For a historical podcast, Rachel Maddow’s new project could hardly be more timely. As the seditious conspiracy trial seeking to hold the Oath Keepers accountable for their role in the Jan. 6 insurrection ramps up in Washington, D.C., Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra explores a World War II-era prosecution known as the Great Sedition Trial of 1944.
The prosecution exposed a Nazi-backed plot that connected sitting members of Congress — many of them tied to the original, nativist America First movement — and militias and street thugs who wanted to overthrow the republic and install a fascist, authoritarian regime.
Spoiler alert: The prosecution failed.
But in the story of the fight to expose the plot, Maddow sees the success of a broader American resistance to authoritarianism, and important lessons for our current politics as the Jan. 6 committee continues to shine a spotlight on Donald Trump’s chaotic coup attempt. “Accountability doesn’t only happen in jail,” Maddow says. “Disgrace is a form of accountability.”
Ultra is Maddow’s second podcast, following the hit Bagman that chronicled the fall of America’s most ignominious vice president, Spirow Agnew. As part of the rapidly expanding Maddow multiverse, Bagman is now being developed as a feature film, produced in conjunction with SNL’s Lorne Michaels and director Ben Stiller. As she pursues such projects from her home in Western Massachusetts, Maddow has dialed back her namesake MSNBC show to Monday nights, while also anchoring the network’s special politics coverage.
The trailer for Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra dropped early this morning. The series premieres Oct. 10, with eight weekly installments. Maddow talked exclusively to Rolling Stone last week to introduce the “mostly forgotten history” that Americans would do well to remember.
You’ve kept this project very close to the vest. What is your new podcast about?
This is the first time that I’ve talked about it. I have to warn you, you’re getting the raw, uncooked, blurred blurts about it. It’s called Ultra, and in the broadest sense it is about sedition — which is timely with the Oath Keepers sedition trial in D.C. starting.
It is also about authoritarianism and fascism in the United States. Those words and concepts are fraught. It is hard for us to conceive that they apply to our generation. It’s easier to see when it happens in another country. Americans can recognize, ‘Oh, yeah, Putin is an autocrat.’ People can see the Italian party whose logo is based on the eternal flame on Mussolini’s mausoleum [and recognize] that it coming back to power is probably not good.
Domestically, we can have a comfort level talking about it, and we can be constructive and rigorous in our thinking when we’re talking about something that happened in the past. And so Ultra is the story of sedition, and fighting against authoritarianism and fascism in the United States, but 80 years ago. It’s not a perfect allegory for any one thing. But there are a lot of things that resonate.
What are the contours of the Great Sedition story?
In the lead up to World War II, there was a Nazi agent operating in the United States, running a big propaganda operation out of the U.S. Congress. He wasn’t sneaking around. Lots of members of Congress — both senators and members of the House — were involved. Some of them were getting paid by the German government. It was gross and bad.
At the same time, the Hitler government was also funding, directly and indirectly, ultra-right extremist groups in the United States, including a bunch that were stockpiling weapons and actively planning violence — including plans to soften up the United States to prepare for a fascist invasion, or to overthrow the government and install a Hitler-style government here.
The Justice Department at the time — in fits and starts — ended up cottoning to both of these plots and realized they were connected. They brought a big prosecution to try to stop a seditious conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government by force, with help of the Hitler government, which by then we were actively fighting in World War II.
It was called The Great Sedition Trial of 1944. It’s mostly forgotten history, in large part because the trial didn’t work. They all got off. But that doesn’t mean that these guys weren’t actually doing what they were accused of. There were powerful elected officials who were involved in this terrible plot. They pressured the Justice Department to get the prosecutor fired, and to get the whole thing shut down. They used their political power to get away and to get their co-conspirators off. It has had decades of consequences for the United States in terms of this protection racket at the heart of the far right.
How was the plot orchestrated?
There was this very well-connected, very rich Nazi agent. He was a known agent of the German government during World War I. He was actually the object of a huge scandal when it emerged that he might have had advance knowledge of the sinking of the Lusitania. (Tons of Americans died in the sinking of the Lusitania, which got us, in large part, into World War I.) In the lead up to World War II, he started this scheme where he paid members of Congress to take propaganda from the Hitler government — he’d literally get it from the German embassy — and deliver it in Congress in floor speeches. Then he’d use their offices’ franking privileges to get thousands, in some cases millions, of reprints of this Nazi propaganda. He would mail it out, at taxpayer expense, all over the United States.
