Fascism in America?
November 29, 2004 10:39 PM   Subscribe

Fascism in America? It Can't Happen Here is a masterful satire in which a popular, dimwitted politician rises to dictatorial power on the backs of radio evangelists, opponents of urban, yacht-owning, college professor liberalism, common people, and the Rotary Club. America is pushed into a manufactured war by all-powerful corporate interests, liberties are restricted in the name of national emergency, and all is coordinated by a behind-the-scenes political maestro sometimes called "the brain." Sound familiar? It's nothing new: the book was written by Sinclair Lewis in 1935.
posted by socratic (50 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Good post.
posted by Keyser Soze at 10:49 PM on November 29, 2004

That's amusing. It really is.

(Disclaimer: voted for Bush.)
posted by BradNelson at 10:52 PM on November 29, 2004

Oh, I am so reading this.
posted by jenovus at 10:57 PM on November 29, 2004

(Disclaimer: voted for Bush.)

that's so right, on so many levels...
posted by quonsar at 11:02 PM on November 29, 2004

Disclaimer: I voted for Kerry. But the current ranting about fascism and dictatorship really has to stop. Bush is not my idea of a great president, but so what? 51% of America disagreed, and 51% wins the match.

The left and the right have been bitching at each other for a long, long time, using the same rhetoric we hear today. Yes, we owe it to our country and our children to keep our leaders honest, and that's one place I think we've failed in the Bush presidency. And, yes, I think Ann Coulter (and Al Franken) go way too far to be respectable. But, hell, look at Ukraine. We've got it pretty damn good here.

Oh, heh, the punch line of the book as compared to today is that the dimwitted dictator rose to power in a popular rebellion against low wages and big business ... as a Democrat. So, there's plenty of excess for people on my side of the aisle to watch out for too.
posted by socratic at 11:24 PM on November 29, 2004

re: my previous post, I should note that the President-dictator immediately gave up his populist message when he came to power and established a new era of something called Corporatism, just so nobody can claim the book as proof of the evils of Democrats. :)
posted by socratic at 11:39 PM on November 29, 2004

*bites at hook*

Why does the ranting really have to stop?

What does it matter if things are worse somewhere else if - theoretically - things are quite hideous enough here?

I'm all for counting blessings and being thankful, but what the hell is this ever-receding comparative metric that endlessly vanquishes our hopes and dreams under the apathetic bootheel of "Eh, could be worse"?

Consistent use of rhetoric confronting an ongoing problem automatically causes it to invalidate itself? WTF? I might just be tired, but I'm not following you, and the above seems a bit mushy or unclear, if not rife with a number of fallacies.

There's a vast difference between accountability of those in power and mending bridges with those that elected them.

On the other hand, nice post. I'm going to have to read me some Sinclair I've yet to read.

And dare I ask BradNelson to elaborate or did he just see "Fascism blah blah sound familiar?" and then immediately and prematurely cream his tighty-whiteys?
posted by loquacious at 11:45 PM on November 29, 2004

Holy jicama sticks with a double-wide side of ranch! BradNelson=MrAnonymous! *gibbers*
posted by loquacious at 11:50 PM on November 29, 2004

Why does the ranting really have to stop?

Do you not remember the childhood story of "The boy who cried wolf" ?
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 11:51 PM on November 29, 2004

Interesting post.. and looks like your first.. welcome aboard.
posted by stbalbach at 12:00 AM on November 30, 2004

S@L: Have you ever even read the story of Peter and the Wolf? Doesn't the wolf indeed appear at the end to do his nefarious wolfy deeds?

Besides, there's a huge difference between falsely 'crying wolf' out of malice or mischief and shrieking out in terror upon actually seeing a pack of slathering, rabid and moon-mad wolves encircling your farmhouse and eating everything in sight.
posted by loquacious at 12:09 AM on November 30, 2004

Do you not remember the childhood story of "The boy who cried wolf"?

how very apt of you! great use of allusion regarding that whole WMD/Iraq busine... er wait, wrong thread. carry on.
posted by rocket_skates at 12:23 AM on November 30, 2004

"a pack of slathering, rabid and moon-mad wolves".
Nice turn of phrase. My new goal is to slip that into a conversation somewhere.
posted by Vulpyne at 12:26 AM on November 30, 2004

I thought this had been discussed here prior, but it's only been mentioned in passing, apparently: as part of a Federal Theater Project thread, and a discussion of Smedley Butler. And I'm not kidding, but MeFi has never discussed Roth's The Plot Against America -- oh, wait, no, matteo name-checked it.
posted by dhartung at 12:42 AM on November 30, 2004

Odd to see this just as I'm rereading the book. I was thinking of writing a FPP on it myself.

