Rachel Maddow uncovers a WWII-era plot against America in 'Ultra'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Rachel Maddow, has a new hit podcast series called "Ultra" in which she reports a little-known story about an ultra-right pro-Nazi movement that plotted to overthrow the U.S. government by force in the lead up to World War II. These groups worked with an agent from Hitler's government named George Viereck. He also colluded with over 20 sitting members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to launder and spread Nazi propaganda, often at taxpayers' expense. Those congressmen were associated with the America First Committee, a group with many antisemitic leaders. The group opposed America entering World War II. In 1944, the plots led to the largest sedition trial in U.S. history. Maddow says there's a reason to know this history now because calculated efforts to undermine democracy, foment a coup, spread disinformation, overt actions involving not just a radical band of insurrectionists, but actual serving members of Congress working alongside them, it's terrible, but it's not unprecedented.
For 14 years, Maddow hosted MSNBC's flagship weekday evening show. She recently cut back to hosting only Monday nights and special coverage so that she could devote more time to deeply reported longform projects like "Ultra." Yesterday, it was announced that Steven Spielberg's production company optioned the movie rights for "Ultra."
Rachel Maddow, welcome back to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on the news that Steven Spielberg optioned your podcast for a movie, which makes perfect sense because it's about World War II and it's about antisemitism.
RACHEL MADDOW: Oh, Terry, thank you so much for having me. It is - even just hearing you say those words, the words Steven Spielberg associated with something that I'm working on, it's very overwhelming. It's hard to believe. But I'm really excited.
GROSS: Well, I hope they get to pick your brain (laughter) for the movie because you know so much. So let's talk about the podcast. It's - I learned so much from it. I found it so remarkable, as I'm sure all your listeners did, that there were sitting congressmen and senators in collusion with an agent from Hitler's Germany, somebody who they knew was an agent from Hitler's Germany. What did Hitler's government want from the congressman?
MADDOW: Very good question and one of the things that I think is oddly and sort of disturbingly most relevant to what's happened in our world in recent years. What they wanted in most instrumental terms was for the United States to not enter World War II. And so they wanted to make us distrust and dislike and lose support for our allies, particularly Britain. By the summer of 1940, Britain was sort of the last man standing in fighting Germany. And there was - I don't think there was a reasonable expectation either way in terms of whether or not Britain was going to survive. And so Germany wanted to make sure that Americans who, in a native way, didn't necessarily want to get involved in another war, felt like getting involved would be hopeless, felt like the Germans were inevitable victors in the war. And then you get to the sort of next stages, which is that they wanted Americans to think that it wouldn't be so bad if Germany won. And that meant not only softening up any hard feelings we might have toward Germany in the way that we knew Hitler was behaving both in Europe and toward his own people, but also feeling more inclined toward fascism ourselves.
GROSS: Did I overstate it when I said that the members of Congress who dealt with this German spy knew that he was a spy for Hitler's Germany?
MADDOW: George Sylvester Viereck was a very high-profile German agent. There is no way that American members of Congress in the Senate who were dealing with him in World War II didn't know that he was a representative of Hitler's government. In World War I, for example, Viereck had been the source of national scandal when it appeared in some pro-German publications he was running at the time that he had advanced knowledge that the Lusitania was going to be sunk, which of course was a precipitating event for the U.S. joining World War I and killed lots of Americans and lots of other civilians. He was also prosecuted as a Nazi agent successfully during this period. So members of Congress who were working for him couldn't have mistaken him for a random publicist who walked in their door offering to write their speeches.
GROSS: So what are some of the things that this Nazi spy, George Viereck, asked the Congresspeople who he was in cahoots with to do, and what did the congressmen get in return?
MADDOW: Congressmen, in many instances, got paid, which is depressing to me that that may have been part of the motivation for some of what they did. But they - a number of them did get paid. And a number of them got paid kind of a lot of money. What he would do is he would either write himself - or more often get propaganda tracts from the Hitler government in Berlin - and he would effectively ask members of Congress and senators to deliver that material as speeches in the House or the Senate or to publish them under his publishing house imprint, which was paid for by the German government, or to otherwise have those things inserted in the Congressional record.
