Wow. I've heard of Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here (1935), but I've not read it. Now I'm thinking it's a natural for our book group--if only it were still in print! From the Amazon customer review by Charles Haberl:
It starts with the highly contested election of an oafish yet strangely charismatic president, who talks like a "reformer" but is really in the pocket of big business, who claims to be a home-spun "humanist," while appealing to religious extremists, and who speaks of "liberating" women and minorities, as he gradually strips them of all their rights. One character, when describing him, says, "I can't tell if he's a crook or a religious fanatic."
After he becomes elected, he puts the media - at that time, radio and newspapers - under the supervision of the military and slowly begins buying up or closing down media outlets. William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his times, directs his newspapers to heap unqualified praise upon the president and his policies, and gradually comes to develop a special relationship with the government. The president, taking advantage of an economic crisis, strong-arms Congress into signing blank checks over to the military and passing stringent and possibly unconstitutional laws, e.g. punishing universities when they don't permit military recruiting or are not vociferous enough in their approval of his policies. Eventually, he takes advantage of the crisis to convene military tribunals for civilians, and denounce all of his detractors as unpatriotic and possibly treasonous.
Man, is that prescient or what? Not really--Lewis was simply able to see how easy it can be to subvert democracy when vigilance ceases and illusion is embraced, when conditions allow certain passions take over--in other words, when emotions are manipulated so as to truncate thought and rationality.
So many things in the above summary of the novel have already occurred or are in the process of occurring. While the road to fascism didn't start from nothing with the "election" of George W. Bush, his coming to power combined with 9/11 and the manipulation of emotion surrounding that national trauma put us on the fast track for fascism. Particularly disturbing to me has been the wholesale abandonment of rational thought that has accompanied the shameless fearmongering of the Republican apparatus. Is such abandonment inevitable? Accidental? I very much doubt that it's either. Critical thought and the demand for proof, along with skepticism and the distrust of those in power, are the enemies of fascism. When Cheney and Bush came to office with an insatiable desire for power, they didn't have to invent the wheel. BushCo knew there was already to hand a tried-and-true set of emotional responses ready to be exploited.
- a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions
- the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether universal or individual, and the subordination of the individual to it
- the belief that one's group is a victim, a sentiment which justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against the group's enemies, both internal and external
- dread of the group's decline under the corrosive effect of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences
- the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary
- the need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group's destiny
- the superiority of the leader's instincts over abstract and universal reason
- the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group's success
- the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group's prowess in a Darwinian struggle
Orcinus examines these points particularly as they relate to the recent passage of the Military Commissions Act (warning; pdf) with its far-reaching implications, including the death of Habeas Corpus, the conferring of exraordinary power upon the president, and the institutionalizing of torture in the US.
We can see these various "passions," however, as they resonate more broadly. Every one of emotions or attitudes listed has been vigorously promoted under the banner of patriotism and national security. Every one has been used for the attainment of greater and greater executive power.
Number 1, for example: we are frightened by being told repeatedly that we face an enemy like none we have ever faced before, that traditional solutions can't save us now, that the traditional rules and restraints that have characterized America's official actions (if not always the unofficial) are now too dangerous for us to abide by. "Even worse than Hitler!" comes the cry again and again.
Under number 2 we can see that civil liberties and individual rights must give way, so Bush's argument goes, to the safety of the group. Further, American exceptionalism makes America's needs primary over and against all considerations of the safety and well-being of any and all others. To disagree with this is to be called a traitor. I know, because I've been called one.
Number 3 we have seen repeated countless times by countless numbers of useful right-wing idiots: the deaths of the victims of Sept. 11, 2001 justify any amount of brutality and lawlessness, including torture, the invasion of a sovereign nation who posed no threat to us, and the claim that we are no longer bound by international treaties and conventions.
In number 4 ("dread of the group's decline under the corrosive effect of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences) we've got pretty much a summary of the fears of the right-wing extremists. Right now it's easy to find examples of the white majority's fear that they are becoming a minority. The Christian fundies fear that liberalism is erasing the cohesiveness of what they think of as a "Christian" nation; conservatives and xenophobes fear multiculturalism and "exotic" religions and beliefs, as well as liberal ideas like women's rights and gay rights. These "threats" erode the rights of privileged white males and those who believe they benefit from such males' status, and/or they are seen as diluting the superior cultural influence of both the Christian and the Western traditions.
The fifth "mobilizing passion," the perceived need for a purer community, can easily be seen in the anti-immigration hysteria we saw earlier this year in calls for a wall along the Mexican border, the blaming of immigrants for crime and disease, etc. Torture itself will, of course, help to preserve our way of life (just ask the Traditional Values Coalition) and will weed out the terrorists among us.
To me, numbers 6 and 7 are perhaps the scariest of the emotions running dangerously loose and unchecked: "the need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group's destiny" and "the superiority of the leader's instincts over abstract and universal reason." We have seen these in spades, and they are very, very dangerous. As Orcinus comments:
It is astonishing, really, just how broad-ranging are the powers President Bush will have acquired if this legislation survives its inevitable court tests. Moreover, the public is constantly admonished not to question Bush's basic decency when it comes to granting him powers typically only granted to totalitarians [my emphasis]. Of course he wouldn't apply these powers to ordinary citizens. And five years ago, he similarly assured us that of course he wouldn't seek wiretaps without a warrant.
I am reminded, upon reading number 8 ("the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group's success"), how often the extreme right wing has urged greater use of force and brutality, going so far at times as to call for near-genocide, so that America may emerge victorious and so demonstrate the superiority of the American Way. Lost is any idea that the sort of action for which they militate would demonstrate the complete collapse and end of American ideals as they have been expressed, if not lived up to, for the past 230 years.
And finally, we know that number 9, "the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law," is the Bush Doctrine. It applies not only to those individuals whom we torture, but to entire nations, entire religions, entire wide swathes of the earth.
As far as I'm concerned, fascism is already here. It simply hasn't yet been implemented. I fear that the coming months and years will see such implementation happen, to our eternal regret and our imminent disaster. I'm not one of those who sees in a Democratic takeover of one or both houses of Congress a sure-fire reversal of the horrifying trends we have seen and are seeing. Once the machine is set into motion, stopping it--let alone reversing it--is a monumental task against which all the bureaucratic, economic, social, and political forces are aligned.