A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers led by Rep. Liz Cheney, daughter of Dick Cheney, is trying to stop President Donald Trump from withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. This week on Intercepted: As the longest continuous war in U.S. history enters its 19th year, Congressional Democrats and Republicans are joining together in an effort to keep the war going. Constitutional lawyer and activist Shahid Buttar, who is challenging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her congressional seat in San Francisco, alleges that Pelosi’s leadership during the Trump era has amounted to enabling Trump at his worst while simultaneously working to block the potential good that could come from ending the Afghanistan War. Buttar also discusses his views on surveillance, the climate crisis, the role of large tech companies in violating human rights, and he assesses the state of the Democratic Party ahead of the November elections.
In a spate of recent speeches, Trump has portrayed himself as a noble warrior in the battle to protect America’s heritage. He is consistently railing against a long list of perceived enemies, including anarchists, Marxists, and immigrants, while preemptively casting doubts on the validity of the 2020 election. And as he campaigns, Trump is increasingly operating — whether intentional or not — from a playbook that is eerily reminiscent of the America First movement in the United States that operated in the 1930s. These were allies of Germany’s Nazi Party, the most famous amongst them was famed pilot Charles Lindbergh. California State University historian Bradley W. Hart, author of “Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United States,” discusses the history of the movements and figures in U.S. history who supported Hitler and the Third Reich in the years before and during World War II. Hart also discusses Hitler’s affection for Henry Ford and details the rise and fall of radical right-wing radio host Charles Coughlin whose broadcasts into tens of millions of homes built support for fascism in the U.S.
Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, President Donald Trump.
Donald Trump: We are now in the process of defeating the radical Left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters, and people who, in many instances, have absolutely no clue what they are doing.
Newsreel: With every official in the land standing at attention, with bands blaring and flags flying, stopping time and again to listen to repeated words of praise, the Duce, no conquering hero of ancient times could have dreamt of a wilder reception.
DJT: The more you slander, the more you try to demean and divide, the more we will work hard to tell the truth and we will win.
(Archival) Italian crowds chanting: Duce! Duce! Duce! Duce!
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from my basement in New York City. And this is episode 137 of Intercepted.
Nancy Pelosi: As we said in our statement, Chuck Schumer and I, he should spend more time reading the daily presidential brief, the presidential daily brief — whatever — than planning military parades and preserving the relics of the Confederacy.
JS: In October, just one month before the scheduled U.S. presidential election, the U.S. war in Afghanistan will enter its 19th year. It is the longest continuous war in U.S. history. And it’s important to remember that this war has been overwhelmingly supported by both Democrats and Republicans alike.
George W. Bush: On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al-Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations.
JS: The war started under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s administration with the support of every single member of the U.S. Congress except one, Rep. Barbara Lee of California. The war in Afghanistan was escalated under the administration of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, not just through the so-called surge, but also through a dramatic escalation of drone strikes in both Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.
Barack Obama: Simply put, these strikes have saved lives. Moreover, America’s actions are legal. We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force.
JS: And then comes Donald Trump. Now, on the one hand, Trump has been openly pugnacious and militaristic — a few years ago he basked in his own self-declared glory after authorizing the use of the so-called Mother of All Bombs, the MOAB, in Afghanistan.
DJT: So, a lot of you don’t know this, but we dropped the largest, non-nuclear bomb ever built in history. We dropped it in Afghanistan. We were getting ready to make many of those bombs. This left a hole that was — it took out a lot of the, a lot of the tunnels and everything else — but it left a hole in the Earth that looked like the moon. It looked like a crater from the moon.
JS: But Trump has also stated repeatedly that he wanted to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.
DJT: And we’re really a police force. We’re not fighting, per se. It’s a fight that, if we had to, we’d win, but I don’t want to kill millions of people. We’d win it fairly quickly but I don’t want to kill millions of people. I think it’s crazy. And so we’ve been at — We’ll be very, very soon it’ll be 20 years and I said right from the beginning, not easy to get out of those conflicts, very complex in terms of all of the people you have to deal with including, frankly, people in the Senate, people in the House. A lot of people feel differently about things. But I’ve been amazed at how positive the response is to getting out of Afghanistan and to moving on.
JS: If you bother to flip through the recent book by one of the most notorious war mongers and neocons in modern U.S. history, Trump’s former National Security Advisor John Bolton, you will see that a good bit of what Bolton despised about Trump were those moments when he says Trump hesitated to take Bolton’s advice to drop more bombs on more people or to ratchet up tensions with other nations.
This moment in history places the question of U.S. militarism, and specifically the so-called “war on terror” and the original invasion of another country, Afghanistan, into an important spotlight. At every turn when Trump has indicated — however incompetently or inadvertently — that he wants to do something other than continue the war, a bi-partisan coalition rears its head in opposition. It happened when negotiations were underway with the Taliban. And it’s happening now as Trump indicates he wants to remove thousands of U.S. troops.
DJT: But again, we are the greatest fighting force in the world. We’re not a police force that’s going to stay around and police the streets and check out the red lights and traffic. It’s not what we’re supposed to be doing. Been there a long time. You know our force is down quite a bit, as you know.
JS: I found it interesting, the timing of the recent New York Times stories alleging that Russian intelligence agents were paying the Taliban to attack U.S. soldiers — the so-called “bounty” story. The leaking of this purported U.S. intelligence was, at a minimum, extremely convenient for opponents of ending the war in Afghanistan. And it’s the latest example in a pattern of stories breaking that seem to bolster the agenda of the pro-war crowd on Capitol Hill. Now, I don’t know what the truth is about these allegations, but I do know that the Taliban don’t need Russia to pay them to kill U.S. forces. They’ve been doing it on their own for 20 years. And we should always be skeptical of these kinds of leaks from unnamed national security sources in general, particularly when they come to questions of war.
But that story was indeed a boost in the arm for the bi-partisan coalition to keep that war going. Last week, Rep. Liz Cheney, the Republican Congresswoman from Wyoming and daughter of Dick Cheney, by the way, she sponsored an amendment with Democrat Jason Crow of Colorado that would prohibit the funding of a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Trump had said in February that he wanted a deal with the Taliban to end the war and he’d already been saying he wanted plans drawn up for a withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2020.
Now, in promoting her amendment to ban funding a withdrawal from the war her father was instrumental to starting, Liz Cheney cited the Russia “bounty” story from the New York Times.
Liz Cheney: Let me just say, we’re not going to talk about classified briefings, we’re not going to talk about the specifics of any of those classified briefings, but as ranking member Thornberry and I said yesterday in our statement, we remain concerned about Russian activities in Afghanistan and around the world. We’re going to continue to work with the administration. We anticipate additional briefings on this issue. But I want to be absolutely clear that America’s adversaries should know, and they should have no doubt, that any targeting of U.S. forces by Russians, by anyone else, will face a very swift and deadly response.
JS: I couldn’t help but think of her father, Dick Cheney, citing the reporting of Judith Miller in the New York Times about a nuclear threat in Iraq as he was attempting to sell the invasion.
