America First, MAGA,
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The right’s love for dictators isn’t new. We reveal a century-long saga of conservatism’s authoritarian infatuation.

A recent suggestion for a bumper sticker reading “Trump First, Putin Second, America Last” is more than just a witty jab at current political dynamics; it encapsulates the historical depth of right-wing politics in the United States. 

On this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast we’re joined by Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of The National Interest, who offers a compelling analysis of the right wing’s enduring fascination with authoritarian figures.

Drawing on his latest work, America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance With Foreign Dictators, Heilbrunn helps us understand the conservative admiration for past autocrats like Mussolini, Franco, and Pinochet. He draws a direct line from these historical figures to today’s political landscape, where figures like Viktor Orban, Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin are seen not just as authoritarian leaders but as exemplars in the fight against liberalism and progressivism.

Since the 1940s, Heilbrunn says, this undercurrent of dictator worship has been an undeniable tradition within modern American conservative thought. The question today is: Can we confront the complexities of this ideological position and its impact on the fabric of American politics?

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Full Text Transcript:

(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. In a world that is rapidly changing, at a time when large swaths of the American populous feel they’re suddenly competing for control of their nation, when technology and a modern social fabric can feel alienating to many, it’s easy to see why there might be an appeal for authoritarianism to bring back some of the old ideas of America, and a desire to bring order to a world that seems to have passed so many by.

On one level, this helps us begin to understand the appeal of MAGA and the extreme Right. However, the facts don’t bear this out. In reality, the Far Right’s flirtation with strongmen and authoritarianism and dictators is not a new or modern phenomenon. It has been ongoing for almost a century. The world of American conservatism has had a century-long infatuation with foreign dictators. And this is the focus of my guest Jacob Heilbrunn’s new work.

Jacob is the editor of The National Interest and the author of the recently published America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators. Jacob provides a sweeping and well-argued study of the right wing’s penchant for totalitarianism, tracing its roots.

All the way back to World War One, even throughout the Cold War, the Right showed fondness for autocrats like Franco and Pinochet, and some even wrote apologies for the Third Reich. And apartheid in South Africa. How is it that figures like Victor Orbán have become a model for the American Right, and why the historical admiration for autocrats like Kaiser Wilhelm, Mussolini, and, today, Putin?

If we are to fight for liberal democracy, we must understand this complex relationship and what it means for the future of American politics. It is my pleasure to welcome Jacob Heilbrunn here to talk about America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators. Jacob, thanks so much for joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Thank you, Jeff.

Jeff: Well it is a delight to have you here. When we look at the love of authoritarianism that we’re seeing on the Right today, to what extent does it parallel this historical precedent of the extreme Right and its fascination with dictators?

Jacob: It parallels it exactly. When Donald Trump fawns over Vladimir Putin as a great leader, when representative Clay Higgins calls Putin a resolute leader and Senator Tommy Tuberville says that Putin is, quote, “on top of his game” — these are all sentiments that we’ve heard repeatedly, decade after decade, but never has it been so widespread, or have you had a former president actually espousing these sentiments so vociferously and in such a popular fashion.

Jeff: You make a point that this fondness for authoritarianism is something that’s built Into America, that it goes to the core of America in some ways. Talk about that.

Jacob: Well, as you know, slavery was a huge part of the American founding, so the South was essentially an authoritarian system itself. We can’t escape. It’s more than a blot in American history; it’s really the essence of it in many ways. Even though conservatives, as we know, nowadays are trying to again downplay the authoritarian and nasty side of the antebellum South. So I wasn’t trying to argue that this is something that comes out of nowhere. It’s something that we need to face up to. I myself believe that we will probably never be able to eliminate these authoritarian sentiments that we’re witnessing, but we can suppress them. I remain an optimist. I think it strengthens our democracy to confront them.

Jeff: There is the sense that that the founders understood this strain, and so much of what was structured in the founding documents was in some ways designed to counter this.

