Can It Happen There? Part One
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday June 16 2016.
We hacks are very nervous about Godwin’s Law, which was promulgated by American attorney and author Mike Godwin in 1990. The law states that if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will bring up Hitler or Nazism. One needs to be wary offline also. Godwin was not around in 1935 when Sinclair Lewis published his novel It Can’t Happen Here. I have been looking again at that book as I watch, horrified, the rise of Donald Trump. Some commentators have suggested that Godwin’s Law should be put in abeyance during the course of the 2016 US presidential election. In December 2015, Godwin himself commented on the Nazi and fascist comparisons being made by several articles about The Donald, saying that, “If you’re thoughtful about it and show some real awareness of history, go ahead and refer to Hitler or Nazis when you talk about Trump. Or any other politician.”
Let us not forget that Hitler, like Trump, was a demagogue with no experience of governing. It is a fallacy to claim that Hitler was democratically elected Chancellor in 1933 by an overwhelming popular vote. The National Socialist Party was indeed the largest party in the Reichstag having won 37% of the vote in a general election but, not having a working majority, were members of a coalition. Hitler became all-powerful because von Papen and other conservatives disastrously thought they could control him.
Trump uses patriotism as a weapon but also points out how the USA is failing – an empire in decline – and he is the one to Make America Great Again. This echoes the masochistic paranoid victimhood of Germany after the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles
Adam Gopnik commented recently in the New Yorker on Mrs Trump’s remark that her husband was not Hitler, “Well, of course he isn’t. But then Hitler wasn’t Hitler—until he was. At each step of the way, the shock was tempered by acceptance.”
The phrase, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” is often attributed to Edmund Burke (although no-one has been able to find it in any of his writings). Trump has got this far because many not so good men have done worse than nothing.
Senior Republican figures tolerated Trump’s excesses because he seemed popular and they thought all the outrageous Trumpery was showboating. Their fantasy was that if he won the nomination he would take on the aura of a plausible president. Trump makes a big thing of Clinton using speechwriters and keeps pointing out that he has no teleprompter. An NBC News reporter described a speech at Trump National Golf Club in Briarcliff Manor, New York as ‘presidential’ merely because he had a prepared text and managed to speak for fifteen minutes without being too offensive. Generally speaking, he has continually ramped up the Trumpery and other Republicans cannot control him.
In 1930, Sinclair Lewis was the first US writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Lewis published It Can’t Happen in 1935. This dystopian satire imagines a Fascist dictatorship in the US. The book serves as a warning that political movements like Nazism can come to power when people blindly support a charismatic leader.
From Buzz to the Donald
In Lewis’s novel, US presidential candidate Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip promises to rescue the USA from economic depression. He first wins the Democratic Party nomination, ousting Franklin D Roosevelt. He then becomes president by promising to tax the rich, and stop big business from abusing the common worker.
Windrip is a great showman, but not comfortable with intellectuals. He is swept into office on a tide of revival tent enthusiasm (Lewis covers this theme in Elmer Gantry) and anti-intellectual populism. Despite the reformist facade, Windrip is really the candidate of big business. He speaks of “liberating” women and minorities, as he gradually strips them of all their rights. Blacks and Jews do not fare well under his rule.
Soon after his election, Windrip puts the media under the supervision of the military. William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day and model for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, directs his newspapers to praise the government. The president forces Congress to provide unlimited funding to the military and to pass stringent, unconstitutional laws. He establishes military tribunals for civilians, and denounces critics as traitors. The most loyal followers become a private army, the Minute Men, answerable to no one. The book documents a rapid decline into barbarity and charts an implosion of American culture: thanks to the weight of mass media, the desire for security and comfort, and endemic nationalism, civil society caves in at the touch of a charismatic politician.
As Goering said: “the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
Sinclair Lewis shows that it takes great courage to resist a totalitarian dictatorship. It even takes courage to withhold enthusiastic support. The novel, and the history of Germany in the 1930s, demonstrate that ordinary people can be persuaded to do extraordinary things out of fear or because they benefited from the system. In Nazi Germany, doctors planned, supervised and participated in sterilisation, unethical experiments on humans, torture, euthanasia and genocide, just as American doctors did in Iraq. Ordinary German policemen and nurses killed in cold blood even when they would not have been punished if they demurred.
Trump’s anti-government rhetoric goes beyond tea party fulminations but some of his supporters go even further and may not be controllable by Trump. His campaign approved David Riden to go to the Republican National Convention. Riden is one of many Trump supporters with ties to the Patriot Movement, a loose-knit conglomeration of right-wing militias. According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, nearly 1,000 anti-government groups now operate in the United States, including as many as 276 armed militias. Riden asserts that all three branches of the US government are “way off away from the Constitution right now.” Riden warns that Americans may need to attack with assault weapons and bombs in the nation’s capital and elsewhere. US leaders who violate the Constitution may have to be done away with: “The polite word is ‘eliminated’,'” he said. “The harsh word is ‘killed.'”
Caleb A Bailey, whom the Trump campaign approved to be a Maryland delegate to the Republican National Convention, was indicted on weapons and child pornography charges. Federal investigators found a fortified subterranean room under his 75-acre gated compound stocked with grenades, tear gas, and illegal machine guns.
As well as those psychopaths who are prepared to take up arms against the government there are many people who have more rational reasons to believe they have been betrayed. As long ago as 1997, the American philosopher Richard Rorty wrote that “something would crack” when the nonsuburban electorate come to the realisation that “the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots….”
The Democratic Party used to represent the working and middle classes but now prefers to court the professional classes and those who produce no value, those, like hedge-fund managers, who contributed mightily to the financial crisis, or real estate merchants peddling toxic mortgages. The Democrats thought its natural constituents had nowhere else to go. Then along comes Trump – who made his fortune in real estate and reality TV. If he wins the presidency, it is unlikely that he will have the will or the competence to give the betrayed what they want. The consequences of leaving millions of people feeling abandoned yet again will be the stuff of nightmares, especially when many of the disappointed have been stockpiling weaponry.
Next week – what a Trump presidency would mean for the rest of the world, including Sri Lanka.