Anyway, there are some truly eerie parallels to today in places, but in other ways the book is very much of its time (a slight hint of homophobia, for example). A good read, though.
posted by litlnemo at 12:56 AM on November 30, 2004

*hides from Vulpyne behind WolfDaddy*
posted by loquacious at 1:03 AM on November 30, 2004

Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut ‘Liberty cabbage’ and somebody actually proposed calling German measles ‘Liberty measles’? And wartime censorship of honest papers? Bad as Russia! Remember our kissing the—well, the feet of Billy Sunday, the million-dollar evangelist, and of Aimée McPherson, who swam from the Pacific Ocean clear into the Arizona desert and got away with it?

Nope. It's nothing like America today.
posted by bashos_frog at 1:09 AM on November 30, 2004

Great post.

Here are Mark Twain's writings on imperialism.
posted by homunculus at 1:37 AM on November 30, 2004

Anyway, there are some truly eerie parallels to today in places, but in other ways the book is very much of its time (a slight hint of homophobia, for example).

And that differs from today.. how? Maybe I was watching a different election. :)
posted by cj_ at 1:40 AM on November 30, 2004

(unless you meant that it differs from today in that instead of a slight hint of homophobia, it's escalated into full-blown bigotry)
posted by cj_ at 1:43 AM on November 30, 2004

Are you sure hiding from a pack of slathering, rabid and moon-mad wolves behind someone named WolfDaddy is a good idea? I'd expect there to be a pack of slathering, rabid and moon-mad wolves nearby. Two times. Score! (Sorry for derail.)
Slightly more on topic, I recently read It Can't Happen Here. Good book, well worth the time.
posted by Vulpyne at 4:08 AM on November 30, 2004

Contrary to socratic's suggestion, I'm not satisfied with the status of America right now based on the singular fact that somewhere else it's even less enjoyable. I know Kerry had a slogan of "we can do better;" I don't recall Bush ever running on "it could be worse." Not just because of the defeatist mentality in general, but considering that we actually had temporary camps set up in New York less than two months ago, I'm not sure what level of "worse" 51% of the country is willing to accept, and whatever it is, it frightens me.

Steve, pretending for a minute that you actually understand the concept of varying degrees of severity, exactly what would have to happen- at a minimum- under the Bush administration for you to agree that it casts shadows of fascism- or at the very minimum runs counter to the democratic ideals this nation was founded upon? Go ahead, be creative. You can even find a way to blame Clinton if it helps.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 4:44 AM on November 30, 2004

I wish this whole Bush-as-fascist meme could just be scuttled. Compared to the civil-liberties-restricting actions or corruption of previous presidents, he's not the worst. He's not really in the worst five.

(chronological order)
John Adams
Abraham Lincoln
Woodrow Wilson
Franklin Roosevelt
Richard Nixon

Yes, GWB will probably be remembered as one of the most incompetent presidents of the past fifty years and as the one who squandered the most opportunities. I think when the Gibbons of the Futurama era sits down to write the Decline and Fall of the US, Bush will be noted as the warrior emperor who heralds the beginning of the end by overextending the armies and economy of the empire in the struggle against the barbarians.

But Bush isn't a fascist. Considering his reaction to 9/11, compared to the wartime reactions of the leaders above, he comes out substantially better, in terms of civil liberties, than any of them.
posted by pandaharma at 6:05 AM on November 30, 2004

The villain in Lewis' book was patterned after Huey Long, i.e. a leftist and populist demagogic fascist type.

Other than going in exactly the opposite direction, you are on the right track!
posted by bukvich at 6:53 AM on November 30, 2004

I read It Can't Happen Here several years ago, and was pretty disappointed with how ham-fisted it was. It had all the nuance of Atlas Shrugged.
posted by COBRA! at 7:00 AM on November 30, 2004

This book is on the recommended 2004 reading list of (my alma mater) the University of Minnesota. When the list came out, the book was only available used and I could only find copies on the internets, but it appears that the publisher has made it available again. Thanks for the link to the text, but I'm gonna go to the bookstore to buy it today.
posted by Arch Stanton at 7:04 AM on November 30, 2004

51% of America disagreed,

*sigh* Obligatory reminder that it was 51% of Americans who voted who disagreeed.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:04 AM on November 30, 2004

I'm not satisfied with the state of America today either. We're focused on the wrong things, and people seem to be more interested in their overly trimmed suburban grass than the power of their vote. So when I say 51% of people voted for their guy, you're right that that's "only" 51% of people who voted, but, really, if the silent majority can't be bothered to get out to vote, I don't have a huge amount of sympathy for them.

