First Responder: It CAN Happen Here

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.

 

 

 

It Can’t Happen Here

It is very common for humans to say things like “that would never happen to me” and fail to realize just how most of us are just one step from away from what we think can never happen. The readings mostly focus on the idea that Americans believe that their country is safe from all types of Fascism or Communism because of their well-founded institutions and divided political system. Also, they have a belief that America and Americans have a sort of exceptionalism that all other countries in the world lack. It also points out how susceptible democracy is to these candidates. Moreover, it tries to unpack the term populism and put Donald Trump at the starting point in American populism. They are right to suggest that Donald Trump using Steve Brannon’s strategy is the rise of American populism. But I think the idea of populism has been distorted into a buzz term that is branded on political opponents. What I found most interesting how the watering down of terms has been pushed to a breaking point. Words like “racist” or “fascist” have become things that are thrown around so lightly and continuously. Some individuals are no longer fazed by getting these terms launched at them; they even use them as part of their social media personalities. Should we be careful to brand people with such words as populists, fascists, racist, etc.? Have the terms lost their value? Can it ever get its punch back?

First Responder: The Thirties in the United States

This weeks readings were interesting in that they addressed populist discourses in the context of the US during the interwar period. This is not something I had considered a great deal before. Populism in this time period is usually examined in a European context, as we did in class the past couple weeks when discussing fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

Linda Gordon’s article is a useful jumping off point for the discussion about the United States, because she attempts to clearly define populism. It is interesting that she notes that there are 13 essential characteristics of populism, but that most liberal ‘populist’ movements do not meet most of these criteria. Gordon makes it clear that from her perspective, the groups that tend to conform to this model tend to be more right wing. This begs the question of whether or not there is something inherent in more liberal movements that makes them less prone to Gordon’s populism? Or whether Gordon’s definition is structured in a way that makes it more likely to focus on right wing groups? For instance, the one American group that she defines as populist is the KKK. While I agree with this assessment of the KKK, I think it is important to consider how her list of 13 attributes functions.

In relation to Sinclair Lewis’s novel, It Can’t Happen Here, Gordon’s article reinforces the point made in the book, that it can in fact happen in the U.S.. In the book, Senator Windrip’s “The Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Man” feels like reading something out of fascist Italy or Nazi Germany. So while this is a work of fiction, it is important to consider the messages and lessons it presents. Together, this two readings provide an understanding of how populism can and has developed in an American context, and in some ways both seem to be providing warnings about how to look to the future.

Improper Use of the Term ‘Populist”

The article’s main argument is centered around the misuse of populist terminology when describing popular grassroots organizing and movements.  Linda Gordon writes that ‘populism’ became a trendy word during the recent US election to describe Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders’ campaigns.  These referrals are damaging to the political landscape and emphasises that historians and media should be stricter when calling a person or group populist.

The argument is expanded upon by outlining the history and practices of the KKK, what she calls a true populist movement.  The KKK is characterized by all of the 13 elements that are displayed by populist groups such as, large size, mass mobilization, extreme nationalism, victimization and conspiracy theories.  For example, the Klan considered all white Anglo-Saxon protestant’s victims who have fallen to the Jews and Catholics.  The Jews, ran Hollywood and attempted to subvert women’s morality through their near naked depiction and the Catholics invaded the police, politics and schools.

Is the ‘alt-right’ filling the void that the KKK once occupied?  I believe they could fit in most of the 13 elements, but they seem less harmful.  They have mass participation which can be seen online and in the event in Charlottesville.  They are anti-immigration and angry and distrustful of elites.  A distrust of experts can also be seen in the ‘fake news’ campaigns.  The alt-right has also expressed disdain for the Jewish community following the fashion of the KKK.  One of the leaders, Richard Spencer is a proponent for a Jewish free white only North America.

Does the alt-right wield the same power as the KKK once did? Does the alt-right lack central leadership that diminishes the cohesion needed to wield such power?  Can they evolve to be as recognisable as the KKK?  How has the Trump era influenced groups like the KKK and the alt-right?

Riley Bowman

First Responder: It Can’t Happen in the USA – Or Can It?

 

Many people believe that the United States is immune to populism due to their strong beliefs of personal freedom, democracy and their political and military history (for example, fighting with the Allied Forces against Hitler’s regime in WW2). Unfortunately, we are now seeing that this belief has generated a false sense of security. This has allowed populist roots to take hold in many different aspects of the country. Some citizens seem to be downplaying the presence of these roots – almost as a form of willful ignorance. This is reinforced by the belief that the United States oversees the policing of other parts of the world (they are labelled as leaders of the free world), but they themselves do not require intervention as they are the supposed role model. On the other hand, there are many who are not ignorant to the changes taking place but justify this shift as a necessary extreme for the greater good of the American people and to protect the American way of life (consequentialists).

This is further complicated by the great divide that is taking place not only in America, but all over the world. Not all, but some, label those on the other end of the political spectrum as extremists and state that they are out of touch with reality. They dehumanize each other and don’t see each other as fellow human beings with differing view points. All they see is red or blue, liberal or conservative – an enemy. Some are extremely indoctrinated in their nationalism because of the system that they were raised in. When a child acts inappropriately we don’t usually blame them, we blame the parents – can the same be argued for those on the extreme right and left? We cannot excuse the behaviour as it has severe (and sometimes violent) consequences for many marginalized groups, but this demonstrates the difficulty in bridging the gap between the two extremes and opens the door for understanding both ends of the political spectrum.

Populism functions on a variety of levels, but the largest and most powerful motivating factor, in my opinion, is victimization. If people felt empowered and didn’t feel like victims, the tactics used by many populists wouldn’t be able to take hold in people’s minds. It seems that the large majority of people still clinging to Trump and his beliefs are those who feel as though they don’t have any other options available to them. For example, there are those who state that the “liberals in the big cities” have forgotten about those inhabiting the rural areas. The most vulnerable to indoctrination of populist beliefs are those who feel as though they have nothing to lose (and everything to gain); this is further complicated by some of those who have racist and xenophobic tendencies. As discussed in the article, there was a heavily racialized aspect of the victimization process during the second wave of the KKK (and now, especially in regards to the topic of immigration and refugees), not solely economic disparity between the large “liberalized” cities and rural areas. There was – and arguably still is – a belief that the American dream and true freedom was only for a select group of people, and that allowing outsiders to take part would tarnish America. This mixture of denial and victimization, in addition to the dehumanization and constant labelling of everyone who doesn’t share the same opinion as themselves as the alt-right or the alt-left is a deadly combination, one that has created an environment that is allowing hatred to flourish and one which is further dividing us instead of allowing us to come together to create a dynamic society that attempts to cater to the different needs of each socioeconomic group.

 

Jay Countaway