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It Can Happen Here

“The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.

Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.”

― Sinclair LewisIt Can’tHappen Here

Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here narrates in frightening prescient detail how a guy named Berzelius Windrip, “for all his clownish swindlerism” can turn a democracy into a one party– The American Corporate State and Patriotic Party — ruled by Windrip, who “should have complete control of legislation and execution, and the Supreme Court to be rendered incapable of blocking anything that it might amuse him to do.”

Lewis fails to show us how a clownish swindler puts aside an entrenched echelon of wealth and power, although he does show us how Windrip succeeds with the disaffected losers within that regime. The Great Depression has already happened in this novel and so sent the wealthy into hiding. Their regime is weaker and more vulnerable than the one Trump faces, where oligarchic forces are not in retreat but established and ascendant. And there seems now to be no need for those forces to slap Trump down because he is clearly engaged in his own self-destruction.

The president  has already pitched some heavy handed battles or, more precisely, twisted himself within inane imbroglio with the courts, the intelligence community, the Fourth Estate, the EU, NATO, Angela, Australia, the mayor of London. . .  And the list grows with every tweet. But even if he had been far subtler and adept, his immoveable opposition remains capitalism’s own profit making need for a façade of saneness and stability, not the antics of a greedy, self-inflated “clownish swindler” who serves ego and not ideology and therefore is not as pliable as was “Dubya.”

And yet President Trump is a corrosive agent operating on the imagined community of a democratic, humanitarian society. He is a greedy, self-inflated, antic clown but he is also someone we need to take seriously because he is all that and the President of the United States. It’s a serious time.

“Hmm. Yes, I agree it’s a serious time. With all the discontent there is in the country to wash him into office, Senator Windrip has got an excellent chance to be elected President, next November, and if he is, probably his gang of buzzards will get us into some war, just to grease their insane vanity and show the world that we’re the huskiest nation going. And then I, the Liberal and you, the Plutocrat, the bogus Tory, will be led out and shot at 3 A.M. Serious? Huh!”

― Sinclair LewisIt Can’t Happen Here

We have a two party system which, because of its common support of an economic system that has jumped its traces during Reagan’s first term, has quickly shaped Lost and Forgotten classes, the Losers in our casino form of capitalism. We live in a political duopoly in which parties either applaud a rapacious economic system, as do the Republicans, or provide distractions from that system, as do the Democrats.

What we see now is that Republicans will ignore President Trump’s “clownish swindlerism” in the hope that he will sign off on legislation that clears the deck of any Federal government intrusions in profit making. What we also see after Trump’s first Europe outing is that he will make a lot of bad stuff happen so fast that the need for recuperation will be, within an ADD, apolitical, know nothing of economics society, misattributed or unrecognized.

What is “bad stuff” is in the eye of the beholder. In the case of Republicans, it would amount to a banana republic size political instability with disastrous economic consequences, such as throwing the stock market off kilter, raising inflation, prompting bank failures, and generally upsetting the apple cart of Wall Street financializing. If a great deal of “bad stuff” had not already happened to the 40% who voted for Trump, they might be more alarmed by what “bad stuff” Trump, their savior, might do.

From a Liberal perspective, the terrible consequences of a Trump presidency have much to do with our standing in the international community, various retrogressions in equal rights, trade agreements, political correctness, personal choice and climate policies, an ineptitude dealing with Russia, and the entrenchment of autocratic rule. Because these are Liberal matters that neither Republicans nor Trump’s followers are invested, both can continue to look upon Trump as a likely purveyor of “good stuff.” The fact that he is the president at once makes him the most “likely purveyor of good stuff” that either Republicans or Trump’s followers have available to them. The tragic part here is that neither faction will be able to pull back a Trump regime, an illiberal regime, once a threshold is crossed. I repeat: capitalist powerbrokers and not political parties will pull Trump back, if they feel the need has arrived.

“There is not a single political point a liberal can make on the Internet for which “You triggered, snowflake?” cannot be the comeback. Its purpose is dismissing liberalism as something effeminate, and also infantile, an outgrowth of the lessons you were taught in kindergarten. “Sharing is caring”? Communism. “Feelings are good”? Facts over feelings. “Everyone is special and unique”? Shut up, snowflake.

Dana Schwartz, “Why Trump Supporters Love Calling People `Snowflakes,'” GQ, Feb. 1, 2017iH

The ineffectiveness of the Democratic Party is expressed in both the Liberal and the Progressive wings, neither one clearly distinguished from the other, at least not in the minds of most Americans. Both Democrats and Republicans stay clear of any socialist leaning, a transgression Bernie Sanders committed to his peril. Rather than take a firm stance in regard to profit making in warfare, prisons, education and health care, limiting profits on energy sources and pharmaceuticals and curtailing the exploits of financialized capitalism’s flagrant usury, the Democratic Party has pitched its tent on the outskirts of the reigning economics. Thus, they can address problems that arise from this reigning economics.

It should be clear after the Trump voters grabbed headlines in the 2016 election that Hillary’s “Everyday Americans” find identity politics antagonizing and not in any way connected to their economic plight. What can happen here is that a “clownish swindler” will show up, entrance the embittered and antagonized and with great applause run everything from gender choice to political action out the door. We know this is already happening and the Liberal/Progressive response is no more than the gentry’s attack on an uneducated rabble, those Hillary, from a perch far removed from where Trump’s supporters are, once called “Deplorables.”  Those so designated retaliate with a “Shut up, snowflake.”