And the reason it was important to either have them delivered in the House of the Senate or inserted in the Congressional record is because then that brought into force something called the franking privilege, which is a very boring term, but it means that a member of the Senate or a member of the House can send out, free of charge, infinite numbers of copies of anything that was set on the Senate floor or the House floor or put in the Congressional record. You can mail it out for free. And Viereck realized that and used that congressional privilege to effectively charge the American taxpayers for the privilege of Hitler's government propaganda being sent out under the name of various senators and congressmen by the millions of pieces into American homes cost free to the Germans and paid for by the U.S. taxpayer, arranged by a Nazi agent.
GROSS: So some of the congressmen who were colluding with this Nazi propagandist, agent, spy, some of these congressmen were members of the America First Committee. What was the committee?
MADDOW: The America First committee was the biggest and most influential American political group in the country in the immediate lead up to World War II. They were very respectable. They were founded by a bunch of titans of industry and by very well-connected young men who had came from good families and had great connections. And they grew very fast between 1940 and 1941 to have about a million members and chapters in every state in the country and individual chapters in cities within those states. They were huge and very influential. And they faced charges from the beginning that they were pro-German, but they took great strides to make sure that they didn't seem too German, that they were just a patriotic organization. They were hurt, ultimately, I think when their leadership in particular, Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator who became their leading spokesman, started to speak more bluntly in antisemitic terms. And a lot of their membership had that hang up and had a tendency to talk in those terms. But when it started happening from the top, when Lindbergh started blaming the Jews for wanting us to get into World War II, their support started to get hollowed out a little bit.
GROSS: And their meetings had Nazi salutes and swastikas and really horrible rhetoric. How did the congressmen participate in the America First Committee? Like, what was their role in the committee?
MADDOW: There were mostly speakers. So the America First Committee would do big rallies, the famous ones in Madison Square Garden and places like that in New York City. But they'd have major events all around the country, all up and - coast to coast and all over the Midwest. And they'd bring in like an excellent high-profile senator or speaker, like a Burton K. Wheeler from Montana, Democratic senator from Montana, who was a very, very high-profile senator and a very good speaker. And he'd come in as their headliner, and he'd lead these rallies. And he did that for dozens of America First events. And lots of other members of Congress did that. It was a way to provide legitimacy and an even higher profile to an organization that was already very influential and seen as very respectable and very powerful.
There were real considerations given within the FDR White House in the lead-up to the 1940 election, that Charles Lindbergh would run, which, of course, becomes the fictional premise for "The Plot Against America," the great Philip Roth book. They were a big deal, and those members of Congress - both wanted to be associated them (ph) because it boosted them. But it was mutual.
GROSS: The leader of the Pontiac, Mich., chapter of the America First Committee was quoted in Life magazine. I think it was 1942. And you mention this in the podcast. And this is what he said. "We would like to ban the Jews and emphatically burn them out. The Jews control the White House. The president is a Jew. His wife is a Jewess. And Jews are running Washington and the nation." The president was FDR. "To get rid of the Jews, we will have to burn and kill them off." And this was one of the defendants at the sedition trial.
MADDOW: Yeah, this was Garland Alderman, who was the head of the Pontiac, Mich., chapter of the America First Committee. And certainly, not everybody involved in the America First Committee was that violent in their rhetoric. With a million members, you're not going to end up with, you know, a majority of the committee being people who were that cretinness (ph). It was just that - he was monstrous, and he ends up being a sedition defendant in the great sedition trial in 1944.
But you do find, throughout the ranks of the America First Committee and certainly in terms of attendees at these rallies and stuff - they attract the most antisemitic, most ultra-right, most violent elements in the country. Coughlin, for example, Father Charles Coughlin, who was the massive radio presence at the time - when he formed his Christian Front militia, he told his militia members that they needed to join the America First movement.
GROSS: So Father Coughlin was a Catholic priest who had the most popular radio show in America, perhaps in the world. And he was extremely antisemitic and used his show as a platform for his antisemitism. So one of the more extreme things he said on the air after Kristallnacht - and this was the night in Germany when mobs attacked stores owned by Jews and shattered the glass in - of the storefronts. And so Coughlin gets on the air, and he said, the Jews had it coming. I mean, this is such, like, a frightening, horrible sign of what the Nazis were up to and a forerunner of what was to come.
