In Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism, New York Times best-selling author and MSNBC host Rachel Maddow traces the fight to preserve U.S. democracy to the early days of World War II, when a clandestine network of ultra-right radicals tried to overthrow the U.S. government and install authoritarian rule.
Through a series of sophisticated and well-funded effortsincluding support from members of Congressthese extremists were able to undermine democratic institutions, promote antisemitism and erode (if not destroy) citizens' confidence in their elected leaders, steering the nation toward an alliance with the Nazis. It was only through the resistance of journalists, activists and ordinary citizens that the extremists' goal was never achieved.
Maddow, who will be appearing at the Chicago Humanities Festival on Oct. 19, spoke about this powerful book as well as being part of the queer community, among other topics.
Note: This conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Windy City Times: I actually want to start this interview with a question I've concluded other interviews with: For you, what is it like to be part of the queer community in today's America?
Rachel Maddow: Hmmm. I feel likewell, what year were you born? I was born in 1973.
WCT: I was born six years before you.
RM: So we're in the same marching order. I feel likeas queer people who have come up in the era that we came up in, contending with the AIDS epidemic and dealing with the Defense of Marriage Act and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (both of which were from Democratic presidents and then having a later Democratic president undo those things)there has been so much change in terms of what it means to be an out gay person.
As a 50-year-old gay person, it's been a journey. For us, coming out was a really big thing. There was life before coming out and there was life after coming out; that was the defining pivot point in life. I don't feel that younger people can necessarily relate to that, because what they're experiencing is lots of people being out in all sorts of different ways of life. And that's just a different thing.
I think we thought that coming out meant your rights were, in some ways, secure; once you crossed that Rubicon, you were out there, and that was a static thing for the rest of your life. It's different now, with this violent, very fast-moving, retaliatory campaign against queer people. I feel like I'm really learning about things are, not how I expected them to be. You can't take anything for granted. It's not a direct answer to your question, but I feel like it's still a work in progress, and we've got to let younger people lead the movement to secure rights and freedom. Those of us who thought coming out was going to be our big contribution to the movement need to know that we need to do more.
WCT: It's interesting because we didn't even have gay-straight alliances when I was growing up. We had drama club.
RM: [Laughs] And that did what it needed to do! We called it "softball" on my side, although I never played it. [Laughs]
WCT: Regarding Prequelare we living the sequel right now?
RM: What I write about is a time period that we remember differently than it was. That's part of why I wanted to write this book. We look back at the World War II era now and we think of it as a time when we were the good guys, the Nazis were the bad guys, we went over and kicked their butts, and that part of history was done.
For me, it's scary but comforting (given what we're going through now) to know the real history of that timeand it was actually front-page news back thenwas that there were lots of Americans who wanted us to fight on the Nazis' side. And there was a big battle here in the United States against a native fascist and a native pro-Nazi movement. So it wasn't as simple as we'd like to remember itand that's probably why we chose to forget it.
But it also means that there's all this stuff to learn from, in terms of Americans before us having confronted a pro-fascist, authoritarian movement that wanted to get rid of democracy and, instead, have authoritarian rule. There's no analogy to the Nazis but there is a prequel of Americans having to fight against a really resourceful movement that wanted to get rid of elections and democracy. I think it's a helpful history.
WCT: For our readers, define what fascism is.
RM: Fascism, in a practical sense, is the idea that the power of the state ought to be concentrated in the hands of the ruling leaderand that all power in the culture attends to that one entity. So you don't have an independent legal system or even an independent economy.
There are a few things that [might indicate] if a democracy is under threat from fascist or otherwise authoritarian movements. One is that you see people scapegoated and subject to conspiracy theories about a secret cabal. You also see the violence intruding into what should be politics; you see violent groups associated with a particular political faction. You also see that people lose faith in democracy, thinking that their votes don't count; the appeal of democracy falls away. And the last thing is the attack on truth; people are told, "Don't believe journalism. Don't believe experts. Don't believe science. You just have to go with your gut or prejudices, and believe what your chosen leader tells you." Those four things are, for me, the things you have to watch out for in a democracy. Right now, like in the 1930s, we see all four of those things.
WCT: I was going to say that I see each of those things reflected in society today, unfortunately.
RM: Yeah. It doesn't mean we should despair, but it gives us a to-do list of things to work on and shore up.
WCT: It's a warning, indeed. Now this book got my attention immediately because it starts by talking about gay vampire fiction.
RM: [Laughs] It was written just for you.
WCT: [Laughs] I feel like it was. You know me too well.
RM: Yesit was customized just for you.
If anybody watched me on MSNBC, one of the things I'm rightfully dinged for is almost always starting my stories somewhere bizarre. [Laughs]
Part of the book is about the Nazis' main propaganda agent in the United States: George Viereck. He was highly paid, and he ran this huge operation in the U.S. government that included about two dozen members of Congress. He was a fascinating character and was very good as a propagandist, unfortunately for us. However, he was also a literary celebrity of his time and, in 1907, he wrote what is believed to be the first instance of gay vampire literature. It wasn't porn but it had its momentsbut it was shockingly terrible.
WCT: And obviously he wasn't the only person. You introduce a cast of charactersas you call themthat you list in chronological order, including Lawrence Dennis, who was mixed-race. That's a whole other talk show right there.