Jacob: Many of the things that the founders anticipated did not actually occur. For example, they didn’t believe that there would be a party system that would develop. However, as you’re referencing, they were extremely worried about the rise of a populist demagogue who would try to override the system and seize power for himself, and that’s why we have these checks and balances.

Now what they didn’t anticipate is that someone like Trump could come along with the support of an entire party and that Congress would not act as a check on the presidency, but in fact would be, as the Republicans are towards Trump, his lap dogs.

Jeff: Much of what we see today is a reaction to the multiculturalism of America — the multi-ethnic growth in the country, technology change, all of those things that I think people are familiar with. In many ways, that’s the driver of authoritarianism today, because there’s this longing to make a different America, to go back to another time. From a historical perspective, what were some of the other drivers of this authoritarian desire? You go back to World War I, World War II, the Cold War, et cetera.

Jacob: The themes actually were not always that different. In the 1920s, for example, you had a strong eugenics movement on the right led by people like Lothrop Stoddard, whom I talked about in my book America Last, and they were terrified by the immigration that was taking place from southeastern Europe and from Asia. They thought that what they called Nordics, which was a word for whites, were being swamped by what Stoddard, in a best-selling book in the early 1920s, called the “rising tide of color.” The idea was that white people would be submerged. Today, you have the “great replacement” theory that white people are being replaced by darker-skinned races. That’s why Donald Trump talks about people coming from the Congo, people coming from Asia, people coming from South and Central America — that these are threats to America.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about what we see in the parallels to the rise of authoritarianism in other countries, whether it’s Hungary today or whether it was Germany a century ago.

Jacob: And again, there are some worries, some parallels in Weimar. Germany was seen as decadent and the Nazis were a backlash to the kind of democracy and freedoms and liberties that people were enjoying, also backlash against the freedom that gays enjoyed, particularly in Berlin. And Victor Orban today is essentially waging a culture war. He stresses family values, a crackdown on gay rights; he’s anti-immigration. All of these things provide a blueprint for Donald Trump. We’re facing a culture war here too. The target is liberalism. The target is that liberals are not simply adversaries but, as Trump calls them, “vermin.”

Jeff: But it’s against liberalism in terms of these cultural issues. It never seems to be about policy. It’s not a debate about marginal tax rates or about the nature of government programs. It really seems to revolve in all these cases around culture.

Jacob: Exactly. It’s about defining the identity of the nation and what Trump is doing is creating an out-group. Anyone who doesn’t agree with him is not a real American patriot.

Jeff: It’s interesting. Years ago there was a right wing talk show host who talked about that, the battle, and this precedes Trump by maybe 10-15 years. The battle was about borders, language, and culture — and it seems that that is the core today.

Jacob: Definitely. And one of the people I talked about in my book who picked up on this was Patrick J. Buchanan in the 1990s, who again argued that we should be America First, that we needed to sever our alliances abroad, and that we could create a Fortress America, and that we needed to terminate all immigration coming into the United States. And Buchanan was a firm defender again of a form of white nationalism.

Jeff: Where does populism play in all of this?

Jacob: There’s been a backlash, both on the left and the right, against the growth in economic inequality that’s been taking place in America over the past several decades. And that has fueled antagonism toward global elites and towards Washington. And that’s why you have, whether on the left or the right, you can run on an anti-Washington message. And it’s certainly picked up steam. It’s not as though Trump is tapping into nothing.

Jeff: How much worse is this in your view because of globalization, because of global trade, and because of technology, all things that make the world and the globe more homogenous?

Jacob: Definitely a huge backlash against globalization is taking place. You see it. The Biden administration has retained many of the tariffs that Trump imposed on China, for example, and people feel unsettled and uncertain because of the technological change that is taking place. Also, the surveillance that is taking off, as you see in China, where they’re actually creating a system of social credits. There’s ubiquitous monitoring of what people are doing. All of this has created turmoil and resentment.

Jeff: Historically, what has been the strongest antidote to authoritarianism?

