Jeff Greenfield wrote an article for Politico Magazine on March 25 about the time Hollywood produced a movie about an American president who became a fascist. So how long do you think it was before the inevitable name of Trump appeared? Well, you didn't even have to wait to begin reading the article, The Hollywood Hit Movie That Urged FDR to Become a Fascist, because you had this in the subtitle, Mostly forgotten now, ‘Gabriel Over the White House’ is worth watching to understand the Trump era.
In the early spring of 1933—with a quarter of Americans out of work and banks failing by the day, threatening a complete collapse of the financial system, as farmers watched their crops rot in the field—“Gabriel Over the White House” premiered. The film, directed by Gregory La Cava, had been rushed into production with the financial help of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, and it was designed as a clear message to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that he might need to embrace dictatorial powers to solve the crisis of the Great Depression. (It was an idea embraced by establishment types like columnist Walter Lippmann, and the influential editorial pages of the New York Herald-Tribune.)
The movie stars Walter Huston as newly elected President Judson Hammond, a smug, glad-handing politician in the model of Warren Harding—complete with a private secretary-mistress and blissfully indifferent to the sufferings of the country. Unemployment? The spread of organized crime, with mobsters like Al Capone effectively controlling the Chicago Police Department? “Local problems,” Hammond says.
But one night, driving back to the White House at excessive speed, Hammond crashes the car; as he lies near death, the curtains of his bedroom riffle while mysterious music plays. Soon he rises from his bed, with fire in his eyes, driven by divine intervention. (We never see it, but later, his secretary and mistress intuits that “the angel Gabriel“ has entered the body of the president.)
Confronted by a million-man march of the unemployed—drawn from the real life “Bonus Army” of 1932—he rejects his Cabinet’s plan to crush them and instead promises to turn them into a government-financed “Army of Reconstruction.” When Congress, appalled by his outlandish idea, threatens impeachment, he marches into the halls of the Capitol, assails their fecklessness and tells them he will “rule by martial law.” In a series of radio speeches, he declares an end to mortgage foreclosures, announces a plan to shore up the banks and farms and repeals Prohibition by fiat. He organizes a secret army to round up the crime kingpins, try them in courts-martial and execute them by firing squad as the Statue of Liberty looms in the background. He summons the leaders of the world, threatens them with a super-weapon and then pressures them into universal disarmament. With that, the divine force leaves his body and he dies.
The movie was welcomed by, among others, FDR, who told the filmmakers “it would do a lot of good.” (It was more than coincidental that the fireside chats, the public works programs and banking reforms all became part of FDR’s “first 100 days.“) “Gabriel Over the White House” was both a critical and commercial hit. The New York Times called it “a curious, somewhat fantastic and often melodramatic story, but nevertheless one which at this time is very interesting.” It turned a tidy profit of some $200,000. But it faded into obscurity, in large measure because the idea of a “benevolent dictatorship” seemed a lot less attractive after the degradation of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.
Okay, so we found out that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt inspired by the movie but guess which president ends up getting branded as probably a fascist?
...the warnings about subversive enemies undermining the nation—is a theme common to many of today’s autocrats, from Hungary’s Viktor Orban to the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. (It is also a theme in populous appeals here at home, used by candidates from George Wallace to Donald Trump. In his closing ad in 2016, Trump talked about “replacing a failed and corrupt political establishment … who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind … a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.”)
Of course, the liberal Politico readers went Hogg wild over the comparison to Trump as you can see from these sample comments:
You see this in TrumpO, the desire for him to be the dictator, to mess over all the people who doubt the Great TrumpO. He is ready to fight a war, with other people's lives, of course.
In the end, it's the authoritarians with no respect for rule of law who just walk in and take over, checks and balances be damned. So who's going to stop Trump?
My favorite comment was from the reader who was perplexed by his beloved FDR being favorably impressed by the movie and then goes back to a Trump attack:
I'm not buying the FDR quote. Maybe he said it but meant to say the movie was a cautionary tale. To understand Trump's america see Idiocracy