Andy O’Brien is communications director at Maine AFL-CIO. He has written extensively about far-right extremism in Maine for The Free Press and Mainer News Cooperative. This article originally appeared in The Free Press, a free weekly tabloid, providing midcoast Maine with community news and shopping, dining and entertainment information since 1985, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
A few years ago I befriended an elderly World War II veteran named Max who told me about his experiences as a soldier in the 100th Infantry Division in Germany in 1945. He witnessed half-starved refugees wandering through the wreckage of towns that had been flattened by aerial bombardments. He remembered the faces of the soldiers who returned from liberating the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp where 21,000 emaciated prisoners were discovered.
What struck him was how ignorant most of these U.S. soldiers were to the death and suffering in those camps before they saw it with their own eyes.
“The guys were deathly pale and wouldn’t talk to anyone for a couple of days because they were so horrified by what they saw,” said Max. “One of them said to me, ‘We thought that all this talk about the concentration camps was just propaganda.’”
Max said that many Americans didn’t fully comprehend the threat of fascism or the kind of atrocities this hateful ideology produced until the camps were liberated. While there was some coverage of the Holocaust in U.S. newspapers, it wasn’t a major news story. Some historians like the late professor David S. Wyman have argued that the American media’s poor coverage of the Holocaust created public apathy, so there was not enough political will to provide the kind of aid and asylum that could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Notoriously, in June of 1939, the German ocean liner St. Louis and its 937 passengers, nearly all Jewish, were turned away from the port of Miami, forcing the ship to return to Europe. More than a quarter of the passengers later died in the Holocaust. Critics of our nation’s abysmal treatment of asylum seekers in recent years have drawn comparisons to the lesson of the St. Louis.
However, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, ableism, Nativism, hypernationalism and the malicious conspiracies that help fuel fascist ideologies have always been with us. Many of us are aware that Maine had a disturbingly large and influential Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, but hate movements certainly didn’t die with the Klan.
Up until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, there was a powerful fascist movement in the United States. Millions of Americans not only wanted to keep the nation out of World War II, but many also harbored fascist sympathies. The isolationist America First Committee, which organized against U.S. intervention in the war, had 800,000 dues-paying members, including a chapter in Portland. Celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh, the committee’s spokesman, expressed anti-Semitic views and was even awarded a medal from Luftwaffe commander Herman Göring on behalf of Adolf Hitler.
Prior to Senator Margaret Chase Smith taking office in 1940, Maine’s all-Republican congressional delegation was staunchly isolationist. Then-Congressman Ralph Owen Brewster described himself as a “charter member of the Committee to Keep America Out of Foreign Wars,” and Congressman James Oliver even inserted an isolationist radio address delivered by Lindbergh into the Congressional Record.
More overtly fascist groups were also forming. In 1939, 20,000 people crowded into Madison Square Garden to hear the leader of the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization, rant about President Roosevelt being controlled by Jewish interests. The Silver Legion, known as the “Silver Shirts,” were an evangelical Christian fascist paramilitary group modeled after Benito Mussolini’s blackshirts and had active members in Maine in the 1930s. According to one source, the Silver Shirts — which sought to establish a “Christian Commonwealth” that would exclude Jews and non-Whites — maintained a headquarters in Portland and its leader was a known strikebreaker.
My friend Max recalled attending a lecture in Boston by notorious anti-Semitic radio priest Father Charles Coughlin, who reached an audience of 30 million listeners at the height of his popularity in the mid 1930s. Coughlin openly supported fascist policies of Hitler and Mussolini and believed Jewish bankers were behind the Russian Revolution — a conspiracy known as “Jewish Bolshevism,” which has led to the persecution of Jews in the U.S. and in Maine. Max told me he and his friends booed and heckled Coughlin until they were nearly physically thrown out of the hall by his burly Irish bouncers.
Both Coughlin and the car maker Henry Ford reprinted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fraudulent anti-Semitic text purported to be evidence of a Jewish plot for global domination. This fake document has influenced anti-Jewish violence throughout history. One silver lining to the attack on Pearl Harbor is that it effectively destroyed the home-grown fascist movement in America, albeit temporarily.
What’s New Is Old & What’s Old Is New
Now, 76 years after American soldiers were forced to confront the horrors of the Holocaust, fascism is once again on the rise in the U.S. as an odd coalition of conservatives, wellness influencers, far-right Christians and others are going down the rabbit hole into paranoid conspiracies rooted in old anti-Semitic tropes.
