The May 12 New York Times ran an op-ed by Henry Scott Wallace, “American Fascism, in 1944 and Today” , that deserves a closer look. Wallace is the grandson of FDR’s Vice-President Henry Wallace. His op-ed uses an article his grandfather wrote, “The Danger of American Fascism“, to shed light on the current phenomenon of Mr. Trump. As the younger Wallace puts it, his grandfather, “described a breed of super-nationalist who pursues political power by deceiving Americans and playing to their fears, but is really interested only in protecting his own wealth and privilege.” In doing so, he predicted Donald Trump.
Here’s more of the op-ed:
“My grandfather warned about hucksters spouting populist themes but manipulating people and institutions to achieve the opposite. They pretend to be on the side of ordinary working people — ‘paying lip service to democracy and the common welfare,’ he wrote. But at the same time, they ‘distrust democracy because it stands for equal opportunity.’
They invariably put ‘money and power ahead of human beings,’ he continued. ‘They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest.’ They also ‘claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution.’
They bloviate about putting America first, but it’s just a cover. ‘They use isolationism as a slogan to conceal their own selfish imperialism.’
They need scapegoats and harbor ‘an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations.'”
In short, Vice-President Wallace warned against the rise of the American Right, the phenomenon that, in our time, would characterize Fox News, Breitbart, Bannon, and Trump. The Vice-President and grandson carry their respective analyses much further and each has its gems. Here again, for example, is the op-ed:
“[The American Fascists] use lies strategically, to promote civic division, which then justifies authoritarian crackdowns. Through ‘deliberate perversion of truth and fact … their newspapers and propaganda carefully cultivate every fissure of disunity.’
Thus might lying about unprecedented high crime rates legitimize a police state. Lying about immigrants being rapists and terrorists might justify a huge border wall, mass expulsions and religion-based immigration bans. Lying about millions of illegal votes might excuse suppression of voting by disfavored groups.”
Where the Wallaces are particularly clear-headed is in understanding that there is no easy cure for the rise of fascism. The op-ed again:
“The antidote? For my grandfather, it lay in that phrase the ‘common man.’ In 1942, he famously rebutted conservatives calling for an ‘American Century’ after the war — America, the greatest country on earth, dominating the world.
Nonsense, my grandfather said in that speech: We Americans ‘are no more a master race than the Nazis.’ He called for a ‘century of the common man’ — ordinary people, standing up and fighting for their rights, with decent jobs, organized (into unions), demanding accountable government committed to the ‘general welfare’ rather than the privilege of the few, and decent schools for their kids (teaching ‘truths of the real world’). Democracy, he said in his 1944 essay, must ‘put human beings first and dollars second.'”
Vice-President Wallace, himself, became an early victim of the American Right, being ignominiously dumped from Roosevelt’s ticket in 1944 in favor of Harry Truman to appease right-wing democrats. His legacy would itself be tarred by the coming era of McCarthyism – it’s a legacy that deserves to be better known, understood, and appreciated. And it’s a sad lesson that to be right and prescient is not necessarily to win. Still, we could do worse than to value the wisdom of the Wallaces. What a novel concept, to put human beings first.