MADDOW: The thing that is so upsetting about that moment that you're talking about is that Coughlin, by then, was known to be extremely antisemitic. And Coughlin also had not only the largest radio audience in the country at the time, but maybe the largest radio audience in the country ever. At a time when there were 130 million or so people living in the United States, the estimates of the number of people listening to him on a weekly basis were, like, 20, 30, 40 million. And that's a market share that - you know, with all respect to MSNBC and all respect to NPR, like, that's a market share that's unparalleled in terms of American media.
And the - it's the ratio between his reach and his extremism that's so unsettling because, indeed, after Kristallnacht in November 1938, he got on the radio to all the stations that he's on all across the country, with tens of millions of Americans listening, and told the American people that what they needed to know about Kristallnacht was something that he titled in his sermon that day as Jewish persecution.
And he didn't mean the persecution of the Jews. He meant the persecution of Gentiles by the Jews and effectively argued that the Germans - it was understandable what they had done given how persecuted the German nation was by its Jewish minority, and that they were finally dealing with it, and that the Jews should expect more of the same if they kept behaving the way they do in persecuting Gentiles and persecuting Christians everywhere. And Coughlin's reach and his extremism as a combined force was just a laser beam into the heart of American democracy. It was really dangerous.
GROSS: So Coughlin basically starts this group, the Christian Front. And this is basically, like, an antisemitic militia. Is that fair to say?
MADDOW: He describes it as a militia. He wants the groups to form in platoon-sized units. So he's essentially calling for sort of a cell structure, which is a traditional terrorist cell structure. And he wants them to stand ready, basically to be ready for his call. And he's smart enough to not be explicit in terms of what he's calling them to do. But given his rhetoric on his radio program, given his rhetoric, which was even actually more extremely antisemitic in his newspapers, which is called Social Justice, ironically enough - he wants these groups to get armed and start training.
And it happens all over the country particularly in New York and Boston. There's large chapters formed. And they do form these platoon-sized units, but then, they also start holding mass events. In New York, they're often street corner rallies. In Boston, they rent out big halls and have major events, sometimes with up to 10,000 people at them. And they are rallying in support of Coughlin as if he's sort of a semideity, talking about him as the greatest American, the greatest human on Earth. And they start effectively rabble-rousing in a way that results in street violence against Jewish people, boycotts of Jewish businesses, and calls to support the German military in some cases.
In Boston, the Christian Front chapter there was showing German military propaganda films, but they were live-translating from German to English for their audience. And the films were created in Berlin and designed to show the German military machine as invincible. So therefore, the United States shouldn't send its armies into Europe to be chewed up and spat out by the invincible Germans.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then, we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Rachel Maddow. Her new podcast series, "Ultra," is about plots from ultra-right groups to overthrow the U.S. government in the years leading up to World War II. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Rachel Maddow. Her new podcast series, "Ultra," is about plots from ultra-right groups to overthrow the U.S. government in the years leading up to World War II. This included American congressmen, sitting members of Congress. And this led to the largest sedition trial in U.S. history. In 1944, J. Edgar Hoover, who was the head of the FBI, charged the Christian Front with plotting widespread terrorist activities. He charged them with sedition, a plot to overthrow the U.S. government by force. And the majority of the people who were indicted were either actively serving in the New York National Guard or they'd served in other branches of the military. So can you elaborate on that and that connection between the Christian Front and the military?
MADDOW: It's another throughline that we can see with the sedition trial of groups like the Oath Keepers. Two senior members of the Oath Keepers were just convicted on seditious conspiracy charges, and others are still facing those charges. In both instances, in both the Christian Front and the Oath Keepers, I don't think there was anything particularly about members of the military or about members of law enforcement that made them inclined toward these extremist views. It rather went the other way. These extremist groups deliberately targeted members of the military, members of the National Guard, members of law enforcement for membership recruitment because they wanted the weapons that those guys would have access to. They wanted people who were trained in the use of physical force and the use of weapons. And they wanted the credibility that would accrue to their group from being associated with people in uniform. And so these extremist groups aggressively targeted their recruitment toward people who had those kinds of skills and associations.
