readily transfer their talents from one field to another. James True was once a third-string space-writer for Printer’s Ink—to the present mortification of the publishers of this advertising trade magazine, who are definitely not anti-Semitic. Gerald L. K. Smith’s associates at one time included a couple of unfrocked preachers he found selling stock for brokerage houses, and one of them sued Smith for failing to divide the “take.” When the advertising business slumped in the early thirties, and ad-man William Dudley Pelley lost his pill and gadget accounts, he got himself a revelation and began selling political shirts by methods not essentially different from those to which ordinary advertising practice had accustomed him. When Joe McWilliams found himself no longer wanted as a gadget salesman, he got himself a wide-brimmed Stetson and sold anti-Semitism from his covered wagon on the street corners of Yorkville. His Serviceman’s Reconstruction Plan is lavishly printed and bound like a blue-sky oil-stock promotion and its pseudo-Marxist economic patter, seemingly picked up at the Workers’ School, which he attended briefly, reads like a burlesque of Jay Lovestone.

The best-known American exploiter of the fundamentalist brand of Fuehrerism is the Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, who studied homiletics at Valparaiso College and Butler University. This swashbuckler has served as pitchman successively for Pelley, Talmadge, Long, Coughlin, and Old-Age Townsend, who fired him. At this writing he is in Los Angeles, allied with the Allen brothers, promoters of “Ham and Eggs,” and engaged in working the same rich alluvial deposit of Middle Western fundamentalism, populism and crackpot money theologies that had been previously exploited by Phelps and the Reverend X.

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American Fuehrer—Drama

The most striking finding of the Institute’s studies is the close similarity in method of the three demagogues whose speeches and broadcasts it has analyzed; this applies especially to the two West Coast agitators whose performances—considered as show business, which is what they are essentially—are as alike as a couple of travelling Tom-shows. Just as Hitler borrowed some of his propaganda methods from American advertising practice, so, in the formula used with minor modifications by the Reverend X, Phelps, and Joe McWilliams, there is evidence of considerable conscious or unconscious borrowing from Hitler and other European fascist agitators.

In the following composite version of this standardized Fuehrer-drama, it has been necessary to condense and simplify a good deal, thereby sacrificing the detailed subtlety of the Institute’s analysis, while retaining the essential elements, which are always the same. Like all melodrama, the plot is based on the irreconcilable conflict between the forces of good and evil, with the villain forever pursuing and the hero always in danger, but assured of ultimate victory, given the ardent participation of the audience. As in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, the leading actor is also producer and stage manager, introducing the other characters and interpreting the action.

For the purpose of the drama it is essential that the hero be presented not as a superman or dictator, but as a plain democratic gallus-wearing American; he is bitterly persecuted by the totalitarian forces of evil so that while fighting bravely he is obliged to cry to us for help. (When fascism comes to America, said Huey Long, it will be presented as anti-fascism.)

One of the most crucified and persecuted individuals of this generation, according to his own platform declaration, is this same Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith. Hitler, you may remember, also complained that he was persecuted, but being a genuine paranoiac, he probably believed it to some extent. This modicum of sincerity made him much more effective than the cynical Gerald.

“Listen, my brother, my sister,” declaimed the Reverend X in the early years of his broadcasting career, “With my right hand raised to God, I tell you that I hold no malice against any human being today, although I think there is no man in western America who has been more persecuted for the cause of Jesus Christ and truth and righteousness, and yet I don’t hold a thing in my heart. I love the souls of all men.”

So infatuated with his Christ-identification is the Reverend X that he stops just short of saying “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Often he prays for the souls of his persecutors. Then, shrewdly, he suggests that his hearers, who may be less prepared to turn the other cheek, may also suffer persecution: “Listen, Christians, do you remember that He said if they have persecuted me they will also persecute you.”

The Rev. Phelps is especially adept at invoking the Christ-identification. He is poor, he sacrifices all for his mission. Humbly he accepts the “cross of death” under which he labors toward the resurrection of true Americanism. And like the Reverend X, he suggests that his followers too must expect to bear that cross.

Joe McWilliams is also persecuted, but the Christ-identification is not for him. “They can threaten me all they want to,” he shouts. “I am not a damn bit afraid to walk the streets of New York all by myself. I don’t have to. I have the toughest men in New York with me.”

