The original America First movement had a soft spot for Fascists. America First 2.0 is burdened with the same bug.
As Hitler consolidated control over central Europe Republican politicians bowed, scraped and lapped up the money he offered to polish Germany’s public image and rebuild its military. A century later, the Republicans behind our second wave of America First are struggling with the baggage of their newest Fascist ally.
Mitt Romney described the current Republican infatuation with Putin as “almost treasonous” in an interview on Sunday. That treason runs deep, but now it’s running for cover. With Ukraine putting up a fight and global sentiment swinging heavily against the Russians, Republicans with pockets full of rubles are struggling to explain away their pandering for a foreign dictator. It’s not going well.
Prominent Republicans including the former President and former Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, responded to news of the Ukraine invasion by continuing the party’s six year tradition of shilling for the Russians. Tucker Carlson openly sided with the dictator, describing Putin’s enemies as “permanent Washington.” That’s after he said back in November, “Why shouldn’t I root for Russia, which by the way, I am [sic].”
Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast featured mercenary CEO, Erik Prince. The two chuckled over their admiration for Putin’s Russia where, “people still know which bathroom to use.” Russians, they joked, “don’t have those pride flags.”
Republican Senate candidate in Ohio, JD Vance, went further, explaining that he “did not serve in the Marine Corps to go and fight Vladimir Putin because he didn’t believe in transgender rights, which is what the U.S. State Department is saying is a major problem with Russia.”
Why did Republicans spend the past half-decade cozying up to Putin? Money and ideology.
For years the Kremlin has poured money into rightwing causes in the US and Europe. Millions went to the NRA alone, which was entangled in a Cold War-style spy scandal when Maria Butina and her American boyfriend were arrested for an espionage scheme targeting the organization. Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, had been helping the Kremlin in Ukraine for years before the joined the campaign. Manafort helped the Russians strip a plank from the 2016 Republican platform expressing support for Ukraine. Manafort’s involvement in the Trump campaign was described in the Republican Senate Intelligence Committee report on the election as a “grave counterintelligence threat,” opening an avenue for “Russian intelligence services to exert influence over, and acquire confidential information on, the Trump campaign.”
Russian money poured into campaign coffers and phony projects to burnish politicians’ reputations, like an imaginary aluminum mill that Oleg Deripaska promised to build for McConnell in Kentucky. In 2018, eight Republican Congressional leaders spent the 4th of July as guests of the Kremlin in Moscow. No one in the GOP thought that was odd. Republican Senator Ron Johnson was warned by the FBI in 2019 that he was being used by Russian intelligence, a warning he shrugged off. Then he helped Trump in his attempt to extort illegal campaign assistance from Ukraine in exchange for military assistance.
As recently as early February, Republicans were introducing bills to help the Kremlin by blocking aid to Ukraine. The bill gained splashy support from GOP hacks like Matt Gaetz, Madison Cawthorn and Paul Gosar. Even after the invasion, Republican Senator and Presidential hopeful, Josh Hawley, is working to weaken NATO and block support for Ukraine.
More important, and perhaps more sinister than the bribes is the connection between Putin’s model of herrenvolk electoral Fascism and Republican dreams of a new white republic. American Fascist leader, Richard Spencer described Russia as “the sole white power in the world.” Arch-conservative thinker, Pat Buchanan, is perhaps the author of America’s right wing pro-Putin mythology. Back in 2018 he explained that Putin is “standing up for traditional values against Western cultural elites.” Conservative author Rod Dreher, who recently backed up his love of European Fascists by moving to Hungary, echoed Buchanan’s line, “I adamantly oppose risking the lives of boys from Louisiana and Alabama to make the Donbas safe for genderqueers and migrants.”
No one put Republican infatuation with Russia in simpler terms than KKK leader David Duke, who proclaimed two decades ago that, “Russia is the key to white survival.” Putin has become a hero to the white nationalists behind our reborn America First movement. Now that attachment has become a PR problem. They had every reason to expect this would backfire, since the same thing happened in the same way to the same movement in a previous generation.
Henry Ford was convinced that World War I was a plot by Jewish bankers. He’s the only American praised by name in Mein Kampf, where Hitler described him as the “single great man” who stood against the Jewish domination of Wall Street. Ford wasn’t Hitler’s only American friend.
Charles Lindbergh lent his fame to the America First movement. He made several splashy visits to Hitler’s Germany where he was presented with the Service Cross by Göring. On his return to the US he toured incessantly, giving speeches lauding Hitler and insisting that the Germans could not be defeated. Lindbergh explained, “Europe, and the entire world, is fortunate that a Nazi Germany lies, at present, between Communistic Russia and a demoralized France.”
Father Coughlin, a Detroit priest with a widely-followed radio show played the role of Tucker Carlson, spewing racist and antisemitic bile to his broad audience. His shows praised European Fascist movements as the antidote to Communism. He organized public support for the Fascists in Spain’s Civil War. He blamed Kristallnacht on the persecution of Christians. Even after the Protocols of the Elders of Zion had been debunked as a fraud, Coughlin serialized the work on his broadcasts.
The peak of rightwing support for Hitler came early in 1939, when the German-American Bund, the Nazi’s wing in the US, sold out Madison Square Garden. Their event featured a giant banner of George Washington flanked with swastikas. A crowd of more than 20,000 heard the head of the Bund praise the American spirit, built on the power of “the militant white man.”
As war began in Europe, Republican Senator Gerald Nye blamed the Jews in Hollywood for stirring up American passions against the Nazis. In a Congressional hearing to investigate this seditious campaign to bring Americans into the war he read off the names of Jewish studio officials, sneering at the foreign tones. He was on stage at an America First rally in Pittsburgh when news of the attack on Pearl Harbor was delivered.
Nye would lose his next election. Henry Ford would abandon his flirtation with the Nazis, collaborating with the Roosevelt Administration to build “the arsenal of democracy.” Lindbergh ending his America First agitation, offering his assistance to the Army Air Corps. He would fly a few missions as a consultant, but the President denied his request to have his commission reinstated. The church hierarchy would cut off Coughlin in 1939. He’d struggle on with mailings and speeches until his antics were suspended by the government under the Espionage Acts in 1942. He would spend the rest of his days as a modest parish priest.
As World War II began, Americans who’d shamed themselves by their alignment with the enemies of democracy would cover their tracks, struggle to redeem themselves, or fade into obscurity. What happens to the America First Republicans this time around is an open question. Many in the party will rally to Romney’s position, but that lifeboat isn’t big enough for everyone.
Republican support for Russia is pretty outrageous, but it’s not the most roundly unpopular position Republicans have backed, without consequences, in recent years. They may yet escape the consequences of their treason, but we don’t have to forget.