GROSS: So most of the defendants in this Christian Front sedition trial were acquitted and the rest were let off in a mistrial. So basically, all of them got off. Was there insufficient evidence? Like, what - how did that happen?
MADDOW: Oh, it's such an interesting story. So this is 1940, January 1942. It's before we're in World War II, when Hoover announces the arrests of the 17 members of the Christian Front in New York. It is front page news in every paper in the country just about. He does a personal press conference to announce it. It was a really big deal. And the FBI really thought they had a slam dunk case. They had an informer inside the Christian Front who took notes on the inside of his shirt sleeves and did all these sort of spy movie things to make sure that he was documenting what exactly they were doing.
They had evidence that the group was training with stolen U.S. military weapons and other weapons they'd obtained other ways. And they had pretty detailed evidence of what they were planning to do and when. They think they acted within a week of when the group was planning on enacting its coup attempt, which was going to start with the murder of a number of congressmen, blowing up both Jewish businesses and other notable targets in the New York area and in the Northeast, and then hopefully causing such panic that it would create a state of emergency. The National Guard would be called out. And they believed that they had enough sympathizers in the National Guard that the guard would actually end up taking their side and it would become a military junta. And the FBI acted with alacrity. They thought it had gone too long. The group had been creating bombs. They had stockpiled the bombs. They knew about the location of the explosives, and they brought it to trial. The problem was that it was such an audacious plot that, when it didn't happen, I think people thought that it was too audacious to ever be realistic. It was sort of ridiculed as a fantastical plot.
But the other thing the prosecutors didn't account for was that in Brooklyn, where these men were arrested and where the trial was held, the population was very sympathetic to what they stood for. And they were known figures in the community. They were guardsmen and police officers and local boys. And the courtroom was packed every day with their supporters in a way that seems to have made an effect on the jury. That may have also had something to do with the fact that one of the top religious advisers to the Christian Front, his first cousin was forewoman of the jury, which seems like an oversight on the part of the judge in allowing the selection of that jury.
GROSS: Yeah. I'm trying to think. Had I not known what happened on January 6 and had I not know more about the lead up to January 6, would I have thought that plans to storm the Capitol and have an insurrection were fantastical? I might have.
MADDOW: Exactly. Yeah. And that's the inherent problem in any sedition trial. A sedition charge is brought against somebody who's planning to overthrow the government. By definition, they're only being charged because it didn't succeed. There's still a government there to charge them. And so every sedition plot is a failed sedition plot. And there's a built-in defense and a built in sort of emotional plea you can make to the jury that the plot was never going to work because, by definition, it didn't if those defendants are sitting there before you today.
GROSS: Well, let's take another break here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Rachel Maddow. And her show, "The Rachel Maddow Show," is the flagship show on MSNBC. But she left doing the show five nights a week and is only doing it Monday nights so that she could pursue longform investigative reporting like her new podcast series, "Ultra," which is about plots from the ultra-right groups to overthrow the U.S. government in the years leading up to World War II. The podcast series has just been optioned by Steven Spielberg to adapt into a movie. So we'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Rachel Maddow. Her new podcast series, "Ultra," is about plots from ultra-right groups to overthrow the U.S. government, ultra-right groups in the U.S. And this was in the years leading up to World War II. There were Nazi sympathizers. The movement involved a Nazi agent and spy colluding with American congressmen, as well as with isolationist groups like the America First Committee, which many congressmen were involved with, and the Christian Front, which was connected to the far-right antisemitic Catholic priest Father Coughlin, who had the most popular radio show in America. These plots led to the largest sedition trial in U.S. history.
The sedition trial is complicated because there's basically several trials or several indictments, and it's a little confusing when one set of indictments kind of blends into the other. So let's talk about what's described as the largest sedition trial in American history. Who were the defendants and what were the charges?
MADDOW: So there were a handful of different indictments that were brought. The first prosecutor who was involved was named William Power Maloney, and he brought two subsequent indictments, naming between two dozen and three dozen people. He was then fired. The isolationist senator Burton Wheeler from Montana, who had been involved in the German agents plot in Congress to send propaganda around the country, he went to the attorney general at the time - his name was Francis Biddle - and basically threatened Biddle that if William Power Maloney was allowed to go ahead with this investigation, he, Senator Wheeler, would launch oversight efforts over the Justice Department in the United States Senate that the Justice Department had never seen before, and those would extend all the way up to Biddle personally. He needed to get rid of this prosecutor. And Francis Biddle, there were a lot of good things that he did as attorney general, but he did cave to that threat and fired Maloney.
