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Disinformation and extremism exported from America is old and as dangerous as ever

Propaganda and lies that emerge in the United States can embolden dictators abroad.
Photo illustration of Henry Ford with the Model T car and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
History has taught us that lies told here and hate pushed at home not only damage our own country, but like a deadly virus, infect the world.MSNBC; Getty Images

Social media technology that gives us access to what people are thinking around the world allows us to see in real time the dangers of the unchecked spread of propaganda and lies, including the false claims about 2020 election fraud that undermined trust in our democracy and caused many to act out violently. Recency bias, in which we favor recent events over historic ones, may lead us to believe that the dangers of disinformation are new, but the story of Henry Ford, who mass produced hate as he mass produced the automobile, is an example of such danger from more than 100 years ago.

Recency bias may lead us to believe that the dangers of disinformation are new.

Ford, the iconic industrialist of American business and commerce, didn’t invent the automobile, but, through his innovative production reforms, became one of the wealthiest men in the world. My father worked in the auto industry in Detroit, and I remember frequent class field trips to the Henry Ford Museum and to Greenfield Village where Ford was always hailed as a hero. But his noxious ideas about Jews were villainous and reportedly an inspiration to Hitler, the world’s most notorious genocidal monster.

As Russia continues its unprovoked attack on a democratic Ukraine, it’s an occasion to remember that propaganda and lies that emerge in the United States can embolden dictators abroad. In this case, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s state-owned television have used clips of former President Donald Trump, Fox News host Tucker Carlson and other Americans to build a case for their efforts and convince Russians of the justice of their despicable cause. Those clips include retired Army Col. Doug Macgregor telling Carlson, “What is happening now is the battle in eastern Ukraine is really almost over, all the Ukrainian troops there have been largely surrounded and cut off ... and if they don't surrender in next 24 hours, I suspect the Russians will ultimately annihilate them. The game is over."

Ford grew up in rural Michigan when the state had one of the largest Ku Klux Klan memberships in the nation and, thus, a large number of people with racist and religious prejudices. He became convinced early on of the fiction that Jewish people were dangerous, and that Jewish bankers ran the world and were responsible for society’s ills. Not only was Ford antisemitic and an avowed anti-intellectualist, he also rejected the study of history because, as he famously said, “History is more or less bunk.”

With his immense wealth and worldwide fame, he began to share his antisemitic views, largely through The Dearborn Independent, a weekly paper he bought in 1918 and later transformed into a national news outlet that conveyed his venom about Jews. At its peak The Dearborn Independent had nearly a million subscribers. Ford also published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fabricated text describing a Jewish effort for global domination, and The International Jew, a four-volume set of antisemitic booklets.

His attacks on Jewish people not only accompanied a nationwide increase in anti-Jewish animus, they were also noticed by Hitler. In Hitler’s manifesto "Mein Kampf," Ford is the only American mentioned with admiration, and Hitler considered Ford one of his heroes (he was quoted as saying, “I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration”). Hitler kept a picture of Ford on the wall behind his desk for many years, and Ford accepted the highest medal that Nazi Germany could bestow on a foreigner, the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, in 1938, after fascism took control of Germany and four months after the German annexation of Austria.

History has taught us that lies told here and hate pushed at home not only damage our own country, but that, like a deadly virus, they spread around the world. Yes, we must stand up for democracy around the world especially in this tragic time in Ukraine and push back against dictators, but we also must confront the attacks on truth and democracy here in America. As we saw with Ford and fascism a century ago, not only must we make sure there are consequences for those directly responsible for destruction, but we must also hold accountable those who sow the seeds of anti-democratic movements that lift up the worst of the world.

Yes, America has been an exporter of much good in the world, but there’ve been times when it has exported the worst of us. And that history is no bunk.