Dick Cheney: Specifically aluminum tubes. There’s a story in the New York Times this morning — and I want to attribute it to the Times, I don’t want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence sources — but it’s now public that in fact, he has been seeking to acquire, and we have been able to intercept and prevent him from acquiring through this particular channel, the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge. And the centrifuge is required to take low-grade Uranium and enhance it into highly enriched Uranium, which is what you have to have in order to build a bomb.
JS: When you look at the question of U.S. militarism and the U.S.’s longest war — that in Afghanistan — and you also look at this large chorus of former Bush/Cheney-era national security officials lining up and endorsing Joe Biden, it paints a pretty stark picture of the coalition that defies party affiliation in pursuit of keeping the war racket going.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been one of the central enablers of this reality. It was true under Bush’s two terms in office and it’s true during Trump’s presidency. Despite all of the talk of resisting Trump, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have given Trump unprecedented sums of money for war-making and surveillance and they’ve often attacked Trump from the right when he even hints that he may not want to keep a war going or doesn’t want to start a new one.
In November, Nancy Pelosi is going to be up for re-election and for the first time in generations, she is going to be facing another Democratic challenger on the general election ballot. And her challenger is making the case that Pelosi has been a corporate Democrat, has helped facilitate Trump’s worst actions as president, and that she must be defeated in November. That challenger is constitutional law attorney and activist Shahid Buttar. He is going to be joining us in a moment, but first a bit of background.
A few months ago on Intercepted, my colleague Ryan Grim laid out how Nancy Pelosi first won her seat in Congress, back in 1987:
Ryan Grim: But no, she had not run for any elected office, she was a very much behind the scenes fundraiser/operative and she became very close with a guy named Phil Burton, who was also known as a fighting liberal. Essentially Pelosi is Burton’s lieutenant — kind of an enforcer and a fundraiser back home. He dies in 1983. His wife takes over for him and serves four years. She then dies. On her deathbed, she endorses Nancy Pelosi to take her seat. So, now there’s a special election in 1987. Her top opponent is the vice chair of the DSA, Democratic Socialists of America. Openly gay man running on basically: Reagan’s ignoring the AIDS epidemic.
JS: What is the position that Pelosi’s running for at this point?
JS: This is her first run for a House seat?
RG: First run for any elected office and she’s running to replace, kind of, her mentor and then her mentor’s wife. And so it’s a real establishment versus insurgent race. Nancy Pelosi likes to say that she’s from the Bay Area and so she understands the left. That’s true in the sense that she beat the left to win her seat. It’s not that she organized support among the left, but she barely won. If they were using the current top two system, I think she would have lost her first seat and there would be no Nancy Pelosi.
JS: The man that Pelosi defeated narrowly in 1987, died just last month. His name was Harry Britt and he was one of four men that then-San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk had suggested replace him in the event of his death. When Milk was assassinated in 1978, then Mayor Dianne Feinstein appointed Britt to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
As Britt continued the fight for LGBTQ rights, and continued on Milk’s legacy of working with labor organizers, Pelosi had earned a name for herself as an incredible fundraiser who climbed the ranks of power in Congress and the Democratic party swiftly. She is currently in her second extended stint as House Speaker and she has a reputation for strategic brilliance, but also ruthless internal politics. Here again is Ryan Grim:
RG: People will tell stories like there’ll be 40 freshmen in a meeting and she’ll go around the room and will point to each one of them and say, “You screwed me on that motion to recommit last Tuesday. I don’t ever want to see it happen again. You hit me on April 3rd with this in committee.” She knows if you voted the wrong way in a committee hearing. And part of that is just this work ethic where she’s putting in these absurd 16, 18-hour days which people have been talking about her and other people like her who just have this kind of maniacal drive. And so, you combine all those different things and you just don’t want to cross her. I was actually talking to somebody about a fight that she’d had with somebody else and his own boss said something like you don’t want to get on the other end of the steely gaze of Pelosi. Like, she just has this, like, raw kind of power that she’s holding in reserve.
JS: Since entering Congress in the late 1980s, Nancy Pelosi has had few primary challengers, and none that even came remotely close to beating her. In 2008, Shirley Golub, a gay woman, challenged Pelosi in the Democratic primary. Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in the war in Iraq, also ran against Pelosi in the general election in 2008, but she did so as an independent, and Pelosi won that race handily.
Shahid Buttar is the most serious challenger Pelosi has faced in her district and he will be on the general election ballot in November as a Democrat. In California’s primary, Buttar won roughly 13 percent to Pelosi’s 72 in California’s 12th Congressional District. But what really mattered was that he won enough votes to face Pelosi in the general election. Buttar is running a grassroots campaign against the House speaker, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, and his campaign is fueled overwhelmingly by small donations. Shahid Buttar joins me now. Shahid Buttar, welcome to Intercepted.
Congressional Candidate Shahid Buttar on Militarism, Surveillance, Climate, Big Tech, and How Nancy Pelosi Has Enabled Trump
Shahid Buttar: I’m so glad to be with you, Jeremy.
JS: Last week, the House Armed Services committee passed the National Defense Authorization Act and that included a bipartisan amendment that was introduced by Democratic Congressman Jason Crow of Colorado and Congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming. That’s Dick Cheney’s daughter, she’s a member of Congress. She’s a Republican. And their amendment would impose conditions on the withdrawal of 8,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and their amendment asserts, “a rapid military drawdown and a lack of United States commitment to the security and stability of Afghanistan would undermine diplomatic efforts for peace.” What are your thoughts on this bipartisan effort to stop Donald Trump from withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.
SB: Withdrawing troops from Afghanistan would be the one thing that our criminal president has done right during his term. And the one time that corporate Democrats decide to show up for work and actually meaningfully challenge him is the one time that he tries to do something useful. The war in Afghanistan, the Washington Post reported last fall, has been pervaded by lies to the American public for the better part of 20 years. And every report of progress that we’ve heard from that country, according to the Washington Post, has been based on lies — lies that, apparently, Democrats have fallen for.
And I’m gravely disappointed in seeing the Democratic Party line up to promote the militarism that Dr. King warned us to repudiate. You know, every time we’ve seen voices in the Democratic Party gain widespread traction, it’s because they oppose militarism. Barack Obama won the White House as the peace candidate and Bernie got a lot of the traction that he got around the country in the last two presidential cycles precisely because he opposes the militarism that unites the corporate wing of the Party. And this is one of the very essential reasons why I think that San Francisco is poised to choose a new voice in Congress because this is a city that does not support U.S. militarism, at all. San Francisco and the surrounding environs is one of the epicenters of the global peace and justice movement and I’ve been a part of it my entire life and I aim very much to take that sensibility to Washington.
JS: This, to me, is part of a broader pattern that we’ve seen over these past three plus years of Donald Trump’s presidency, where the Democrats, on the one hand, tell us that Donald Trump is the most dangerous president ever to hold office in United States history, that he’s colluding with foreign powers. And then they turn around and they give him sweeping surveillance powers or record-shattering military budgets. And I want to ask you also about Pelosi and Schumer and other Democrats who have pushed through draconian surveillance powers for Donald Trump and the Attorney General William Barr.