The sort of saving grace there was that the case wasn't killed off entirely. Another prosecutor was brought in to take it up in the wake of Maloney's firing, a man named John Rogge. And Rogge basically took the indictments that Maloney had filed, which had not yet been brought to trial, and he spent a year reviewing them top to tail, figuring out what his approach would be to the trial and whether those indictments would stand or whether there was a - whether they would be dropped or whether there was a different group of people should be indicted. He indicted in 1944 much the same group that Maloney had targeted in his investigation, and Rogge brought these two dozen plus Americans up on charges that related to sort of specific elements of the sedition statute. He said that they were trying to induce Americans to not comply with the draft, to not serve when called up in the military. They were trying to induce people who were actively in the military that they should mutiny and he charged, and this was crucial, that the defendants had links to a conspiracy that was being led from Berlin, that they were linked explicitly to the German government, that the Germans, in many cases, were paying them to do what they did.
GROSS: So you describe the sedition trial as turning into bedlam. There's so many, like, outrageous things that happened. Like, during the period when potential jurors are questioned before they're chosen to be jurors, the defense asks some incredible questions, including things like, are you Jewish or do you have a relative who is? Do you read Jewish publications? What does Jew mean? What does international bankers mean? What's meant by Mongolian Jews? And do you think Jesus was a Jew? And there were no Jews, no African-Americans on the jury, but at least three German Americans. It's amazing that the judge let this kind of questioning happen and that there were no Jews, but there were three German Americans.
MADDOW: Yeah. This is flummoxing in some ways. I mean, defense counsel can propose all sorts of crazy things to be asked to potential jurors, but it's up to the judge to decide what actually gets asked. And for Judge Eicher to have allowed some of these questions specifically designed to keep Jews off the jury, and also to sort of push-pull the jury on being disinclined toward any Jewish perspective, is a remarkable thing. And indeed, there were no Jewish people on the jury.
I feel like one of the things that might explain why bedlam broke out and why the trial was so out of control and why things like that happened with selecting the jury pool, it may have had something to do with the fact that Judge Eicher was very inexperienced. He was in his mid-60s by the time the trial was happening, but he'd only been on the bench for two years. He had been a congressman from Iowa. He'd been on - I think - the SEC, had had some other government jobs. He'd had a sort of distinguished career and was well-regarded, but he was not experienced as a judge. When he was put in charge of this trial with, you know, 28 incredibly rowdy, incredibly disruptive and in many cases incredibly eccentric defendants, almost as many defense lawyers, the highest profile case in the country on incredibly inflammatory charges, it was going to be a challenge for any judge, but for somebody who didn't really know what he was doing yet, he was very clearly overmatched from day one of that trial.
GROSS: And you say that the defense tried to prevent the trial, tried to postpone the trial, tried to have a mistrial declared, and they kept doing that, like, over and over. The trial came to a kind of a dramatic conclusion because the judge went home one night after the trial had been going on for months, had dinner, and then died in his sleep. So what happened after that?
MADDOW: It was a crazy moment. I mean, the trial never got less chaotic from the very beginning. And you can see it in the newspaper coverage at the time that there's reporters who are planning on being in the courtroom every day, who are planning - you know, and they're recording with great detail everything that happens. And then the news coverage sort of dwindles over time because nobody can follow what's going on, and the case is so chaotic and the courtroom is so uncomfortable and it's so out of control. Judge Eicher's seven months into the trial when the prosecution, which goes first in a criminal trial, they weren't even halfway through their presentation seven months into it already. He felt ill one day in the courtroom, went home and died in his sleep that night.
The defendants were given the option that they could allow another judge to come in and pick up where the trial left off, and the defendants did not want to do that. They wanted to start all over again from day one. And of course, they did, because I think the bedlam and chaos in the courtroom was to their benefit at this point. The Justice Department then had to decide whether they were going to do that, whether they were going to start over from day one or whether they were just going to dismiss the charges and let it go. And they let that decision linger for quite a long time, and one of the things that happened in the interim, while it was still possible they could restart the trial, is that the prosecutor asked leave from the court to go to Germany.
