Remembering when bankers tried to overthrow FDR and install a fascist dictator

Yes, a coup d'état.

  • Though we know today that his policies eventually ended the Great Depression, FDR's election was seen as disastrous by some.
  • A group of wealthy bankers decided to take things into their own hands; they plotted a coup against FDR, hoping to install a fascist dictator in its stead.
  • Ultimately, the coup was brought to light by General Smedley Butler and squashed before it could get off the ground.

When we look back at history, we have the benefit of knowing how things turned out — not true for those who were living through history's tensest moments. At key inflection points in history and in response to crises, most of the actors had no idea what would happen or what the right thing to do was. Sometimes, this uncertainty can drive people to bold and ill-advised actions.

Take the Great Depression. Something had to be done, but nobody knew what for certain. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected on a campaign that promised to abandon the gold standard and provide government jobs for the unemployed, many in the grips of the crisis thought that this was certainly the wrong way to go.

"This is despotism, this is tyranny, this is the annihilation of liberty," wrote Republican Senator Henry D. Hatfield of West Virginia to a colleague. "The ordinary American is thus reduced to the status of a robot. The president has not merely signed the death warrant of democracy but has ordained the mutilation of the Constitution, unless the friends of liberty, regardless of party, band themselves together to regain their lost freedom."

Again, it was clear during the time that something drastic had to be done. However, it was not clear, for many, that FDR's plan of action was the right kind of drastic.

The allure of fascism

Fascism had reared its head in Europe, and the world had yet to make up its mind what it thought about it — that would come later, in World War II. Many thought that the best way to pull America out of the Great Depression was to install a dictator — even the New York Herald-Tribune ran a headline called "For Dictatorship If Necessary." Although the newspaper's article was in support of FDR, a group of wealthy financiers believed that America should indeed have a dictator, just not in the form of FDR, who was suspected of being a communist. So, they began to plot a coup d'état that would later come to be known as the Business Plot, or the Wall Street Putsch.

The conspirators included Gerald MacGuire, a bond salesman; Bill Doyle, commander of the Massachusetts American Legion; investment banker Prescott Bush, the father of George H. W. Bush and grandfather of George W. Bush; and others.

The Business Plot nearly involved another individual as well: Retired Major General Smedley Butler, who was at that time the most decorated soldier in U.S. history. After his military career, however, Butler became a vociferous critic of war and its place in American capitalism. Later, he would write the famous War is a Racket and an article in the socialist magazine Common Sense stating, "I spent most of my time as a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism."

Butler was also an influential figure in the so-called Bonus Army, a group of 43,000 marchers — among them many World War I veterans — who were camped at Washington to demand the early payment of the veteran's bonus promised to them for their service. Although his politics leaned more to the left than the Business Plot conspirators would like, Butler was extremely well-respected among veterans and the military, who, like everybody else, was fed up. What's more, MacGuire believed that Butler could be more easily manipulated than other generals. And the conspirators needed a general.

The members of the Business Plot set up several meetings with Butler where they not-so-gradually informed him of their plan. The conspirators would provide the financial backing and recruit an army of 500,000 soldiers, which Butler was to lead. The pretext for the coup would be that FDR's health was failing. FDR would remain in a ceremonial position, in which, as MacGuire allegedly described, "The President will go around and christen babies and dedicate bridges and kiss children." The real power of the government would be held in the hands of a Secretary of General Affairs, who would be in effect a dictator: "somebody to take over the details of the office — take them off the President's shoulders. […] A sort of a super secretary."

General Smedley Butler. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Quashing the Business Plot

However, Butler was not so willing a compatriot as they had originally suspected. After meeting with the men several times and learning of the extent of their plan, Butler went to Congress to expose them as traitors. When news broke, nobody really believed that such a coup attempt could even be considered, let alone planned or put into action. In fact, the Times's initial reporting on the subject was full of quotes like "Perfect moonshine!", "A fantasy!", and "It's a joke — a publicity stunt." A second article from the Times's on the topic was sarcastically titled "Credulity Unlimited."

Initially, Congress's reaction was similar, but with Butler's testimony; the testimony of reporter Paul French, who was present at one of Butler's meetings with MacGuire; and MacGuire's own unconvincing testimony, they began to take it more seriously and investigated the subject.

Ultimately, the Congressional investigation found that Butler was telling the truth: the seeds of a coup had indeed been planted. But Congress's perspective was that the plot had little chance of getting off the ground at all — rather, it had been, in the words of Mayor La Guardia of New York, "a cocktail putsch."

Nobody was prosecuted in the plot. In fact, some later went on to serve in office, such as Prescott Bush. Would the coup have been carried out had Butler merely turned down MacGuire's offer, rather than report them to Congress? It's impossible to say. But the Wall Street Putsch does show that dire times can drive people to make otherwise inconceivable — "moonshine" — plans.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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