Thursday, August 15, 2019

It can't happen here. Well, it is.

Trump rally

It’s been a mere 80 years since the February 20, 1939 rally in Madison Square Garden. Little has changed. The similarities between the pro-Nazi rally then and the Trump rallies now.

Dartagnan at Daily Kos reports how the Chilling footage of a 1939 pro-Nazi rally in New York City foreshadows Trump’s rallies today. (Thanks to Mrs. Scriber.)

No, this photo is not the pro-Nazi rally but you are forgiven if you made that mistake.

All of Donald Trump’s major rallies incorporate certain common elements: attacks on the press, the ritualistic demonization of immigrants and other minorities, exhortation of “real Americans” to “take back their country,” and overt, exclusionary appeals to patriotism (along with a gaudy emphasis on patriotic symbols and imagery). At several of his rallies, there has been a palpable undercurrent of incipient violence, as dissenters or protesters were subjected to assaults and physical and verbal threats by Trump supporters, with Trump himself nodding approval or encouragement.

Before Trump came along, most of us, thankfully, had never witnessed anything remotely like these spectacles in our lifetimes. Historical examples, such as the inflammatory political rallies of segregationist Governor George Wallace in the 1960s, were generally presented to us in textbooks as aberrations to be universally reviled as they faded into the dustbins of our history; we recognized that there was something deeply unsettling and anti-American about them.

Some events were revolting and embarrassing enough to be simply erased from the public memory, never to appear in anyone’s textbooks. One of those was the so-called “pro-American” rally held at Madison Square Garden in New York City, in February of 1939, and attended by 22,000 pro-Nazi Americans.

Marshall Curry’s 2017 film, “A Night at the Garden,” assembled rare archival footage of this rally, and in 2018 it earned an Academy Award nomination in the category of Best Documentary, Short Subject. It was produced by Laura Poitras and Charlotte Cook, with Field of Vision.

Approximately six minutes in length, the complete film, “A Night at the Garden” can be viewed below.

Director Marshall Curry, when interviewed by Field of Vision, describes what initially struck him as he worked to assemble the fragments of the rally’s meager existing footage, which had been dispersed around the country.

It really illustrated that the tactics of demagogues have been the same throughout the ages. They attack the press, using sarcasm and humor. They tell their followers that they are the true Americans (or Germans or Spartans or …). And they encourage their followers to “take their country back” from whatever minority group has ruined it.

Curry was also asked what he would like audiences to take away from the film.

To me, the most striking and upsetting part of the film is not the anti-Semitism of the main speaker or even the violence of his storm-troopers. What bothers me more is the reaction of the crowd. Twenty-thousand New Yorkers who loved their kids and were probably nice to their neighbors, came home from work that day, dressed up in suits and skirts, and went out to cheer and laugh and sing as a speaker dehumanized people who would be murdered by the millions in the next few years.

I’m aligned with Curry on this. Scroll back up and look again at those folks in the crowd. In other footage of Trump rallies, they’re smiling, laughing, bumping each other, thumbs up, and generally having a hoo-hah good time. That Trump has not kept a single promise to them (remember “good” health care?) and has enacted policies inimical to the interests of workers, flies right over their heads. It’s a personality cult (as in Hitler) so Trump’s rhetoric and rants do not have to make sense or contain even the smallest kernel of truth.

This point is less an indictment of bad things that Americans have done in the past, than it is a cautionary tale about the bad things that we might do in the future.


We’d like to believe that there are sharp lines between good people and bad people. But I think most humans have dark passions inside us, waiting to be stirred up by a demagogue who is funny and mean, who can convince us that decency is for the weak, that democracy is naïve, and that kindness and respect for others are just ridiculous political correctness.

For anyone who still harbors the illusion that “it can’t happen here,” Curry’s film is essential, if disturbing, viewing. For those of us who no longer harbor that illusion, it simply serves as confirmation of our worst fears.

Check out the Kos post for more about that evening and the Bund.

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