FDR and Fascism: More Data

Almost ten years ago I wrote “FDR and Fascism.” I wouldn’t change a word of it. But I would add to the list of FDR’s sins the several cited by David Beito in “FDR’s War Against the Press” (reason.com, April 5, 2017):

Convinced that the media were out to get him, Roosevelt warned in 1938 that “our newspapers cannot be edited in the interests of the general public….”

Roosevelt’s relationship with radio was warmer. The key distinction was that broadcasters operated in an entirely different political context: Thanks to federal rules and administrators, they had to tread much more lightly than newspapers did. At its inception in 1934, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reduced the license renewal period for stations from three years to only six months….

It did not take long for broadcasters to get the message. NBC, for example, announced that it was limiting broadcasts “contrary to the policies of the United States government.” CBS Vice President Henry A. Bellows said that “no broadcast would be permitted over the Columbia Broadcasting System that in any way was critical of any policy of the Administration.” He elaborated “that the Columbia system was at the disposal of President Roosevelt and his administration and they would permit no broadcast that did not have his approval.” Local station owners and network executives alike took it for granted, as Editor and Publisher observed, that each station had “to dance to Government tunes because it is under Government license.”…

Roosevelt’s intimidation efforts reached their apogee in the hands of the Special Senate Committee on Lobbying. The president indirectly recruited Sen. Hugo L. Black (D–Ala.), a zealous and effective New Deal loyalist, as chair. The committee’s original mission was to probe the opposition campaign to the “death sentence” in the Public Utility Holding Company Bill, a provision that would have allowed, under certain circumstances, the dissolution of utility holding companies…. Smelling blood, Black expanded the investigation into a general probe of anti–New Deal voices, including journalists.

The Treasury granted Black access to tax returns dating back to 1925 of such critics as David Lawrence of the United States News. Then he moved to obtain his targets’ private telegrams, demanding that telegraph companies let the committee search copies of all incoming and outgoing telegrams for the first nine months of 1935. When Western Union refused on privacy grounds, the FCC, at Black’s urging, ordered it to comply.

Over a nearly three-month period at the end of 1935, FCC and Black Committee staffers searched great stacks of telegrams in Western Union’s D.C. office. Operating with virtually no restriction, they read the communications of sundry lobbyists, newspaper publishers, and conservative political activists as well as every member of Congress. Writing to Black, one investigator stated that they had gone through “35,000 to 50,000 per day.” Various newspapers and members of Congress later estimated that staffers had examined some five million telegrams over the course of the investigation….

The committee used the information it found as a basis for more than 1,000 new subpoenas. One of these was for all incoming and outgoing telegrams, not just those sent through Washington, D.C., of W.H. Cowles’ anti–New Deal newspaper chain in the Northwest….

The committee’s most powerful champion was Roosevelt himself, although he carefully avoided tipping his hand in public. He referred specifically to the Black Committee at a May 1936 meeting, according to former FDR advisor Raymond D. Moley. In the midst of a “nightmarish conversation [that] went on and on in circles for some two hours,” Moley bluntly asked Roosevelt about the lack of “moral indignation” when Black’s committee had “ruthlessly invaded the privacy of citizens.” Moley opined that he would rather let the guilty “go free than to establish the principle of dragnet investigations.” Roosevelt responded with a long discourse on how Black’s actions had “ample precedent.” Moley inferred that Roosevelt believed “the end justified the means.”…

In 1937, the president overplayed his hand by pushing a plan to appoint additional justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. The hard pushback, most visibly by Democrats, threw him off balance. A leader in the opposition was the Committee for Constitutional Government (CCG), led by publisher Frank Gannett, formed only days after Roosevelt announced his plan. The CCG pioneered direct mail methods and had an impressive list of supporters, including the progressive reformer and civil libertarian Amos Pinchot, the novelist Booth Tarkington, and the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale. The group soon expanded its agenda to oppose the New Deal as a whole.

Alarmed New Dealers resumed the investigations of the Senate Special Committee on Lobbying to target those who opposed “objectives of the administration.” By this time Black had joined the Supreme Court, so now Sen. Minton was chair. Minton was an even more zealous defender of Roosevelt’s agenda than Black had been. According to credible accounts, Roosevelt had first offered him the Supreme Court job that later went to Black but Minton demurred, wanting to stay in the Senate.

[Minton’s] methods were … extremely heavy-handed. Committee staffers arrived en masse at the CCG’s office, where they began copying financial records, membership lists, and other files. After watching this for some time, Edward H. Rumely, the CCG’s energetic secretary, ordered them out, charging an illegal “fishing expedition.” Meanwhile, the Department of the Treasury gave Minton access to Rumely’s income tax returns. The defiant secretary refused to hand over donor or member lists on the grounds that the demand violated privacy and constitutional rights. The Justice Department contemplated a prosecution but ultimately decided that it might backfire by making Rumely a martyr.

Minton struck back by proposing a “libel bill” imposing a prison sentence of up to two years for publishing newspapers or magazine articles “known to be false.” (Many years later, a confidante of Minton said that someone else, possibly from the administration, had asked him to do it.)….

… Asked at a press conference to take a stand on Minton’s bill, [Roosevelt] punted, joking that he did not think the federal government had sufficient funds to build enough new prisons to make room for everyone who could be convicted under such a law. Before moving on to the next question, he quipped for the benefit of the reporters present: “You boys asked for it, you know.”

The article is meant as a warning against Trump’s supposedly fascistic character. I believe that Trump has been misread, though not without reason. He is an expert at making noise and issuing threats, but his bluster seems to be a negotiating stance and a strategem for deflecting criticism. (It worked in the case of the “wiretapping” accusation; the Obama administration is now on the defensive, as it should be.)

As far as I can tell, Trump has thus far refrained from seizing power in the manner of FDR. He is even obeying unconstitutional court orders regarding his visa restrictions, whereas I would ignore them.

If I see evidence that Trump is actually a fascist like FDR, I won’t hesitate to say so.