In his bid for followers the hero opens his heart and revels in personal intimacies. He is no God, but a plain fellow with human foibles, hopes, and worries—especially financial worries—like you and me. He is Joe McWilliams, the handsome, big-hearted “immigrant from Texas.” He is the Reverend X, who tells the Lord—being careful to be overheard by his radio audience—that he just can’t go on unless God sends him the money to pay a $300 printing bill; later he confesses to his hearers that he “almost cried” when he got a $50 contribution to his cause. He is George Allison Phelps, the solid Christian American husband and father, who has been obliged by stem duty and the spreading menace of the forces of subversion to leave his little white house with the blue roof, to take long railroad journeys and to spend lonely nights in dreary hotels.

Like Hitler, both of these West Coast agitators present themselves as indefatigable beyond the powers of ordinary men. This is an attribute of the hero’s dedicated role. His work is a labor of love. He doesn’t ask you to work as hard as he works.

Yet dedicated and indefatigable though he be, the hero is but the servant of his cause and of one far greater. (“Ich bin nur der Trommler,” said Hitler in his early years.) Thus the Reverend X:

If this message I am giving today glorifies X—or any other human being, it is bound to fail, but if this message of the Great Christian American Crusade lifts up the Son of God, this movement is bound to succeed.

“We don’t have much of a church here,” continues the Great Little Guy. “We don’t have any stained-glass windows. . . . But folks, we love Christ out here, and we are trying to serve him to the very best of our ability. If you are worn and tired of life and if you think that God does not love you, suppose you get out that old Bible of yours, that old Bible that you have loved and that has come down through the years. . . . Perhaps it belonged to that old father or mother of yours. Go get it, won’t you?”

(What a great little guy, sigh X’s listeners. Poor as a church-mouse, persecuted and threatened, but he won’t be stopped. A great little guy!)

Ever since the shattering economic and psychological catastrophe of the depression, this country has been full of little guys who would like to think of themselves as great little guys, but find it difficult to do so. America has given them very little to love during this period, and the resulting vacuum aches with the need of hating something or somebody.

The Fuehrer-drama, as enacted by Joe McWilliams and the two West Coast agitators, supplies both of these needs. It enables the little guy—man or woman—to identify himself with the Leader, who presents himself too as a little guy but a great little guy. The leader and, through him, the follower can at last respect himself and even love himself; for does not he too possess some of the Christ-attributes of long sufferance and heroism in the fight against evil?

What evil? Who? Where?

The re-awakened self-respect of the little guy turns to combativeness. He wants to be shown the face of the enemy, and the great little guy at the microphone or on the platform obliges—in so far as he dares.

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Let’s Hate the “Eskimos”

The enemy is the “Eskimos,” said Joe McWilliams. Give power to that great little guy Joe McWilliams and you won’t see so many “Eskimo” faces in the bureaus at City Hall. (The applause at this point is as much for the accompanying mimicry as for the statement.) Instead there will be more Irish, Bohemian, Czech and Polish faces.

“I want to remind everybody of this fact,” shouts McWilliams. “That the Poles have been putting up a fight against the Eskimos a hundred years before Joe McWilliams started. . . . I came here for the same reason that you people came from Poland, from Czechoslovakia, from Ireland, from Italy, and from many spots of the globe because you thought that in New York would be a magnificent opportunity for Christian people to develop a Christian civilization, and the reason for this fight is this: that the civilization of New York as it is led today is not a Christian civilization, it is an Asiatic civilization.

“We don’t care whether you come from Italy or Czechoslovakia, or whether you come from Ireland or Wyoming, there is only one thing we want to know and that is this: Are you Christian and are you Aryan?”

The cat got out of the bag that time. Usually McWilliams, although an avowed admirer of Hitler, was careful at that period to stick to his “Eskimo” euphemism.

The West Coast fundamentalist anti-Semitic agitators were on the whole much less discreet.

“You have no conception,” warned the Reverend X, “Unless you have been up against it as I and some of the rest of us have been, the extent and the length to which they will go to accomplish their purpose. They follow me around. They have half a dozen or a dozen constantly on my trail. Whenever I go to speak they try to cancel my engagements. They get hold of managers and radio stations—they have cancelled our contract that had two months to go, purely on the basis of one thing—Communist and radical and Jewish opposition to the Christian American crusade. . . .

“These denizens of hell and sons of Judas Iscariot have sworn that we and the Christian American Crusade is going to be put out of business within the next three months. I want you to know this. I told my family last night and I told them again today. I said I will never surrender, never change, I will go on and on and on until the end. It doesn’t matter what comes or what goes and I want you Americans to stay with me in this battle until the truth and justice of Christ is triumphant. You will have plenty of opportunity during the months to come the way things are moving to die for the cause of Christ because it is certainly moving rapidly in that direction.”

