We can argue whether Donald Trump is a “fascist” as some people claim. For me, the important question is: Would Americans follow a fascist?
Would they elect a fascist president? We can look to Connecticut history for clues, and some parallels.
Benito Mussolini rose to power in Italy during the 1920s and is credited with developing modern-day fascism. For many people, the ideology did not carry a negative connotation at first, since neither he nor Adolph Hitler had shown their true, monstrous intentions.
Connecticut residents admired Mussolini for the image he projected, his jutting jaw, hands chopping the air, the testosterone-fueled attitude. Il Duce (the Leader, as Benito named himself), promised to make Italy great again, which spoke to many immigrants who longed for their homeland.
In time, the world came to know the brutality of fascism: the absolute state that elevated industry and crushed labor; the expansion of empire by conquest; the creation of scapegoats to ratchet up popular fear; the sexist culture that glamorized machismo and war; the anti-intellectual atmosphere, dismissive of human rights.
In Hartford, Mussolini’s imperial ambition struck a chord with a wide range of people. The poet Wallace Stevens admired the strongman image the dictator created for himself (“I am pro Mussolini personally” he wrote in a letter to his publisher).
An executive from the Manufacturers Association of Connecticut visited the fascist country and returned with great praise for its revitalized economic system. Italian Americans marched through the streets of Hartford singing the Fascist anthem “Giovanezza” when Ethiopia surrendered to Mussolini’s army.
Father Andrew J. Kelly, a big Mussolini booster, was pastor of St. Anthony’s Church in Hartford’s Italian east end. Kelly found fertile ground for his pro-fascist stance among many (but not all) of his 2,000 parishioners.
In 1935 Mussolini put out a call to Italian women to donate their gold wedding rings to the government in a show of loyalty and sacrifice. In exchange, he offered them iron bands to wear, symbols of Italian strength. “Gold for Country” was engraved inside each ring.
Father Kelly then convinced 500 Hartford women to give up their gold bands at a blessing ceremony on Sunday, May 24, 1936. “The substitution of iron for gold wedding rings by Italian wives,” the priest said, “symbolizes… the unanimity of Italian sentiment in favor of its government.”
One hundred rings were also distributed to women of the Hartford Italian Congregational Church, and as many as 1,000 iron bands were delivered to Catholic women in New Britain.
Kelly was a popular, if controversial figure. He lashed out at birth-control advocates such as Katharine Houghton Hepburn, labeling them “busybody humanitarians” who promoted coercive and “satanic” practices by spreading “cancerous doctrines” like family planning.
He was also a supporter of Father Charles E. Coughlin, the anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi “radio priest.”
Coughlin had a huge listening audience and was influential in American politics. His National Union for Social Justice was a million-member political action organization. Coughlin also promoted the Christian Front, a paramilitary group that used vigilantism against agents of “Jewish communism.”
Connecticut had local chapters of both these organizations. In Hartford, the National Union was led by Henry White, an employee of the Terry Steam Turbine company. The Christian Front in Hartford dissolved by 1940 when the FBI raided the New York group and arrested 18 members who were planning to assassinate public figures.
None of these examples resulted in a viable fascist movement that could overtake our way of life. They did, however, demonstrate a viral strain in American history that mutates to fit the times. From 1936 to 2016, the warning signs are always there, and they can’t be ignored.
Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer who writes for the ShoeleatherHistoryProject.com.