Now, if there's clear evidence of widespread patterns of vote fixing, voter intimidation, and such that go beyond what is typical in American politics (any mefites from Chicaco, KC, or Boston want to chime in and talk about vote manipulation), good Lord we should be filled up with righteous anger. But turning into a bunch of yammering wolves just turns us into caricatures.

Anyway, yeah, that was my first FPP, but I've been lurking here for a long, long time. :)
posted by socratic at 8:19 AM on November 30, 2004

pandaharma, what's your reasoning for including Lincoln in your 5 worst?
posted by TetrisKid at 8:22 AM on November 30, 2004

But the current ranting about fascism and dictatorship really has to stop.

You're wrong.
posted by rushmc at 8:25 AM on November 30, 2004

rushmc, there's a big difference between vocal, reasoned opposition (and, more importantly, behind-the-scenes mobilization to vote the bastards out -- whichever bastards we're talking about here) and eye-gouging, drooling yelping. There's a time and a place for revolution, but we're nowhere near it.

On topic, the dictator of Lewis' book came to power precisely because of that heated, passionate opposition to the status quo. The people he alienated were the true Liberals (capital L, in the classical sense that most Americans are Liberal as opposed to, say, monarchist), and Lewis' note of caution is that Liberalism (again, in the sense of favoring a constitutional republic, not in the sense of Michael Moore) was dying out under the Depression.
posted by socratic at 8:34 AM on November 30, 2004

The Bush Pledge.

"Our Leader" billboards.

You'll notice that in these and several other cases, the culprit is not the administration, nor even the government, itself. In the first, it is a fellow politico shilling for the president; in the second, it is a corporation that clearly has benefitted from its policies and obviously seeks to benefit further - hence the ass-kissing.

I do think this nation has come to a precarious point in its history, and that blithe assertions that fascism is coming are probably too broad. Were fascism ever to come to this country, it would be far different than the forms with which we already are familiar. I'm doubting there are going to be torchlit brownshirt parades, public burnings of books or outright pogroms.

But by the same token, wasn't it Mussolini who said that fascism might better be called "corporatism?" Is there any doubt that we in this country are on the corporatist path, that Clear Channel's billboard in fact represents a rather dangerous step on that path?

When corporations start suggesting/demanding respect for "our leader," what is the next step? Perhaps a Clear Channel decides, in these tumultuous times, to post similar posters around its offices. Or perhaps at some juncture they deem it necessary to have their employees express their fealty to "our leader" - and fire those who don't, who, in many states anyway, are employed at-will.

Then might it be fascism? Even though no one's got a strange little mustache?
posted by kgasmart at 8:44 AM on November 30, 2004

"a pack of slathering, rabid and moon-mad wolves".
Nice turn of phrase.

Except that the first adjective should be slavering. "Slathering" is what I do with mayonnaise when confronted with a sandwich in the making.

And I agree with those who don't think the constant shrieking of "the fascists are coming!" is helping anything—if anything, it's likely to induce either self-satisfied groupthink or unhelpful hysteria—but it's not going to stop, so don't waste your time saying it "must stop," think of better ways to get the word out. You're not going to change anything in this country by saying Bush is another Hitler ("I mean before he started killing Jews!") or Mussolini; to anyone who doesn't already agree with you, you sound like a nut and they'll just tune you out. But hey, it's only a website.
posted by languagehat at 8:45 AM on November 30, 2004

I wish this whole Bush-as-fascist meme could just be scuttled. Compared to the civil-liberties-restricting actions or corruption of previous presidents, he's not the worst.

I wish this whole it's-been-worse meme could be scuttled. When I was born, Carter was a lame duck, so I may lack a certain amount of historical perspective, but G.W. Bush has done more damage than any president in my lifetime, and that's the most important thing I can see from here.

Unless, of course, you'd like to argue that this sort of moral relativism is acceptable under all circumstances. "Yes, Your Honor, I killed eight people, but Stalin slaughtered millions!"
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:51 AM on November 30, 2004

("I mean before he started killing Jews!")