RM: Lawrence Dennis was, like, the captain of the team. He was the leading intellectual fascist in the United States in the 1930s and '40s. He was really famous, he was beautifully articulate and he was good-looking. He was kind of adopted by the Nazis; they brought him over to watch their rallies in Nuremberg and he met with Hitler. At one point, he said he advised the Nazis to treat the Jews the same way that Negroes are treated in the United States.
The amazing thing about him is that he's passing; he's mixed-race. And part of the reason he's so eloquent is that he was an African-American child preacher who was seen as a Christian phenomenon, and he traveled all over the world. Then, he decided to pass as white and became anti-Black, anti-Jewish, anti-everything. There's a great biography about him called The Color of Fascism.
WCT: One of the amazing things about this book is that it illuminates a segment of history that we weren't taught in schools, like you said. For me, one of those parts of history is the sedition trial [of 1944], which ended like I thought it wouldwith the defendants getting away with everything.
RM: When I started working on this project, I didn't know that we would have the [recent] sedition trials with the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and other paramilitary groups involved on Jan. 6. But in 1944, the Justice Department brought dozens of people who had been working with the Nazis, like Lawrence Dennis, and put them on trial with one judge [U.S. District Judge Edward Clayton Eicher] overseeing them all.
The case against them was that they had effectively conspired with the Hitler government in Berlin to commit sedition to overthrow the U.S. government. It was a compelling case that was made against thembut you'd never know it by how it was conducted. It was chaotic.
There were a couple reasons why it failed. The trial seemed to have killed the judge, who died; they then had to decide what to do, including restarting the trial. But the other reason, I think, was because the Justice Department was pressured. There were members of Congress who were implicated in this plot, and a few of them tried to disrupt the trial; however, one of them went to the Justice Department, threatened the attorney general and got the prosecutor fired. The second prosecutor was fired as well. So part of the lesson there is when the Justice Department prosecutors are bringing people into their sights who have a lot of political powerparticularly people who are trying to undo the democratic system we have hereyou need to protect the department, and the department needs to protect itself from political pressure in an independent way. This is about what can go wrong when people are under political pressure.
WCT: And just so people don't think it was all men, there was [aviatrix] Laura Ingallsnot to be confused with author Laura Ingalls Wilder. The Little House on the Prairie was never like this.
RM: [Laughs] It turns out they were distant cousins, though.
Aviators were the Kardashians of their day; they were the biggest celebrities of their time. Air travel was miraculous, and aviators were the biggest celebrities in the world. I think people know that Charles Lindberghone of the most famous aviators of them allwas a fascist. He accepted an award from Nazi Germany and argued that America shouldn't go to war against Germany, because white people should all side against the world.
But Laura Ingalls was also famous. In fact, she was so famous that when she got a parking ticket, they wrote a story about it in The New York Times. But she was a paid Nazi agent. One of her pilot stunts was that she flew a plane over the White House and dropped leaflets saying we shouldn't go to war against Germany.
WCT: You've touched on this, but what do you want people to take away from your book?
RM: For me, this story is scary because of the topic. I gave my dad a galley when it first came out and he said, "This is very dark." [Laughs] It's a scary topic but I feel that we're living in scary times. To me, it is heartening to know that there were Americans who faced times that were even scarier than now, and they fought these forces and won, in many ways. Most of my bad guys in this book are not household names, but I'm trying to make the good guys in this story also remembered, so we can mine their experience to see if there are things we can learn from them, [such as] what works against ultra-right, fascist movements that want to get rid of American democracy.
WCT: Whenever someone publishes a book, I feel the work says something about the author or writer. What does this book say about you?
RM: I'm thinking that my girlfriend would say that I'm a glutton for punishment. [Both laugh.] My office is a little shop of horrors; I really got buried in this research,
I really have the best job in the world at MSNBC, and my job is to be intensely involved in the news every day and to explain it to people the best way that I can. When I stepped back from doing the show five days a week, part of the reason was to do more work like thisstories that take longer than a single hour on TV to answer, and questions that require a little more of a deep dive to get to the answers.
I've written books about answering questions like why does it seem that we're always in a war now, and why democracy seems to go away in areas that have oil and gas. I also wrote about [former Vice President] Spiro Agnew, who's an obscure historical figure now but who was the first [example] of using criminal law to prosecute somebody who was committing crimes in the White House. That has resonance.
And now this book is about how to deal with an ultra-right movement that is using violence and that wants to get rid of democracy, and what we can do about it. I sort of feel like doing a longer-form [work] like this gives me a chance to get at what I think are the big questions of the day that I'm looking for answers for. I'm looking for help from history.
To the extent that people trust me to help explain things, I hope that books and even interviews like this can help people come along with me on this journey that I found very valuable in terms of understanding the big, scary questions that we're facing right now.
Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism will be out Tuesday, Oct. 17. Rachel Maddow will be promoting the book during a Chicago Humanities Festival talk, "Rachel Maddow in Conversation with Kathleen Belew," that will take place Thursday, Oct. 19, at the UIC Dorin Forum, 725 W. Roosevelt Rd., at 7-8 p.m. More info about the event is at www.chicagohumanities.org/events/attend/rachel-maddow/ .