What’s his name?
George Sylvester Viereck. He’s the reason that we have the Foreign Agents Registration Act. He’s the guy who gave us Mike Flynn’s guilty pleas. The requirement to register officially as an agent of a foreign power derives from him and from this scandal.
This is not in the podcast — much to my chagrin — but he is also credited with the first gay vampire porn.
Come again? Gay vampire porn?
You know how gay vampire stuff is a trope? He’s the first person who ever wrote a sexy and gay vampire story, where the sucking of blood is actually just a metaphor for…. Yeah. He was a real character. But he was very close with all these members of Congress. It’s the dark side of the America First Committee and the isolationist movement here at the time.
So Hitler’s strategy was to leverage American politicians who were inclined to isolationism, and use them as a mouthpiece for a propaganda effort to keep the U.S. out of World War II?
Hitler’s big contribution to fascist world domination was the centrality of propaganda. He believed that you needed revolutionary violence in order to seize and hold power. But the way that you achieve it, at scale, is through the power of propaganda. That was always a first-tier priority of his political operation, and then his regime.
But the German propaganda efforts in the United States, in particular, were something that was often downplayed at the time, and is still downplayed. Because we never think about propaganda as important. We saw it as bad advertising. Or disinformation. But that was how the Nazis were waging war. And their propaganda operation inside the United States was big, well-funded, and aggressive. Some of the most famous members of Congress at the time were implicated in this plot.
To what extent did the original America First movement intersect with this seditionist plan?
There’s this great scene — I don’t want to. I’m torn, because I don’t wanna…
Give it away? Give it away!
All right, so there’s this prosecutor, who is like the Babe Ruth of assistant U.S. attorneys at the time. He’s brought in as a special assistant to the attorney general to investigate this plot. He serves a subpoena on an apartment in New York City, and thinks he is going to find some of these pieces of Nazi propaganda that are being sent out under the name of a particular member of Congress. But when he gets there it turns out it’s a ton of members of Congress, and it’s not a stack of envelopes — it’s dozens of mail bags full of all this stuff. His mind is just blown: “My god, this is so much bigger than I thought it was.”
He goes to leave the apartment and the neighbor at the next apartment is like, “Oh, you should have been here this morning.” The prosecutor is like, “What do you mean?” And the neighbor responds, “I didn’t know if there was any stuff still left in there. They took away so many bags this morning. The big truck.”
Turns out, there was an intrepid Washington Post reporter who got a tip that this was all going down, and actually beat the prosecutor and the FBI guys there that day. He saw the truck take off with all the mail bags, and he followed. And the truck went to the U.S. Capitol where it dropped off a bunch of these mailbags at the office of one of the members of Congress who was involved in the plot. And then it made a second stop, at the Washington headquarters of the America First Committee, which took the stolen evidence. The reporter stakes out the offices and is there when America First Committee staffers drag the mail bags out into the alley, one-by-one, and set all the mail on fire.
Oh come on.
No fucking way! Right?
This is a “past isn’t even past” moment. We still have the Trump slogan, America First. To what extent do you see the same authoritarian impulses echoing through the current America First movement?
The people in our politics who chose the phrase America First to identify themselves know that they didn’t invent it. They know that it came from this history. If you want to make that your political slogan while you’re running for office, you at least know who Charles Lindbergh was, right, even if you don’t remember him getting that medal from Goering. The echos are there, on purpose, by the people who are acting in our politics today, in the full, bright light of understanding about why they’re calling that.
Bringing the sedition charges was risky for the Justice Department, in part that’s because they’d already had a big swing and a miss a few years earlier.
In 1940, J. Edgar Hoover went out and gave a press conference with this big splash, front-page gigantic headlines all across the country, about the arrest of 17 members of a group called the Christian Front. The Christian Front, again, is a group lost to history.
Father Charles Coughlin was known as the radio priest. He had 30 million people listening to him on the radio every week. There’s no one who has matched, before or since, that dominance as a media figure.
