At just 7 minutes, A Night at the Garden is a decidedly short short film.
It consists solely of archival footage of a February 20, 1939 event at Madison Square Garden. There are shots of the outside of the building as a crowd gathers, and shots of the event itself inside.
The film is presumably as short as it is because there is only very limited footage of the event available, and because a decision was made not to augment it with other material—narration, interviews, background, etc. The footage is edited a bit, with a sequence shown more than once, a little slow motion, etc., but nothing is added to it.
The event was a forerunner of a Trump rally. This was just before World War II broke out, and well over two years before the United States entered the war. At the time, opinion in this country was more split on Hitler than it was to become when we were at war with Germany. There were a sizable number of Americans sympathetic to fascism, and a considerable amount of explicit anti-Semitism. After all, this was the era when the right wing populist and anti-Semite Father Coughlin’s radio show attracted 30 million listeners a week.
On this night, the German American Bund—a pro-Nazi group—gathered to get fired up listening to Bund leader Fritz Kuhn call for: “First, a socially just, white, Gentile-ruled United States. Second, Gentile-controlled labor unions, free from Jewish Moscow-directed domination.”
There were massive protests outside the venue, with those opposed to the rally outnumbering the attendees, but a large police presence, including many cops on horseback, prevented all but a smattering of small scale violence or disruption.
Inside, at one point a Jewish protestor who had snuck in charged the stage to attack Kuhn, but was grabbed by rally participants and roughed up before being hustled out of the facility by New York cops.
Given that there is no supplementary material (almost all of what I detailed above came from reading I did after the fact online, not from the film itself), I don’t know that this film has any function beyond informing viewers that this event occurred. That in itself, though, has some value.
With a new “America First!” rallying cry today, we’ve come full circle from the 1920s Klan use of the slogan and the 1930s fascist use of the slogan. It appears for now that the consequences will be similar as well. That is, not a full-on overthrow of democracy and a replacement of it with a Nazi-type race-based dictatorship, but considerable damage short of that as hatred and vitriol are loosed on minorities and immigrants, and governmental policy is largely in the hands of unprincipled right wingers. So, we’ll survive, but that outcome is far from all that matters. A great deal of avoidable human suffering can occur without the out-and-out destruction of the current American system of government.
I do believe, though, that this can change rapidly in the event of a crisis. Right now the truly rabid racist right wing remains fairly small, and so the policies being inflicted on us are more along the lines of what we get from mainstream Republicans whenever they’re in power, just with uglier rhetoric and such. But in the event of an economic catastrophe on the scale of the Great Depression, or a series of major terrorist attacks along the lines of 9/11, all bets are off. I don’t think it’s far-fetched at all that under those circumstances, the openly white supremacist wing of the Republican party that’s loud but still fairly small now could increase in size enormously, and Trump could become more of a Fritz Kuhn rather than his present cruder version of conventional conservatives like Nixon or Reagan.
At the very least it’s something worth remaining vigilant about. Because if it’s not Trump, it’ll be the next similar jackass who comes along. As long as there is as much hatred and irrationality in this country as there is, we’re never all that far from political disaster. It’s not about one particular demagogue, as nasty as he is.