By Elizabeth Trudel, Staff Writer
As stated on the University of Southern Maine website, “This year’s Convocation asks each member of our community to question ourselves, our society, our institutions and our leaders. As we interrogate our collective history, so we must also question the power structures that support and sustain the systems of oppression that limit equal access to freedoms and opportunities in our American democracy. What is the essence of liberty, if not the freedom of everyone–from the most privileged to the most vulnerable–to live as decent human beings, in America?” To achieve this campus-wide theme, USM has hosted a multitude of events where keynote speakers talk about pressing issues within our society. This past week. keynote speaker shared the topic of fascism.
On Thursday, April 5th, Christopher Vials, author, political activist, and associate professor of English and the director of American studies at the University of Connecticut, came to USM to share his book, Haunted by Hitler: Liberals, the Left, and the Fight Against Fascism in the United States. He arrived with a mission to educate the audience on the topic of modern fascism and its roots in the United States.
Vials is initially from Houston, Texas. He attended the University of Texas with a double major in history and English and received his Ph.D. at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Over the past five years, the political activist has focused on fascism and anti-fascism in the United States. He is now co-editing with Bill Mullen, The U.S. Antifascism Reader, a book forthcoming from Verso Press. Vials has also appeared on NPR and PBS stations as well as CBC radio to discuss the topic of fascism in U.S. history. His current research includes the convergence of neoliberal temporality, narratives of economic development, and imperialism in contemporary U. S. culture, as well as antifascism and the cultural work of social movements on the political left and political right.
The event was held at the Cohen Center of the Osher Map Library. Approximately thirty individuals attended the forum, including USM President, Glenn Cummings.
Vials opened the convocation event with an introduction to his book on the history of United States fascism, which was published in 2014. In the book, he explores how fascism has manifested in the United States and how antifascism has evolved. Vials defined an antifascist as, “someone who sees fascism as an immediate danger and a defining issue of their time… someone who devotes a significant amount of energy to stop it.” With a presentation of slides, he presented the history of fascist movements in the United States and how the powerful movements impacted American history. He started off by talking about the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, stating that their national movement and lobbying helped to fundamentally reinvent immigration laws and created the category of “illegal alien.”
Vials continued into the 1930s era of Charles Coughlin and the “Christian Front” movement. Coughlin was a Roman Catholic priest who became a national celebrity during the Great Depression by hosting a popular radio broadcast where he promoted his church, his religious beliefs, and his political agenda. At the height of his reign, ⅓ of Americans were tuned in to his broadcasts. Vials exclaimed that this movement was vast and dangerous, with armed militia terrorizing people of the Jewish faith, but the power of the movement kept the United States out of World War II for the time being.
He stated that the third fascist movement in the United States was the White Citizens Councils and the anti-civil rights violence led by Asa Carter in the 1950s. Vials stated, “This gave rise to George Wallace and the American Independent Party from 1968 to 1972.
The final fascist movement Vials spoke about was the Christian Right movement led by RJ Rushdooney , which began in the 1970s and continues to present day. He stated that this movement wrote the incentives of Biblical law in 1973 and is the pioneer of the homeschooling movement.
Vials stated that President Donald Trump’s political speech stresses nation, strength, power, leadership violence and race. “Trump is reproducing a fascist language that he is unconscious too. He has probably never read a history book in his life. He lacks historical knowledge of past leaders and is leading America in fascist rhetoric,” stated Vials. Adding to this topic, an older man in the crowd, Tim Wooten, a professor in the Russell Scholars program, stated that he played two videos side by side: one of Trump giving a speech and one of Mussolini. Wooten stated, “The body language and gestures of the two men making a speech were remarkably similar. It was frightening to watch.”
When asked what can be done to combat fascism in the United States Vials stated, “Anytime one supports equality, it makes fascism less and less possible. This can be achieved by being active and involved in our communities.”
To battle fascism, Vial founded the Anti-Fascist Network at the University of Connecticut. The Anti-Fascist Network is a national organization that holds educational events on fascism and its history. Vials stated that the student club does mostly educational work, organizing panels and film nights, as well as protesting alt-right individuals who show up to events.
The professor lived in Germany for two years teaching university students. He states that while in Europe he gained immense knowledge of fascism from Germany’s perspective, which opened up a lot of territory and insight for him. He believes that Germans have an excellent grasp of the concept. This experience was an urging factor in his decision to write his book and to start speaking out and educating Americans about fascism.
Vials states, “I decided to start this research project on fascism because I found that Americans were starting to talk about fascism in silly ways. I became saddened and concerned by the fact that Americans don’t know what fascism is and don’t know how to recognize it. I found a need to educate people about the topic of fascism: what it is, what it isn’t, and the history behind it.”
He added that, “Teaching others about fascism is important because we are not immune to fascism. Americans as a whole are not aware of how much fascism movements have impacted American institutions and laws. I want people to walk away with a sense of what fascism and anti-fascism are so that they can recognize it in the country and do something about it.”
English Professor of the Russell scholars program in Gorham, Tim Wooten, was drawn to the convocation event because his father served in World War II. He recalls his father telling him that a Ku Klux Klan headquarter mansion was once located at 449 Forest Ave in Portland, a current CVS pharmacy, just an eight-minute walk from the Portland campus. Wooten expressed the extreme power that the organization held over the people of Maine. He states, “At the time, there were not enough blacks to persecute in Maine, so the group targeted and tortured various religious groups. My grandfather lived less than a block from the Klan headquarters in Portland and the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on his front lawn.
Wooten stated that fifteen years ago Neo-Nazis arrived in Lewiston and attempted to persecute the Somalian immigrant population. A huge group of counter-demonstrators met the Neo-Nazis in the gym of Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. “So many citizens arrived to support the Somalian people in our community that they filled the gym to its max capacity, leaving a good number of supporters stuck outside,” stated Wooten. “I’m very proud to be a Maine citizen. We evolved into a state that is intolerant of hatred, and we come together and support each other in times of need. Most importantly, we stand for what is right.” He continued, “Vial’s lecture and slides presented were very effective in putting a timeline and a face on fascist movements in American history.”