Most recently, hundreds of locals flocked to an event organized by the anti-vaccine and COVID denialist group Maine Stands Up and the right-wing extremist tour group Arise USA at the Crosby Center in Belfast. Arise USA was created by former sheriff Richard Mack, founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association — an organization focused on luring law enforcement officials to side with the far-right — and Earth Intelligence Network, a nonprofit founded by conspiracy theorist and QAnon promoter Robert David Steele, who has extensively detailed his anti-Semitic beliefs on his blog.
Unfortunately, much of the local news coverage of the event shied away from providing context for why so many people protested it. Maine Public described the rally as “critical of COVID-19 restrictions and alleges 2020 election fraud.” It noted that Steele criticized the “government’s response to the pandemic, voting machines, and satanic pedophilia.” But it failed to provide any information for his well-documented history of anti-Semitism. The Bangor Daily News described Steele in his own words as an “anti-Zionist.” It’s a term he uses to disguise his bigotry by claiming he is merely criticizing supporters of the state of Israel.
However, Steele, who provided the bulk of the funding for the Arise USA Tour, believes “satanic Zionists” are part of a global plot to “wipe out White Christians” and are secretly funding the NAACP, Black Lives Matter and anti-fascists. Steele claims this Jewish “cabal” created the “COVID hoax” in order to install “Chinese Communism across the world” under “the guise of Medical Martial Law.” A search of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” on Steele’s website comes up with numerous writings about so-called “Zionist” conspiracies. His solution to this threat, as he states in a rave review of a book by leading anti-Semitic author Kevin McDonald, is to “eradicate every Zionist who refuses to be loyal to their country of citizenship and the rule of law.”
While Steele didn’t specifically reference this Jewish “cabal” at his talk in Belfast, he didn’t have to do that. All the attendees had to do was to go to his website and they would discover a scapegoat for all of society’s ills.
Dr. Christiane Northrup of Yarmouth, the emcee of the Crosby Center event who is heavily involved in Maine Stands Up, uses her position as a trusted health professional and bestselling author to spread anti-vaccine disinformation and COVID-19 conspiracy theories to her more than half million followers on Facebook. She has repeatedly promoted QAnon influencers who believe former President Donald Trump is waging a secret war against the global cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles. One anti-vaccine YouTuber Northrup has often mentioned is a Holocaust denier named “Charlie Freak,” who has praised the Nazis as “goodly, godly people.”
“[Nazi Germany] was a miracle and why? Because they got rid of one thing and one thing only and that’s the infection,” he says in one video. “That’s the disease and it’s the same disease that’s affecting us today and this is the same disease that President Trump and America is fighting right now. These are the exact same people.”
Among the audience in Belfast there were the usual conservative activists, far-right Christians and right-wing nationalists, but there was also a sizable group of back-to-the-lander types who looked like they’d fit right in at the Common Ground Fair. Some may have previously had left wing sympathies, but have recently been drifting to the right due to their fear of vaccines, skepticism of COVID-19 and distrust of government and medical institutions.
The QAnon conspiracy has united many White middle-class New Agers, star seeds, anti-vaccine activists, yoga teachers, mommy bloggers and others immersed in wellness culture and woo-woo mysticism with conservatives, White supremacists and evangelical Christians attracted to the online movement’s devotion to prophecies of a biblical showdown between good and evil. The pandemic, protests against police violence and former President Donald Trump’s loss have created such hysteria among this new right coalition that they have lost all faith in democracy and are seeking a restoration of order by authoritarian rule. In 2009, researcher Charlotte Ward coined the term “conspirituality” to describe this marriage between conspiracies and New Age spirituality.
“It offers a broad politico-spiritual philosophy based on two core convictions, the first traditional to conspiracy theory, the second rooted in the New Age: 1) a secret group covertly controls, or is trying to control, the political and social order, and 2) humanity is undergoing a ‘paradigm shift’ in consciousness,” she wrote in a 2011 study she co-authored titled “The Emergence of Conspirituality” published in the Journal of Contemporary Religion. “Proponents believe that the best strategy for dealing with the threat of a totalitarian ‘new world order’ is to act in accordance with an awakened ‘new paradigm’ worldview.”
