It Has Happened Here: The Arrogance and Anxiety of American Exceptionalism
"If Bishop Prang swings his radio audience and his League of Forgotten Men to Buzz Windrip, Buzz will win. People will think they are electing him to create economic security. Then watch the Terror! God knows there’s been enough indication that we can have tyranny in America—the fix of the Southern sharecroppers, the working conditions of the miners and garment-makers…but wait till Windrip shows us how to say it with machine guns… A real Fascist dictatorship.” —Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (1935)
"[Today] will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer." —Donald J. Trump, inauguration speech, Jan. 20, 2017
Amidst the rise of European fascism between WWI and WWII, writers like Sinclair Lewis struggled to caution Americans about our own historical tendencies toward tyranny. Charismatic leaders like Huey Long, Father Charles Coughlin and others had given Lewis great pause as he considered how easily nativist populism and paranoid authoritarianism could stir Americans (particularly Depression-era, poor, working- and middle-class white Americans) to hand over their fragile democracy to budding dictators.
In his sardonic book It Can’t Happen Here, Lewis’ fictional president, Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, exploits fear over economic insecurity and international upheaval to promote “suppression, terror and totalitarianism—all draped in red, white and blue bunting.” Ultimately, Lewis suggests that corporate power aligned with insidious propaganda and white supremacy posed a great risk to the nation’s “traditional values” of individual freedom, civil liberties, democratic engagement, and a balance of governmental powers.
In 2007, political journalist Joe Conason revisited Lewis’ agitprop novel suggesting the author’s “darkly funny but grim fable… still resonates today—along with all the eerie parallels between what [Lewis] imagined then and what we live with now.” What Conason himself suggested was that the “neofascism” of George W. Bush’s presidency seemed oddly like Buzz Windrip’s as the nonfictional president expanded domestic spying, smeared dissenters as “disloyal,” promoted torture in violation of international law, and “repeatedly asserted and exercised authority” he did not have constitutionally, but rationalized by claiming a fictional “popular mandate.”
Conason also argued that Lewis had a “deeper warning about American values and the vulnerability of democratic institutions to right-wing demagoguery, corporate manipulation, and public apathy.” Lewis believed, “the roots of authoritarianism had been firmly planted in our political culture by the beginning of the last century—and that throughout human history all peoples and civilizations eventually have been tempted by tyrants, and most have succumbed to their blandishments… there was no shortage of evidence in our own history that Americans were subject to the same passions and prejudices that had led other peoples to surrender their freedom.” Americans, however, “had been lucky enough and brave enough to escape that fate.” But did we? Still haunted by fears of fascism, Conason asked a final question: “In the era of terror alerts, religious fundamentalism, and endless warfare, [are we] still the brave nation preserved and rebuilt by the generation of Sinclair Lewis—or [has] our courage, and our luck, finally run out”?
In fact, however, American observers have for generations—and with good cause—worried about the ways in which totalitarianism and tyranny threaten what has always been a fragile and contested “sense of” (if not real) democracy. When I started this piece, Donald J. Trump had just fired FBI director James Comey, who was investigating possible collusion between the president’s campaign and Russian spies. That act inspired comparisons to Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” when, in the wake of a special prosecutor’s (Archibald Cox) subpoena for White House tapes, Nixon ordered him fired. But Nixon’s attorney and deputy attorney generals resigned rather than follow his order. On Saturday, Oct. 20, 1973, Nixon had Solicitor General Robert Bork terminate Cox, setting in motion congressional actions that resulted in articles of impeachment and Nixon’s subsequent resignation. Trump is now reportedly considering firing his own special prosecutor.
A decade after George W. Bush, almost half a century after Richard Nixon, and more than 80 years after fictional Buzz Windrip, politicos and pundits, social critics and social scientists are once again obsessed with threats of tyranny in the United States. From Trump’s volatile and nativist populism speaking for the “forgotten men and women of America,” to the rising tide of right-wing, alt-right neo-Nazis, the United States seems once again flush with fascism. And placed within the context of Brexit, increasingly successful far-right political parties throughout Europe, and the growing presence of totalitarian leaders around the world, the global context gives greater credence to concerns over oligarchs and authoritarianism. Are we once again on the precipice of fascism in America?
While the media lathers 24/7 over Russiagate and Trump’s penchant for secret plans and petulant megalomania, I would premise any conversation about fascism by suggesting that the basic principles of historical and political fascism have always found fertile ground in the United States—they are nothing new. Our beginnings in European colonialism, Native American genocide, and African slavery set a sturdy foundation for political and racial tyranny. The inclusion of exclusion, privilege and oppression in the Federalist Papers, the Constitution, and the racist Naturalization Act of 1790 (which limited citizenship to "any alien, being a free white person") meant that oligarchic authority and white supremacy would shape this nation’s origins yet taint our origin myths. Periodic, but perpetual, waves of xenophobic, paranoid nationalism and the rise of corporate-driven plutocracy have all mobilized with great success and often great popular support. Despite the persistent ideological arrogance that American exceptionalism somehow rests on an infinite frontier of laissez-faire possibility or what political scientist Louis Hartz once called a nation “born free” of aristocracy and authoritarianism, the United States has always been fascist-friendly.
In other words, what so many critics of various fascistic moments in America (and particularly this current incantation) have failed to realize is the long and perhaps inexorable history of tyranny existing in our own nation’s DNA. The unfettered independence and rugged individualism so often attributed to Crevecoeur’s American Farmer and Tocqueville’s observations on democracy were consistently challenged by a historical reality of economic, political and racial privilege and power. Even Crevecoeur recognized the unsustainability of slavery and barbarity in Charlestown, South Carolina, and Tocqueville the decimation of American Indians. Instead of ignoring the history of oppression and authoritarianism or assuming the moral and political supremacy of European American “civilization,” we must begin any conversation about contemporary fascism as endemic to our national identity and all-too-often determinative in our political culture and public policy design. These fascistic elements may seem crystallized in today’s political unraveling and emblematic in the grotesque, naked emperor that is Trump, but they have been with us all along.
Still, our country has a long and powerful legacy of fighting fascism. From slave rebellions and abolitionism to Coxey’s Army and the Bonus March; from labor unions to black, brown and red power movements; from women’s liberation and gay/transgender rights to Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, people have organized and mobilized to fight for and protect the basic tenets of democracy and social justice. In my recent book, I argue that one of the worst causalities of contemporary political culture has been the delegitimizing of collective action to counter the rise of corporate hegemony. Instead, we are subject to the discourse of liberated markets, job creators, and the need to improve our lives by being increasingly competitive independent contractors. These myths rely on false claims and false idols of rugged “hyper-individualists” who unrestrained by social obligations, market regulations or legal restrictions made America "great.”
American history proves otherwise. Our most powerful legacy is that collective social and political movements created a vision of democracy and equality, and inspired mass movement after mass movement of people willing to fight and die to build a better nation. These movements for social justice carry with them the light and legacy passed on by generations of organizers and activists who envisioned a more free and equitable world. And these movements always formed the bone and sinew of anti-fascism crusaders who, sometimes if not often, kept the worst aspects of our exploitational past from completely taking over. If there is something unique about the last few decades of struggle against new forms of American fascism, it has been the decline in peoples’ commitment, not to social justice per se but to the necessity of collective vigilance and action to achieve it. Our only defense now lies not in the hands of any special prosecutor or potential impeachment trial; it remains, as it always has, in the collective will of democratic vigilance and a socially just vision of a more perfect union.