Reflections on Counterfactual Nazis: A Preview of "Fascism in American Culture, How Alternate a History?"

In our fast-paced world of digital immediacy, the obsolescence of traditional publishing practices is becoming increasingly obvious.  It is harder and harder to be patient and keep one’s thoughts to one’s self while waiting for them to be published in hard copy form.    

A case in point:  

As part of a forthcoming edited volume that I am co-editing with my friend and colleague Janet Ward (U. of Oklahoma), entitled Fascism in America, Past and Present (Cambridge University Press, 2021), I recently completed the first draft of a long essay entitled “Fascism in American Culture: How Alternate a History?”  

The essay examines how four prominent alternate history shows – Amazon Prime’s The Man in the High Castle, HBO’s The Plot Against America, Amazon Prime’s Hunters, and HBO’s Watchmen – portray the threat posted by rightwing extremists to the United States (and how they recommend defending against them).

Given the rightwing turn in American politics since the election of President Trump in 2016, the surge of such alternate histories is understandable, but it has thus far eluded historical explanation and contextualization.  

In my essay, I explain how the new wave of alternate histories is the fourth such wave since the 1930s.  I also argue that the new wave is defined by many common features involving its diagnosis of America’s political ills, its pessimism about the democratic commitments of the American population, and its recommendations about the best political strategies and proper ethical limits for resisting fascism.  

I trust that when the larger edited volume appears next year, the question of American Fascism will still be with us and my chapter will remain timely.  

But because it’s a long time to wait until then, I’m announcing my chapter in this blog post for the sake of providing a sneak preview.    I know it’s not as riveting as a Hollywood film trailer, but it will have to do.  

Here is an excerpt:  

"Whether or not the United States of America has its own fascist tradition is not merely a political, but also a cultural question.  It is not merely a question of objective reality, but subjective perception. Indeed, the “reality” of American fascism cannot be separated from the fears that have long surrounded its potential existence. Ever since the 1930s, a wide range of novels, films, television shows, and comic books have explored the possibility that fascism might one day take root in the U. S. These works have differed considerably in assessing America’s fascist potential, rising in periods of political uncertainty and declining in periods of political stability. Since Donald Trump’s victory in the Electoral College in November of 2016, pessimistic assessments of the country’s susceptibility to fascism have saturated American culture as never before."

"These assessments have found abundant expression in the realm of alternate history. In the last several years in the United States, a significant number of counterfactual dramas have appeared on a variety of media platforms.  They include HBO’s The Plot Against America (2020), which portrays the United States allying with Nazi Germany following the election of Charles Lindbergh as President in 1940; Amazon Prime’s The Man in the High Castle (2015-2019), which examines how ordinary Americans respond to Nazi Germany’s wartime defeat and postwar occupation of the United States in the years between 1947 and the early 1960s; Amazon Prime’s Hunters (2019), which follows the effort of American Nazi hunters in the 1970s to thwart a conspiracy of American Nazis seeking to establish a Fourth Reich; and HBO’s Watchmen (2019), which portrays white nationalists seeking to overthrow the liberal administration of President Robert Redford in a world where the U. S. won the Vietnam War. The four series have attracted millions of viewers, garnered extensive critical attention, and sparked abundant discussion about the United States’ susceptibility to fascism. By examining the series’ respective narratives, analyzing their political messages, and assessing their broader reception, this chapter assesses how present-day Americans regard their country’s relationship to fascism.  It reveals that contemporary fears about the United States’ political future are being expressed in nightmares about alternate pasts."    


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