Jeff Greenfield on the Hollywood Movie That Urged FDR to Become a Fascist

At Politico Jeff Greenfield writes about “The Hollywood Hit Movie That Urged FDR to Become a Fascist.” The movie was “Gabriel Over the White House” in 1933 and, Greenfield writes, “it was designed as a clear message to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that he might need to embrace dictatorial powers to solve the crisis of the Great Depression.” Greenfield assures us that FDR did not become a dictator, but he notes that “the impulse toward strongman rule” often stems from a sense of populist grievance, along with the scapegoating of “subversive enemies undermining the nation.” Depending on the time and the strongman, those subversive enemies can be Jews, capitalists, Wall Street, the 1 percent, the homosexuals, or in some countries the Americans.

Gene Healy wrote about “Gabriel” 10 years ago in The Cult of the Presidency and in this column in 2012:

…many of us still believe in authoritarian powers for the president.

In a November 2011 column, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank offered “A Machiavellian model for Obama” in Jack Kennedy’s “kneecapping” and “mob-style threats” against steel-company executives who’d dared to raise prices.

Despite the obligatory caveat: “President Obama doesn’t need to sic the FBI on his opponents,” Milbank observed that “the price increase was rolled back” only after “subpoenas flew [and] FBI agents marched into steel executives’ offices”: “Sometimes, that’s how it must be. Can Obama understand that?”

Greenfield says “Gabriel” was both a commercial and critical hit, but “faded into obscurity, in large measure because the idea of a “benevolent dictatorship” seemed a lot less attractive after the degradation of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.”

But that wasn’t so obvious in 1933. As I wrote in a review of Three New Deals by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, there was a lot of enthusiasm in the United States for central planning and “Fascist means to gain liberal ends.” Two months after Roosevelt’s inauguration, the New York Times reporter Anne O’Hare McCormick wrote that the atmosphere in Washington was “strangely reminiscent of Rome in the first weeks after the march of the Blackshirts, of Moscow at the beginning of the Five-Year Plan.… America today literally asks for orders.”

And Roosevelt was prepared to give those orders. In his inaugural address he proclaimed:

If we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army.… I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis — broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.

Fortunately, American institutions did not collapse. The Supreme Court declared some New Deal measures unconstitutional. Some business leaders resisted it. Intellectuals on both the right and the left, some of whom ended up in the early libertarian movement, railed against Roosevelt. Republican politicians (those were the days!) tended to oppose both the flow of power to Washington and the shift to executive authority. But we’re being reminded again, in Washington as well as Moscow and Beijing and Budapest and Istanbul, that liberal institutions are always threatened by populism and authoritarianism and especially the combination of the two.

“Gabriel Over the White House” will air on TCM on April 27.