Saturday, January 5, 2008

Fascism in Fiction

Although truth may be stranger than fiction, often fiction is one of the best ways to find truth. In 1935, Sinclair Lewis penned It Can’t Happen Here, a fictional tale of a fascist takeover in America. By Lewis’s own admission, it wasn’t his best work. It rambles, has too many characters and subplots, and could be cut by a third and be a much better book. That being said, it has moments of brilliance. Part dystopia, part satire, Lewis explores the political and social spectrum of America and speculates how fascism could come develop in the land of the free. Part of the brilliance of the book is that he quite correctly makes American fascism very American. It invokes the founding fathers, waves the flag, reads the Bible, and enjoys barbeque and beer—it is truly a homegrown movement, as fascism must be.

Of course, Lewis isn’t the only author to speculate on what a fascist American would look like. One of the first attempts was Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908), a brilliant dystopia where early twentieth century America comes under the sway of “The Oligarchy.” The Oligarchy emerged as a new elite class created to suppress a worker uprising. London successfully predicts the success of fascism following failed revolutionary movements in Germany and Italy (so much so it makes me wonder if Mussolini read the book for ideas). It also points to a potential base for fascism in the United States in the “labor aristocracy”—well paid middle class workers who enjoy a significant amount of material abundance (he even predicts suburbia) in exchange for their role as guardians of the system.

More recently, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), written in the wake of the Iranian Islamic Revolution and the emergence of a right wing political Christianity, speculates how a religious based movement might establish a theocratic fascism in the United States. The Republic of Gilead, an inheritor state to the United States, was created out of a civil war fought to turn back the social movements of the 1960s and 70s, particularly feminism. Gilead is a society based on a rigid gender and racial hierarchy, enforced largely by women upon other women. Atwood’s book is interesting in that it highlights the complexity of gender and politics and how the debate over “family values” and the proper role of women could lead to a fascist America.

Of the three, Lewis’s is best at exploring the movement on its own terms and how it came to power. It is also the least ideologically driven and historically grounded book, and therefore seems more plausible. In It Can’t Happen Here, fascism comes to America through the alliance of social forces that existed in the 1930s—ultra-conservative Christians, disgruntled war veterans, a popular militia (known as the Minute Men), and an anxious business community. The movement coalesces under the leadership of Buzz Windrip, a folksy, plain talking, “Professional Common Man,” who only reads the Bible. Windrip, thanks to his handler and publicist Lee Sarason, successfully outmaneuvers FDR in the 1936 primaries, forging a new political coalition from conservative southern Democrats and northern Republicans heavily financed by the industrial elite (sounding familiar?). Lewis draws his inspiration from the political milieu of the 1930s—Father Coughlin, Huey Long, the KKK, the DAR, Randolph Hearst, and many others historical actors are either referenced are parodied in the book. Although many on the Left criticize FDR for not going further with his reforms, Lewis reminds us that if FDR had not been elected, the country would have moved much further right, not left.

To answer the New Deal, Windrip offers the “real” New Deal—promising populist economic reform, a guaranteed national income, and an end to unemployment (none of which come to pass), while at the same time establishing rigid racial segregation, establishing the US as a “Christian Nation,” removing women from the workplace, establishing rule by executive decree, and outlawing Communism, Socialism, or Anarchism. Dissenters are dealt with by the Minute Men, a “marching club” that eventually becomes the political police. Revenue that is supposed to go to human services and education ends up financing the emergent police state. The movement uses American songs and American symbolism to make all these changes appear to be signs of patriotism in hard times. It capitalizes upon modern propaganda techniques, utilizing its financial support to buy the air time (and public opinion).

Lewis also satirizes the Left—suggesting that much of what gives fascism a potential base, is the inability of the Left to make itself relevant to the public. The main character is the meek Jessup Doremuse (Dormouse)—a well read and unrepentant Liberal, who understands what is happening, but struggles to know how to combat it until it is too late. Other victims of the regime include Communists and Socialists, who spend more time arguing with each other and Liberals rather than constructing realistic political alternatives or combating the common enemy.

In many respects, Lewis’s book is the most prescient of the three. His acute analysis of the political forces in the United States and how they could interact to create a fascist dictatorship is remarkable. At the very least, he predicted the potential for the Right wing resurgence under which we are currently living. That Buzz Windrip and Lee Sarason resemble George Bush and Karl Rove is even more bizarre. Lewis clearly identified the power that the “professional common man,” amplified by corporate airwaves, could have.

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