Bush is responsible for plenty of killing and torture, but if you're looking for full-blown genocide, just ask the polar bears how they feel about the 2nd term. Global warming is our holocaust--we all know it's going on, we know what's at stake, and we do nothing. The death toll (human and non-human) won't be in for a few decades yet, but I'm afraid 6 million is going to seem like small change.

(Nice rant, rushmc.)
posted by muckster at 9:15 AM on November 30, 2004

If you're equating human and animal deaths, we have so little in common it's not worth trying to discuss the matter.
posted by languagehat at 10:51 AM on November 30, 2004

I wasn't. Now can we try to discuss the matter?

My point was that, if mass death is all you required to accept that Bush is a dangerous fascist, species driven to extinction at a record rate might be a place to start looking. It doesn't matter to me if the irreversible damage done to our planet is better or worse than crimes of the past--it's happening, and we should be fucking ashamed. But if you think animals are negligible, then perhaps you ought to consider the near future, where our current actions are bound to have very ugly repercussions for humans. That's the part where I said "The death toll won't be in for a few decades yet, but I'm afraid 6 million is going to seem like small change." I was talking about people, not bears.
posted by muckster at 11:26 AM on November 30, 2004

And dare I ask BradNelson to elaborate...

loquacious: Why? I have to explain the psychology behind the emotion of amusement? I'm clearly not the only person that found this post slightly funny or entertaining in some respect. Unless you felt like making up a reason to rip on me for being a Bush supporter.

And what does my old username have to do with anything?
posted by BradNelson at 11:35 AM on November 30, 2004

It Can't Happen Here is a really good book, and has always been relevant to US politics (even the politics that took place before it was written).

Huey Long wasn't a "leftist", though, as we understand it today. He was a plain, old-fashioned, radical populist communist (small "c", because he was a communist of the pre-Marx school a la Wat Tyler, Jack Straw, et al., the French Revolution's sans-culottes, and the Second Republic's communards like Raspail and Bebeuf)

One of the things I remember most about It Can't Happen Here are the weird campaign slogans. There was one that went "Buzz and Buzz and anti-Buzz" to the tune of "London Bridge is Falling Down", IIRC.

Main Street is still Lewis's best book, though.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:51 AM on November 30, 2004

I don't think we've got a good working definition of Fascism here...I think what most people are worried about is a police state. While every major Fascist government I can think of has created a police state, not every police state has been Fascist.

The best all-encompassing definition of Fascism I can come up with is a philosophy of government which subsumes the identity of the individual to a that of a nation, or a national set of goals. While there are some other features many Fascist states have had in common, this is the only non-trivial universal one.

A police state, on the other hand, jails people for indeterminate lengths of time without trial, coerces confessions, criminalizes certain kinds of thought, and over-sentences for trivial crimes.

The United States is not in danger of becoming Fascist, but, given the new preference for safety over liberty, we are in danger of becoming a police state. Even if it's a small danger, it's much more likely than the creation of a Fascist United States.
posted by paul_smatatoes at 12:13 PM on November 30, 2004

Liberalism is dying. Even the word is tainted now. In America, liberals are that dirty breed of faggot loving vermin who can't wait to open the doors to al-Qaeda and their Iraqi allies. In europe, liberals are those treacherous corporatists who wish to sell healthcare and social security downriver, whittle the government down to nothing, and grind the working poor into the dust with the heel of their boot. The same word denotes completely different sides of the political spectrum depending on where you are. Regardless, it remains a term of abuse.

Lost in this name-calling is the true and traditional meaning of liberalism. This ideology which most importantly, puts the individual before the state, has been enormously successful. It has withstood challenges like fascism and communism, both from outside and within. Liberalism, and the enlightenment values which spawned the ideology, has produced the greatest standard of living ever seen, and not just for a tiny minority, but with a greater measure of equality.

Today, the principles of liberalism are attacked by both sides, even the self-professed liberals. Lost somewhere in the political ether are those poor souls who consider themselves classical liberals. Where are the people who don't think that economic and social liberty are incompatible? I don't mean the libertarians, they take things too far. I mean the real moderates, people who want to see a healthy respect for individual rights returned to the public consciousness. I don't think these attitudes will return until we abandon our series of foolish and unwinnable global wars. The war on terrorism and the war on drugs are killing the once healthy notion of liberty. Soon, I fear that too will be a dirty word.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 3:36 PM on November 30, 2004

I have enjoyed this greatly, especially the posts that emphasize that the situation is probably more complex than we think. I was reminded of a good discussion of fascism I had read recently. It is clear that we are not headed for a classically fascist state but we must recognize the fascist elements present our society. So we must start with a definition: (From Chip Berlet in the part 2 of the series)