SB: The very same day that the House announced impeachment proceedings last year, Nancy Pelosi voted for his corporate trade agreement that undermined labor and environmental standards around the world. Her very first act as the Speaker of the House was to impose GOP accounting rules that basically discriminate against social spending and structurally favor military fraud, waste and abuse. She funded Trump’s concentration camps well before approving his bloated, obscenely wasteful military budget. And it’s particularly poignant to think about that excessive — I don’t even want to say spending because that seems to privilege it too much. I mean, we’re talking about just hurling money into a corporate industrial trough and two things about it that seem particularly untenable about it at the moment — one is we’re living in the middle of a global pandemic and an economic collapse, so the idea of maintaining our international military-industrial complex just seems, frankly, foolish. So, whether it’s approving the budget, whether it’s approving the corporate trade deals, the concentration camp funding, or just the surveillance powers, or covering up CIA torture, which Speaker Pelosi has done in 15 different ways — frankly, unfortunately many more than that — corporate Democrats have paved the path of this criminal president while mouthing a supposed resistance to him that really needs to be real. I am running to make resistance to right wing kleptocracy and fascism a real phenomenon instead of just a rhetorical commitment by career Democrats using it to fundraise for their corporate political party.
JS: Given that you’re running against Nancy Pelosi, she’s the most powerful Democrat in the country — she’s third in line for the U.S. presidency — you must have a critique of what you think she should have done once the coronavirus hit and the economic collapse began. What would you have done if you were Speaker of the House, like Nancy Pelosi?
SB: At the top of the list, even before the pandemic, I supported Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s bill to make healthcare a human right within the United States — free at the point of service without copays or deductibles. That was a compelling exigency even before the pandemic. After the pandemic, Medicare for All is not only an object of bipartisan majorities. It’s not only a human right in every other industrialized country in the world. It is an increasingly compelling recognition that public health is a public good. Just to rewind the tape and think of it before: Insulin is a really great example to me of the corruption of health care in the United Stated and our bipartisan willingness to put the interests of pharmaceutical companies and health insurance companies before public health and before patients. Insulin is a life-saving drug. It costs pennies to make. And yet the price goes up every year. That’s basically a result of cartel-pricing dynamics. And the idea that health care policy in the United States is putting a cartel before the interests of a country is preposterous to me. And I think it’s entirely revealing of Speaker Pelosi’s priorities.
Another measure, this one was introduced by Rep. Ilhan Omar, proposed to cancel rents and mortgages and provide support for small landlords during the length of the pandemic. That’s a no-brainer. Every month that passes, we are flirting basically with increasing degrees of economic catastrophe, not just because economies are shut down but particularly because people don’t know how to stay in their homes. Another area that I see as really revealing here is congressional refusal to provide paid universal sick leave and medical leave. The House, early on in the coronavirus stimulus packages, had a nod to this, but there were so many exclusions to the policy that it only covered 20 percent of the workforce. And we see, particularly in the vast racial disparities exposed in the infection and mortality rates from the coronavirus pandemic — the New York Times published earlier this week a report documenting something like three times the number of African-Americans are dying from the Covid dynamic as white Americans — and that reflects long standing patterns of racial marginalization that include economic marginalization and include further racial disparities beyond it. These are issues that Nancy Pelosi has done nothing to address, either since the pandemic or over the course of the 30 years before it that she represented my city in Washington.
JS: What is your assessment of the current battle for the heart or future of the Democratic Party right now, and what it says about that party, that it’s nominee at this moment in history is Joe Biden?
SB: Biden is implicated in every one of the social crises that millions of Americans are driving ourselves into the streets during a time of pandemic to resist. Joe Biden’s been a cheerleader for every war over the last generation — two generations, in fact.
Joe Biden: We cannot be complacent about those who espouse hatred for us. We must confront clear dangers with a new sense of urgency and resolve.
SB: He’s an architect to the very same extent as Nancy Pelosi of the mass incarceration and paramilitary policing racket that we are resisting in the movement for Black lives.
JB: But out of somewhere less than 2.5 million kids, who are the pool of kids who are going to give you — occupy 80 percent of your time as prosecutors — 100,000 of them warrant exceptionally, exceptionally tough treatment.
SB: He’s been an active agent of promoting right wing interests on the Supreme Court. He’s demonstrated misogyny as a Senator and the Chair of the Judiciary Committee in his interrogation of law professor Anita Hill.
JB: It is appropriate to ask professor Hill anything any member wishes to ask her to plumb the depths of her credibility.
SB: Joe Biden is the most quintessential creature of Washington in Washington. There is nobody who embodies the Beltway to a greater extent than he. And so it does seem to me, fairly obviously, like ducking into a punch. Especially when we think about the bigger dynamics beyond the election. We are living in an age of the center, the corporate center, [delegitimizing] itself. And in that wake, as people recognize that, for instance, corporate health care, as we were describing before, can’t possibly meet our needs, it is forcing populism to the front of the agenda. And the question is: What kind of populism is it? Is it the right wing populism that fuels fascism that we’ve seen rise in the world in the last 100 years to incredibly destructive effect that we had to mobilize as a civilization to stop militarily, or will it be the kind of populism that puts human needs and future generations at the center of our public policy calculus? That’s what I represent. That’s what Jamaal Bowman represents. It’s what the Squad represents. It’s what Bernie continues to represent, even not as a presidential candidate. It’s what the future of the Democratic Party and the United States represents.
JS: Are you going to vote for Joe Biden if he is the candidate come election day in November?
SB: I live in California, which is a very safe blue state, so I don’t have to be plagued by the demand to vote for the lesser of two evils. I have the opportunity, anyone in a safe blue state has the opportunity to vote their conscience. I don’t recommend to people in battleground states that they follow my lead because I recognize that the structure of our national election is, not unlike the Democratic Party, not very democratic. And recognizing that to people in battleground states, I encourage them to vote for the Democratic nominee, recognizing that the Democratic nominee, as it stands now, if it is Joe Biden, I’m going to spend my first term in Congress fighting him from the left.
JS: In saying what you just said, and of course I understand intellectually and morally what you’re saying, but running against Nancy Pelosi, who is the Speaker of the House and not committing yourself to support the Democratic nominee for president potentially opens up a pretty large vector for you to be attacked. And also you have polls that indicate that the vast majority of people who are telling pollsters that they’re going to vote for Joe Biden view it as essentially voting for an off-ramp to the Trump era. And a lot of people just want the popular vote margin to be as large as possible to send a message to Trump, but you’re not committing to supporting — and you’re citing the fact that you live in a so-called “safe” state — not supporting the Democratic nominee if it’s Joe Biden. I just want to make sure I’m understanding your position.
SB: Yeah, I’d put it this way. I’m not committed to a party. I’m committed to the people of the United States. I’m running to help recover the Democratic Party because it’s been captured by Wall Street. So, yeah, I absolutely have no allegiance to Democratic Party actors. I mean the Democratic Party is as responsible for mass incarceration, wars for profit, and climate catastrophe as the GOP. I have absolutely no allegiance to people just because they call themselves Democrats. I have allegiances to people who defend the rights, interests of the American people; to people who are fighting to preserve an opportunity for all of our grandchildren to survive and thrive; people who are standing in the footsteps of the voices that have clamored for civil rights over our nation’s history. That’s not Democratic Party careerists. Democratic Party careerists are tools of Wall Street and I’ve watched them in context after context, from immigrant rights to peace and justice to climate justice to racial justice to economic justice, renter’s rights, you name it. I’ve seen Nancy Pelosi side with Republicans on issue after issue.
