American Fascists Before Trump: Henry Ford

Henry Ford on the cover of Time Magazine in 1935

The presidential election looms. Even though it seems that Hillary Clinton will be elected, across the country, many thoughtful Americans, frantic and upset over the rise of Donald Trump, have had the same despairing conversation over and over for the past few months. How could this happen? Why didn’t more people recognize before now what a sociopathic, power-crazy, destructive madman he is? How could so many voters believe he has any qualifications at all to hold the highest office in the land? And then, inevitably, someone makes the comparison to the anxious citizens of the Weimar Republic, circa January, 1933, who couldn’t quite believe the ludicrous, ranting monster Adolf Hitler was about to be elected Chancellor of Germany.

But we risk the dulling effect of cliche and repetition if we put too much stress on the comparison between Trump and Hitler. (And not just because Hitler despised cats, while we all know Trump can’t resist ... never mind.) The GOP nominee doesn't only remind us of Hitler—he also reminds us of Henry Ford, “the people’s tycoon,” and Trump's predecessor as an outspoken American fascist.

Unlike Trump, Ford was a genuinely brilliant and successful industrialist. Founder of the Ford Motor Company, his lasting legacy is the efficiency of the mass production assembly line he devised to produce his Model T automobile. Like Trump, Henry Ford’s fame and success in business led him to a grandiose sense of his own suitability as a leader of disaffected Americans receptive to his racist beliefs and crackpot conspiracy theories.

In fact, many of the conspiracy theories invoked by Trump in these final weeks of the presidential race in his rambling, semi-coherent addresses to mobs of chanting supporters are derived from texts that have endured ever since Henry Ford put them into widespread circulation in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent.

The Independent, published weekly from 1919 through 1927 out of a Ford Tractor plant in Dearborn, Michigan, featured regular installments on “the International Jew”—the people Ford wanted everyone to know were responsible for starting World War I, controlling the media, creating the Federal Reserve as a means of taking over the American economy, and in myriad other conspiratorial ways corrupting the world to enrich their own cabal. In 1920, the Independent also began publishing portions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

First appearing in Russia in 1903, Protocols was an anti-Semitic, counterfeit text that purported to be the minutes of a secret meeting of Jewish elders plotting world domination. It was soon spread around the world in translation, and has endured from then to now, its American ubiquity aided by Henry Ford’s 1920 publication and distribution in book form of half a million copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Promulgated with a vengeance on the internet by every neo-Nazi group and extremist right wing outlet such as InfoWars, the Protocols have inspired contemporary conspiracy theories believed by far too many people, such as the vicious lie that on September 11th, 2001, “all the Jews working in the towers of the World Trade Center got a secret memo to stay home that day.”

At nearly every campaign rally, Donald Trump manages to utter the name Sidney Blumenthal, Hillary Clinton’s former advisor, each time characterizing him as “Hillary’s friend,” as a way of signaling to his followers that the Democratic candidate is influenced by Jews. When Donald Trump started his remarks at a rally in West Palm Beach last month with these words: “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends and her donors,” there was a distinct echo of the Protocols. When he went on to say: “This is a conspiracy against you, the American people, and we can’t let this happen or continue ... This is our moment of reckoning. This election will determine whether we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged,” he could have been reading from the pages of a ninety-year-old copy of the Dearborn Independent.

Like Donald Trump, who as a presidential candidate has repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin, Henry Ford had great admiration for the ruthless leader of a foreign government at odds with the policies and values of the United States of America; he esteemed Adolf Hitler. Putin has said of Trump that “he is a really talented and brilliant person,” while Hitler regarded Henry Ford as his “inspiration.” Hitler’s factory that built his beloved Volkswagen, “the people’s car,” was modeled on the Ford Motor Company assembly line where the Model T (originally conceived as an economical car for farmers) was built. Ford helped fund Hitler’s 1923 putsch, providing him with an office, where a life-sized portrait of Henry Ford hung on the wall behind Hitler’s desk. When Hitler was imprisoned after the putsch failed, he used the time to write Mein Kampf. His benefactor Henry Ford is the only American Hitler praised in that hate-filled screed.

Like Trump, Ford consistently deflected exposure of his wrongdoings with blatant denials, over and over again. Soon after the Dearborn Independent ceased publication, he insisted that he had no personal knowledge of the contents of his newspaper and had “only read the headlines.”

By 1933 Hitler had distributed thousands of copies of a German edition of Ford's four-volume set The International Jew. Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels was a fan. According to historian Norman Cohn, the book was virtually the Nazi "warrant for genocide."

When in 1937 Ford was criticized for publishing The International Jew, he issued a statement claiming he did not have "any connection whatsoever with the publication in Germany of a book known as The International Jew.” The following year, the German consul in Cleveland awarded Ford, in celebration of his 75th birthday, the medal of the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the highest Nazi honor Germany could bestow on a foreigner. When criticized for this, Ford explained: “My acceptance of a medal from the German people does not, as some people seem to think, involve any sympathy on my part with Nazism. Those who have known me for many years realize that anything that breeds hate is repulsive to me.” (“Those who have known me for many years” offered as proof that there could be no wrongdoing—a familiar Trump defense.) But in 1940, Ford said privately, "I hope to republish The International Jew again some time."

Unlike Donald Trump, who has been preparing this run for the presidency for decades, Henry Ford aspired only briefly to hold public office. In 1918, he narrowly lost a Michigan Senate race. Two years before that, though he hadn’t campaigned for it, he had won the Republican presidential primary in Michigan. His popularity wasn’t limited to his home state. In advance of the 1924 presidential election, “Henry Ford for President” organizations began setting up in storefronts across the country, fueled by a popular desire for an outsider candidate, a non-politician with business acumen and unparalleled success who could lead the country the way he had led his business. A spring 1923 Collier’s Magazine nationwide poll had Ford beating all other likely candidates for the presidency, including incumbent President Warren G. Harding.

Though, like today’s Republican candidate for president, he certainly thrived on all the admiration and acclaim, and he might have won the election, Henry Ford simply didn’t want to be president, and he chose instead to support the candidacy of Calvin Coolidge. Perhaps, unlike Donald Trump, he knew his own limitations.

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Katharine Weber is the author of five novels and a memoir. She is the Visiting Richard L. Thomas Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College, in Ohio.