Violent extremism – including a brutal attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband – is increasing in advance of the November 8th midterms. New York Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Friday said that the United States was “facing an environment of fascism,” while President Biden on Wednesday offered a speech warning against “extreme MAGA Republicans.” On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Fascism: Meanings and Methods,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed the multifarious definitions of the term and the vital importance of understanding the grave threat that fascism poses today. American leaders have long fought over what constitutes fascism, with Ronald Reagan sparking a particularly vigorous round of debate due to his propensity for suggesting that members of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration admired Italian fascists.
The cover of TIME Magazine on May 17th, 1976, by famed cartoonist Jack Davis, showed Republican presidential primary challenger Ronald Reagan fighting incumbent President Gerald Ford. Reagan wore a propeller hat, both politicians’ clothes were torn, and fellow GOP figureheads, former Ford Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and former Texas Governor John Connally, stood wincing in the background.
Davis’s belligerent cover reflected Reagan’s shocking ascendance as a legitimate threat to Ford’s renomination chances; at the time the issue went to press, Reagan had 365 pledged delegates to Ford’s 295. Within the bulky feature section on the surging candidate was a Q&A that contained the decidedly blasé query, “If you are the nominee, and Carter is your opponent, what will be the principal issues?”
Reagan used the opening to attack the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, a bill orchestrated by Minnesota Senator and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey and California Democratic Representative Augustus Hawkins. The proposed Act, technically an amendment to the Employment Act of 1946, mandated Congress and the Federal Reserve to pursue economic policies that would keep unemployment under 3%.
“He’s for the Humphrey-Hawkins Bill,” Reagan said of Carter. “If there was ever a design for fascism that’s it.”
Reagan labeled Humphrey-Hawkins as fascistic several times. On May 21st, 1976, for example, at a Nashville press conference, the candidate called the proposal “the nearest thing to fascism ever proposed in this country.”
But the TIME interview was unique due to Reagan’s subsequent pivot, a backward look at the policies of Roosevelt administration figures, coming to a similar conclusion about their policies: “Fascism was really the basis of the New Deal. It was Mussolini’s success in Italy, with his government-directed economy, that led early New Dealers to say, ‘but Mussolini keeps the trains running on time.’”
Reagan’s linking of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration – and Hubert Humphrey – to the doctrines of Mussolini and Hitler, particularly given FDR and Humphrey’s respective roles in World War II, initially flew under the radar as Ford narrowly hung onto the Republican nomination.
Reagan, however, continued to invoke the Roosevelt years in the following years. As he built to his 1980 presidential run, the rising political star started to argue that he was actually an heir to FDR’s political legacy, even while continuing to suggest that 1930s-style government planning contained fascistic elements.
This trend culminated in July 1980, four years after his TIME interview, during Reagan’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Detroit. Reagan invoked FDR’s 1932 Democratic National Convention speech, in which the nominee had stated, “For three long years I have been going up and down this country preaching that government–federal, state, and local–costs too much.”
“The time is now to redeem promises once made to the American people by another candidate, in another time and another place,” Reagan declared of FDR’s 50-year-old speech.
A month after Reagan’s invocation of Roosevelt, on August 12th, 1980, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy offered his iconic “The Dream Shall Never Die” concesssion speech at the 1980 Democratic National Convention. Kennedy, at the end of a tumultuous primary challenge against Carter, opened with a spirited attack against a whole swath of Reagan’s right-wing pronouncements, from his declaration that “participation in Social Security should be made voluntary” to his statement that “Eighty percent of our air pollution comes from plants and trees.”
Then, the kicker: “And the same Republicans who are invoking Franklin Roosevelt have nominated a man who said in 1976, and these are his exact words, ‘Fascism was really the basis of the New Deal.’ And that nominee whose name is Ronald Reagan has no right to quote Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”
At the end of his wide-ranging speech, Kennedy received a 38-minute standing ovation. Several major newspaper headlines the next day, however, zoomed in directly on the fascism material, with the Washington Post declaring, “Kennedy Recaptures Roosevelt from Reagan’s Embrace.”
Reagan responded to Kennedy’s charges five days later, at a Los Angeles news conference alongside running mate George H.W. Bush as they prepared for a campaign trip to China and Japan. Reagan, reverting to his initial TIME mode, declared, “Anyone who wants to look at the writings of the Brain Trust of the New Deal will find that President Roosevelt’s advisers admired the fascist system.”
Some historians immediately decried Reagan’s double-down. Professor John P. Diggins, who wrote the canonical 1972 Mussolini and Fascism: The View from America, told the Washington Post, “The published writings of the Brain Trusters reveal no evidence of the influence of Italian fascism upon the New Deal.”