And, you know, I would welcome the attacks of Democratic Party careerists because people forget, at the end of the day, most Americans are independents. They don’t belong to either of the corporate political parties. That’s who I represent. I represent the people of the United States and the people of San Francisco and I’m looking forward to the opportunity in November to making that a formal opportunity to represent the people of my city.
JS: If Donald Trump loses the election but refuses to leave office and we see multiple states in Bush v. Gore type litigation, if Trump’s challenging the validity of mail-in ballots or they’re trying to use other mechanisms to try and challenge the validity of individual votes, particularly in states that were close, what would Donald Trump’s options be and what would the people’s options be if Trump loses but tries to use legal trickery to remain in office? How could he do that and how could people fight back against it?
SB: We often say in the law that possession is nine-tenths of the law, particularly because courts, institutionally, favor stasis. So being in the White House now, if he refuses to leave and forces the issue into the courts, that basically introduces a delay tactic. I mean the story of the Bush v. Gore decision to a large extent was the press deciding the election and then the legal system deferring to it.
CNN Archive: Stand by. Stand by. CNN, right now, is moving our earlier declaration of Florida back to the “too close to call” column. Twenty-five very big electoral votes in the home state of the governor’s brother, Jeb Bush, are hanging in the balance. This no longer is a victory for Vice-President Gore.
SB: The near-term consequence of a president refusing to leave the White House, he can steer the rest of the events to support that narrative, even if there isn’t a legal basis for him to stay in office. Another way to say this is that the coup undermining the legitimacy of our elections happened a long time ago. You don’t need a computer to hack an election. You don’t need a Russian state intelligence agency to hack an election. You can hack an election when a right wing Supreme Court invites right-wing state legislatures around the country to start attacking voting rights and that happened years ago. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the crucial enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which were its teeth before. And in the wake of that measure being struck down, it basically opened a floodgate by right wing state legislatures to restrict voting rights and undermine democracy and the opportunities for their constituents to participate in elections.
And you’re suggesting the very real possibility that our criminal president refuses to abide by any law. Why would he start now when he’s never complied with the law in the past. I want to make this really sharp. The strongest way we had to get President Trump out of office is, to some extent, closed to us now because Speaker Pelosi has done so much to insulate him. If anyone else held the gavel, other than Nancy Pelosi, Donald Trump would have been removed from office last year or this spring. And I can make that case very forcefully. It goes like this. Corruption charges would have brought down the president because conservatives hate corruption, too. If the impeachment process were a recitation of the litany of ways in which our criminal president is stealing from every American family and continues to everyday he’s in office, that would have had the opportunity to win some GOP votes in the Senate.
Nancy Pelosi affirmatively took off the table all of the strongest charges against the president. The impeachment absolutely did not address his human rights abuses, or his incitements to violence, or his lies to the public and policy makers; or his documented, unprecedented corruption and theft from the American people, his self-enrichment at public expense. It is constitutionally prohibited and the reason Nancy Pelosi, I think, did not allow that charge to proceed is that it is a bipartisan offense.
JS: I do think that the way that the Democrats proceeded with impeachment was absolutely insane. I mean, it was idiotic given everything that we’ve seen this man do out in public. The part of it that I would push back against though, I would ask you to name who are these GOP senators that you think would have broken with Trump? Many of these people know exactly what Donald Trump is, who Donald Trump is. People like Lindsey Graham described who he was when he was first running for the Republican nomination —
Lindsey Graham: He’s a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot.
JS: But now, the benefits to them of his staying in power are so strong that I actually would challenge you to make the case, just make the case for a GOP senator that you think would be convinced by a Nancy Pelosi, Democrat-run impeachment trial that sought to really put him on trial for corruption. Which GOP senator would break with him?
SB: Well let’s just take Lindsey Graham, and I don’t think he’d be convinced by the impeachment process. I think he’d be convinced by his constituents. And it’s not the GOP senators, it’s the constituents in conservative states who would grow outraged if the impeachment process were about, OK this is the number of days that he spent at his golf courses, and it is this many millions of dollars — tax dollars — that secret service agents have been paid in order to follow him around on his vacations. I mean, he’s spent over a year of his term at his own resorts.
JS: But we already know that!
SB: It hasn’t been line-itemed. I mean, think about how painstaking the impeachment process was and all of the eddies and the arcane reflections on the various dimensions of international agreements and quid pro quos. If every one of those hearings was just going through every dollar that was spent, I think that’s very different than what the American people have grappled with. People know he’s stealing from us but we don’t know how much. What do you hear conservatives talking a lot about? Tax dollars being misdirected to any number of figures. They often cite social service programs. They’ll demagogue the figures of recipients of government benefits. The ultimate recipient of government benefits is our criminal, tyrant president.
JS: Now in November, both you and Nancy Pelosi will be on the ballot and so I assume there’s going to be a debate that people are going to be able to watch or listen to before November so they can make an informed decision on which Democrat they want to support. So when is the debate between you and Pelosi?
SB: I’m looking forward to it. I am particularly eager to see a news outlet host such a debate. She hasn’t had a debate against a challenger since 1987, and the idea that a public official could get away for an entire generation without being called on to defend their ideas in public strikes me as equally reflective of the crisis in our democracy as any of the other issues that we’re talking about. I expect Speaker Pelosi to decline any invitations from our campaign.
My opportunity to be on the ballot against her in November is the first time in her political career that she has ever faced another Democrat for reelection and the fact that she was put in office by San Francisco’s Republicans is not a thing that many people understand or recognize. She ran against a gay Socialist in 1987 and has never had a Democrat on the ballot against her since.
Nancy Pelosi (Archival): As a legislator, I have worked to support and pass legislation which will benefit the people of San Francisco. This legislation includes housing, health care, peace in Central America, environmental protection, education, and economic opportunity.
SB: And it was Republicans in San Francisco who gave her her seat and they’ve kept her in office ever since then. I’m running to defend our democracy against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That includes our criminal president and it seems also to include the head of the Democratic Party who doesn’t understand the Constitution enough to actually fulfill the oath to which she’s sworn fidelity for 30 years.
JS: The state of California, as you’re well aware, is often touted as one of the top economies in the world. And yet that state has the most number of people in the nation sleeping on the streets, in shelters, or in vehicles. With more than 150,000 people without homes, the number of residents without secure shelter has grown statewide. How would you address this crisis in particular? What would you do at the federal level and what hasn’t Pelosi done that you have a problem with?
SB: The very first answer there is to create incentives for property developers to include affordable units when they’re building new buildings. The federal government used to do that. That was the story of the affordable housing programs of the Great Society. That money dried up in the 80s and the 90s. Particularly during Nancy Pelosi’s tenure, the federal government basically abandoned affordable housing as a locus of investment. That’s one of the reasons we’re in this mess, both here in California and around the country.