“If our grandfathers had had the alertness and courage to see the evils of slavery and of a government conducted by gentlemen for gentlemen only, there wouldn’t have been any need of agitators and war and blood.”

Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here

We can expect that the 40% or so who voted for Trump, among the 55% of eligible voters who did note, will soon be more angered and bitter, more sure of being cheated, than any time before . This is so simply because Trump will not, as Windrip did not, “feed them handsomely” once in office. Whether those at the bottom, the 55% who didn’t vote, who have negative wealth, have no political leverage, and pay no attention to the political scene will be joined by the Trump supporters in the near future in a camaraderie of despair, distrust and just plain giving up is an incalculable unknown. Make the Losing class greater seems to be a more probable slogan than make American great again.

The worst that President Trump could say about Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber, was that he was a Loser. Winning and losing in the U.S. is a matter of financial success, of fame and fortune and so all those who have not so succeeded are deemed Losers, placed in the same company as Abedi. Financial status then replaces any prior moral distinctions, the moral categories of good and evil reduced to winning and losing.

There is a greater chance, though, that the Losers, not the terrorists Trump defines as losers but the economic losers, will retreat to the womb of Circe enchantment in cyberspace than storm whatever might stand as our Bastille. The economics of survival that extend from debt to job insecurity, scant living wages, and the physical and mental illness that attends such also operate to estrange the Lost and the Forgotten from any helpful involvement in politics. It seems then that a population majority falling into such conditions does not necessarily translate into redeeming political action. The condition of medieval peasantry under the dominion of .5% nobility overlords did not spur any redress for some fifteen hundred years.

“More and more, as I think about history,” he pondered, “I am convinced that everything that is worthwhile in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever. But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever.”

― Sinclair LewisIt Can’t Happen Here

Our present “man of barbarism,” President Trump, is only able to shut up the Fourth Estate, science, and the judiciary if the culture is already predisposed to shutting all of them up.

I would say that as a field fertilized and plowed, the U.S. is prepared to close down consensual, rational and empirical methods that challenge personal opinion. If we previously called “fake news” any account that was invalidated within a system of universally recognized adjudication, we now call “fake news” whatever accounts are disagreeable to us or upset our own personal determinations.

It may be a long road that has gotten the American cultural mindset to this point but that does not matter now.  Transposing falsity to a personal determination seems to me to be a no return event within this mindset. If all authority, previously recognized as such, dissolves and leaves nothing in its place but personal dispositions and preferences, politics, among much else, also dissolves into a kind of manic madness.

We are fortunate, in a cruel way, in being able to clearly observe this dissent into the maelstrom on Twitter and not simply in the tweets of the man who represents every American citizen. Of course, it is unfortunate that such moshpit madness exists and that 140 character volleys are now our chosen form of intellectual discourse.

It is not then only the appearance of a “clownish swindler” as President of the United States that leads me to think that a descent into an illiberal, autocratic regime is possible here in the U.S.

Nor is it only the fact that the Republican Party stands by and allows this descent to happen on its watch in the hope that Trump would extend further a neoliberal market rule.

Nor is it only the fact that the Democratic Party criminally deflects attention from a need to seriously correct, not bandage, an economic system that benefits an investor class, which Democrats in power like Republicans in power belong, while confounding the “general Welfare” of the Many with the rights of every form of marginalization that makes it to the headlines.

Nor is it only the fact that the Forgotten and the Lost alone have had their discontent and their dark devils of human nature summoned in support of a confidence man who promises them redemption.

To all this we need to append this: It can happen here because too many now find themselves unable to recognize and accept a narrative of recuperation. Too many have lost the method and means of fashioning a solidarity required to redress the wounds already suffered by such a loss.

Although many in the presence of our “clownish swindler” are now rallying around an exalted image of Barack Obama, the failures of Obama’s presidency, most accurately described as omissions, lead us to Trump, just as failure of the Democratic Party to buck a ruling class and its neoliberal policies and the Republican Party’s descent into a vile politics of personal attack have done so.

Paul Street is incisive on Obama’s role here:

 Beyond the social, democratic, security and environmental benefits that would have been experienced by millions of Americans and world citizens under an actually progressive Obama presidency, such policy would have been good politics for both Obama and the Democratic Party. It might well have pre-empted the Tea Party rebellion and kept the orange-haired beast Donald Trump – a dodgy neo-fascistic legacy of Obama and the Clintons’ ruling- and professional-class Ivy League elitism – out of the White House.  The bigger problem here was Obama’s love and admiration for the nation’s reigning wealth and power elite – or, perhaps, his reasonable calculation that the powers that be held a monopoly on the means of bestowing public love and admiration. Non-conformism to the ruling class carries no small cost in a media and politics culture owned by that class.

Paul Street, “Obama: A Hollow Man Filled with Ruling Class Ideals,” CounterPunch, June 2, 2017

It can happen here because our politics beginning with Reagan have allowed a malicious form of compassionless competitiveness to overwhelm our politics. It can happen here if we mean by “it” a collapse of a once imagined community into a sad state of winners and losers, the losers mounting as the winners dig in to defend and protect their winnings. Donald Trump did not create this condition of being in the world but like a good salesman he has known where and how to pitch his campaign tent. We shouldn’t be surprised that he holds on to that ground.

More articles by:

Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Travels of a New Gulliver.

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