Wednesday, February 8, 2023
Feb. 8, 2023

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Jayne: Yes, it can happen here

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

We were warned. You can’t say we weren’t warned. But with those warnings coming more than 70 years ago, it is understandable that the lessons would be ignored today.

So it is helpful that I recently have run across reminders of Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel about fascism, “It Can’t Happen Here.” And a 1943 anti-racism film produced by the federal government, “Don’t Be a Sucker.” And a 1946 short from Encyclopedia Brittanica Films about the differences between democracy and despotism.

Each of them has relevance these days. No, not because Donald Trump was a fascist as president; thankfully, he was too incompetent to truly entrench fascism in the United States. Yet even though he left the presidency 10 months ago, Trump continues to cast a shadow over American politics.

Consider the stonewalling by Trump acolytes to prevent a congressional committee from investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. When witnesses can ignore subpoenas with impunity, we are no longer a nation of laws.

Or consider the small but boisterous cult of followers who insist Trump won the election despite having no evidence other than the word of a compulsive liar. When enough people ignore reality, we are no longer of nation of reason.

Or consider how some states are giving officials the power to overturn election results. When the will of the people can be ignored, we are no longer a democracy.

In other words, inch-by-inch, we are constantly being reminded that it can, indeed, happen here. As the narrator in “Despotism” says, “Avoid the comfortable idea that the mere form of government can of itself safeguard a nation against despotism.”

In Lewis’ novel, Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip uses populist rhetoric to ascend to the presidency.

Windrip is described as “ascending from the vulgar fraud of selling bogus medicine … to the dignity of selling bogus economics.” He is described as having the “power of bewitching large audiences” despite being “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic.”

Meanwhile, his supporters cocoon themselves in an echo chamber that allows them to ignore the casual racism and despotism that fuels his presidency.

All of which might or might not be prescient for today’s politics. You can decide for yourself.

But as one character says to another: “Why are you so afraid of the word ‘fascism?’ Might not be so bad, with all of the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays and living on my income tax and yours. Not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini … and have ’em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again.”

All of which might or might not be echoed in today’s politics. Again, you can decide for yourself.

Yet while we think about such questions, we also should ponder how we arrived at this place, and why Trump still holds sway over the Republican Party. In truth, such de-evolution does not happen in a vacuum. It takes decades to develop, and the “Despotism” film offers a suggestion: “If a community’s economic distribution becomes slanted, its middle-income groups grow smaller and despotism stands a better chance to gain a foothold.”

Last year, I asked a former professor of mine, Peter Hayes, about why fascism is often being excused as “populism,” not only in this country but in other democracies. “It’s a globalizing world with complicated problems that can only be handled, if at all, by collective, international responses, which are hard to devise and understand,” Hayes wrote in an email. “Retreating into a fortress mentality is simply easier, and hating complexity and the people who seem to cause it feels good to many people.”

Which helps explain why the United States is where it is now. Which helps explain why many Republicans have avoided the opportunity to move beyond Trump as their party’s standard bearer.

That is fine; that is their choice. But we were warned about the dangers many years ago.