I’d like to go beyond that. We can also build a new era of social housing, owned by the government and we the people answerable to the residents, in contrast to the affordable housing interventions of the previous era. We’ve never tried something like that. When we’ve had public housing in the United States, it’s always been very unaccountable to residents. And so the idea of having social housing that is driven by the community and governed by the community while owned by the federal government, that’s a very compelling opportunity that we haven’t put nearly enough resources into in the preceding era.
JS: You’re on record as supporting the Green New Deal, but I wanted to push you on that and ask you if you think that the proposal goes far enough as it’s currently written, given the huge impact of our supersized U.S. military, the endless burning of fossil fuels. None of this can really be overstated, and I’m wondering if you see the Green New Deal as going far enough.
SB: One thing I really appreciate about the Green New Deal is that it is, itself, intersectional. It isn’t, however, comprehensive. Parts of the Green New Deal that I think are really crucial and helpfully intertwined include the commitment to a 100 percent renewable energy future and a federal jobs guarantee. That’s a critical set of measures to link to one another because the political support to embrace renewable energy will require industrial alternatives for workers who are displaced from fossil fuel industries. So that’s a very thoughtful and necessary pairing of themes.
There are other themes, though, that we also need to connect to the equation. You mentioned, for instance, the Pentagon, which is both the planet’s more prolific institutional source of carbon pollution and the particular mechanism through which we effectuate resource wars for plunder, usually the plunder that we’re securing as fossil fuel resources. In other words, all of our interventions over the last 70 years have accelerated and exacerbated the climate crisis.
So in those two dimensions, to get far enough, beyond the Green New Deal, is going to require shutting down our military-industrial complex. It’s going to require rationalizing the Pentagon. It’s going to make sure that we put the CIA on a leash and don’t let it run around destabilizing democracies at the drop of a hat to make some corporation a buck.
Those are necessary components of climate justice that don’t appear in the Green New Deal. Some organizations, including Oil Change International, have drawn attention to this. The Green New Deal does not particularly commit to keeping fossil fuels in the ground. It commits to net neutrality in terms of the extraction versus leave it in the ground balance. And I’d like to see a more aggressive restriction there.
We have made a commitment in public policy that you can’t sell your vote. There’s no reason we shouldn’t, through public policy, commit to a similar restriction that you can’t sell natural resources that didn’t belong to us, that preceded us, that nobody here made that are, frankly, things we hold in stewardship for the future.
JS: The congressional district that you are seeking to represent is one of the epicenters of big tech in this country and, actually, globally. These huge corporations, whose software and programs and platforms are ubiquitous have been among the greatest violators of people’s right to privacy. What are you going to do about these big tech companies and the ways in which they violate our basic notions of privacy in our society and collude with some additional nefarious actors, be they U.S. government entities or law enforcement in the U.S. or foreign governments overseas?
SB: Fascism, in some respects, is defined by a fusion of state power and corporate power. And any number of corporations, including U.S. corporations — I.B.M. comes to mind — made hand over fist during the Holocaust, facilitating mass human rights abuses. It’s no different today. Palantir, for example, is a Silicon Valley tech company whose business model is inextricably intertwined with the war on immigrants and the war on privacy. Mass surveillance is their business model and they basically profit from abusing the rights of U.S. citizens. Any number of other companies — I particularly note the implications of the Prism program that Edward Snowden revealed in 2013. Among the things that he demonstrated was that any data request that a government intelligence agency might have of a corporate tech platform that it can’t get through the legal front door, the NSA will just take by hacking the companies. It has a whole program dedicated to it, with more computing resources than, likely, any other government program that we have available in the preceding history. And the idea there is that not only are the companies actively complicit, but they’re made complicit even if they attempt to resist.
I can remember an era, sort of in 2016, when I had the opportunity to defend Apple computer because it was fighting the government and the FBI’s attempt to undermine the human right to encryption, which is a critical ingredient for democracy and the opportunity for dissidents to raise their voices without putting themselves and their families at risk.
And I want to see Congress dial up restrictions on corporate facilitation of government surveillance efforts. I want to see Congress dial up user rights. Anti-trust is a lever here that has grown entirely too out of practice for federal regulators to use. I’d like to legislate new anti-trust laws to do things, not just with respect to dialing up the opportunities to hold tech companies accountable. Dial up and enhance antitrust enforcement into the political sphere so that federal courts have a new jurisprudential basis to intervene in cases of partisan gerrymandering. These are just a few of the ways in which I’d like to render corporate platforms subject to greater government and public scrutiny.
JS: Shahid Buttar, thank you very much for being with us here on Intercepted.
SB: Thanks for having me, Jeremy. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
JS: Shahid Buttar is a constitutional lawyer, organizer, poet, and musician. He is running for Congress as a Democrat against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
[“NSA vs. USA” by Shahid Buttar plays.]
SB: The NSA breaks the law every day. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you say, they monitor your phone calls and emails anyway. Corrupt Congress and courts paving the way. There’s a lesson you’ll learn someday: watch what you say. See they spy on your mind, record your calls for posterity, commit daily executive crimes with impunity. They’re the authorities, here to keep us safe, until the boot ends up on your face. It’s the NSA against the Constitution. We the people are the ones our government is abusing. We can force any agency to make a new choice when we build a movement, each raising our voice.
JS: That is the song NSA vs. USA by our guest Shahid Buttar. He wrote it in 2013 in response to the Edward Snowden revelations.
JS: Throughout the past three and a half years of Donald Trump’s presidency, there have been numerous stories it seems every week about how Trump is in chaos and his administration is in shambles. There’s an emerging cottage industry of former White House officials, including some who spent just days in his administration, seeking to leverage their time with Trump into book deals and other paths to fame or money. But Trump always has seemed to manage or weather the storm through a combination of lying, smearing, and redirecting attention. He is quite masterful at it. Before the [Coronavirus] pandemic hit and the Movement for Black Lives uprisings intensified in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, Trump seemed to be in a much stronger position heading into the November presidential election.
Fast forward to today: Trump’s handling of coronavirus has been an abomination and more than 100,000 Americans have died since it began. Joe Biden’s decision to largely stay hidden in his Delaware home may well turn out to have been a genius move because the attention has remained on Trump at a time when he is descending further into insanity. If polls are to be taken into account, Biden’s strategy seems to be working. People are not running to Biden’s camp because they’re excited about Joe Biden, no. They’re running there because they want Donald Trump gone. A vote is a vote.
At the same time, Trump has clearly made a decision to go all-in with his culture warrior strategy to win re-election. It’s always been a part of the Trump strategy, but recent events have resulted in Trump completely ripping off the mask. He has ranted like a tyrant in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests, has threatened to use the U.S. military, has sought to use the law to crush dissent. He’s encouraged governors and mayors to intensify the brutality in their response to the protests. Trump gave a racist and revisionist speech in front of Mount Rushmore last week as indigenous activists and their allies protested nearby. And his message boiled down to a nativist call to arms to effectively defend the white supremacist history and Confederate icons of the United States by keeping him in office.
DJT: We will never abolish our police or our great Second Amendment, which gives us the right to keep and bear arms. We believe that our children should be taught to love their country, honor their history, and respect our great American flag.
