I first published this post back in July, after the Republican National Convention. I’m re-publishing it now because I am struck even more by the parallels between Lewis’ vision and today. The idea of a frothing, autocratic demagogue with militias behind him is no mere fiction; the thought of a newly elected president muscling through a racist agenda, fomenting unrest and tossing his enemies behind bars is no mere phantasm. Can you imagine what Lewis would say, were he alive and watching this sick pageant before us? He’d be aghast.
And yet I keep recalling my mother’s words after the Soviet Union fell. “Democracy is messy,” she observed. “I don’t think the Russians realize how messy it is.” She had faith in that messiness. She believed devoutly in our ability, as a nation, to make mistakes and recover from them. The great gift of democracy is the authority it gives us to make those mistakes. It grants us the power to do the right thing, yes, but it also gives us the power to do the wrong thing, and it is in that power — to screw up, sometimes spectacularly — where we prove ourselves as Americans. The genius of this radically inclusive system, and the never-ending terror of it, lie in our own fallibility and potential for electoral fiascoes. It lies in our humanity, in our brokenness, in our best intentions curbed by our worst impulses.
And it lies in our resilience. Our stubbornness. Our innate, star-spangled, mulish optimism, which pushes us onward and upward through the muck. Since when do Americans give up on anything? Since when do we give up on each other?
Below, then, is my original post from this past summer. Read it and vote. And remember: Whoever wins on Tuesday, and whatever holy chaos results, we damn well need to get through it together. The mess is ours. The mess is us. God bless America.
“Aside from his dramatic glory, Buzz Windrip was a Professional Common Man.
Oh, he was common enough. He had every prejudice and aspiration of every American Common Man . . . . But he was the Common Man twenty times magnified by his oratory, so that while the other Commoners could understand his every purpose, which was exactly the same as their own, they saw him towering among them, and they raised hands to him in worship.”
Buzz Windrip, in case you hadn’t met him, is the fascist demagogue in Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 satire “It Can’t Happen Here,” which pundits have sometimes invoked in the long months since Donald Drumpf first rose to prominence in this election, and then rose and rose again. It is not the world’s greatest novel, being overwritten, under-realized and saddled with way too much dated lingo for 21st-century eyeballs. Also, Buzz is not an exact fictional counterpart; for one thing, he runs as a Democrat.
But as the Republican National Convention concluded last week, I kept thinking about Lewis’s vision — and his characterization of a power-crazed, racist incendiary who runs for president with the support of a hoodwinked populace.
Windrip isn’t an Everyman, but he does a good job faking it for the disaffected, underserved, frustrated masses. He’s both one of them and a cut far above them, someone who claims the power and the wherewithal to make promises he has no intention of fulfilling: among them, a $5,000 guaranteed income. This is where the parallels with Drumpf pique and scare the bejesus out of me, because, just like Windrip, this cheap Narcissus has bamboozled his supporters into believing that he cares about them. He doesn’t. This is what he cares about: Donald Drumpf.
In “It Can’t Happen Here,” apologists and toadies fall into line, assuming Windrip will moderate once elected, but of course he doesn’t. He creates a militia. He tosses Supreme Court justices in prison. He takes over the media. He establishes concentration camps for dissenters. And so on. I am not saying any of that will happen if Drumpf is elected; I’m not saying we’re doomed to endure a real-world version of an 81-year-old novel. But we need to pay attention. We need to be vigilant about this democracy of ours. We need to tell ourselves it can happen here, or we’ll be lazy about ensuring that it won’t.