A U.S. Army captain who was part of the Nuremberg prosecutions contacted this prosecutor, John Rogge, at the Justice Department and said, hey, you know, we're interrogating these Nazi leaders here, and all of your sedition defendants' names keep coming up when we're interrogating these Nazis about who they were working with in the United States and what they were trying to do. You ought to see this evidence. And Rogge went to Germany to collect that evidence and then brought it back to the Justice Department and - for them to inform their decision as to whether or not to proceed with the case.
GROSS: And they proceeded with the case.
MADDOW: They did not proceed with the case, which is a remarkable...
GROSS: They did not proceed.
MADDOW: No. They allowed the mistrial to be the end of the story. And Rogge's report from Germany, with all the evidence that was collected from German officials confirming the central charges of the sedition case - that these Americans had been receiving support from Germany, that they were working in cahoots with the German government to try to overthrow the U.S. government and install fascism here - he brought all this evidence back including the names of 24 members of the House and Senate who had been involved in the propaganda part of this operation.
He brought it all back. He gave it to the attorney general. The attorney general brought it straight to the White House, by then occupied by Harry Truman. And Harry Truman said, this report will never see the light of day. This is not a report that will be made to the American people. This will not be given to the court. This will - this is over. This is done. This cannot come out.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Rachel Maddow. Her new podcast series, "Ultra," is about plots from the ultra-right groups to overthrow the U.S. government in the years leading up to World War II. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Rachel Maddow. Her new podcast series, "Ultra," is about plots from ultra-right groups to overthrow the U.S. government in the years leading up to World War II.
So none of the congressmen who were colluding with Hitler's Germany ever got indicted. Is that right?
MADDOW: That's right. And it's a good question as to why not.
GROSS: Yeah, why not?
MADDOW: (Laughter) Well, I mean, Viereck himself, who was the German agent, was charged. And in his individual trial and, again, in the evidence that was brought forward against him in the sedition trial, the government laid out what he was doing with these members of Congress including paying them to do this work that had been assigned to him by the Hitler government. So they had the evidence of it. The Justice Department did bring in a couple of members of Congress to testify to the grand jury. They did indict one congressional staffer. They had a lot of evidence about members of Congress having been part of this plot, and they chose not to indict the members. And there isn't an explanation from that that I think all parties would admit to.
But my view, having sort of marinated in this research for the past year or more, is that the Justice Department just did not want to incur more ire and more wrath from the members of Congress who were already giving them such a hard time for this case. Members of Congress knew they were implicated. They knew what they had done. And they did everything they could to try to get this prosecution blown up from getting, first, one and then the second prosecutor in the case fired by political pressure.
They - in one case, one of the members of Congress who was brought in to testify to the grand jury and who had his congressional staffer indicted, he tried to get the sedition law taken off the books. So it would result in the American justice system no longer having that available as a charge to bring against people who did these things. They really did everything they could to make life miserable for the Justice Department in pursuing this and in so doing, protected themselves, I believe, from being charged when the evidence existed that would have justified a charge.
GROSS: So the legal system never held anybody accountable for this sedition and for the violence that these ultra-right-wing groups were behind, and the congressmen weren't held accountable. Did the people hold the colluders accountable?
MADDOW: Yes, in almost every instance. And this was a surprise to me and a really interesting part of the research. This, as a prosecution, didn't work. But the Justice Department's investigation was of interest to the public. It was done at the same time that there was a lot of journalistic and even activist investigation of these matters. There was really good investigative reporting both in book form and in magazine-and-newspaper journalism done about these scandals at the time. There were activist groups who infiltrated some of these violent ultra-right groups and then publicized their findings about what those groups were doing. They not only brought it to law enforcement; they brought it to the press and made sure that people knew what was happening.
And the result from the public was that almost all the members of Congress who were implicated in this, including some who were seen as presidential timber, some of whom were among the most popular and powerful members of Congress, of their - household names - almost to a one, they were voted out as soon as they came back up before the voters, either voted out in primaries or voted out in general elections including huge figures at the time like Gerald Nye from North Dakota and Burton Wheeler from Montana and Hamilton Fish from New York.