JS: Trump’s message and much of his policymaking has been overwhelmingly rooted in notions of xenophobia, the blaming of immigrants, perceived Marxist and anarchist plots against his regime. And as he seeks re-election, Trump is increasingly operating — whether intentional or not — from a playbook that is eerily reminiscent of the America First movement in the United States that operated in the 1930s. These were allies of Germany’s Nazi Party, the most famous among them was the famed pilot Charles Lindbergh.
The history of the movements and figures in U.S. history who supported Hitler and the Third Reich in the years before and during World War II is unfortunately very relevant as we approach the November election. And it is the subject of a recent book by California State University historian Bradley W. Hart. He’s the author of “Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United States.” And he joins me now. Professor Hart, thank you very much for being with us here on Intercepted.
Historian Bradley W. Hart on the 1930s America First Movement and Its Parallels to Today
Bradley Hart: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
JS: In your book, “Hitler’s American Friends,” you open with a speech by Charles Lindbergh.
Charles Lindbergh: If any of these groups, the British, the Jewish, or the administration, stops agitating for war, I believe there will be little danger of our involvement.
JS: Give people the context of who Charles Lindbergh was and then describe that scene and that speech.
BH: So Charles Lindbergh is this fascinating figure in American history who, we have to remember, was in some ways the first modern celebrity. He flies solo across the Atlantic in 1927. And this is a feat equivalent to landing on the moon. This was something that a lot of people thought wasn’t physically possible, either technologically or physically for the human body. So when Lindbergh does this in 1927, he leaps to become this larger-than-life instant celebrity figure. By some estimates he becomes the most photographed and newsreeled man in the world by quite literally overnight.
Newsreel: There’s the dock. Awaiting Lindbergh. Lindbergh! Lindbergh is coming down the gangplank, walking slowly, his hat in his hand, quietly, dignified, a darn nice boy.
BH: So he’s sort of this figure who is known to virtually everyone. He’s instantly recognizable and in 1936, Lindbergh is living in England. He actually leaves the United States following the trial of his son’s murderer, moves to England to escape the publicity, and while he’s there receives a letter from the American military attaché in Berlin asking him to visit Nazi Germany to do a sort of informal assessment of the Luftwaffe’s strength. Now this is a very controversial issue because the Luftwaffe’s being illegally rebuilt by Hitler. So Lindbergh goes off to Germany, visits these aircraft facilities. Hermann Göring, the head of the Luftwaffe, rolls out the red carpet for him. And it’s very clear from Lindbergh’s letters and journals that he is not only impressed by the quality of the German aircraft that he sees there, but also the Nazi, sort of, social system, if you will — the changes that Germany has undergone since, really, the trough of its defeat and then the hyperinflation of the 1920s.
So Lindbergh comes back, visits Germany a number of other times, becomes increasingly sort of infatuated, in some ways, with what the Nazis are doing. Hermann Göring actually awards him a medal, the Third Reich’s highest civilian honor for his services to aviation. And this really becomes a major issue in the United States. So the American press, which is increasingly becoming skeptical of Lindbergh, again this larger-than-life, formerly heroic figure. But to skip forward to 1939 when the Second World War starts, he’s faced with this kind of dilemma, as he sees it. Should he speak out against the United States entering the war in Europe against the Third Reich, a country and a regime that he certainly has some favorable views towards? Or should he remain silent and help the United States Air Force rebuild its own capacity, the Army Air Corps at that point. So he begins to speak out actively against the Roosevelt administration.
CL: Why, with 130 million people, are we being told that we must give up our independent position? That our frontiers lie in Europe and that our destiny will be decided by European armies fighting on European soil? What has happened to this nation that it fears in maturity the forces that it conquered in its youth? What change has come over us? What foreign influence has sprung up among us?
BH: After the 1940 election, he becomes the most prominent member of what’s called the America First Committee, which is essentially a bipartisan, we should say, coalition of politicians and citizens that want to keep the U.S. out of the war. And in that role he begins sort of barnstorming the country giving speeches. He’s an incredible draw.
CL: There are still interests in this country and abroad who will do their utmost to draw us into war. Against these interests we must be continuously on guard.
BH: On September 11th, 1941, Lindbergh is delivering a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, and up until this point Lindbergh’s anti-war speeches have largely been confined to implying that the Roosevelt administration is trying to take the United States into the war, largely to aid the British Empire, and that the British are trying to influence public opinion, and sort of statements like this that are obviously political but they’re not necessarily outside the political mainstream. Well in this particular speech, Lindbergh goes further and says that in fact there’s a third group trying to take the U.S. into the Second World War and that is the Jews.
So this is a major escalation from his previous rhetoric. It is obviously anti-semitic and the backlash against Lindbergh then becomes immense. He’s already become a polarizing figure. After the Des Moines speech, he was really reviled by a large part of the country and viewed with skepticism by another large portion of the country. And so, in this one speech, Charles Lindbergh, this man who had been the idol of so many young Americans in 1927 and all the way really until he becomes openly political in 1939-1940, completely ruins his reputation. And it is a speech from which Lindbergh never will really recover.
CL: When hostilities commenced in Europe, in 1939, it was realized by these groups that the American people had no intention of entering the war. They knew it would be worse than useless to ask us for a declaration of war at that time. But they believed that this country could be enticed into the war in very much the same way that it was enticed into the last one.
JS: You also write in the book that, “America First was the culmination of years of Nazi disinformation and propaganda coupled with the extremism of homegrown fascism.” Take us back to the origins of the U.S. pro-Nazi movement of the 1930s with a focus on the America First Committee.
BH: So, in the 1930s the U.S. saw the rise of extremist groups that were not unlike what had taken place in Europe really a decade earlier. It is not surprising the United States also had groups that tried to emulate that same model. The most prominent one in the mid-1930s was called the German American Bund, which was a group largely based around the idea of Germany-American heritage.
Announcer: In this New York county, steeped in the traditions of Americanism, the citizenry has been roused by the presence of Camp Siegfried, operated by the German-American Settlement League.
BH: You have to remember that the United States had a large German-American population this period. There were still some German-language newspapers. But the important thing is that there had been multiple waves of immigration from Germany. So the German American Bund is founded in 1936 out of an amalgamation of some previous groups. It is headed by a man named Fritz Kuhn, who is one of these very immigrants. He has actually fought on the side of Germany during the First World War, then moves to Mexico during the economic collapse of the early 1920s, ends up migrating to the United States where he works in a Ford plant. So, Kuhn becomes a leader in these German-American groups, becomes the first national head of what’s called the German American Bund. And the Bund begins adopting really the symbolism and, in a lot of ways, the ideology of Nazism.
[The March of Time, “Inside Nazi Germany,” 1938]
Announcer: In New York City, loudest mouthpiece in this Nazi propaganda drive is national chairman of the Hitler-inspired German American Bund. He is Fritz Kuhn, former German machine-gunner, now a naturalized American citizen who claims to have enrolled 200,000 U.S. Germans under the swastika. At his meetings, Führer Kuhn preaches orthodox fascist doctrine.
[Excerpt of Fritz Kuhn speech, in German.]
BH: They adopt a party uniform. Kuhn actually creates a stormtrooper division that he models off of the SS.
Announcer: Across the United States, Führer Kuhn has established 25 summer camps and drill grounds where those German-Americans who believe in Nazi teachings can immitate Hitler’s mighty military machine. At New York meetings, designed to promote friendship and end the U.S. boycott on German goods, uniformed Nazis parade.