Coughlin first turned against the New Deal, and then turned overtly and unabashedly toward fascism. By 1936, he was saying, “I choose the road of fascism.” He said that the United States was coming to a time where we would choose the “Franco way” — which was his way of saying the right should seize power through violence and achieve a fascist dictatorship here the way [the Spanish dictator Francisco] Franco did, because American politics wasn’t working anymore.
He was openly antisemitic. Even as the country recoiled from the news of Kristallnacht in 1938, Coughlin got on the air and said the Jews had it coming. And that worse might be in store if they kept up their evil Jewish ways. So Coughlin, by 1938, was actively arguing for his followers to take up arms against the United States government and to form these militias under the title Christian Front. It led to multiple armed plots against the government and pogrom-style street violence that was pretty terrifying.
In January 1940, the FBI announced that 17 members of the Christian Front were being charged for sedition because they had a plot to kill a dozen members of Congress and blow up buildings — with a pretty well-organized plan to have it set off a violent coup that would allow them and their allies to take over the government.
How was that going to work?
They thought that killing the congressmen would set off a civil war in the United States. They believed they could provoke the antifa of their time, the anti-fascist groups and communist groups, into such an outraged reaction that it would cause the National Guard to be called out, and then the Christian Front would join with the National Guard. And it would be a military coup in the United States, which would pave the way for a fascist, emergency power-style military government.
So they were like a combination of the Oath Keepers and the Boogaloo boys. They were trying to start a civil war, but imagined that they would join with the armed forces in the coup efforts. And of course, they probably saw themselves as great patriots, too.
Exactly. That was their defense when the Christian Front was put on trial, that they were good ol’ American boys protecting the United States from the commies. But they were the accelerationists of their time.
A majority of those who were arrested were either in the military, or were military veterans, or had military training. They had stolen heavy machine guns, and were using those in training as part of their plot. They had lots of bombs, and we’re training all of their members to make more. They were caught red-handed, and the FBI put everything into it.
They went on trial a few months later. They all got off, and that was the cautionary tale for the Justice Department. The Christian Front were emboldened and Coughlin felt vindicated. So when they came back to the same issue a few years later with this Great Sedition Trial in 1944, that previous defeat was still ringing in their ears.
The Great Sedition Trial dealt in part with the Nazi regime’s infiltration into Congress. What was happening with fascists on the ground?
In Germany, Hitler had the Brown Shirts and Mussolini in Italy had the Black Shirts. We had a group in this country called the Silver Shirts. One of the Great Sedition Trial defendants, William Dudley Pelley, was the head of the Silver Shirts.
The plot that his group was involved in also included members of the military and U.S. military weapons — a bunch of which they actually got their hands on — in Southern California. Their plot was to install Pelley as a Hitler-style dictator. He actually said he was honored to be called the “American Adolf Hitler.”
There were also some Silver Shirt-adjacent plots in Southern California that had a specific anti-Semitic twist. They were going to find, hunt down, and assassinate the 20 most high-profile Jews in Hollywood, including studio executives, actors, and entertainers. Then they were going to hang them and display their bodies and shoot their corpses as they hung from lampposts. They hoped it would cause American Jews to flee.
All of these things were happening within a short timeframe. The thing that was deeply unnerving to the Justice Department, and to the Roosevelt administration at the time, was when they realized that there was direct and indirect funding for almost all these groups from the Hitler government, through the same means that they were funding these members of Congress.
In your last podcast, you said that “history is here to help.” I’m not sure if what you’re telling me is helping me or horrifying me.
The Justice Department turned its full force toward trying to confront this problem. The prosecutors who were working on this got it. They were under no illusions about what they were fighting against, and what the connections were, and how scary they were. The justice system was still not up to the task of settling this in court.
When they brought the sedition indictments, it was a risky decision. And it makes me appreciate more how risky the decision is by the Merrick Garland Justice Department to bring this sedition trial against the Oath Keepers. Because sedition charges are really hard to prove — even in the worst cases.
But the way that history is here to help, on this one, is to keep in check our expectations for criminal law as the end-all-be-all of confronting political violence, and even crimes like sedition and insurrection. The hopeful part of this story is all of the people outside the Justice Department who fought this in their own way: the activists and the journalists and the politicians and the other people who brought other forms of civic virtue to bear against these forces and proved effective.
The justice system can’t be the silver bullet. There has to be a whole-citizen approach. We all have a role to play in confronting and exposing and stopping this stuff.