And all of these very powerful, very famous members were thrown out on their ear because constituents and, in some cases, their political parties recognized that - recognized what they'd been doing to help the Nazis. It was a form of political accountability that worked even when criminal accountability fell short.
GROSS: And now there are sedition trials pertaining to the Jan. 6 insurrection. And the first sedition trial against leaders of the militia group the Oath Keepers found two leaders guilty of seditious conspiracy. There is another Oath Keepers sedition trial going on now and a sedition trial of leaders of another militia group, the Proud Boys, that's about to start. Do you find it amazing the parallels between the period you're writing about, the years leading up to World War II, and now?
MADDOW: It is a little unnerving. I didn't plan it this way. But we published the first episode of the podcast when opening statements started in the first Oath Keepers sedition trial. And the final episode came out on the day before the verdicts. So I didn't mean for it to be that tightly sort of correlated over time with the history, but the cases have a lot in common. And it does make me feel like studying this history and being clear on what went right and what went wrong the last time our country faced something like this might be helpful because apparently this stuff recurs and we should learn from how we handled it in the past and from what Americans who - from what Americans who went before us were able to do to fight this stuff effectively in the past. We should learn from them.
GROSS: Rachel, you've basically given up a lot of real estate on MSNBC to pursue long-term projects like "Ultra." So you're only hosting your show one night a week on MSNBC Monday nights. And you're also doing special coverage, which means you've been on MSNBC probably more than you planned (laughter). But I'm curious what it's like - you know, having done a daily show myself for many years - what it's like to, you know, still be on the air but not have it be a daily show. I'm also wondering about the adrenaline. I think those of us who are on, like, constant deadline work kind of feed off the adrenaline in a way. And I hate to admit this because I know constant adrenaline is really unhealthy for a lot of reasons, but it is kind of energizing. But it can get too much like having too much coffee to drink does. So what's it like to not have that daily constant deadline adrenaline coursing through your body?
MADDOW: It's - you are zooming in on the central things in my life right now. I mean, the pressure of a daily production deadline, it does two things. One, it sends adrenaline coursing through you, for good or for ill, probably for good in the short term and for ill in the long term. But it also forces a sort of focus and structure on what you're doing. You've got a specific time by which the show has to be done, by which things need to be locked down, by which broadcast happens. And that enforces a kind of structure and a kind of stop-start time on your day. And you know when it's done. I've still got that on Mondays. I'm still living that in a way, and when we do election coverage and special coverage, as you said. But now working on these longer-term projects, I don't have that same daily production adrenaline dose, but I also don't have the structure, which means I don't have the off switch.
GROSS: Did you have to think a really long time before deciding to actually make that really big change in your life? I mean, your show is the flagship show on MSNBC. And this is - for getting - being concerned with what would happen to your staff after you left, because I know that you made a deal with MSNBC that they would continue to have jobs, which is really admirable on your part. I applaud you for doing that. But how hard was it to make the decision that you were going to make a major change in your work life?
MADDOW: I knew that I needed to make the change for me just in terms of my health. I've had a lot of back trouble over the last five years, and that is something that I've sort of mediated a little bit through physical therapy and sort of changing the way that I physically work and everything. But bottom line, that's about working, you know, 10 to 12 hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year for more than 12 or 13 years. I mean, there's sort of a - there's a bottom line there that I knew I needed to make some kind of change.
So the question, I think, for me was, do I just sort of retire or do I just stop working and become a totally different person, or do I try to change my job? And ultimately, MSNBC sort of came to me, and we worked out over a series of negotiations a way that it would work for me to change my job instead of leave my job. And that is the right solution because I do have the best staff working in news. And they are absolutely phenomenal. And I want them all to keep working in news and keep working with me and keep working with me both on the time that I'm on MSNBC and on other projects. And that's working out great so far.
