cover image Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism

Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism

Rachel Maddow. Crown, $32 (416p) ISBN 978-0-593-44451-1

Homegrown American fascism sprouted in the 1930s and was taken down by patriotic spies and prosecutors, according to this labyrinthine history. MSNBC news host Maddow (Drift) surveys New Deal–era right-wing extremism, including the Silver Shirt movement headed by screenwriter, spiritualist, and Hitler admirer William Dudley Pelley; California’s American White Guard, some of whose members plotted to steal machine guns, assassinate prominent Hollywood Jews, and carry out a pogrom; and the Christian Front, an antisemitic group that undertook paramilitary training for a fascist insurrection. Maddow traces these organizations’ intersections with mainstream figures, including the antisemitic radio preacher Fr. Charles Coughlin and industrialist Henry Ford. There were also ties to Nazi Germany, she contends, especially in the propaganda operation of George Viereck, a German American Nazi agent who worked with New York congressman Hamilton Fish, Minnesota senator Ernest Lundeen, and other isolationists to use their congressional free mailing privileges to send pro-German, antiwar propaganda to millions of Americans. Also spotlighted are antifascist activists like Leon Lewis, a Jewish lawyer who ran a private spy ring that infiltrated the White Guard. Maddow explores this snake pit in vivid and decidedly opinionated prose, but she overstates the coherence of American fascist movements, all of whose schemes fizzled, while her inclusion of a chapter on populist Huey Long feels out of step with the rest. The result is a lively if not always convincing account of an ugly strand in American political history. (Oct.)