In 1935, with Hitler and Mussolini forging a historic alliance in Europe and the world sliding toward war, Sinclair Lewis published the satirical novel “It Can’t Happen Here,” which depicted the rise of an indigenous American fascist movement. Lewis is a fine prose stylist, but this particular book has an overly melodramatic plot, and is highly specific to its era. It has not aged nearly as well as “Brave New World” or “1984,” and not many people read it today. (At the time, it was understood as an attack on Sen. Huey Long of Louisiana, the populist firebrand who was planning to run against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, but was assassinated before he could do so.) But certain aspects of Lewis’ fascist America still resonate strongly. His clearest insight came in seeing that the authoritarian impulse runs strong and deep in American society, but that because of our unique political history and our confused national mythology, it must always be called by other names and discussed in other terms.
Oh, yeah -- Happy New Year, everybody! Now let's get back to fascism. When the “Corpo” regime installed by tyrannical President Buzz Windrip in "It Can't Happen Here" strips Congress of its powers, tries dissidents in secret military courts and arms a repressive paramilitary force called the Minute Men, most citizens go along with it. (Yeah, some of that sounds familiar -- we'll get to that.) These draconian measures are understood as necessary to Windrip’s platform of restoring American greatness and prosperity, and even those who feel uncomfortable with Corpo policies reassure themselves that America is a special place with a special destiny, and that the terrible things that have happened in Germany and Italy and Spain are not possible here. No doubt the irony of Lewis’ title seems embarrassingly obvious now, but it was not meant to be subtle in 1935 either. His point stands: We still comfort ourselves with mystical nostrums about American specialness, even in an age when the secret powers of the United States government, and its insulation from democratic oversight, go far beyond anything Lewis ever imagined.
I’m not the first person to observe that the New York police unions’ current mini-rebellion against Mayor Bill de Blasio carries anti-democratic undertones, and even a faint odor of right-wing coup. Indeed, it feels like an early chapter in a contemporary rewrite of “It Can’t Happen Here”: Police in the nation’s largest city openly disrespect and defy an elected reformist mayor, inspiring a nationwide wave of support from “true patriots” eager to take their country back from the dubious alien forces who have degraded and desecrated it. However you read the proximate issues between the cops and de Blasio (some of which are New York-specific), the police protest rests on the same philosophical foundation as the fascist movement in Lewis’ novel. Indeed, it’s a constant undercurrent in American political life, one that surfaced most recently in the Tea Party rebellion of 2010, and is closely related to the disorder famously anatomized by Richard Hofstadter in his 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”
There’s no doubt that the NYPD crisis has disturbing implications on various levels. Amid a national discussion about police tactics and strategy, and the understandable grief following the murders of two NYPD officers, it amounts to a vigorous ideological counterattack. In effect, many cops (or at least their more intransigent leaders) want to assert that law enforcement is a quasi-sacred social institution, one that stands outside the law and is independent of democratic oversight. Sometimes this is taken to ludicrous and literal-minded extremes, as in a recent column by Michael Goodwin of the New York Post celebrating the NYPD and the United States military as "Our angels in a time of danger and cynicism." (Without realizing it, Goodwin was buttressing the conclusions of James Fallows' must-read Atlantic article about the way American society has become disconnected from the military and sanctified it at the same time.) As Salon columnist and veteran New York reporter Jim Sleeper has noted, this tendency also makes clear how little the tribal, insular culture of big-city policing has changed, even in an era of far greater diversity.
We still don’t know where this confrontation between de Blasio and his cops will lead, or how it will be resolved. (So far, the city has been peaceful – and nobody on my block got a parking ticket all week! So it’s win-win.) But I'd like to strike a counterintuitive position and insist that it’s important not to overstate the threat, or to give an arrogant blowhard like Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association head Patrick Lynch more importance than he merits. My fellow Irish-Americans will recognize Lynch as a latter-day example of the small-minded bigots and “begrudgers” too common in the tribe. But set him against Joe McCarthy and Father Coughlin, and he barely registers on the historical scales of infamy.
In the final analysis I don’t find Lynch and his minions especially terrifying, for exactly the same reasons I don’t find Sen. Ted Cruz especially terrifying. Both may dream of a Corpo America, in which dissent is crushed with an iron fist and our glorious national destiny is reclaimed from the appeasers and multiculturalists and pantywaists. But they lack the political finesse or rhetorical subtlety to make it happen. Ultimately, the real dangers may be closer at hand, and more difficult to see.
With both the disgruntled NYPD leadership and the so-called intellectual leader of the Tea Party, the appeal to fascism – no, excuse me, to “patriotism” and “true Americanism” – is just too blatant, and their rejection of democracy too obvious. Many people inclined to feel sympathy for the police, and skittish about the street protests of recent weeks, were dismayed to see cops turn the funeral of a murdered officer into a petty political confrontation, against the wishes of the dead man’s family. It was, or should have been, a moment of mourning and contemplation, when the city and the nation were poised to reflect on the uniquely difficult lives of police officers, who so often bear the brunt of policies they did not create and attitudes they cannot realistically be expected to escape.