It is easy to imagine the response of X’s audience to this. “A great little guy. He told his family—didja hear him say that? No, he won’t let them bluff him—the dirty—s.”

George Allison Phelps too is a great little guy, and how he has suffered! The plots that these foul foreigners have contrived against him! The fiendish persecutions he has had to endure—decency forbids him to describe them precisely! But he can be pushed too far. In the end this imported Hollywood riff-raff will find itself up against the stone wall of the Great Little Guy’s Yankee stubbornness. He’ll hit back. He’ll blow the lid off! He’ll really become anti-something. He’ll step on them—and hard!

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Pogrom Revivalist

Note that the Great Little Guy lets himself go on occasion. It is a part of the act, just as it was a part of Hitler’s act. Listen again to the Reverend X:

You know I thank God that I am kind of turning loose of my heart the last three years. . . . Listen, Presbyterians and Episcopalians and all those schools of stoicism, turn loose of your heart. Oh I know how hard it is. You kind of feel like I do. You are afraid of fanaticism. There is a rightful place for the expression of love for God. You needn’t be a fanatic. Remember what St. Augustine said one day, ‘If you let heart go, you will toddle off to God.’ Clap your hands just a little bit. Remember over yonder in the Old Testament where it says that the trees have clapped their hands for joy. . . . All of the earth is filled with the glory of the glory of the Lord. My, it is wonderful to know God, isn’t it? It is wonderful to know the love of Christ.

Anyone who has ever attended a Holy Roller tent revival will recognize the intent and predictable effect of exhortations of this sort. The end-result is usually an emotional orgy. But it can also be, and sometimes is, a race riot. To quote directly from the Institute’s analysis:

As soon as the barriers against crying and self-pity are broken down, one may express unchecked one’s suppressed feelings of hatred and fury as well, and the collective religious hysteria of the Holy Rollers may be consummated by the pogrom. Moreover, the more the barriers of self-control within the listeners are broken down by the orator’s encouragement, the more easily they are subjected to his will rather than to their own. . . .

It has often been pointed out that fascism feeds upon the lack of emotional gratification in an industrial society and that it grants to the people that irrational satisfaction which is denied to them by today’s social and economic setup. . . .

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Tricks of the Trade

In its analyses of the broadcasts and speeches of the Reverend X, George Allison Phelps, and Joe McWilliams, the Institute identifies and describes nearly half a hundred demagogic tricks and devices, among them the following:

The “lone wolf” device, by which the agitator, who usually has some backing from reactionary individuals and groups, dramatizes himself as an independent, footloose crusader.

The nostalgic glamorization of the “good old times” before the detested refugees and “Eskimos” appeared on the scene.

The flight-of-ideas technique whereby, as in an advertisement written to evade the curbs of the Federal Trade Commission, ideas having no logical connection are tied together by repeated verbal association. Thus the sound of a hoarse-voiced foghorn reminds you illogically, but effectively, to buy a particular kind of bath soap; similarly, the Reverend X’s most un-Christian harangues recruit followers for his “Crusade”—a movement that reputable Protestant and Catholic churchmen view with alarm and detestation.

The emotional release device, as illustrated by the Reverend X’s appeal to “turn loose of your heart.” Knowing that many people in our mechanized industrial society are emotionally starved and frustrated, the agitator undertakes deliberately to break down taboos on irrational behavior and to make attitudes of hysteria socially acceptable.

The “movement” that moves nowhere. Characteristically, fascist and anti-Semitic agitators leave you in the dark concerning their objectives. Thus the Reverend X calls upon his followers to “demonstrate to the world that there are patriotic, Godfearing Christian men and women who are yet willing to give their lives for the cause of God, home and native land.” But how and where is this cause endangered? And what would the Fuehrer have us do about it? The Reverend X does not say. He merely fans excitement, and calls for “action”—in short, sets the stage for a pogrom.

The familiar “amalgam” device by which all liberals are smeared as Communists, just as Communist propagandists denounce all critics of Stalin as “Trotskyists,” assassins of the pen, fascist agents of Hitler and Hearst, etc., etc.

The “democratic cloak” trick. Here the agitator makes much of “our ancient liberties” and hides his own totalitarian aims by posing as the defender of embattled democracy against the assaults of its conspiratorial foes, the Communists and the “Eskimos.”

The exaltation of “unity.” In our confused and atomized society, any suggestion that unity is to be had is likely to be welcomed. But the unity offered by our native fascist agitators, like that of the Nazis, is highly exclusive. The foreigner is outside. “Those evil forces”—Communists, radicals, skeptics, Jews—are condemned and driven away.

