By Barbara Baum Levine
It seems as though every news cycle is introduced by the word “unprecedented.” We reel in wide-eyed amazement at every action taken by the current Administration and ask how we got here. This week, we’ve watched in horror as our country erupts after yet another example of the police imposing the death penalty on a person of color; and we wonder: how did we get here? Why didn’t we know that something such as this could happen? That really IS the question. How could we not have been vigilant enough, not have listened closely enough, not have paid deeper attention to the signs that have been present in this country almost from its inception? The Civil War, Reconstruction, trust-busting, WW I, WW II, alien internment, Joe McCarthy, Medgar Evers, Richard Nixon . . . the list goes on and the old peace song asks: “When will we ever learn?”
How could we not have been vigilant enough, not have listened closely enough, not have paid deeper attention to the signs that have been present in this country almost from its inception?
It’s not as though we haven’t been warned:
“On the whole, with scandalous exceptions, Democracy’s given the ordinary worker more dignity than he ever had…. Wait till (fill in the blank) takes charge of us. A real Fascist dictatorship!
‘Nonsense! Nonsense! That couldn’t happen here in America, not possibly! We’re a country of freemen’…. The answer to that is . . . ‘the hell it can’t!’ Why, there’s no country in the world that can get more hysterical–yes, or more obsequious!–than America. Look how Huey Long became an absolute monarch over Louisiana, and how . . . Senator (fill in the blank) owns his state. Listen to (fill in the blank) on the radio–divine oracles to millions. Remember how casually most Americans . . . accepted Tammany Hall grafting and Chicago gangs and the crookedness of so many presidential appointees? Could Hitler’s bunch . . . be worse? Remember the Kuklux (sic) Klan? Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut ‘Liberty cabbage’ and somebody actually proposed calling German measles ‘Liberty measles’? [Remember Freedom Fries?] And . . . censorship of honest papers? Bad as Russia! “….Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution?….Remember the Kentucky night-riders? Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings? Not happen here? Prohibition–shooting down people just because they might be transporting liquor–no, that couldn’t happen in America! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for dictatorship as ours!
Sound familiar? This is an excerpt from Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, about a dictatorial candidate for president, Senator Berzelius Windrip, who says: “The Executive has got to have a freer hand and be able to move quick in an emergency, and not be tied down by a lot of dumb shyster-lawyer congressmen taking months to shoot off their mouths in debates.” Sound very familiar?
Lewis wrote [It Can’t Happen Here] in 1934, when the country was still reeling from the Great Depression. People were unemployed and scared. Lewis and many others feared that this situation made the country ripe for a Fascist-type candidate.
Lewis wrote this book in 1934, when the country was still reeling from the Great Depression. People were unemployed and scared. Lewis and many others feared that this situation made the country ripe for a Fascist-type candidate.
In 2004, with Bush running for a second term and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan raging, Philip Roth also thought about a frightened country concerned about being pulled into another war, and ripe for an authoritarian government that pretended to give a voice to the common man. He wrote The Plot Against America, which HBO recently presented as a mini-series. This story focuses on a Hilteresque attack against American Jews, but one can certainly insert any minority or religious group one chooses.
These incredibly talented writers understood the American psyche and were able to imagine the results of an unscrupulous, dogmatic, and charismatic individual who sought to gain power by playing on the country’s fears and prejudices. As we sit sequestered in our homes, watching with horror the daily numbers of Americans who have died from COVID-19 and the unemployment figures that have rivaled and perhaps surpassed those of the Great Depression; as we watch police cars drive into groups of peaceful protesters and a president who has them gassed and shot at so he can have a photo opportunity with a prop Bible, we must do all we can to ensure that notwithstanding the current conditions, we find a way to ensure that EVERY eligible citizen is afforded the opportunity and right to vote this November. We can no longer sit wide-eyed at home mulling over “unprecedented” actions.
We MUST remain extremely vigilant, because yes: It CAN Happen Here!