Jacob: The antidote is what Franklin Roosevelt and his cabinet officials did in the late 1930s and early 1940s. When there was in 1940 an America First movement, with about 800,000 members, led by the aviator Charles Lindbergh, who whipped up hostility against immigrants and declared that democratic Great Britain was doomed to lose, that we shouldn’t support it — much as you hear people today say, we shouldn’t support Ukraine — you have to go out and openly confront these anti-democratic forces.

And it’s interesting to me, for example, that Attorney General Merrick Garland really has been extremely passive, whereas Roosevelt’s Attorney General Robert Jackson, who was later a judge at the Nuremberg war crimes trials and a member of the Supreme Court, delivered a speech in 1948, explicit, in which he called democracy under fire and he named names. He talked about industrialists, politicians, and intellectuals who he said constituted a danger to American democracy. The Biden administration has been pretty passive about this.

Jeff: What impact did the Obama Presidency have on all of this as you see it?

Jacob: It was a galvanizing effect that you saw people on the right suddenly walking around wearing shirts and declaring put the “white” back in the White House. There’s no question that the idea that a sophisticated, well-spoken Black man was the president of the United States was seen as a mortal insult to the far right. They could not swallow the idea, and they saw him as uppity and Obama was demonized during his presidency.

Jeff: And yet his electoral victories were huge, and there were 8 million voters that voted for Obama that later went on to vote for Trump in 2016.

Jacob: Right. I’m not saying it was just racial, but what happened was the globalization and the economic inequality was not really addressed during the Obama administration. And there has been a huge backlash in the United States, and it’s something that Joe Biden has actually tried to address with his Inflation Reduction Act and his massive investment in American infrastructure. Whether that will pay off politically is another issue.

Jeff: Is it just economic, though, or do the cultural issues become and subsume really the economic issues? I mean it’s the “What’s the matter with Kansas?” effect that the culture, the cultural issues, seem to win out.

Jacob: The cultural issues are very powerful. I mean, I wouldn’t discount economics, but the cultural issues, this idea that your country is being taken away from you, as Trump stresses, and that we are being plunged into chaos by shadowy and nefarious elites. As you know, a long pedigree in the United States, we’ve had populism rise before it tends— I mean, historically, in the United States it becomes an inferno and then it burns out. We’ll have to see if that is it: If Trump were to lose this election, does this movement then die out?

Jeff: What the movement never had before is the kind of 24/7 communication that we see today, whether it’s social media or other forms of technology that brings people closer together all the time.

Jacob: That’s true, but it depends on where the major right-wing media thinks that it’s going to derive the most clicks. And if Trump burns out, I don’t think that it’s beyond the realm of possibility that the Republican Party adopts a new persona. Much of this is bound up with Trump himself and his extraordinary brand salesman abilities.

Jeff: And yet we see so many acolytes in Congress today, people that you wouldn’t expect, people with Ivy League educations.

Jacob: Sure. I mean, you’re talking about people like J.D. Vance, senator from Ohio; or Josh Hawley another senator; Matt Gaetz from Florida. They’re all mini-Me’s and It didn’t actually work for Ron DeSantis. Would it have worked in the future? I’m not so sure. I don’t think any of them have that prodigious bond that Trump does. Trump is someone who feeds off of resentment because he came from Queens and he wanted to conquer Manhattan and was never accepted by the elites there. I just I think Trump is a once-in-a-century phenomenon.

Jeff: Which brings up another key question in all of this. As we look at this history of authoritarianism and the right’s fascination with the authoritarian, is it sui generis to an individual? Is it about leadership? Is it about a singular person that drives it, and you take that person away and it does, as you say, burn out?

Jacob: I don’t think it’s sui generis. What it requires is someone with the skills to package it. Let’s look at Adolf Hitler, for example. Was Hitler saying anything new? Did he invent anything? Not really. He had picked a lot of it up in Vienna. And then some in Munich. I mean, he lived in Vienna, which was a hotbed of antisemitism. Mussolini started on the left and then gravitated toward the right. I don’t think Donald Trump is Adolf Hitler, but my point is I don’t think Donald Trump has invented anything. The point of my book is trying to argue that what he’s offering is old wine in new bottles.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about education because one of the things that we see, in almost all authoritarian regimes, is the more educated the population is, the less they buy into this.

