The angry workers...the anxious middle class...the jittery rich...the discontented military--Senator "Buzz" Windrip brought them all together with his combination of hot rhetoric, warm folksiness, and cold calculation.
The badly split Left and the wavering liberals were helpless to stop his drive for the Presidency. And once in the White House he swiftly set in motion his program to save the country from itself.
It really didn't take much to kill democracy in America...
That's the jacket copy from my 1970 paperback edition of "It Can't Happen Here," the 1936 Sinclair Lewis novel that imagines the coming of fascism to America. I bought the book in 1992, the last time a billionaire demagogue scared the hell out of me with an aggressive outsider campaign for the presidency. Running on his own Reform Party ticket, H. Ross Perot garnered the highest third-party vote tally in U.S. history--more than 19 million, nearly 19% of all ballots cast--though he didn't win a single vote in the Electoral College.
So with the immediate threat safely past, I had shelved the book without finishing it. But this summer, as Donald Trump racked up a string of caucus and primary victories amid millions of dollars in free and largely uncritical media coverage, I felt the old panic rising again. So in need of some reading for an upcoming European vacation, I dug out my Sinclair Lewis and packed it along.
Touring Budapest, Vienna, and Prague, we visited one site after another marking Nazi occupation and post-war Soviet domination. In Budapest, for instance, I toured the Terror House, an elegant-looking building on a beautiful tree-lined boulevard that belied a dark history. It formerly served as the headquarters of the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, Nazi collaborators who during their brief six-month rule murdered 15,000 people and enthusiastically deported 80,000 more to Austrian concentration camps. After the war, the Soviets turned the building into their own interrogation, torture, and execution center, where gallows still stand in the basement.
And so it went. After each day of sightseeing, back in our hotel room with BBC election coverage droning in the background, I returned again and again to Lewis's book. To ensure authenticity, he had meticulously researched it with the help of his wife Dorothy Thompson, a prominent foreign correspondent who had critically covered first-hand Hitler's rise to power before the Nazis kicked her out of Germany in 1934. Despite its clunky style and broadly drawn characters, it was profoundly unsettling. His insights into the mechanisms by which fascism could be incrementally implemented in a formerly free and democratic nation, and its once-solid citizens reduced to ruthless functionaries in a vast totalitarian apparatus, seemed somehow unnervingly relevant.
* * *
When my 1970 edition was published, the year opened with a series of Weather Underground bombings, including the infamous Greenwich Village townhouse explosion that killed three of its members when their basement bomb-making factory blew up. In May, four unarmed students were shot dead by the National Guard on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio during a student demonstration, and two weeks later, two students were shot dead by police on the campus of Jackson State University in Mississippi.
President Nixon had secretly and illegally expanded the Vietnam War beyond Vietnam into neighboring Laos and Cambodia, and Vice President Spiro Agnew routinely denounced the administration's critics as disloyal. We would only learn the following year about the FBI's secret COINTELPRO operation, in existence since 1956, aimed at spying on and disrupting a wide range of dissent and political protest movements, including a campaign to humiliate and blackmail the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Overt racism, police brutality, illegal government surveillance, and wholesale violations of First Amendment rights to speak and assemble were quite real and raised genuine concerns and fears. And in those self-dramatizing times, it was not uncommon to sound alarms about how "Amerika" was becoming a repressive police state. But as we later learned of the criminal conduct of the Nixon administration and in the Church Committee investigations and revelations of widespread foreign and domestic abuses by the CIA, the FBI, and the National Security Agency, the claims by dissenters of illegal spying, harassment, and persecution were largely confirmed. Subsequent reforms curtailed but did not eliminate the abuses, and vigilance in policing such violations has ebbed and flowed depending on the administrations in power.
In the spirit of that time, the book's introduction, written in June 1970, concludes with this: "It can happen here. Santayana, no doubt inspired by Dante's inferno, explained how such insanities transpire: the price you pay for failing to remember your errors is the agony and doom of repeating them over and over again...so please try to remember as your read It Can't Happen Here that it almost did, and not so long ago. It can happen here again. In fact, it may already have begun."
As shocking as it still seems to me now, we are facing the imminence of President Donald Trump, the candidate who vowed to crack down on our free press, encouraged violence against protesters at his rallies, emboldened racists and bigots and personally recirculated some of their propaganda, defended the use of torture, promised if elected to deport millions of residents and bar entry on religious grounds to thousands more, and vowed to prosecute and jail his political opponent.
It no longer seems such a stretch to believe that it is happening here.