Could Fascism Happen Here?

It Can't Happen Here


Everyone is trying to spin the results of the Iowa caucus to support their own preferred candidate. Third-lace Marco Rubio, for instance, is telling his “establishment” Republican rivals to drop out and support him. That way he can take on Donald Trump and Ted Cruz more effectively.

Rubio would be regarded as an extremist in normal times—he’s against abortions even in cases of rape or incest, for instance—but compared to Trump and Cruz he’s practically a liberal. Rubio will need to do a lot better, however, because in Iowa the most rightwing candidates (Cruz, Trump, Carson) garnered over 60% of the vote..

Could Cruz or Trump land the nomination? If one of them did, could he end up as president of the United States? Could it happen here?

I use that last questions to reference Sinclair Lewis’s 1936 novel It Can’t Happen Here, which is about a fascist takeover of America. Lewis may have had in mind Huey Long, the governor who all but ran Louisiana as a dictator. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the plot:

[T]he novel describes the rise of Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a populist United States Senator who is elected to the presidency after promising drastic economic and social reforms while promoting a return to patriotism and traditional values. After his election, Windrip takes complete control of the government and imposes a plutocratic/totalitarian rule with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force, in the manner of Adolf Hitler and the SS.

I don’t see Trump or Cruz forming paramilitary groups, although some armed white supremacist groups have expressed support for Trump. The rest of the novel sounds disturbingly familiar, however.

For instance, there is Brigadier General Herbert Y. Edgeways, U.S.A. (ret.), who gives a speech with a title that we could easily see Trump or Cruz—or for that matter Rubio—delivering: “Peace through Defense–Millions for Arms but Not One Cent for Tribute.”

Like a number of current GOP candidates, Edgeways advocates cutting taxes for the wealthy and smashing laboring unions. He also opposes a minimum wage:

I tell you, my friends, the trouble with this whole country is that so many are selfish! Here’s a hundred and twenty million people, with ninety-five per cent of ’em only thinking of self, instead of turning to and helping the responsible business men to bring back prosperity! All these corrupt and self-seeking labor unions! Money grubbers! Thinking only of how much wages they can extort out of their unfortunate employer, with all the responsibilities he has to bear!

We also see an assault on science and technical expertise similar to what we are witnessing today:

We don’t want all this highbrow intellectuality, all this book-learning. That’s good enough in its way, but isn’t it, after all, just a nice toy for grownups? No, what we all of us must have, if this great land is going to go on maintaining its high position among the Congress of Nations, is Discipline–Will Power–Character!”

At least Edgeways says that book-learning is “good enough in its way.” Cruz and company don’t even acknowledge that much.

And then there’s a character who anticipates Trump’s racism, and he’s even less concerned about “political correctness” than Trump is. He is described as follows:

He was not only 100 per cent American; he exacted 40 per cent of chauvinistic interest on top of the principal. He was on every occasion heard to say, “We ought to keep all these foreigners out of the country, and what I mean, the Kikes just as much as the Wops and Hunkies [from Bohemia] and Chinks.” Louis was altogether convinced that if the ignorant politicians would keep their dirty hands off banking and the stock exchange and hours of labor for salesmen in department stores, then everyone in the country would profit, as beneficiaries of increased business, and all of them (including the retail clerks) be rich as Aga Khan.

A newspaper editor, Doremus Jessup, early on realizes that fascist Senator Windrip could well make it to the White House. Jessup sounds the alarm, noting that liberals and moderates (today they would be moderate Republicans) are similar assault. In the process, he also notes the power of talk radio. The following passage is his conversation with a moderate conservative:

With all the discontent there is in the country to wash him into office, Senator Windrip has got an excellent chance to be elected President, next November, and if he is, probably his gang of buzzards will get us into some war, just to grease their insane vanity and show the world that we’re the huskiest nation going. And then I, the Liberal, and you, the Plutocrat, the bogus Tory, will be led out and shot at 3 A.M. Serious? Huh!

“Rats! You’re exaggerating!” said R. C. Crowley.

Doremus went on: “If Bishop Prang, our Savonarola in a Cadillac 16, swings his radio audience and his League of Forgotten Men to Buzz Windrip, Buzz will win. People will think they’re electing him to create more economic security. Then watch the Terror!

“Nonsense! Nonsense!” snorted Tasbrough. “That couldn’t happen here in America, not possibly! We’re a country of freemen.”

“The answer to that,” suggested Doremus Jessup, “if Mr. Falck will forgive me, is ‘the hell it can’t!’ Why, there’s no country in the world that can get more hysterical–yes, or more obsequious!–than America.

Today, our nativists go after Mexican Americans, Muslims, and urban African Americans. In the 1930s, people went after communists, German Americans, Catholics, and, as always, African Americans.

They also had their own version of “freedom fries”:

Could Hitler’s bunch, or Windrip’s, be worse? Remember the Ku Klux Klan? Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut ‘Liberty cabbage’ and somebody actually proposed calling German measles ‘Liberty measles’?… Remember our Red scares and our Catholic scares, when all well-informed people knew that the O.G.P.U. were hiding out in Oskaloosa, and the Republicans campaigning against Al Smith told the Carolina mountaineers that if Al won the Pope would illegitimatize their children? Remember Tom Heflin and Tom Dixon? Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution? . . . Remember the Kentucky night-riders? Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings? Not happen here? Prohibition–shooting down people just because they might be transporting liquor–no, that couldn’t happen in America! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours! We’re ready to start on a Children’s Crusade–only of adults–right now, and the Right Reverend Abbots Windrip and Prang are all ready to lead it!

Extremists take hold when “the establishment” think they can co-opt them. We’re increasingly seeing signs that people in power think that a President Trump would ultimately work for them. Banker R. C. Crowley in the novel similarly thinks that Windrip will come around to serving him. Note that he sounds like Mitt Romney complaining about the 47% of Americans who want “free stuff”:

“Well, what if [Windrip is elected],” protested R. C. Crowley. “It might not be so bad. I don’t like all these irresponsible attacks on us bankers all the time. Of course, Senator Windrip has to pretend publicly to bawl the banks out, but once he gets into power he’ll give the banks their proper influence in the administration and take our expert financial advice. Yes. Why are you so afraid of the word ‘Fascism,’ Doremus? Just a word–just a word! And might not be so bad, with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours–not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini–like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good old days–and have ’em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again. ‘Nother words, have a doctor who won’t take any back-chat, but really boss the patient and make him get well whether he likes it or not!”

Trump is promising to make us “efficient and prosperous again.”

For the record, I don’t think it could happen here, just as it didn’t happen in the elections following Lewis’s book when fascism wasn’t as abhorrent as it became in World War II. Nevertheless, it’s unsettling how, as a nation, we have a dark strain that never seems to go away.

Note: After writing and posting this essay, i came acrossSalon article applying Lewis’s book in just these ways.

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