I know that a lot of people are disappointed who liked what I was doing on TV five days a week and in some ways counted on it. But I think mostly people have been understanding that, you know, you can't can't do it forever. And, Terry, I'm sure you know a little bit of how this feels. You know, you've built something that really succeeds and that really works and that people really count on. And you don't want to let anybody down. But, you know, you also can't kill yourself for the work. Part of what makes this so valuable is what you bring to it. And if you would be - if you can't bring what you know you want to to the table because it's just too much work over too much time, being honest about that is right - is the right thing for everybody.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rachel Maddow. And her new podcast series, "Ultra," is about plots from ultra-right groups in the U.S. to overthrow the U.S. government in the years leading up to World War II. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Rachel Maddow, who still hosts "The Rachel Maddow Show" Monday nights on MSNBC. She gave up hosting the rest of the week to work on long-term projects like her new podcast series "Ultra," which is about plots from ultra-right groups to overthrow the U.S. government in the years leading up to World War II.
You mentioned having back trouble for the past five years. I always think of you as a real, like, outdoorsy, athletic person. I know you were, like, an athlete - I think you were an athlete in high school. And you're always talking about, like, going fishing and doing outdoorsy kinds of things. How has back trouble interfered, if at all, with the kind of activities you like to do?
MADDOW: A lot. When my - I threw my back out kind of really suddenly in the spring of 2017. And I - it turned out that I had all these herniated discs, and I had to consider surgery and all this stuff. And it's been sort of a long, slow climb back from that with physical therapy and everything. But having that kind of pain and having that kind of sort of sudden onset disability that I experienced when this happened to me in 2017 was scary to me, not only because of the pain but because it sort of immediately cut off from me all the things that I do to keep myself sane. And I have had a lifelong issue with depression, and some of the ways that I deal with depression it also cut off from me. Basically, the ways that I take care of myself are exercise and sleep as my main drugs of choice, and hurting my back meant that I really couldn't do either. I couldn't sleep anymore, and I couldn't exercise at all for a long time.
And I - it was almost panicking in terms of not knowing how I was going to get out of it. Those are my coping mechanisms, and all of a sudden, I didn't have any ability to cope, and boy, did I have a lot of stuff I needed to cope with. So that sort of, I think, started me thinking that I needed to do something drastically different. I'm substantially better now. And I'm not out there running or doing anything else like that that I can't do anymore because that's behind me now because of the back. But I am able to go fishing and dog walking and all that stuff that I love and chopping wood, a lot of stuff that keeps me off the therapist's couch.
GROSS: What was it like to learn to live with pain?
MADDOW: Frustrating and humbling. I mean, it makes you realize the limitations of your will. You know, you can't will yourself to not feel pain, and you can't will yourself to have physical functions that you don't have anymore. And so it - for me, I'm a person who I think tries to kind of grin and bear it through most things. My personal motto ever since I was a teenager was never let them see you sweat. Like, don't let anybody know anything's bothering you. And it's - you can't do that. You have to ask for help, and you need to rebuild yourself. And that sort of humility is probably good for the ego and good for the soul, but it's just more pain in the moment.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, you master pain really well, I have to say.
GROSS: As a viewer, I never had a clue that you were hurting.
MADDOW: Thank you.
GROSS: I knew you were concerned about American democracy; I didn't know you were concerned about your back.
GROSS: Yes. Rachel Maddow, it's been great to talk with you again. And congratulations on "Ultra," on the success of "Ultra" and on the fact that Steven Spielberg hopes to make it into a movie (laughter). So that's all pretty exciting. It's really been great to talk with you again.
MADDOW: You too, Terry. Thank you so much. This is fantastic. Thank you.
GROSS: Rachel Maddow's podcast series is called "Ultra." Yesterday, it was announced that Steven Spielberg's production company optioned the movie rights.
If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like this week's interview with Adam Hochschild about threats to American democracy from within during World War I; or with Rian Johnson, who wrote and directed the comic murder mystery "Knives Out" and its new sequel "Glass Onion" - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. Don't forget, you can subscribe to the FRESH AIR newsletter for free on our website, freshair.npr.org.
We'll end the show with some good news. Yesterday, our producer Heidi Saman gave birth to a beautiful baby girl with a beautiful name, Rio Torres Tannenbaum (ph). Welcome to the world, Rio. And congratulations to Heidi and her husband, Joel Tannenbaum (ph).
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU TRIO'S "GREAT DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.