Robert May
3 min readFeb 3, 2024

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Review of PREQUEL:AN AMERICAN FIGHT AGAINST FASCISM

by Rachel Maddow, 2023, Crown Publishing; a division of Penguin Random House, 324 pages followed by index and notes.

Reviewed by Bob May

Contains spoilers.
Anyone who has ever watched Rachel Maddow on TV knows that she is a consummate storyteller and student of the lessons history can teach the present. In her book, PREQUEL: AN AMERICAN FIGHT AGAINST FASCISM, she employs the book-sized canvas to tell a true story of malicious foreign influence, attempted insurrection by wannabe American Fascist dictators and attempted insurrection that sounds like here and now but started over a hundred years ago. Her avowed purpose is to say: we have been through all this before and to suggest we can survive it again today.
The story she tells is that of the rise of organized pro-German, anti-American individuals, groups like the German American Bund (often armed and financed by Hitler) and foreign propaganda throughout America in the lead up to World War II from the 1930s to the start of actual hostilities at the end of 1941 when the majority of Americans united behind the war effort and home-grown Fascism faded out of relevance, its perpetrators vanishing back into anonymity or, in some cases, joining the war.
Maddow’s style, as always, is conversational (you can really hear her voice) and accessible without pandering, told with humor and sprinkled with “Maddowisms” like “crackerjack” and “a cracking letter in the files of former president Teddy Roosevelt…” Needless to say, it is extensively researched and fact checked with generous attribution of sources.
Her list of characters is numerous and varied, at least 30 listed in a prefatory Dramatis Personae, included senators, familiar local politicians like renegade Louisiana governor Huey Long (think Greg Abbott) and media figures like Father Charles Conklin (think Sean Hannity) down to exotically novel nobodies like George Sylvester Viereck who, among other things, published the first known gay vampire fiction in 1907, sixty-nine years before Anne Rice got the idea. All of these people are rendered here in often amusing and ironic detail and, again, the similarities between these and figures today is startling.
The fascinating and prescient episodes recounted include: a campaign to “Build A Wall,” the use of antisemitism and “biological politics,” the manipulation of the supposedly independent US Department of Justice by powerful politicians and the distribution of Nazi propaganda paid for by American taxpayers. Perhaps at least one largely ignorant contemporary politician has learned this history.
The most cautionary tale here is that of “The Great Sedition Trial” of 1944 which took to task Viereck and multiple other co-conspirators, which clearly parallels Fani Willis’ current RICO prosecution in Georgia. Forebodingly, largely due to the sheer number of defendants, lawyers and their numerous delaying tactics, the earlier trial ended after almost a year with the heart-attack death of the judge necessitating a mistrial. The defendants merely walked away.
As Maddow frighteningly concludes, “…it’s hard to picture, hard to believe, that there were Americans — let alone lots of them — who thought not just that we should stay out of [World War II] but that if we did decide to fight, then joining the Axis powers would be the better bet.”
This is an important, valuable and enjoyable book.

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Robert May

Retiree, writer, stage director and actor. Gay man. Born 1950. Worked in business 35 years. Lives in Costa Mesa, CA.