It Can Happen Here; Let’s Make Sure It Doesn’t

“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)


lewisEvery 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.


  1. Courage.

  2. Glenn Thigpen says:

    Michael, You said “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.”

    That strategy will not work. By making mountains out of molehills and creating an incessant din, those who “resist Trump” are very liable to become like unto the story of the boy who cries wolf. At some point, more and more people will stop listening.

    Neither will continually reciting every flaw that Trump has, either real or imagined.

    Nor will it help to denigrate and ridicule those who had legitimate concerns about some of Obama’s actions.

    Tactics like the violent protesters pulled in Washington also will antagonize people and cause them to turn a deaf ear.

    It will be regrettable if the actions and rhetoric of those who oppose Trump will enable the very thing they are against.

    I believe that the best way to handle this situation is by communicating with our elected representatives in Congress in a reasoned and collective manner. There are a lot of people in Congress who do not like Donald Trump, on both sides of the aisle. They can be persuaded to and can control Donald Trump. He cannot do a whole lot unless Congress is behind him; unless he can persuade them to pass the laws that he wants.

    But to do so, alliances must be forged in the communities and states. Common ground must be established to bring people together, to discuss what is really important to them and to define the real issues. If that does not happen, we could be in for a long slide or a quick jump off of a cliff.


  3. Glenn, you are right. Think of the venom the liberals attacked Mitt Romney with. He was guilty of indecent acts that revealed, at heart, he was and is a horrible person. He put his dog in a carrier on top of his motor vehicle. When he was a teenager, he once bullied another boy. Who supports animal cruelty/insensitivity? Who supports bullying?

    Of course, now in 2016 and 2017, there are some liberals who are saying, perhaps we shouldn’t have been so forceful in our attacks on Mitt Romney and others. Because there was no ammo left–we couldn’t bring out the big guns, because we had already used the big guns. There were no “bigger guns” to use.

    I personally suspect that Mitt Romney was and is a more decent man than Donald Trump. But I admit to not knowing either man.

  4. Professor Lockhart says:

    How do the Apostles respond? That is how latter-day saints should respond.

  5. Courage.

    Itch scratched?

  6. Mike W: As for people instead of saying, President Trump is less decent than. … Well just how is it that President Trump isn’t decent. Name a few?!

  7. Kristine N says:

    “That strategy will not work. By making mountains out of molehills and creating an incessant din, those who “resist Trump” are very liable to become like unto the story of the boy who cries wolf. At some point, more and more people will stop listening.”

    Yeah, I kinda doubt that. The Tea Party didn’t exactly worry about people not listening to them and, in the end, people had to listen to them. The real problem for democrats is likely to be (based on history) they’re more likely to stop fighting too early, not annoy people into ignoring them.

  8. Kristine N is on to something. For some people, “incessant din” is “a view I don’t agree with, regardless of how often expressed.” BCC already has readers staging grand exits over the veritable onslaught of political posts–all nine of them over the past month during which BCC published a total of 43 posts. Reaching that audience will take more than simply not broaching certain topics.

  9. The comments sure got weird fast.

    The truth is, we’ve already seen a lot of “it couldn’t happen.” Everybody said Trump couldn’t win the GOP nomination. The GOP was too conservative and too moral for that. Nope. After he got the nomination, everybody said he couldn’t win the presidency. The country is too good for that. Nope. The biggest danger to a free democracy is never a threat from outside, it’s the idea that freedom is somehow inevitable and doesn’t need to be fought for and defended at every turn. Optimism is good and paranoia is bad, but if we pretend that the citizens of the Weimar Republic are fundamentally different from us, we are deluding ourselves. We are just as susceptible to propaganda and appeals to national pride. Eternal vigilance, and reinstating compassion as one of our top priorities are the only defenses.

  10. There is really only one way for a political movement to succeed. It happens by doing all of the hard work over the long haul. That means keeping the pressure on, relentlessly. We don’t get there by brilliantly picking just the right moment to apply just the right pressure. We don’t get there by knowing just the right people to avoid offending.