Reagan’s perspective was boosted, however, by the spirited advocacy of academic believers in his small-government vision. On September 9th, 1980, New York University Economics Professor and Hoover Institution mainstay Melvyn B. Krauss wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed co-signing Reagan’s general political interpretation, even if Krauss, too, did not dredge up any single Brain Truster who admired Mussolini.
“Mr. Reagan’s insight that Mussolini’s Italian ‘corporate state’ and Roosevelt’s short-lived ‘corporate state’ in the U.S. were structurally identical not only is correct, but demonstrates an intellectual sophistication that many professional economic historians would envy,” Krauss wrote.
Both Mussolini and Roosevelt, Krauss argued, “reconciled labor and capital” and ensured that “vital public services be provided in an efficient manner.” Ultimately, Krauss argued, these dual priorities resulted in an economic policy dictated by “bosses of industry, labor and government through a political process,” rather than Reagan’s theoretical vision: “A competitive market economy where these economic decisions are made by private individuals interacting freely in the marketplace.”
Kraus wrote that the apotheosis of this nigh-fascism was found in FDR’s short-lived National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which gave the administration control over wage-setting and was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
As conservative intellectuals parsed Reagan’s views on fascist politics, Carter – picking up Kennedy’s baton – argued that Reagan was attempting to have it both ways with regard to FDR.
On the eve of his final October 28th debate with Reagan, Carter – addressing a rally in Wayne County, West Virginia – asked, “Which Ronald Reagan am I going to face tomorrow evening on television?” He continued: “I don’t know if I’m debating a man who lately professes to be almost in the image of Franklin Roosevelt or one who earlier said that the foundation for the New Deal was fascism.”
Despite his confusing perspective on Roosevelt, Reagan still won in 1980. After taking office, the new President briefly let sleeping dogs lie before returning to the fascism issue on Christmas Day 1981, during an appearance on the PBS Program “Ben Wattenberg at Large,” hosted by the noted foreign policy hand and neoconservative. First, Reagan repeated his original claim that New Dealers “spoke admiringly of how Mussolini made the trains run on time.”
Then, Reagan finally provided a name for a Brain Truster he thought was most responsible for the extremism, although he linked him to an arguably oppositional political movement with an also-controversial reputation, FDR’s crusading Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes: “Ickes, Harold Ickes, in his book said that what we were striving for was a kind of modified form of communism.”
Reagan did absolve Roosevelt from direct involvement in the fascism or communism, saying, “I don’t believe that was really in Roosevelt’s mind, and I think that, had he lived, and with the war over, we would have seen him using Government the other way.”
Historians once again pounced, arguing that Ickes had written nothing that could possibly fit Reagan’s description. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the Kennedy “court historian” and author of a three-volume Roosevelt biography, told the New York Times, “There was no hint at any point during the Roosevelt Presidency of any desire to establish a one-party state—and that’s what fascism was all about, the suppression all political opposition.”
Reagan arrived full-circle in a dramatic flourish on March 23rd, 1982, when he accepted the Charles Evans Hughes Gold Medal of the National Conference of Christians and Jews at the New York Hilton. 10,000 demonstrators representing the labor-backed Coalition to Roll Back Reaganism rallied outside of the hotel, citing particular opposition to Reagan’s social services budget cuts and to his support of American involvement in El Salvador. “Reagan Hood robs the poor to give to the rich,” read one sign.
Reagan returned to a similar rhetoric to that which he employed at the 1980 RNC, but this time directly compared himself to Roosevelt and argued that they had both been misconstrued as fascists. “You know, back in the New Deal days, many critics of Franklin Roosevelt accused him of trying to destroy the free enterprise system,” Reagan told the crowd.
“Well, FDR’s answer was simple,” Reagan continued. “He wasn’t out to destroy our political and economic freedom; he was out to save it at a time of severe stress that had already caused democracy to crumble and fascism and totalitarianism to rear their ugly heads in so many other countries.”
“Like FDR,” Reagan promised the audience, “may I say I’m not trying to destroy what is best in our system of humane, free government; I’m doing everything I can to save it, to slow down the destructive rate of growth in taxes and spending, to prune nonessential programs so that enough resources will be left to meet the requirements of the truly needy.”
Whether Reagan succeeded in his supposedly Rooseveltian quest, his invocations of fascism show the malleability, political utility and emotional slipperiness of the term. Meanwhile, the pushback that Reagan generated illustrates just as strongly why continued discourse over fascist patterns is such an important practice.
For an interesting look at another 1980 conversation about fascism in American politics, check out social scientist Bertram Gross’s Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America.
And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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