I once saw David Duke, the Louisiana ex-grand-wizard of the KKK, genuine American fascist, on a Las Vegas-New Orleans flight. He was in first class, smack up against a beefy Aryan I took to be his bodyguard. I have no idea what he was doing out Vegas way, but if you're an American fascist, the West is where the money is. There are enough pale-faced wackos living out there to finance any number of politicians. Duke was running for governor of Louisiana against Edwin Edwards at the time, a nightmarish situation that gave birth to the slogan, "Vote for the Crook." Edwards finally just went to jail for being "the Crook," but I bet he'd win from jail if he ran against Duke again. Fascists don't do well in the United States because no matter how "reasonable" they sound, you can smell the ideology from a mile away. People sometimes confuse "populist" with "fascist," because they were almost the same in the 1930s when Mussolini, Juan Peron and Huey Long all got their start singing populist tunes. A half-century later, populism is the opportunistic sound of almost every politician, so you need a good ear to spot a fascist. Clever fascists these days sound more populist than ever.
Take Europe. Please. Over there, every country has a fascist riding high on opinion polls, under populist cover. In France, there is Jean-Marie Le Pen who electrifies the French with the only thing that turns them on anymore, besides old cheese and anti-Americanism, namely the promise to get rid of immigrants such as Romanians. In Austria, there is Jorg Heider, who has such nostalgia for the SS even the Swiss find him weird. In Russia there is Zhirinovsky, a third-rate racist clown who tells the Russians whatever they want to hear.
I am fascinated by these creatures, but not quite as much as Sylvia Plath who claimed that "Every woman adores a Fascist/ the boot in the face," etc. It's not masochism that draws me to see them close up, but a natural scientist's curiosity. I'm never without a chart and a pin. In that spirit, I interviewed Romania's homegrown fascistoid last summer, a nationalist senator named Vadim Tudor who got one third of the vote in the last presidential election. He scared so many people, the citizens voted overwhelmingly for Comrade Boringescu, the current president. Vadim is not boring. He's handsome in a sort of faded, Hugh Hefnerish way. He patted elders, kissed babies, signed autographs and greeted Gypsies, who are often the subject of his rhetorical venom. The others are Jews and Hungarians. He even read me a poem about how much he loved his mother, and I read him one about how proud I was to be a Jew, a Hungarian and a Romanian. He then surprised me with his brother-in-law, a genuine American evangelist from Tennessee, who told me in a broad Southern accent that Vadim loves the "right Americans," but not wrong ones, like the current U.S. Ambassador to Romania, "an "avowed homosexual." I wish I could have added "homosexual" to my multi-ethnic pride poem.
We ended up walking around the so-called "Dracula" castle, where Vadim praised Vlad the Impaler, "AKA Dracula," a law-and-order man like himself. After a festive walk through the marketplace, where Vadim bought me a T-shirt of the Impaler and I presented him with a copy of my pro-global book Hail Babylon, we parted company. My film-crew and I went off with Vadim's campaign manager who bought us dinner at Romania's first Chinese restaurant, a cavernous salon in Brasov.
"Confess," the campaign manager said to me after dinner, "You had many preconceived ideas when you came to see Vadim."
I freely admitted it.
"And now?" he asked.
"Now," I said, "I think he's a charismatic fellow."
He is. So is the Devil. So is Duke. And so was Mussolini. After I reported my impressions of Vadim, some of my Romanian friends found the encounter unsettling. Relax, amigos. I went there to get a nice close-up, not to get my out-of-jail card, which I still have by the way. (Vadim's personal cell-phone number.) By the way, the American evangelist met Vadim when somebody stole his car in Bucharest. Vadim had some police general find it, then introduced the evangelist to his sister.
After the Chinese meal, the campaign manager looked at me significantly: "We'll see each other again, I'm sure." There was a velvety chill in that farewell that made me think twice about losing a car in Romania.
Andrei Codrescu's "Romania: My Old Haunts," part of PBS' Frontline/World series, will air locally 8 p.m. Oct. 31 on WYES-TV 12.