Members of the German American Bund: Sieg heil! Sieg heil!
BH: So Kuhn’s main argument is that the tenets of Nazism, the tenets of what Hitler is doing in Germany, are completely compatible with the history and the traditions of the United States.
Fritz Kuhn: I hear sometimes the question, ‘why don’t you go back to Germany if you don’t like the way we run things here?’ And I ask, who is “we?” Is it the Communists? The Jews? [inaudible]? The Socialists? The Democrats? The Republicans? The Methodists or the Baptists? I have never said I don’t like it here, for I do. And I intend to stay here. No one has a greater admiration than I for the fathers of the Republic and the good structure they founded. And with that feeling we gather here tonight to honor the memory of the immortal Washington.
BH: So in Kuhn’s most provocative speeches and events, he will actually use the symbols of the U.S. — the American flag — combine them with the swastika. At his biggest rally in February of 1939, he will officially style it as a George Washington birthday celebration and he’ll have a giant portrait of Washington actually behind the stage and it will close with the crowd singing the National Anthem and giving the stiff-armed Nazi salute.
[Archive: “Star-Spangled Banner” plays.]
BH: So this is a man who is deliberately trying to combine Nazism with the views of, sort of, Americanism. Where this feeds into America First a few years later is in 1939, after that rally, Kuhn is actually arrested. And so the Bund really begins to dissolve. But a year later when the America First Committee is founded, there’s quite a lot of evidence that I certainly found in researching this book and other historians have as well, that a lot of former Bund members were attracted to this message of keeping the U.S. out of the European war. And you can see why. It’s sort of an obvious affinity. If one is sympathetic towards Nazi Germany, keeping the U.S. from intervening in that European war is really a key component of it. So, we have to view the historic America First Committee as this amalgamation of groups that were not only interested in keeping the U.S. out of the war for very genuine reasons, but also had less patriotic aims in mind.
JS: I wanted to ask you about some more contemporary issues and ask you to reflect, as a historian, on some of them. Last week, standing in front of Mount Rushmore, President Trump warned an overwhelmingly maskless crowd of —
DJT: There is a new left fascism that demands absolute allegiance. If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished.
JS: The following day, at Trump’s second annual salute to America rally, Trump claimed:
DJT: We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters, and people who, in many instances, have absolutely no clue what they are doing.
JS: So as Trump continues to evangelize an insular, divisive, ethnocentric worldview — some would say a kind of white power reelection campaign — explain the connections or the parallels between the way that Donald Trump talks about the real America and the America First Nazi movement that you write about in this book.
BH: Well, when you look at the original America First, it was not just an anti-war movement in that sense. And we should say that it truly was a movement. It has 800,000 paid up members, many more sympathizers, but it was not associated with any political party. It actually enjoyed support from both sides of the political spectrum, so it was really kind of this intriguing grassroots movement, if you will. The Committee was not just about keeping the U.S. out of the war. In fact, a number of its leaders later on said that it was more about opposing Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal than it was about the war itself. The war was just the issue that could galvanize public opinion in that way.
And so I think the probably best way to look at the original America First Movement was that it was a beyond party response to the reelection of Roosevelt in 1940, when the isolationists were really unable to defeat Roosevelt whether within the Democratic Party or within the Republican Party. We have to remember that Roosevelt’s opponent in 1940 was Wendell Willkie, who was actually a former Democrat. He’d been a delegate for Roosevelt in 1936, of all things. He becomes a Republican really right before the convention. He’s seen as a pretty apartisan businessman. The Republicans nominate him rather than the isolationist candidates and Willkie then faces off against Roosevelt and actually does better against Roosevelt than anyone else he’s ever faced. So I think when we understand that a lot of people felt like the 1940 election wasn’t a true choice, we can see the America First movement as becoming the result of that. It was in a lot of way more about issues of identity, questions about where the country was heading, questions about what the New Deal was doing. We have to remember the New Deal was incredibly controversial still at that time. There were people who thought that it was a way of undermining American economic traditions and things of that sort. And so I think it really is an overall reaction to the 1940 election and to what the Roosevelt administration had been doing really since 1933 when they [came] into power.
The America Firsters always tried to be very clear that their movement was not about race. They decried racism. There [were] concerns within the America First Committee after Lindbergh’s 1941 speech as to whether they should denounce that speech or not. Interestingly, as I discovered writing the book, among the America First membership, about 80 percent of the letters that flowed into their headquarters after that speech were supportive of Lindbergh’s sentiments, and many of them in very harsh language, saying “thank you for saying what we’re all thinking” type of thing. And so I think what a lot of this is is we have a movement that emerged in that period that was this wide-ranging response, really, to the political trends.
JS: You mentioned before that the America First Committee had quite a large number of supporters or people who identified themselves as part of that movement and I’m curious why that happened. What was speaking to them in their everyday lives that made them say, ‘I want to identify with this movement’? And the reason why I think there is a sort of analog to the present time, beyond the obvious things that you and I have already been discussing, is because you do get a sense when you listen to people talk about why they’re supporting Donald Trump — particularly in this moment as Confederate monuments are either being taken down by governments or pulled down by protesters, and then you have Donald Trump doing this full-frontal assault on that, praising everyone from Christopher Columbus to saying that this is part of our proud heritage in this country — I’m wondering though, in terms of just ordinary people, if you see an overlap to the kind of narcotic that is offered by despots who are condemning the Other as the real reason why the real Americans are having a problem, if you see a parallel there to the scholarship you’ve done and some of the public sentiment in support of Trump at this moment with these monuments coming down.
BH: There’s certainly an analog. If you look at the America First movement, they have 800,000 members nationwide. They are largely based in the upper Midwest. The movement itself is headquartered in Chicago. And this is a region that has a lot of classic forms of isolationism. It’s a largely rural area in the 1930s and 40s and it’s an area that in a lot of ways has felt left behind, I think, by the rest of the country. It’s an area where people have been moving out of already by that period for decades to go to big cities. And there’s this feeling, I think, of cultural isolation that, as Hollywood has expanded, as popular culture has become dominated more so by cities than by “traditional American culture.” A lot of the people who are attracted to America First in that period see themselves as simply being left behind.
Man’s voice: This time America should keep out and I know I will.
Woman’s voice: I haven’t the slightest idea of European affairs.
Man’s voice: I think we should stay out of it entirely. And all our efforts should be made to keep out of [inaudible]
Man’s voice: We ought to fight our own battles.
BH: They are also concerned about the trends they’re seeing in society — economic trends with things like the New Deal that have come in and largely bailed out the agricultural sector, but there were concerns about what the long-term ramifications of that might be. There’s concern about social trends. We have to remember this is only a few decades after the Great Migration, in which a lot of African-Americans have moved to the North from the South, so there’s racial undertones to this as well that comes across in quite a bit of the America Firsters rhetoric.
And so I think what we’re seeing, in a lot of ways, contemporarily does in some ways echo the social unrest and the economic unrest of the 1930s. In many ways the world has not recovered in our own time from the financial downturn of 2008-2009. The long term ramifications of that continue to be felt. And that, I think, creates a background or an undertone against which a lot of this has to be read.
