In February 1939, 22,000 Americans gathered in Madison Square Garden for a rally supporting Nazi Germany and American fascism. Of course, those words were not emblazoned on the promotional fliers. The German-American Bund billed the event as a “Pro-American rally” and “Mass Demonstration for the True Americanism,” coinciding with George Washington’s birthday. Yet what participants got was a giant portrait of America’s first president flanked by Nazi swastikas, chants of “Heil Hitler,” and a flood of anti-Semitic remarks. When a Jewish protester rushed the stage, he was beaten by Bund members, footage that made the newsreels and horrified American moviegoers.
The Bund did not long survive its coming-out party, but it was surpassed by the America First Committee, which was founded in 1940 and had over 800,000 members at its height, the equivalent of over 2 million in today’s population. The group, dedicated to stopping America from declaring war against Nazi Germany, initially recruited automotive pioneer Henry Ford to serve on its executive committee, but removed him after his notorious anti-Semitism prompted a Jewish member to resign. That didn’t stop the famed pilot Charles Lindbergh, when addressing an America First Committee rally in September 1941, from naming “the Jewish” as among “the major war agitators in this country.”
However, like the German-American Bund, the America First Committee advertised themselves as peaceful isolationists. They were successful in conning many otherwise well-meaning pacifists into supporting their cause and many gullible journalists into promoting their rhetoric at face value. Today most people recognize that, despite its attempts at obfuscation, the America First Committee was a de facto fascist organization.
The historical echoes of the America First Committee can be heard among today’s “America First” Republicans—like Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, and Ron DeSantis—when they pontificate about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Trump’s history of unsavory entanglements with Russia needs little rehashing. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Trump’s political and business ties with Russian interests run deep. Before he was impeached a second time for launching a coup against the United States government, the former president was first impeached for attempting to extort Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy into manufacturing a scandal about Joe Biden’s family in exchange for weapons against Russia. Trump has insisted that he trusts the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin more than he does U.S. intelligence officials, boasted of his deep friendship with him, and behaved with uncharacteristic submissiveness before him. Trump has said he would have avoided war by letting Russia take Ukrainian land. He opposed Biden’s decision to send Ukraine tanks and complained that America is spending too much money on Ukraine.
Through it all, however, Trump has justified his obvious pro-Putin leanings as mere peace-loving isolationism. Trump plays off his acquiescence to murderous dictators as foreign-policy realism, seeking to avoid nuclear war. Mainstream journalists have followed suit by straightforwardly describing Trump as an “isolationist” who is, at worst, turning America’s foreign policy inward and abdicating its role as a leader in defense of democracy and human rights.
But peace, of course, is not Trump’s actual motivation—any more than it was for his “America First” predecessors in the run-up to World War II. The early 20th century saw explicitly militaristic, fascist powers forge a global alliance called the Axis, which started wars of choice against their democratic neighbors. Similarly, Putin is at the helm of a loose global alliance of nationalist far-right dictators. He has been interfering in elections across the world to increase strife and division, weaken liberal international norms, and replace democratic governance with autocratic rule. The Kremlin and its allies are not merely territorial and imperialistic, attempting to provide a bulwark against “The West.” Like their Axis forebears, their goals include a socially conservative counter-revolution. Russia’s leaders portray their country as the last bastion of Christian hyper-masculinity. It’s a place where LGBT people are not welcome, women are kept in their place, church and state are intertwined, the rich do whatever they please, public policy is run explicitly on behalf of fossil fuel interests, and dissent is met with murderous violence.
In this, they find common cause with admiring social conservatives across the globe—including here in the United States. It is no wonder that Fox News superstar Tucker Carlson admitted he was rooting for Russia in its war against Ukraine and has consistently toed the Kremlin line on the war in his primetime show. Carlson, too, claims that he is just an America-loving peacenik trying to avoid a hot war with Russia and China. But the truth is simpler: Putin’s ideas for how the world should be run match Carlson’s own. His desire for Russia to dominate Ukraine and humiliate the liberal democratic NATO alliance fits perfectly with his admiration for other current and former right-wing authoritarians in Hungary, Poland, Brazil, and elsewhere.
Republican base voters are following suit, slowed only by historically ingrained, instinctual enmity toward the formerly Communist Soviet Union and the shamefaced resistance of the old guard Republican establishment. But tensions are growing as increasing numbers of Republican voters side with Russia against Ukraine.
In recent weeks, Florida Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis followed the momentum by that defending Ukraine is not in America’s interest. After several pro-Ukraine Republican senators criticized the remarks, DeSantis seemed to backpedal, calling Putin a “war criminal” and a “gas station with a bunch of nuclear weapons.” But then he doubled down on his original comments during a Newsmax interview: “I care more about securing our own border in the United States than I do about the Russia-Ukraine border, and it seems like the establishment … ignore the problems we have here at home.” Whether DeSantis is expressing a genuine belief or not is inconsequential. His own reactionary, socially conservative policies align with Putin’s and the global far right’s, not with those of Americans as a whole or most of our NATO allies.
Sadly, too many journalists describe DeSantis’s and Trump’s gestures toward Russia as mere “isolationism.” It is anything but. They are not advocating neutrality in a foreign conflict. Trump, Carlson, and DeSantis are trying to switch America’s allegiance from the alliance of liberal democratic nations to the Axis of hardline right-wing authoritarian governments worldwide.
This is an extraordinarily precarious moment for democracy worldwide. Journalists must describe the stakes accurately if voters are to make informed choices about the world they want to live in.