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America's bush-league Führer

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Hitler's ghost (Curt Conway) pulls the strings of an American "bush-league fuhrer" (played by Dennis Hopper) in a 1963 episode of "The Twilight Zone."
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OKLAHOMA CITY – In all the years that I’ve watched reruns of The Twilight Zone, one particular episode from January 1963 seems to have eluded me – until last night.

The episode I finally watched was “He’s Alive,” starring a young Dennis Hopper as a frustrated Neo-Nazi named Peter Vollmer, a troubled soul seeking fame and power and respect, and taking advice from a shadowy figure who (spoiler alert!) is actually the ghost of Adolf Hitler!

The one person who seems to understand Peter is a Jewish man named Ernst Ganz (Ludwig Donath) who survived Dachau and is quite familiar with Peter’s racist and bigoted rhetoric, having survived those years under Nazi occupation and in a death camp.

Peter, as we learn, had a physically-abusive father and a mentally-unstable mother who was never around. He craves respect and is drawn to Nazi ideology, much to Ernst’s dismay. He is, as writer Rod Serling, notes, "America's bush-league Fuhrer." But he is also doomed, just as Hitler was.

But before his dark end, Peter is getting advice (and money) from the shadowy figure who reveals his true identity later. But you sense that is who it is. It’s obvious. But Rod Serling, who wrote the episode as a much longer film, handles it well. And Hopper is startlingly good as the troubled, sweaty American fascist who is gaining followers – as long as he listens to Hitler’s ghost (Curt Conway).

Ernst, who survived the Nazi death camp, is alarmed by his young friend's enthusiastic embrace of hate and bigotry, all while demonizing minorities and "the other" to play on people's fears and prejudices and garner a following - just as Hitler did in Germany in the 1930's. 

It was odd coming across this episode. I had not had any prior intention of watching The Twilight Zone. It was very odd. But seeing it made sense, in terms of the far-right times we find ourselves in, where rightist thugs, bullies and fascists seem to be popping up hither and yon. As writer and precog Philip K. Dick said: "Fascism, wherever it appears, is the enemy."

Reports of white-supremacist violence has risen dramatically since Donald Trump became president. The “MAGA bomber” last month. The vicious anti-Semite who shot and murdered 11 people at a Pennsylvania synagogue. The seemingly countless shootings, riots and "the creeping meatball" Jerry Rubin and the Yippies of the 1960's and 70's warned your parents about. 

Just yesterday, CNN featured a story headlined: "Trump says he's not a racist. That's not how white nationalists see it."  And the reporter notes white supremacist websites have been very excited about Trump's talk of the "invasion" by Central American migrants and his repeated comments about nationalism, pretending not to know anything about the historical framing of that term - and what it has led to in recent history.

A story in the UK Guardian, datelined Cottage Grove, Oregon, highlights a situation faced by that small town (where Animal House was filmed) where Laura Rose, a genderqueer, itinerant environmental activist, was alarmed by the presence of neo-Nazi running an "armory" on Main Street. Trump seems to have emboldened them. And recall that when that Twilight Zone episode first aired in 1963, the far-right John Birch Society was an American fascist organization determined to ferret out, McCarthy style, "Reds" and "Commies."

Bob Dylan, in 1962 even wrote a terrific, satirical song titled "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" which notes American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell. Speaking of that odious political party, a former American Nazi Party leader and Holocaust-denier, Arthur Jones, tallied over 50,000 votes in Illinois' 3rd Congressional District, coming in third in last week's Midterm Elections. And U.S. Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, was narrowly re-elected, despite his long history of racially-charged and anti-immigrant rhetoric. 

Fortunately, the spread of far-right hate out of Washington has been somewhat limited, as voters sent pro-diversity Democrats to replace "nationalist" Republicans who fear a "browning of America." As conservative columnist Cal Thomas recently wrote in his rant against "birthright citizenship," he agreed with previous anti-birthright voices so to to prevent" America’s culture from being overwhelmed and destroyed." What exactly does Thomas mean by that? Sounds more like Pat Buchanan to me. 

Meanwhile, when young Bob Dylan tried to perform "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963 (ironically, on the same network - CBS - that aired "He's Alive" a few months earlier), CBS balked, even though Sullivan backed Dylan's song choice. It was taken off his '63 LP Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, too. But the controversy got Dylan even more attention as a result, including three other politically-charged songs, including "Masters of War" and "Talkin' World War III Blues."

OLD, EVIL GHOSTS 

I began reporting on the rise of global fascism, in earnest, in 2014. I saw it in Ukraine and parts of eastern Europe. I saw it in parts of Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia. And then the infection spread to the United States. When Trump came along in 2015-16, it struck a chord with a seemingly latent desire amongst many, for a white, nationalist "strongman" who will back their pre-existing prejudices. Post-WWI Germany, struggling as it was, was ripe for a Hitler. And we all know how that turned out. 

Back to that '63 Twilight Zone episode - Rod Serling offers this chilling warning in his closing narration: "Where will he go next, this phantom from another time, this resurrected ghost of a previous nightmare? Chicago? Los Angeles? Miami? Vincennes, Indiana? Syracuse, New York? Anyplace, everyplace. Where there's hate, where there's prejudice, where there's bigotry. He's alive. He's alive so long as these evils exist. Remember that when he comes to your town. Remember it when you hear his voice speaking through other. Remember it when you hear a name called, a minority attacked, any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being. He's alive because through these things we keep him alive.

Fortunately, many Americans are waking up to what Trump really stands for. Trump will attack an African-American reporter for asking a question about Trump's own heavily-reported, bigoted behavior and tell that reporter that the question is "racist." But then Trump won't fervently denounce far-right terrorists and white supremacists in this country. Trump, not having any sort of core principles or a true love of the US Constitution, has left himself open to being used by forces of chaos, evil, fear and negativity. Trump himself seems to feed off these malevolent forces, just as he would launch into a Big Mac from a D.C. McDonald's hamburger stand.

As an American, with many family and friends who support Trump, it is all quite alarming to see, here in our great nation which has been a beacon of hope for so many, for so long.

I suspect that while 2018 was a bit of a bumpy ride, the turbulence coming in 2019 will make this year seem like child's play. Buckle up!

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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