Fascism demands racial, ethnic, or cultural unity and the collective rebirth of a nation while seeking to purge demonized enemies that are often scapegoated as subversive and parasitic. Fascism is a form of authoritarian ultra-nationalism that glorifies action, violence, and a militarized culture. Fascism can exist as an ideology, a mass movement, or a form of state government. Fascism attacks both liberal democratic pluralism and left-wing revolutionary movements while proposing a totalitarian version of populist mass politics. Fascism parasitizes other ideologies, juggles many internal tensions and contradictions, and produces chameleon-like adaptations based on the specific historic symbols, icons, slogans, traditions, myths, and heroes of the society it wishes to mobilize.

Anyone see any parallels? Instead of running around calling people fascist it would be better to attack the particular elements that can be identified and promote the ideals that naturally combat them.
posted by spaceviking at 3:54 PM on November 30, 2004

cj_, here's what I meant in my remark about the book being "of its time" in regards to homophobia. Lewis seems to make a point in a few places in It Can't Happen Here of alluding to homosexuality on the part of certain bad guys (some M.M.s, and Lee Sarason), as a technique to make them look ever so much worse.

It's true that homophobia and bigotry are still around, but I think that now, someone writing from Lewis' perspective would not use that particular tool to demonize the opponent. (Instead, you'd see the homophobic rhetoric coming from the other side.) I found it jarring when I reread the book (just finished last night) for the first time in more than a decade.

I am glad the book is both back in print and available online. I tried to get a copy a few months ago and they were listed on Amazon for more than $50, IIRC. But now suddenly used copies of the latest reprint are plentiful.
posted by litlnemo at 4:56 PM on November 30, 2004

Sorry, my post is a complete non-sequitur. It made sense to me at the time.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 6:53 PM on November 30, 2004


The point of what I was saying was to give you historical perspective. Its easy to think of someone as the absolute worst when you have no idea what this country has endured in the past.

In almost every instance of a serious threat to the US government, the President or his staff responds with limitations on civil liberties. John Adams responded to a naval war with France with the Sedition act which essentially destroyed freedom of speech and the press. Abraham Lincoln ended habeus corpus and imprisoned many people simply for their political views or their writings. Woodrow Wilson implemented laws similar to the Sedition act. FDR set up large-scale internment camps for almost everyone of a particular race.

Bush, compared to the above, is just mediocre. If the worst civil liberty infringement is that I have to remove my shoes at the airport, then I'll happily take Bush over any of the above men, even Lincoln. There weren't internment camps for American citizens of Arab ancestry. Anyone can criticize the Bush wars without fear of losing their freedom.

Bush isn't the Great Satan. He's an incompetent asshole who has made some very misguided decisions. But he's not evil.
posted by pandaharma at 8:17 PM on November 30, 2004

First, let me say that I am very happy to see others who have read Sinclair Lewis. He is my favorite author and I have met very people who have read much beyond 'Main Street'.

'It Can't Happen Here' has come to my mind quite a bit the last few years. Just the name 'Patriot Act' could have come straight from that book.
posted by UseyurBrain at 8:24 PM on November 30, 2004

I'm not sure anyone will read this comment as this thread goes farther down the list, but I have to say that I'm pleased that this was my first and it prompted a healthy and non-vitriolic discussion on the matter. It would have been easy for all of us to deteriorate to name-calling, but you haven't. So, thanks, Metafilter, for making my four-or-so years of waiting to register worth it. :)
posted by socratic at 8:59 PM on November 30, 2004

socratic: Fun post. Cheers. Keep it up.

languagehat: Are you presuming to put words into my mouth and assume I did not indeed mean that these were wolves which slathered condiments upon that which they ate?

Indeed, I did mean slavering, which is obvious from the context.

But it is quite a slick slope you tread to presume so. If the grammar had allowed for slathering to be less obviously wrong, would you have still corrected me? Damnably presumptuous, old bean. Best be removing that pinecone from your nethers before someone plants a foot or three up there and does even more damage with it.

Also, it seems your hat is screwed on a little too tightly. I hear wearing a properly fitting hat that one can doff before retiring for the evening can do wonders for one's constitution.
posted by loquacious at 11:20 PM on November 30, 2004

touchy, touchy and far too cognomeniacal...
posted by y2karl at 12:29 AM on December 1, 2004

Touchy, touchy indeed! But excellent rhetoric. I doff my hat.
posted by languagehat at 2:07 AM on December 1, 2004

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