“Nonsense! Nonsense!” snorted Tasbrough. “That couldn’t happen here in America, not possibly! We’re a country of freemen.”—Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (1935)
Every time that Doremus Jessup—the protagonist of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 satirical novel It Can’t Happen Here—tries to raise the specter of fascism in the United States, his concerns are dismissed by the phrase that becomes the novel’s title: “it can’t happen here.” There is too much democracy, too much freedom, and too much respect for individual rights for our country to ever go down the road that the Germans and the Italians were travelling when the novel was written.
It does, of course, happen here, and in fairly predictable ways. A populist demagogue named Buzz Windrup becomes president with a combination of ultra-nationalism and an attack on journalists, scientists, historians, and other people in a position to argue that one set of facts is superior to another. As president, Windrip begins by restricting the rights of women and minorities and ends by turning the United States into a security state, imprisoning dissidents, and arming for wars of conquest. The similarities between Herr Windrip and our current Chief Executive have not been lost on contemporary commentators. In fact, the week after the most recent election, Amazon and other online retailers sold out of this relatively obscure, barely-still-in-print minor classic from America’s first Nobel Prize-winning writer.
We are fortunate, however, that a large percentage of the country does in fact believe that “it,” meaning fascism, can happen here—many of them supporters of Donald Trump. Over the past eight years, a substantial portion of the electorate has accepted as an article of faith that Barack Obama was a tyrannical dictator who burned the Constitution for sport, had warehouses full other people’s guns, and (more or less successfully depending on who you asked) imposed Sharia Law on the United States.
In terms of contemporary protest movements, the Women’s March that attracted millions of people to Washington DC and other venues yesterday was an exercise in political patience. Protests about Obama’s presidency began the night of the inauguration and launched a movement that would rewrite the rules of American politics—the Tea Party, which began as nothing more than a bunch of people who really, really, really didn’t like the fact that Obama was the president.
The Tea Party, however, was not content to simply oppose the president. They also felt the need to delegitimize his election, which was rock solid numerically but could have been voided if Obama could be proved to have been born in another country. Thus began one of the most truly bizarre rhetorical campaigns American history: the attempt to prove, without even the slightest fragment of anything that could be considered evidence, that a sitting president was not an American citizen. Perhaps the most lasting consequence of the birther movement was Donald Trump, who became a serious contender for the presidency by publicly supporting this obvious lie and refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the presidency.
What made birtherism inevitable, I believe, was the inability of its adherents to separate political unpalatably from political legitimacy. Tea Partiers considered themselves patriots, and in their version of patriotism it was unacceptable to criticize a legitimate president. To spend eight years criticizing him mercilessly, they first had to delegitimize him electorally, which was both disastrous and unnecessary—disastrous because it ended up saddling us with a president who has no respect for truth and no functional understanding of the Constitution. Unnecessary because recognizing the legitimacy of an election does not require one to refrain from criticism in any way.
I was especially encouraged to see that yesterday’s marchers focused on what was wrong with Donald Trump and not what was wrong with the process that got him elected. Though there are more procedural controversies with Trump’s election than their ever were with Obama’s—such as the vast disparity between the electoral and the popular vote and the documentable evidence that a foreign power tampered with the results—Trump is still the president, made so by a process that, however imperfect, is still the one that counts. Saying that he is not the president, or not a legitimate president, doesn’t change that fact one bit.
But being the legitimately elected president of the United States does not exempt one from criticism. Quite the reverse, it requires it. To suggest that Donald Trump should be exempt from extreme scrutiny and strenuous criticism from the second he that he takes office is to suggest that he deserves a privilege that no other American president has ever enjoyed. It is through this scrutiny and criticism that we safeguard democracy.
I will probably carry many signs over the next four years. None of them, however, will say “NOT MY PRESIDENT.” Donald Trump is my president. He was elected by a process that, however imperfect, I am philosophically bound to respect and pragmatically unable to do anything about. And my president has said and done some very disturbing things. He has marginalized women, disabled people, and religious minorities. He has warred openly with the truth and tried to change the definition of a fact. He has gestured towards fascism, and it is our job to make sure that gestures do not become steps —by making mountains out of molehills, by pulling the fire alarm every time we see smoke, and by calling out every step that he makes towards the “it” that, I hope we all know by now, can indeed happen here.