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Review of Rachel Maddow's Ultra podcast

by Paul Levinson 2 months ago in review · updated 2 months ago
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Crucial Listening

I just listened to the first two episodes of Rachel Maddow's new podcast, Ultra. Its vivid exploration of the fascist right-cadre in America in the late 1930s and (thus far in the podcast) 1940 offer a chilling, stunning historical precedent for what is threatening America right now. I'm recommending the podcast to all three of the classes I'm currently teaching at Fordham University this term.

I began seeing similarities between Trump and Hitler as soon as Trump denounced CNN and its reporter Jim Acosta as "fake news" at a press conference in New York City when Trump was President-elect in 2017 (see my Fake News in Real Context). The parallels between Trump's attacks on legitimate journalism as "fake news" and the Nazi characterization of the Weimar Republic's legitimate press as the “Lügenpresse” (lying press) were unavoidable. Such attempts to destroy unwelcome reporting were and still are one of the two cornerstones in the dismembering of democracy.

Of course, back then, in 2017, Trump and his supporters had not yet resorted to violence, the other cornerstone of fascism. Indeed, the textbook definition of fascism is denial of the truth backed up by force -- either you believe the lie, or we'll kill you. And as recently as August 2020, House Majority Leader Jim Clyburn, recognizing that Trump had not yet used or instigated violence against the government, had it more accurately when he said that Trump is Mussolini and Putin is Hitler. Since then, Putin's role as the 21st century Hitler has become clear in his ongoing savage slaughter of civilians and innocent children in Ukraine. But Trump has edged closer to Hitler, too, with his instigation of the violent attempt of Trumpists to stop Congress's certification of the election in January 2021.

It is that failed violent insurrection and its aftermath -- the Proud Boys, the Republican Senators and Congresspeople who have given support and comfort to those insurrectionists, Trump's simultaneous blithe denial and explicit support of these people who tried with deadly force to keep him in office -- that serves as the explicit backdrop of Maddow's vivid exploration of how much the same took place right before America got directly involved in the Second World War. In typical Rachel Maddow style, the first episode tells us about an American Senator who dies in an unlikely plane crash, the second episode about the violent Christian Front who walked out of court, free as birds, after they were found not-guilty of plotting violence against the United States. Senator Lundeen had a speech written for him by a Nazi agent when he died on that plane, and the Christian Front were public admirers of the Nazis when they walked out of court, virulent followers of Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest whose radio show attracted an audience of tens of millions of people, a percentage of Americans far greater than that of any show that attracted that number of Americans today.

The parallels to today's America are undeniable and frightening. Tucker Carlson is not a Catholic priest, does not engage in anti-semitic screeds, and has a far smaller audience than did Coughlin. But his lies on Fox News give credence to people who deny the results of the 2020 election, and he has more than once expressed support for Putin's invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, early on in that war, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov expressed praise for Fox News.

I always tell my students that everything in the news today has historical precedents. I'm looking forward to Rachel Maddow's unique reporting on them in her Ultra podcast (and kudos not only to Maddow but Mike Yarvitz and Kelsey Desiderio, who helped her create this chillingly important podcast). I can't think of more crucial listening in our world today.

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About the author

Paul Levinson

Novels include The Silk Code & The Plot To Save Socrates; LPs Twice Upon A Rhyme & Welcome Up; nonfiction includes Fake News in Real Context, The Soft Edge, & Digital McLuhan translated into 15 languages. Details here. Prof, Fordham Univ.

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