The best books about the history of extremism in the United States

Who am I?

I am fascinated by how and why extremist thought enters the mainstream. It is what drew me to researching American fascist sympathizers in the 1920s and 1930s, and it is what scares me about the direction of politics in the United States today. When I am not hanging out with my family in Washington, DC, I am teaching in the American studies department at the University of Amsterdam. It’s a long commute, but my students make it worth it. I love to teach courses about protest traditions and democratic challenges in the United States in the twentieth century up until the present. 

I wrote...

The Machine Has a Soul: American Sympathy with Italian Fascism

By Katy Hull,

Book cover of The Machine Has a Soul: American Sympathy with Italian Fascism

What is my book about?

My book looks at American fascist sympathizers who were at the center of cultural and political life in the 1920s and 1930s, to understand why they supported Mussolini’s regime. Many of the issues that Americans faced in the 1920s and 1930s—from technological change and economic dislocation to disillusionment with democracy—are familiar to us today. And the proposed solution of fascist authoritarianism also has parallels in our present times. That is why I wanted to write this book: it is a piece of history that feels as urgent to understand in the 2020s as it did one hundred years ago.  

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The books I picked & why

The Authoritarian Personality

By Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, R. Nevitt Sanford

Book cover of The Authoritarian Personality

Why did I love this book?

This book is both timeless and a product of a specific moment (the post-war era). First to the timeless stuff: the authoritarian personality that Adorno and his co-authors describe remains alive and kicking in 2022. He is obsessed with appearing tough, power-hungry, incapable of self-criticism, and presents himself as a victim of other peoples’ malfeasance. As for the more dated stuff, Freud lurks behind the authors’ interpretations; reading this book, I am struck by how differently post-war Americans understood gender and sexuality than we do today. This book poses searching questions about the extent to which authoritarianism and proto-fascism are ingrained in modern life.

By Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, R. Nevitt Sanford

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Authoritarian Personality as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What makes a fascist? Are there character traits that make someone more likely to vote for the far right? The Authoritarian Personality, written in the shadow of Fascism and the Holocaust, looked to analyse the rise of Fascism in Europe through the specific psychological traits that make people prone to authoritarianism. Based on extensive empirical studies of Americans conducted by a team which included the leading member of the Frankfurt School Theodor Adorno, The Authoritarian Personality ranked a range of character traits on what it called the 'F scale' (F for fascist). These included conventionalism, anti-intellectualism, superstition and occultism, power…

Book cover of Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right

Why did I love this book?

Hochschild provides a textured and personalized account of Tea Party-supporting men and women whom she got to know in the bayou area of Louisiana in the 2010s. Her concept of the “deep story”—defined as a story that feels true even when it is factually incorrect—helped me to understand why people may believe the lies they absorb from the internet and other media. Her insights into how economic disruption drove these Americans toward a more abrasive form of politics also gels with my own historical understanding of fascist sympathies. In an era when many experts adopt a strident tone, I love Hochschild’s work for its genuine effort to understand. 

By Arlie Russell Hochschild,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Strangers in Their Own Land as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Strangers in Their Own Land, the renowned sociologist Arlie Hochschild embarks on a thought-provoking journey from her liberal hometown of Berkeley, California, deep into Louisiana bayou country - a stronghold of the conservative right. As she gets to know people who strongly oppose many of the ideas she famously champions, Hochschild nevertheless finds common ground and quickly warms to the people she meets, people whose concerns are actually ones that all Americans share: the desire for community, the embrace of family, and hopes for their children.

Book cover of Richard Hofstadter: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life the Paranoid Style in American Politics, Uncollected Essays 1956-1965

Why did I love this book?

Reading Hofstadter’s essays can be an eerie experience. Yes, he was writing in the early 1960s, and often about historical phenomena (although the recent antics and influence of Senator McCarthy were clearly at the front of his mind). But many of his observations about status anxiety and conspiracy theories feel spookily relevant today. With typical eloquence, Hofstadter wrote that McCarthy was buoyed by Americans who were revolting against the “tormenting manifestations of our modern predicament”; I saw something similar in fascist sympathizers in the interwar years. This edition contains both of Hofstadter’s famous essays on “anti-intellectualism” and “the paranoid style,” along with fifteen other essays. 

By Richard Hofstadter, Sean Wilentz (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Richard Hofstadter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Together for the first time: two masterworks on the undercurrents of the American mind by one of our greatest historians

Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and The Paranoid Style in American Politics are two essential works that lay bare the worrying trends of irrationalism, demagoguery, destructive populism, and conspiratorial thinking that have long influenced American politics and culture. Whether underground or--as in our present moment--out in the open, these currents of resentment, suspicion, and conspiratorial delusion received their authoritative treatment from Hofstadter, among the greatest of twentieth-century American historians, at a time when many public intellectuals and scholars did…

Book cover of The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War

Why did I love this book?

Ribuffo could have portrayed his subjects—three mid-century Christian fundamentalists—as social or cultural misfits. Instead, he made a powerful case that these men—and others like them— were a product of the American mainstream. First published in the 1980s, when the so-called new Christian right was in its ascendancy, the book encouraged readers to check any temptation they might have felt to dismiss Protestant fundamentalists as political outliers who would disappear of their own accord. Generous almost to a fault, Ribuffo gave me plenty of advice during my own research to avoid any suggestion that there was anything un-American about fascist sympathies in the interwar years. 

Book cover of The Plot Against America: A Novel

Why did I love this book?

Unlike the other books on my list, this one, of course, is a work of fiction. It imagines an alternative history, in which Charles Lindbergh, the Nazi-sympathizing celebrity pilot, wins the US presidency in 1940. Roth conveys the mounting horrors through the experiences of his narrator, a Jewish boy in New Jersey. The book is a meditation on the fragile borders between democracy and authoritarianism in the United States, it suggests that fascism could have happened (and could still happen) in our not so-exceptional democracy. 

By Philip Roth,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Plot Against America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'He captures better than anyone the collision of public and private, the intrusion of history into the skin, the pores of every individual alive' Guardian

'Though on the morning after the election disbelief prevailed, especially among the pollsters, by the next everybody seemed to understand everything...'

When celebrity aviator, Charles A. Lindbergh, wins the 1940 presidential election on the slogan of 'America First', fear invades every Jewish household. Not only has Lindbergh blamed the Jews for pushing America towards war with Germany, he has negotiated an 'understanding' with the Nazis promising peace between the two nations.

Growing up in the…

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