Story Pile: Ultra

Content Warning: Rachel Maddow.

Oh and all the Nazis.

I am personally of the opinion that American history is interesting because it seems, from the outside, to be so immensely cyclical. It’s possibly a byproduct of being such a young country, and having its history so well documented compared to places where you have centuries between epochs and whatnot, but it seems like you can almost always throw a dart at a calendar and find a story in American history that just happens to overlap with some current events.

Or maybe it’s that the nature of American history is pretty much everything is always grappling with the trans-atlantic slave trade, while say, Australia, we just have a lot more of a staggered set of separated genocides to work with. Britain? It has a whole empire of terrible things it did, but also it has the class system and kings and all that jazz. But in America, America, oh, you can almost always open up any given historical event and find that hey, turns out racism was a crucial element in this story.

When talking about the rise of the right-wing in American politics, I liked to point to the narrative of the Know-Nothings, anti-immigration isolationist assholes who originally got their name out of refusing to disclose their origins, meaning they were a political party birthed in hate and cloaked in conspiracy in their point of origin. They also had no material policy beyond ‘hate the immigrants’ and ‘no,’ which as it turns out, when they got power, meant they sucked at their jobs and they failed and they got turned out, in this repeating cycle. But that was the 1850s: this party fell apart basically because of the Civil War, which – again, grappling with the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

I don’t bring this up because it’s core to the story of this podcast. It’s completely unrelated. I bring it up to underscore that I did know about some of the stages of American history where things went weird and assholes got attention.

I had no idea about this period of US history.

Did you know that there was a point of time in American history when a Senator was having his speeches written by a Nazi handler who was explicitly trying to escalate America into an uninvolvement policy, or even a commitment to an alliance with Germany during World War 2? You didn’t?

Well, guess what, there was more than one.

Do you know how popular Nazis were in America? Did you know how many high profile celebrities, in a period of wireless and public speaking events, were being cutouts for Nazi handlers? Not in a nefarious, get-famous-for-these-reasons way, but instead in the much more embarrassing ‘rich idiot convinced by being flattered by a racist’ way. Because boy, there are some historical names that stand out in this space. Like Charles Lindbergh.

And what you’ll find if you listen to the podcast, that we know about this stuff not because of tireless exercise in helping to maintain the status quo of the world, struggling to police the good moral character of America and fight back against this insidious, invading idea, but rather, because almost all these Nazis who were literally at the job of communicating discretely in a foreign power were also kind of colossal fuckups who could trip and fall and scatter paperwork around and nobody would want to cause a fuss about that. It’s interesting to consider that as much as my entire life, America has defined itself as being ‘the ones who won World War 2, so you better be grateful’, that they were a culture who, when they jumped into that war It was completely unclear as to which side they were going to jump into.

This podcast is a trip. It’s not a story with a single, narrow focus, the story arc of (say) Spiro Agnew like you’d hear in Bag Man. It’s rather looking at the different sampled layers of ways that America, in general, had these fulfilling feedback loops of different groups of right-wing shitheads, who were dangerous, and organised themselves with things like newsletters and wireless radio and individual rallies and just the way that these things are not just terrible ideas, they’re social experiences. People weren’t showing up to racist rallies to hear new ideas about how to do a racism, they were showing up to be part of a community of racists, whether that was fans of a hate preacher or arming themselves with political theory that justified the fundamentally capitalist nature of Hitler’s holocaust.

Chances are you’ve never listened to a podcast like this, a high production value long-form audio book worth of material that’s divided up into chapters for an easy engagement experience. Just because when I hear ‘podcast’ most people I know assume that it’s defaulted to a conversation between some people you like, it’s not a thing where you get say, one person telling you a story, with detailed sources and archive audio.

Ultra isn’t a fun listen; to compare it to Bag Man, the other major Maddow podcast I’ve recommended in the past, it isn’t as fundamentally funny as that one. Bag Man was kind of listening to the worst asshole in the world (as far as the podcast is attenuated) being both grotesquely corrupt and getting so thoroughly caught that it wound up being a negotiation about how to escape punishment. It’s ultimately, a darkly comic piece, in particular because there are some people of the time talking about what utter shitheads these politicians were. Ultra by comparison is a sort of encyclopedia entry of examining a lot of different characters dotted around and realising that almost all of these stories end up at ‘and they were pretty okay with the Nazis,’ which is more lurching and miserable.

Plus, the desire to hear someone suffer, the desire to hear a moral ending to this narrative is kind of dilute. There are a lot of total shitheads who failed because they sucked, but also because there was some social value to destructive shame. This was back when you could shame people into giving up on their shitty newsletter. Kinda. Now, the closest you can end up with as a message for the future is ‘these people suck and fail, but they also are trying to not fail, and maybe it’s worth treating shitheads like they’re actually shitheads.’

You can listen to Ultra on any given podcasting app, and I recommend that rather than going to the MSNBC website, which is… uh… bloated?