Prior to the 2020 election, QAnon adherents were more focused on sitting back and waiting for an anonymous online account claiming to be a top U.S. intelligence official to release another vague prophesy. Q repeatedly claimed that the coming “storm,” when President Trump would reveal himself to have been heroically working in secret to expose and punish the shadowy cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles, was just around the corner. But when the storm never came and Q stopped posting, its followers began adopting the bone-chilling slogan “We Are the Storm.” Its implication is that it’s up to the people themselves to overturn the 2020 election, destroy the cabal and cleanse the world of sin.
What was perhaps most disturbing about the Crosby Center event was that a Maine legislator helped add legitimacy to the views of the other speakers. Speaking at the event, Rep. Heidi Sampson (R-Alfred) announced the formation of a statewide “freedom network” to unite all of these far-right groups in Maine to build a more powerful movement. Prior to the Arise USA/Maine Stands Up rally, the Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Bangor urged Sampson to withdraw from speaking at the event due to Steele’s blatant anti-Semitism.
“We hold that it is utterly repugnant and irresponsible for Representative Sampson to participate in anything organized by such an anti-Semite,” wrote President Brian Kresge, who formerly ran as a Republican for a Winterport State House seat. “Events like this put members of the Maine Jewish community at considerable risk, because they legitimize dangerous falsehoods about American Jews … You are known by the company you keep.”
Sampson untagged herself from the synagogue’s Facebook post, but later was finally forced to acknowledge after the event that “one person in the room … has apparently made holocaust denial statements.” However, she denied sharing his beliefs, noting that she co-sponsored failed legislation that would have required the instruction of the history of the Nazi Holocaust. She did not mention that she was the only member of her committee to vote against a separate bill, which eventually was signed into law, that not only requires that the Holocaust be taught, but also African-American studies and the history of genocide in the U.S. Sampson has not explained why she supports teaching about genocide in Europe, but not in America. Rep. Shelley Rudnicki (R-Fairfield), another Republican legislator at the event, also acknowledged in a Facebook video that Steele is a Holocaust denier who has made some “anti-Semitic remarks,” but she says she is still standing by Sampson.
Following the event, Rep. Laurie Osher (D-Orono) asked her colleagues in the Maine Legislature to sign on to a letter condemning Rep. Sampson’s participation in the Belfast rally.
“I live in the United States because my grandparents fled the pogroms in Europe in the early part of the last century,” wrote Osher, who is Jewish. “The perpetrators of the violent attacks aimed at eradicating Jews from the shtetls of eastern Europe were encouraged by leaders who allowed hate speech to proliferate — hate speech like that espoused by Steele and condoned by Sampson. As representatives of all Maine people, it is our duty to lead. Partnering with individuals who demonize members of a minority community in the service of White supremacy is not the type of leadership that Maine needs.”
Unfortunately, our own Senator Dave Miramant (D-Knox County) refused to sign onto the letter, claiming to do so would be an attempt to “silence any voices that present an unpopular viewpoint in a country that stands for free speech.”
“It was horrible that your grandparents had to endure that hate and violence, and there must be no patience or understanding for any violent action such as that,” he wrote to Osher. “I have watched this country’s commitment to the free expression of different ideas fading over the past several years. I really appreciate having meaningful, civil discussions and look forward to more. I have seen people being shouted down, belittled and shamed for expressing their views and that is unacceptable. For those reasons I will not be signing onto this letter.”
Sen. Miramant’s response is extremely disappointing. No one was asking him to censor free speech. Osher simply asked legislators to make a statement that it’s not appropriate for legislators to legitimize fascist ideology. This shouldn’t be a hard one.
After prisoners of Buchenwald were liberated in April 1945, some of them wrote the slogan “Never Again” on handmade signs in different languages and it soon became a rallying cry against acts of genocide. Over the years, its message has been diluted and reappropriated for various causes. In the U.S. it was perverted to justify the invasion of Afganistan and Iraq in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
As time has passed and those who remember the Holocaust, like my friend Max, have died off, it’s become easier to deny, downplay and spread disinformation about the Holocaust and its root causes. But history is very clear about what happens when fascists are allowed to take power.
I believe “Never Again” also needs to be understood in the context of our own history, from the genocide of Indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans to the fascist White supremacist movements that continue to terrorize minority communities today. It means striving to understand this hateful, authoritarian ideology that demonizes and dehumanizes our fellow humans. It means we must do everything we can to expose it, confront it and stop its spread.