Tuesday, May 24, 2011

It Can't Happen Here

The 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here, is a depiction of an America taken over by Fascism. Franklin D. Roosevelt loses the Democratic nomination in 1936 to Senator Buzz Windrip, a charismatic leader who promptly imposes a Facist regime on America. His Minute Men are like the Nazi Brownshirts, his political philosophy is Corporatist and his homespun rhetoric is pure, vintage American.

The hero is Doremus Jessup, a small town New England newspaper editor, who is a liberal. Jessup fears the rise of Windrip but his worse fears are exceeded by the brutality, lawlessness and stupidity of Windrip's regime. Jessup is no saint; he is engaged in an extra-marital affair and he seems perpetually perplexed by ideological uncertainty. He is often tempted by fanatical clarity exhibited by his communist friend Karl, but he is capable of rejecting Communism as merely the ideology of Stalin's totalitarian state. He has no illusions about Hitler or Fascism, but he finds it incredible and world-shattering to watch America fall under the rule of ignorant thugs and men lacking any principles or conscience whatsoever.

The novel is interesting for several reasons. One is that it was written prior to World War II and the revelation of the extreme anti-Semitism of Hitlerism in the Final Solution. So it can calmly consider the true nature of Fascism without having the whole question preempted by one of the most horrendus evils of history. There is anti-Semitism in Lewis's American Fascism, but it is much milder and less principled. For example, while the Fascist leaders rail against the Jews, they don't go so far as to give up revenue by refusing to do business with those Jews who own important businesses. It never crosses anyone's mind to simply kill them and expropriate everything. Instead there are categories for "good Jews" and "bad Jews," with the latter of course being Communist agitators and poor Jews. The anti-Semitism issue is background not foreground, which means that we get a chance to evaluate Fascism separately from the question of how it treats the Jews.

The problem with the Fascism portrayed in this book is that it is brutal, stupid and ugly. It is the triumph of man's lower nature over civilization, religion and all higher virtues. It is a glorification of brute strength and unscrupulousness in which those who stand on principles - whether Christian or humanistic - are squashed. The liberal humanist is the ally of the Christian in that both take their stand on the necessity of getting both the ends and the means right, whereas the Fascist is the one who believes that the ends justify any means. In fact, the Fascist is impatient with debates over the morality of means and despises those who hold back from achieving a desired end because of moral scruples over things like judicial murder, the suspension of legal rights and the trampling of the Constitution. The essence of Fascism for Lewis is that might makes right - applied Nietzscheanism.

I think that this definition of Fascism is right and the strength of Lewis's argument is seen in the way he defines Communism as essentially identical with Fascism. Both are forms of Totalitarianism and the fact that they offer different Utopian dreams as their goal and justification cannot disguise the more important fact that their methods are identical: arbitrariness, brutality and disregard for the laws and traditions that protect human rights.

The novel is also interesting for another reason. Since it is set in the US, it is able to grapple with the question of whether Fascism is separable from racism. The US is not a racially based nation and the attempt to see "White Power" as the essence of US Fascism is not a replacement for the doctrine of the organic unity of the people of the nation that is seen in Italy or Germany. Some would say that Fascism is not possible in the melting pot that is the US, but Lewis shows that it is because the essence of Fascism is Nationalism but not Racial Superiority.

American patriotism is clearly something that Windrip and his gang of thugs pay lip service to but do not really believe in. American nationalism is rooted in the Declaration and the Constitution, the Founders and the division of powers. To believe in these ideals is the opposite of Fascism, for Lewis, and so Windrip's nationalist rhetoric is both dishonest and superficial. He has the American folksy charm and self-deprecating humor designed to appeal to the common man, but he no more believes in natural rights than he believes in Martians.

I find this way of portraying Fascism to be very enlightening. Stripped of the mystic nationalism and race unity doctrines of European Fascism, Fascism American style appears so much more obviously mere brutality applied to all of society. No one who read this book would come away worrying that contemporary Conservatives are proto-fascists. To the extent that conservative conservatives embody respect for the Constitution, originalism, state's rights, individual liberty, free speech, freedom of religion, the division of powers and limited government, they embody the opposite of what we see portrayed in this novel.

In fact, it is modern Progressivism, with its hurry-up approach to social engineering and its naive conviction that human nature is malleable that is much closer to sinking into the fascist swamp. The only thing that stands between a liberal democracy and a fascist dictatorship is a belief in principles, law and the dignity of the individual which cannot be compromised even for evidently good goals. Where does respect for such moral restraint and limits on government actions come from? This novel does not say. In fact, in the portrayal of the hero Doremus Jessup, we see a dark ambiguity between his temptation to hate and resort to the same level of brutality as the enemy and yet he constant awareness that he must resist becoming a carbon copy of what he despises. This ambiguity is a permanent feature of liberal democracy.

It is clear to me that the source of moral restraint and respect for the dignity of the individual does not come from any of the springs that feed contemporary Progressivism: Malthusianism, Darwinism, Scientism, Pragmatism, Marxism, and the Enlightenment Doctrine of Progress. None of these philosophical influences provide a basis for saying "No" to certain means no matter how many good results they appear to lead to and no matter how tempting they are to employ.

Doremus Jessup is a good man and a real hero. He opposes the great evil of his time with courage and moral clarity. But he does not know why he must do so. And so he is incapable of passing on his faith to his children. One of his children becomes a member of the underground resistance, while the other becomes a Fascist government official. But their choices appear to originate more in their contrasting temperaments than any sort of coherent moral philosophy that they are able consciously to accept or reject. The moral vagueness of the opposition to Fascism is the most troubling element of the novel.

Jonah Goldberg's thesis in his book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the America Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, is largely vindicated in this novel. What I mean by this is that Fascism really has more in common with Marxism, Progressivism and Communism than with classical, nineteenth century liberalism and its contemporary version known as conservativism. Conservativism is basically political liberalism joined to a metaphysical doctrine of law rooted in a belief in God. Not all Conservatives are Christians, though most are, but all non-Christian Conservatives nevertheless believe in natural law, the reality of right and wrong and that human rights derive from a Higher Power and not from the State.

Liberalism detached from a metaphysics of law rooted in a belief in God inevitably withers and fades into some sort of shrunken, hollowed-out version of itself that is incapable of resisting Fascism. Goldberg's book makes an eloquent argument for the thesis that secularized liberalism is not only susceptible to fascism, but in fact has been colonized by fascism during the twentieth century. This is what he means by the "secret history" of the American Left. Liberalism without God becomes fascist over time. Sinclair Lewis's novel is an artistic portrayal of that process happening suddenly and dramatically. Goldberg's book is an historical portrayal of that process happening gradually and unobtrusively.

The real message of It Can't Happen Here is that it actually can happen here. The message of Liberal Fascism is that it already is happening right now. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, when asked for his explanation of how Stalinism could have happened, replied that it happened "because men forgot God." If we will not listen to the prophets among us, we will destroy ourselves and it will be on our own heads.

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