Jacob: Well, it is interesting that, you know, Trump said, “I love the uneducated.” But he does have a lot of intellectuals around him who are opportunistic enough to help him. I mean the other thing about these wannabe dictators is that they need enablers. You really can’t just do it by yourself. You have to have people willing to prostate themselves and that is why Trump really represents the movement of grifters.

Jeff: Talk about the intellectual underpinnings, those that are around — I will take Trump in this case — those that are enablers but that bring more intellectual firepower to the game and their role in all of this.

Jacob: There are lots of places like the Claremont Institute out in California, which is seen as an incubator of Trumpist thought. You have an America First Policy Institute here. You have a Conservative Policy Institute here, in Washington. The Heritage Foundation has jumped on board with something called Project 2025, which offers a blueprint for governing. These are all outfits that want to promote a Trump brand.

Now the contradictory argument was written by a fellow named Sam Adler-Bell in The New York Times, and he argued that it’s not a sure thing that that these intellectuals can actually get what they want. Because Trump himself is so mercurial that the king does whatever he wants. So you can try and come up with all these proposals, but it’s going to be a hot mess if he becomes president.

Jeff: Right. And that really was the next thing I was going to ask you about: that there seems to be almost an anti-governing element in this authoritarianism that is counter to what some of these think tanks and some of these intellectuals would like to see happen.

Jacob: It’s even beyond. I mean, there’s a libertarian strain in the Republican Party, and actually Trump. In his first term what he really got accomplished was to pass those sweeping tax cuts for the wealthy, let’s face it. So in that regard, he operated as a conventional Republican.

I think it’s in foreign policy that he could wreak the real havoc, you know. Unleashing Russia to attack NATO countries, pulling out of our alliance system with South Korea and Japan. Our post-war prosperity has been based on trading partners and on reliable rules of the road. If he simply creates chaos in foreign policy, I don’t think the financial markets are going to like that at all.

Jeff: And in creating that chaos, though, it goes against the economic interests of so many, including so many of his supporters and financiers.

Jacob: But these do appear to be strongly held convictions with him. I mean, in 1990 he gave an interview with Playboy magazine in which he praised the Chinese for violently suppressing the Tiananmen Square uprising. He attacked Mikhail Gorbachev for allowing the Soviet Union to collapse. And he said that our allies, Japan and Germany, are playing us for suckers, that they’re laughing at us. So he’s always been very opposed to alliances abroad and in favor of America First policy.

Jeff: Are there threads or things that we can look for that might be indicative of the burnout of this phase that we’re in?

Jacob: I don’t think that we see it yet. His base is very popular. It is interesting that Nikki Haley got 40 percent of the vote in South Carolina. So I am not one of those people who is quaking before Trump or thinks that he’s somehow invincible. That to me is nonsense. If anything, I think he’s a badly damaged candidate and the more likely prospect is that he takes down the Republican Party to a disastrous defeat in 2024.

Jeff: And what does the rebuilding of it look like in this context that we’ve been talking about? What do you think?

Jacob: Well, it would require a wholesale purge of the MAGA forces. The party would have to realize that Trump was a recipe for disaster. And that its older internationalist wing, in fact, remains durable — and whether that’s going to happen, all bets are off.

Jeff: Reminds me of the autopsy that the party did after they lost the Romney election, and they tried to figure out all the things they did wrong and then they threw that all out.

Jacob: Exactly. And Trump managed to pull off a victory. I mean, he managed to cobble together enough votes in 2016, but he was underestimated in 2016. No one thought he could win. That’s not been the case since then — the Democrats have taken it very seriously. And they have done extremely well electorally, partly thanks to Trump.

Jeff: Jacob Heilbrunn — the book is America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance With Foreign Dictators. Jacob, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Jacob: Thank you again.

Jeff: Thank you and thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to


  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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