The Narcotic Allure of Dictatorship: On Jacob Heilbrunn’s “America Last”

Matt Hanson reviews Jacob Heilbrunn’s “America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators.”

The Narcotic Allure of Dictatorship: On Jacob Heilbrunn’s “America Last”

America Last: The Right's Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators by Jacob Heilbrunn. Liveright. 264 pages.

AS I STARTED reading Jacob Heilbrunn’s America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators (2024), Tucker Carlson broadcast an obsequious interview with Vladimir Putin and marveled at how clean and efficient a Moscow subway system constructed under Stalin was.

Carlson is not as prominent or influential as he used to be, which is no one’s fault but his own. But he speaks for a disturbing number of Putin admirers on the American right, some of whom in Congress are currently dragging their feet on appropriating funding for Ukraine’s defense.

We might like to assume that this doe-eyed, awed, tell-me-more response to autocrats is something historically unique, but Heilbrunn’s long view reminds us that it’s really nothing new. Going through the back pages of the American Right’s consistent support for autocrats at home and abroad, it becomes clear that, even with a varying cast of heroes and villains capturing the public imagination, sympathy for geopolitical devils is evergreen.

H. L. Mencken plays a big role in the early chapters, which at first seem to overstate his impact—though he was influential enough for a contemporaneous character in The Sun Also Rises to remark that “[s]o many young men get their likes and dislikes from Mencken.” To his credit, the Sage of Baltimore did get a few good zingers off at the expense of “the booboisie” and phony religiosity. At times, he had a Carlin-like talent for mocking the fools in high places.

The problem was that he showed telltale signs of being dictator-friendly: a “stubbornly utopian streak, and a quest for a past that never existed.” What’s more, Mencken “prided himself on his superiority to most other Americans” and published a collection of Nietzsche’s work that showcased “the [version of] Nietzsche he wanted to see—a successor to the Social Darwinists he admired.” He openly adored the German aristocratic order, laying it out in 1915 in a “red-hot” essay for The Atlantic that made the case for regime change in the United States. He predicted that “after Germany successfully conquered the United States, a new utopia would emerge.”

The bizarre essay freaked out his editor (who warned him, “I have no desire to foment treason”), especially after the subsequent sinking of the Lusitania. The attack killed over 100 Americans, which didn’t seem to bother Mencken very much, and precipitated the United States’ entry into World War I, which did.

There’s no reason not to be proud of how the United States pulled itself together out of the Great Depression to defeat fascism in World War II. But Silent Generation fetishism can get a little grating, not to mention disingenuous when coming from the Right. During the Iraq War, I once saw a cover for Rush Limbaugh’s newsletter that had Rush (a draft dodger himself) standing in front of a cartoon invoking the Marines hoisting the flag at Iwo Jima, with the words “Democrats Demand Defeat” emblazoned below. It’s perhaps not as widely remembered as it should be that World War II wasn’t a war fought by Republican administrations. If anything, it was fought and won by arguably the most left-wing administration of the 20th century with massive federal investment both during and after the war.

In fact, the Right at the time was isolationist to the bone, and some of them were excited about Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain, to say nothing of Hitler’s Reich. One called Il Duce an “unparalleled leader” who believed in “family values”; this conservative saw Mussolini’s autocratic control over the government as “a model of hard-working efficiency that, in stark contrast to hedonistic America, cherished manliness.” There were plenty of Americans who liked what they saw happening in Europe and openly advocated for it. The exaltation of the self matches up quite easily with the exaltation of the state, but only if your team is the one running the show.

One 1939 pro-Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden featured a massive image of George Washington flanked by swastikas, which tells you everything you need to know about the ideology on display. It’s an absurd juxtaposition, of course, not least because it perverts one of the most valuable parts of Washington’s legacy both as a person and an American icon. Historians have consistently pointed out that Washington could very easily (and with plenty of public support) have pronounced himself dictator for life but refused. That’s as fundamental an American principle as any.

If “[p]atriotism is the virtue of the vicious,” as Oscar Wilde is reported to have said, then maybe there’s something to the macho itch for power, action, and decision. Hitler and Mussolini helped to perk up their dispirited postwar public by making them identify with the image they projected of strength, making them feel great again. It’s tempting to assume that dictator support is a guy thing. But Heilbrunn devotes significant space to the likes of Elizabeth Dilling, dubbed “the female Führer,” a communism-crazed conspiracy nut who dedicated her life to denouncing Jewish refugees, FDR’s cabinet, the YMCA, and the League of Women Voters as “communist front organizations.” She has many contemporary imitators and many ideological daughters who populate today’s MAGA ecosystem.

