It Can't Happen Here

If you read about someone described as “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store” you might think I’m quoting some opinion piece on cnn.com or a liberal blog describing the current president of the United States.  But would it surprise you to learn those words were written 83 years ago by Sinclair Lewis in his novel It Can't Happen Here?  Writing during the Great Depression and reflecting on the nationalist movements of his day in Europe that would eventually lead to the second world war, Lewis painted a picture of a dystopian future for America in which a charismatic and power-hungry demagogue puts fear and nationalism to work to become president.  Lewis’ main character, Berzeliu “Buzz” Windrip, promises a return to traditional values which will make America great again.  Once elected, President Windrip quickly forms a paramilitary force loyal only to him, systematically reduces the power of Congress to serve as any kind of check on his power, limits the rights of minorities and women, and becomes the autocrat the framers of the Constitution feared.

If that doesn’t sound like the last year and a half, you haven’t been paying attention.

Putin is reclaiming Russia’s tsarist and Soviet past, Xi is resurrecting the cult of personality in China, Erdogan’s politics in Turkey are rooted in Islamic nationalism and ruthlessly eliminating any hint of opposition since he was emboldened by a failed coup, Orbán’s rise to power in Hungary is a textbook example of a nationalist; his political power, like others on the rise in Europe and elsewhere around the world, is the result of fear of an immigrant wave and economic instability.

What is the common denominator of these nationalist movements?  A new breed of demagogues who are adept at leveraging divisions in society in their favor and who resort to exaggeration and outright deception.  Historians have studied the cycles of nativism in the United States and found they correspond to new waves of immigrants, a dissatisfaction with and distrust in elected leaders (characterized as “the establishment”), and widening economic inequality.  Given those ingredients, all today’s Neo-Nationalists needed was someone to come along and give voice to their grievances.  Enter Donald Trump.

The Native America Party (known by critics as the “No Nothing” party) was formed in 1855 as an anti-Catholic, anti-immigration movement; 40 years later, in the 1890's, another populist wave blamed immigrants and corporate interests (banks and railroad monopolies) for the demise of the family farm — using the vocabulary of nativism combined with nostalgia for a golden age that never was, populists won numerous state legislatures in mid-western, mainly agrarian states.  In the midst of the Cold War and the Red Scare, Richard Hofstadter studied the Right-wing movements in American politics to better understand McCarthyism; he found common elements like a deep distrust of government, as well as intellectuals and the universities that produced them, and a smorgasbord of othering that sounds like the manifesto of the Trump administration and the Republican party platform:  anti-immigrant, anti-elite, anti-reason, and anti-science.  History may or may not repeat, but as Mark Twain said, “…it does often rhyme.”

ItCantHappenHere

Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov summed it up best when he wrote in 1980:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

A country based on the rule of law ceases to be based on the rule of law when its leader, whose authority derives from people subject to the rule of law, places himself above the rule of law.  Trump’s admiration for dictators, his denial of Russian interference in the 2016 election, the remaking of the judiciary to tip the scales in the long-simmering culture war in favor of a Christian cabal wanting a return to theocracy, continued self-serving rhetoric wrapped in the flag, the unquestioning support of powerful conservative media outlets… all these, taken as a whole, point to a concerted, coordinated effort to remake American government in the image of what it was founded to reject.

Sinclair Lewis, the first American writer to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature, entitled his novel It Can’t Happen Here.  I’m afraid it already has.

In his inauguration speech, President Trump said, "This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”  I think he read the teleprompter wrong.  He was supposed to say, This American carnage starts right here and starts right now.

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