The “cleanliness” obsession. Americans hate dirt and disease and worship cleanliness and health—witness the omnipresence of these themes in magazine advertisements and radio commercials. Seizing upon this obsession the agitator fills his mouth with the language of the health fanatic. The nation must be purged and fumigated before the agitator and his friends can live in cleanliness and health.

Many of these devices appear regularly in the arsenals of fascist agitators both here and abroad. By recognizing them one is enabled to identify the type. It remains true, however, that even after you have added all these and other devices together, you still don’t get the inimitable come-on, spiel and pitch of the Reverend X, or George Allison Phelps, or Joe McWilliams. Even the sorriest of these third-string agitators regularly transcends in action the sum total of the tricks he employs. Style is the man, whether one is talking about a cheap shouter like Gerald L. K. Smith, or a near-genius like Huey Long; about Rudyard Kipling or Robert W. Service, about Joe Louis or some battered ten-dollar-a-fight pug.

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Folk Remedy for Fuehrers

Just as the sanitarian is careful to base his control measures upon an accurate knowledge of the actual or potential infections of the health environment, so an effective defense against our native Fuehrers and their more or less infectious folk dramas must be based on a realistic understanding of what we are dealing with. Obviously it makes no sense to flit these social pests with precisely the kind of spray on which they thrive. To chase them off the air, break up their meetings, dig up the dirt in their pasts—all such measures can easily result in building up the prestige of these sleazy vaudevillians in their self-elected roles as “martyrs.”

A safer and in the end a more effective tactic is to work with the grain of the American folk habit. To balance our susceptibility to the wiles of social and political nostrum salesmen, we have, as a people, substantial assets of folk sanity and shrewdness. We do not suffer fools gladly—not all of us, all the time. And we suffer phonies not at all when we can spot them, as we usually can, given a little time.

That there is ample shrewd insight in native America upon which to build was demonstrated to this writer when in the spring of 1935 he, with several other New York journalists, went to Louisiana to cover the provincial try-out of Huey Long’s protofascist Share-the-Wealth drama. In New Orleans there were many who understood the essential histrionism of the phenomenon. A veteran politician said:

Huey is just a Winn Parish boy who came to the big town and put on an act, and then another act, until by now doggone if he ain’t just about the biggest show in America.

In the backwoods of Winn Parish a country doctor who had known three generations of Longs snorted contemptuously and said:

Huey is just a bad actor. He’s a no-good and always was. A show-off. When he was a kid in high school he’d debate on any side of a subject. A bully, too, he’d always run like a turkey when anybody called his bluff.

In America there is always a good chance that the faker—whether in politics, in the arts, or in the sciences—can be overwhelmed by an exudation of ridicule and contempt in which he is encysted and made helpless. What, for example, became of Alexander Dowie and Wilbur Glenn Voliva? Of Coué? Of Father Divine? What was it that finally broke the Dearborn Independent if not the skeptical resistance of the American folk to the humorless fanaticism of Henry Ford and his anti-Semitic aides?

Time and again this writer has seen street-corner agitators thrown into a tailspin by some dead-pan heckler who, disdaining argument, has exposed the phoniness of the speaker by persistent burlesque and mimicry. The more insincere the agitator—and our contemporary anti-Semites are notably weak at that point—the more vulnerable he is to such handling.

And for handling them the Institute’s studies, once translated into the vernacular of the street, will provide excellent ammunition.

All such measures, however, comprise so to speak the social therapy of anti-Semitism. They do not reach the causes of the infection, which are primarily economic, as the Institute’s admirable studies of the history of anti-Semitism in Germany clearly show.

A more fundamental defense-in-depth against the spread of the Fuehrer-drama from areas of low social resistance like Los Angeles, Detroit, and Chicago into the national body politic will be found in a pro gram of prevention, based on the progressive removal of the economic tensions and insecurities of which social hysteria is a natural concomitant. In politics as in medicine, quackery rushes in where honest science fears—or fails—to tread. Because we permitted a stalemated relief economy to sputter along on three cylinders during the thirties, involving special hardships for old people, we got the Townsend Plan and “Ham and Eggs.” Because our present plans for re-employing and rehabilitating the veterans of this war are vague and inadequate, Joe McWilliams makes a little hay with his “Serviceman’s Reconstruction Program.”

A sound prescription for the cure and prevention of anti-Semitism is easy to write, hard to fill. It is a postwar America united by an all-out commitment to the use, for the ends of peace, of the magnificent productivity we have demonstrated in war. That would provide drama enough for everybody. There would be no audiences for Fuehrer shows.

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