What made it so difficult to prosecute these people?
The defendants in the Great Sedition Trial included Silver Shirts and lots of other American fascists and ultra-right groups. The Justice Department in 1944 tried to get this amalgamated trial against 30 defendants. And they bit off too much. Had they put each defendant on trial, individually, they probably could have nailed each one of them.
But there’s more to it: The political pressure on the Justice Department to fire the prosecutor; the members of Congress who are implicated in the plot inveighing against the prosecution and against the trial itself; the little problem along the way of the judge dying. It’s a crazy, crazy story. And it ends with them all getting away, which sets me up for what I’m hoping is going to be Season Two.
What are the lessons of that Great Sedition Trial for our current moment?
What happened on Jan. 6, was not an armed robbery. It wasn’t breaking and entering. It was a political crisis. Crimes that are committed to end the Constitution, to end our form of government, have to be treated, yes, as crimes. There ought to be prosecutions. But they have to be treated in other ways, too. There also has to be a political response, and a citizen-led response.
It helps me understand what went wrong in terms of people feeling like Robert Mueller was going to be the solution to what Russia did in 2016, and it helps me understand the value of the work of the Jan. 6 committee.
The most reductive way to look at the work of the Jan. 6 committee is to ask, “Are they going to make a referral for prosecution?” Actually, the work of the Jan. 6 committee is being done in those hearings: to expose what happened, to make sure there can’t be a revisionist history about it, and to invite Americans to bring about political accountability for those who were willing to take part in that awful act.
Talk about the craft of this. What do you like about the podcast format and getting to do longform work?
TV is a little bit less demanding because there are people who are producing visual elements to go along with what I’m saying. And those can be interesting and can distract you in case I’m being boring, or messing up. Whereas if you’re working in the audio environment, there’s no place to hide. Nobody’s decorating what you’re saying. There’s no way to use an emphatic hand gesture. It’s a more unforgiving art. I like that challenge.
In terms of the content, the research process for this has been like writing a PhD thesis. It’s not an adaptation of a book or an article that somebody’s written. We did interview some historians and authors, and you’ll hear some of them in the podcast, but I built a whole new library in order to learn this stuff well enough to feel comfortable telling the tale.
I am fascinated by the fact that — to the extent that there is history written about this time — much of it is dismissive, snide, self-aggrandizing stuff written by the right about the supposed vindication of all of these defendants, and how the Justice Department was humiliated by this misguided prosecution. Maybe the prosecution was misguided. It certainly didn’t result in convictions. But the defendants and their sympathizers shouldn’t be the only people that tell this story.
It’s revisionist history to look at failed plots or failed prosecutions as having not been serious in the first place. It’s folly, right? We’ve been through enough things in the past seven years that we thought could never, ever happen here. We need to stop talking ourselves out of the idea that there’s no real risk in modern political life, or that the Constitution is going to defend itself.
It’ll be literally tested at the sedition trial of the Oath Keepers that just started. They did stockpile thousands and thousands of dollars worth of serious firearms just on the other side of the Potomac so that they could be brought into D.C. to help effectuate their plans, by which they intended to prevent the next president from taking power and keep the old one in. And that’s a serious thing.
The fact that they were filmed in a hotel parking garage can be spun as, you know, hilarious and small time. But if they’d done what they intended to do, we could be talking about dead members of Congress on the floor of the House.
Any final lessons from this disturbing history?
As a younger person, the thing that I was most attracted to in terms of history and current events was finding the bad guys — the people who are misbehaving and who are corrupt and whose dirty deeds need to be discovered and called out.
I am learning as I get older, that there is as much, if not more value, in me finding the good guys that we didn’t know about, finding the Americans who confronted problems similar to the ones that we’ve got now. The people who made it so there weren’t simultaneous assassinations of 12 congressmen in New York in 1940, and who made it so that the Marines who were taking military-grade firearms out of one of the armories in California and sending them over the Silver Shirts to go hang the most prominent Jews in the country from lampposts in Los Angeles — somebody exposed that and stopped that.
The good Americans who were aware of the threat, who mustered their own resources to fight it, who were smart and plucky and brave and funny and nimble — those stories, as I get older, are more and more important. I want to learn from the Americans who went before us who saved us the last time around. Because those are the people who we need to learn how to be today.