JS: You know, obviously, the situation with the news media today is very different than it was in the 1920s or 30s for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that you can find any kind of perspective that you want just by going online. You’re not required to listen to the radio or watch television. You can find anything on Facebook, or Twitter, or social media, or news sites, etc. But at the time that you’re writing about in this book, there was a much more limited landscape and radio was a very powerful medium and a way that people could spread their ideology and their views or to skew the news in a way that they wanted. And they had much more direct access to a larger percentage of people just because the options were so limited. But I want to ask you specifically about the Detroit radio host who was a priest named Father Charles Coughlin. He was probably the best known national figure to use this emerging medium of radio, reaching an audience numbering in the millions. Tell the story of who Father Coughlin was and his role in the history that you’re writing about.
BH: He’s really, in a lot of ways, the first media mogul. This fascinating figure who starts out as a parish priest and he moves to a place called Royal Oak, MI, which is an area that at that point has a large Ku Klux Klan contingent in it. And the Klan of course is heavily anti-Catholic and actually burns a cross on Coughlin’s church lawn when he arrives. And so this young priest begins looking for a way to essentially humanize Catholicism to a still largely anti-Catholic community. So he goes to a local radio station and offers to buy time using his parish resources and the radio station agrees in much the same way that broadcasters today still will often sell time to anyone who comes along.
Coughlin begins this sort of religious program. Initially it starts out as fairly anodyne sort of religious broadcasting commentary on the Scripture, masses, choirs, things of that sort. But then as the Great Depression sets in, in 1929-1930, Coughlin becomes increasingly political, and by 1932 he has turned heavily against the Hoover administration, endorses Franklin Roosevelt and begins gathering himself a larger audience. This is now a message that can go beyond Catholics in the Michigan area. It’s a message that can actually go regional and later on national. And Roosevelt himself has sort of brought Coughlin into his campaign tent, if you will. And so Coughlin now sees himself as a big player. He has the ear of the president-elect of the United States, his message has become increasingly political, largely focused on how best to help the poor out of the Depression, and he’s therefore deeply disappointed when Roosevelt begins to ignore his suggestions once the Roosevelt administration comes into place.
So Coughlin then turns against Roosevelt and by 1936 has really launched a political movement of his own and when Hitler takes power — begins solidifying his power in 1933 — looks at what’s going on in Nazi Germany with a favorable eye. So we have to remember that Hitler, when he takes power, enacts a massive public works campaign, begins building infrastructure, the Autobahn being the most famous part, and by 1936, just three years later, Germany is claiming to be at zero percent unemployment. This is a period in which the U.S. is still in double digit unemployment. And so Coughlin in this, I think, in some ways well-meaning attempt to help the poor, becomes sort of subsumed by what Hitler has done economically in Germany and therfore also the anti-semitism. So Coughlin, and this is really only one step further for him, looks at Roosevelt’s refusal to take his economic policies onboard as evidence of Roosevelt being controlled by banks and in Coughlin’s mind banks are controlled by Jews and therefore what Hitler is doing to the Jews is a justifiable move.
Father Coughlin: And so Mr. Roosevelt, who was very loquacious in 1933 about driving the moneychangers out of the temple, is now bent upon another policy. I think driving the workmen out of decent annual wages. We are Christian in so far as we believe in Christ’s principle of “love your neighbor as yourself” and with that principle I challenge every Jew in this nation to tell me that he does not believe in it.
BH: So by 1938-1939, Coughlin has actually set himself up with a nationwide broadcasting network and polling suggests that by ’38-’39, something like 20 million Americans a week are listening to Coughlin’s broadcast. But we think actually this is the largest radio audience ever assembled. This is much larger than any radio broadcaster since then. Listening to him today is really difficult. And I think that’s sort of what his appeal is. He seems to be saying the things that a lot of Americans feel but no one else is really putting out there. I shudder to think what Father Coughlin would have done with Twitter.
JS: I did want to ask you about Vice-President Henry Wallace. In 1944, Wallace wrote, “the American fascists are most easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact. Their newspapers and propaganda carefully cultivate every fissure of disunity, every crack in the common front against fascism. They use every opportunity to impune democracy. Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection.” Talk a bit about Henry Wallace, his views, and his dedication to anti-fascism in the United States.
BH: So Henry Wallace is one of the most remarkable political figures of this era. He has been Roosevelt’s secretary of agriculture. He had done a great deal to help American farmers. He’s from Iowa, initially. And in 1940, Roosevelt chooses him as his running mate to sort of appease the, sort of, more left-wing faction of his party. Again, this is a controversial election which Roosevelt is running for his third term and so Wallace becomes really the key to that election.
But more importantly, in the public eye, he becomes a really outspoken anti-fascist in a period in which many politicians were more moderate in their tone. And I think the quote that you read from Wallace is really indicative of his thinking and his argumentation. I mean, this is a man who sees fascism in a very clear way. He sees it for the threat that it is in a period where a lot of people don’t. He really, I think, believes that fascist sort of tactics are designed towards divide and conquer, which I think is really a fair assessment. The Nazis were running a substantial disinformation campaign in the United States during the 1940 election. They actually tried to engage in election interference to throw the election against Roosevelt. They also had a substantial operation in which they planted stories in the American press. They had an operation on Capitol Hill where they had a German agent inserting anti-British, isolationist speeches in the congressional record and then having those printed and sent out to Americans unsolicited.
And so this disinformation campaign was really designed to divide Americans against one another. And if we think about the nature of something like anti-semitism, that’s really what anti-semitism is. America has had a large and vibrant Jewish community that has been in the country for centuries. Why sort of try to amp up this rhetoric of American against American? It is very much a divide and conquer tactic. We should also point out that the U.S. government at this point passes the Foreign Agents Registration Act to try to combat that at an official level. But there is a great deal of this rhetoric sort of being put forth by the Fritz Kuhns of the world, by the Father Coughlins, and that I think is what Wallace is really speaking to.
Henry Wallace: Some have spoken of the American century. I say that the century on which we are entering, the century which will come into being after this war, can be and must be the century of the common man. No nation will have the God-given right to exploit other nations. But there must be neither military nor economic imperialism.
BH: We should mention as well that Wallace actually gets booted off the ticket in 1944 because there were concerns in the Democratic party that he is too left-wing and that Roosevelt is unlikely to survive his fourth term, which of course turned out to be correct. And so the nominee who replaces Wallace is Harry Truman, who will of course become president and is seen as a moderate from the Midwest. So, I actually encourage your readers to look more into Henry Wallace. He’s a figure who has always fascinated me and I think is really one of the few American politicians to really see the Nazi threat for what it is and to speak out against it.
JS: Well, Bradley Hart, I want to thank you for your scholarship. There’s really a lot of vital information packed into this history book that unfortunately remains very relevant to this very moment, and thank you so much for being with us here on Intercepted.
BH: Thank you for having me.
JS: Bradley W. Hart is Assistant Professor of History at California State University, Fresno. He’s also a former bye-fellow of Churchill College at Cambridge in the U.K.. His book is called “Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United States.”
And that does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter @intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Lucie Kroening. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.