    The process is ugly and hard. It’s a slog. It requires sacrifice. You have to be persistent, and you have to take some risks. You have to speak out knowing that some people will mock you, scorn you, and try to tear you down. You have to thicken your skin.

    But if you do these things, then something wonderful happens. You discover that you’re not alone. You discover that you weren’t foolish, after all, to care so much about this cause that moved you to action. You discover that together we have the strength to keep moving forward with the struggle. Finally, you discover that there can be joy in politics. And then you keep fighting.

  11. Well, we ought to admit that it not only “can” happen in America, but it did happen. Sadly, the GOP chose Trump. They now own him, or he owns them. They must now either repudiate him or get used to living in a world of “alternative facts.” But when they see their own fascist tendencies (hypernationalism, racism, and authoritarianism, for starters) amplified by the orange man in the white house, they will probably be too pleased that they are “in power” to put any brakes on the man with no impulse control. Good luck, GOP. You’ve opened Pandora’s Box. Let’s see how adept you are at catching all the evil that has escaped. Scary times ahead.

  12. I appreciate you recognizing that Donald Trump is the legitimate president. I also agree that he can (and should) be criticized for a great many things. That said, your characterization of the Tea Party is a bit convenient for your argument. It was more than a bunch of people who “really, really, really didn’t like the fact that Obama was the president” (you might as well state that they were racist–it’s obviously what you think), who didn’t think it was patriotic to criticize a legitimate president (?) so they created birtherism. If you insist on describing a decentralized movement without a uniform agenda in those terms, then it’s perfectly fair for conservatives to describe protests against Trump as people who are whining because they can’t accept that Trump is their president.

  13. RobL, let’s face it, the author has given perhaps 5 minutes thought as to what the Tea Party movement is/was. At least he’s obvious about it.

  14. I may be wrong (and I don’t mean to defend the movement at all), but wasn’t birtherism born of some (even if flimsy) evidence? That is, if my memory is correct, the birther theory wasn’t just made up out of thin air. It was the conclusion drawn from a handful of obscure and ambiguous quotations from family members — someone’s grandmother saying something that could have been understood as a claim that he was born somewhere else?

    Like I said, I don’t mean to defend the movement at all – it is and was dumb – but my memory is that it wasn’t something made up (with no evidence) by people who didn’t like Obama as much as it was something latched onto (with weak and ambiguous evidence) by people who didn’t like Obama.

  15. Jay, it was based on deliberate misinterpretations of statements combined with willful ignorance of contradictory evidence (namely, the birth announcement in the Honolulu paper). The only people who gave it any credence were intellectually dishonest and morally bankrupt.

  16. It can’t happen here?

    If by “it” you mean internment camps, it did happen here, and not under a fictional President Windrip, but under FDR and duly approved by the Supreme Court in a 6-3 vote with six of eight Roosevelt appointees siding with the government. I am referring, of course, to the forced relocation and incarceration in camps of over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry, two thirds of whom were U.S. citizens.

    If by “it” you mean torture by the CIA, we’ve had that too, and much more recently and a under a Republican president.

    In those two cases, however, the ship of state was eventually righted by the normal constitutional processes.

    If by “it” you mean a civil war, we did have a big one.

    If by “it” you mean the U.S. government overthrowing or attempting to overthrown foreign governments without a declaration of war or even without much debate, we’ve also had that. It’s been a bipartisan effort.

  17. agenericallyconcernedcitizen says:

    “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… president….” Fill that in with anything the media is saying about Trump right now. That Trump paid for… things to happen to a hotel bed. That Trump is a Russian sellout. That Trump is truly racist, or sexist, or homophobic. That Trump aims to censor the press. Yet it’s absolutely ridiculous when people attack a president for being very taboo about the legitimacy of his nationality.

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