Instead, Lynch and his followers got buffaloed into a political protest that may have served the ends of right-wing strategists, and galvanized the Fox News audience, but is exceedingly unlikely to improve the lives of NYPD officers and their families. Ted Cruz is a craftier character than Lynch, no doubt, but his entire career has been self-serving political theater meant to enhance his star status and thrill his zealous core of followers. He is widely disliked within his own party for his pattern of ideological overreach and political blunders, and many conservatives will never vote for him. He’s not remotely qualified for the role of Buzz Windrip or Huey Long, who had enormous popular appeal and campaigned on a platform of Mussolini-like public handouts. Republican apparatchiks will do everything possible to stop Cruz from becoming the party’s 2016 presidential nominee; if he wins the nomination anyway, he might well lose 40 states in the general election.
As I said earlier, despite their different contexts, the NYPD’s cold war with de Blasio, the Tea Party movement and the not-entirely-fictional American fascism of “It Can’t Happen Here” all have the same philosophical roots. It’s not just about race, although America’s racial divisions play an inescapable and central role. (In Lewis' novel, Windrip's movement seeks to suppress blacks and Jews, and revoke female suffrage.) At root it’s also not about police-state policies and tactics, even if those might seem to be the desired outcome. (Tea Partyers claim to oppose those things, with varying degrees of sincerity -- except when Muslims or other varieties of dark-skinned immigrants are involved.) Rather, these worldviews rest on the idea that America is not defined by its democratic institutions, but by a mystical or spiritual essence that cannot be precisely described -- but is understood far better by some of its citizens than by others. If those attuned to this patriotic frequency overwhelmingly tend to be white males, that is not evidence of racism (they might say) but of the clarity and selflessness of their political vision.
In this view, Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people” takes a distant second place to John Winthrop’s vision of America as a transcendent “city upon a hill.” This vision does not have to be specifically religious or Christian (though it sometimes is) to be infused with a puritanical sense of manifest destiny, and of the unbridgeable gulf between the elect, who perceive the true nature of America, and the damned, who do not. (I would argue that this kind of American exceptionalism is an inherently religious idea -- but that's a topic for another time.) Democracy is only valued insofar as it produces the “correct” results, and comes to be seen as debased and perverted when it does not. So for the committed patriot of the Pat Lynch/Buzz Windrip/Ted Cruz persuasion, only some democratic outcomes are legitimate expressions of “America” (see Bush v. Gore, 2000), only some elected leaders are worthy of respect, and only some exercises of authority require deference.
I’m no defender of the Democratic Party in general or of Bill Clinton or Barack Obama in particular, a pair of Wall Street flunkies and national-security ridealongs who are both to the right of Richard Nixon on most meaningful issues. But the concerted and unceasing campaign to depict both men as criminals and usurpers, whose spurious claims to the White House could magically be undone with a stained cocktail dress or a Kenyan birth certificate, provides one of the clearest manifestations of America’s proto-fascist disorder. The central issue was never whether Clinton should be impeached for lying about a sleazy affair, or whether Obama qualified as a “natural-born citizen.” (Which he probably would have, even had he been born overseas.) Those things were headline-grabbing expedients, symbolic fictions from the Leo Strauss playbook (Benghazi!), meant to stand in for an esoteric truth the benighted public was incapable of grasping: Those guys were not real Americans. The Force was not with them; they had no right to the throne; any method used to defeat them was justified.
These have been upsetting and dramatic weeks in New York and across the nation, and 2014 is likely to be remembered as a pivotal year in our society’s relationship with the police profession. But I suspect the spectacle of those cops turning their backs on Bill de Blasio is best understood as a rearguard action, a pathetic echo of the campaigns of vilification and de-Americanization conducted against Clinton and Obama. It’s fascist wishful thinking, a nostalgic appeal to a white working-class, “Reagan Democrat” demographic that is fading away. It might yield some short-term political benefits for the Republican operatives who apparently orchestrated it, but it is not the first stage of a putsch.
If there’s an urgent lesson to be drawn from Lewis’ 1930s allegory, it might come from turning its premise upside down. We don’t need an unctuous hypocrite like Buzz Windrip, or a buffoonish blackshirt like Pat Lynch, to end up with something close to fascism. (Lewis was arguably not fair to the real-life Huey Long, who was an exceptionally complicated figure – part Napoleon, part Occupy Wall Street. He would be viewed as a dangerous radical today, not acceptable in either political party.) Congress has already rendered itself irrelevant; any president who stripped it of its powers would be applauded. We already have the secret courts and the secret police, in the form of agencies we do not have the right to know about. Our president is charming and urbane, and despised by the old-school, would-be fascists with the Dad pants and the bad haircuts. So the fact that he has amassed unprecedented executive power he will hand on to his successor, and stands astride a vast subterranean “deep state” no one can see or control, is not something to worry about. This is America, and America is a special place. It can’t happen here.