Well, it has finally come time to directly talk about the “greatest nation on earth”.
The topic of the week is supposed to be specifically about 1930’s America. However, considering Linda Gordon’s article “What Do We Mean by Populism? The “Second” Klan as a Case Study” directly addresses the 2016 election and Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” is currently being advertised on Amazon.com as “The novel that foreshadowed Donald Trump’s authoritarian appeal.”, I don’t think it’s presumptuous to believe that most readers will relate these directly to the current political scene.
Indeed, this is a very important comparison to make. However, it is because it is so important that it is not to be taken lightly or haphazardly.
First, one must understand one fundamental aspect of America. In America, one of the first things every child learns is that they live in the greatest nation on Earth. This is not up for debate, this is just a fact. You live in the land of freedom, opportunity, and incorruptible democracy and should be proud. We foreigners may scoff at this abundant confidence, but such patriotism is one of America’s greatest strengths.
That being said, it’s also its greatest weakness.
As the title suggests, the idea that totalitarianism “can’t happen here” references a false sense of security amongst Americans. The power of the book is that it totally can happen here, as the fictional Buzz Windrip rises to absolute power not by European invasion but within the American political system itself.
The reason he is able to do this is primarily due to the sense of resentment amongst the American people. When you are told from birth that you live in the greatest place in the world, whenever reality doesn’t live up to this it leads to major discontentment. Of course, it is very hard if not near impossible to completely give up on your ideology. And thus, people look to pass blame upon the “others”; foreigners, minorities, political parties, the press, etc. As Gordan points out, it is important to understand that this does not usually stem from a hatred of a particular group, as much as general resentment taking form in hatred towards a particular group. It matters little which group is blamed, as long as there is someone to blame.
This is why we should take caution in making such comparisons. The important aspect of such dangerous groups like the KKK or the fictional Windrip supporters is not the specifics of their ideologies but the overall trends. An American dictatorship can happen, and we cannot be blinded into thinking it cannot because it would take a slightly different form than a European dictatorship. In that same note, however, we should also understand it would be different than a Windrip-style American dictator from the 1930s. It is only by acknowledging the fundamental differences that one can build a strong case for why the similar overall trends are so dangerous.