It’s interesting to see how often support for autocrats is a symptom of privilege. Heilbrunn quotes one of the most perceptive parts of The Great Gatsby (1925), when the boorish old-money WASP Tom Buchanan tries to make conversation about a book called The Rise of the Colored Empires by a man named Goddard, about how “civilization”—which, his tone implies, he assumes white people created—is “going to pieces,” and how “if we don’t look out the white race will be […] utterly submerged.” The fictional author Goddard had a real-life model in Lothrop Stoddard, an old-school New England WASP with Ivy League pedigree who was obsessed with “eugenics and the Nazi regime, while warning against the West’s ‘race suicide.’” The author of big lugubrious books with titles like The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World Supremacy (1920) and The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Under-man (1922), Stoddard enjoyed more of a platform than his pseudoscience deserved. W. E. B. Du Bois debated the wildly conceited Stoddard in 1929 on the topic “Shall the Negro Be Encouraged to Seek Cultural Equality?” After Du Bois conclusively took him to task, Stoddard refused to debate him ever again.

Another phrase that we hear quite a bit today is “America First.” The phrase is short and catchy and sounds almost commonsensical at first glance. But pithiness is what makes it so insidious. Heilbrunn points out that its history spans decades: “Trump wasn’t creating a new style of right-wing politics. Instead, he was building on a long-standing tradition,” beginning with the isolationist Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh was one of the prominent voices of the 1930s who admired how Hitler kept order and who didn’t think the plight of European Jews was any reason to get involved.

You can draw a line where that anti-internationalist sentiment connects to Joseph McCarthy’s vitriolic red-baiting in the 1950s and to William F. Buckley’s National Review, which argued in favor of apartheid in South Africa and Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic (once called “the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated”) because he “support[ed] religion instead of trying to extirpate it, […] brought his people order from chaos and […] supported U.S. policies.” Then there’s Pat Buchanan’s ultra-nativist presidential run against George H. W. Bush in the late 1980s, as well as Jeane Kirkpatrick’s Reaganite anticommunist foreign policy.

The brazenness with which the Right uses this mantra as a rallying cry today is quite extraordinary, as if the United States’ interests couldn’t possibly relate to those of the world at large. Like it or not, the United States has been globally involved from the 18th century, its history with immigration being a classic example. So, it’s no surprise that immigration is one of the consistent bugbears of the people we meet in Heilbrunn’s pages. It really is indicative of the tenor of our times that the Right gets away with using such provocative terms with impunity. Imagine if Barack Obama had used “By Any Means Necessary” as a campaign slogan.

Heilbrunn is writing history, so it’s not quite his job to understand the mechanics of such propaganda. Yet something of the process is revealed as the decades pass and history keeps repeating itself in slight variations. There’s always a certain amount of truth incorporated into the larger lie, which opens up enough space for the more paranoid agenda to wriggle through and infect the public mind.

Yes, Woodrow Wilson might have had his fingers crossed when he ran for president in 1916, promising to keep the United States out of the war, but that didn’t mean that he was capitulating to the bankers. Yes, FDR might have been looking for a reason to get the United States into World War II, but that wasn’t because he was the puppet of a Jewish global conspiracy. There might have been some leftist fellow travelers in Hollywood and the State Department in the 1950s; after the Great Depression and wartime segregation, it’s shouldn’t be surprising that people were looking for an alternative. People do tend to like living in freedom, but while policymakers talked a good game about it, they were pushing a thumb down hard on the geopolitical scale of places like Argentina and Chile, despite what the people in those countries really wanted. And yes, global capitalism has given the Rust Belt a hard time, but that doesn’t mean that Donald Trump will save its inhabitants. Mostly, he’ll just give their bosses’ bosses’ boss a massive tax cut.

There wouldn’t be such detailed history of American support for authoritarians if there weren’t reasons for its appeal. We should take the phenomenon seriously and not just shrug or laugh it off. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince people to contribute to various political campaigns and, suffice to say, the experience is exhausting for all involved. Democracy is a worthy cause, but it isn’t easy; maintaining the stability of democratic institutions is necessary, but it isn’t fun. It’s much easier to give yourself over to the narcotic haze of conspiracy theories, sit back, and trust that the strongman will solve your problems for you.

But as some commentators pointed out after Carlson’s tour through the sparkling Moscow subway system, there’s a real price to be paid for making the trains run on time. “[O]ne thing remains consistent,” Heilbrunn soberly writes, “in the long and melancholy saga of the American Right’s self-abasement before foreign tyrants. It puts the American people, American ideals, and American independence last, not first.”

LARB Contributor

Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at The Arts Fuse. His work has appeared in The American Interest, The Baffler, The Guardian, The Millions, The New Yorker, The Smart Set, and elsewhere. He was born and raised in Massachusetts, and now lives in New Orleans.


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