It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
Maybe the plan was hatched just after Trump’s election, when bookstores couldn’t keep Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935) in stock; maybe it was last summer, when for a moment Charlottesville was the Berlin of the 1930s of the 2010s; but whenever the project came together, it must have looked like a surefire winner: Get a group of eminent scholars to contribute essays on Donald Trump and the fascist threat in America, and call the result Can It Happen Here?
Unfortunately, by the time the publication date rolled around this week, President Trump was being sharply criticized by leaders of his own party and slapped around by courts across the country, and (like most presidents) he was trying hard to limit his losses in the midterm elections. Not exactly the Actual Literal Hitler Without the Moustache, Brutally Liquidating All Dissent, that had seemed inevitable in some quarters.
In a joint interview at the New York Public Library Monday night, Cass Sunstein, the editor of the book, and his wife, Samantha Power, who contributed a chapter (both are Obama-administration veterans), seemed a bit crestfallen in admitting that no, German-style fascism (the “It” in Lewis’s title) is not about to take hold in the U.S. So the interviewer — David Cole, national legal director of the ACLU — asked the natural question: What, then, is the meaning of “It” in the new book’s title?
At first they fumbled for an answer. Power said the “equal dignity” of all people was at risk, due in part to “severe polarization” (presumably she feels this is something new); Sunstein said Trump had attacked “the foundations of the government that was born at Lexington and Concord”; Cole said Trump threatened to outdo previous examples of out-of-control government, including (inter alia) IRS abuse of political opponents, “as seen in the Nixon administration” (here he tactfully refrained from mentioning Power and Sunstein’s former boss). But the trio hit their stride when they finally started talking about the real source of “this tragedy” that America is undergoing: The Internet, and the evil Russkies who manipulate it.
For at least half an hour they took turns complaining about “fake news” and “the death of truth,” and how we used to have “umpires” and “gatekeepers” — experienced editors and journalists who applied judgment and wisdom in deciding what their the public would read and hear. But now there’s no way to know what’s real and what’s fake, and what Power called “unmediated falsehoods” are taken for truth, allowing a few malefactors in an office in Moscow decide who will be our president. Fortunately, the big media companies are developing ways to filter out content of which they disapprove, and if only the government would participate as well (“what we need is for the White House to engage this problem,” Power actually said), our discourse would be a lot more civilized.
The speakers, along with most of their audience, can be forgiven for indulging in the fantasy that Russian interference swung the 2016 election. After all, it couldn’t have been Hillary or the lousy economy or tribal Democratic politics; obviously not. Still, a system in which anyone can post anything with no consequences would seem to be the direct opposite of fascism, wouldn’t it? Especially when the countermeasures Sunstein and Power and Cole were calling for amount to censorship to keep unruly people in line. Clearly, progressives’ “It” isn’t the unregulated Internet or Russian trolls per se; it’s anything that helps Republicans win elections.
Sinclair Lewis was not much of a prose stylist, and he had the Nobel Prize to prove it. But his novel set forth at least a plausible-sounding scenario for a true fascist takeover in the Depression-racked America of the mid-1930s. Today’s Left seems to be thinking of “It” more in the Stephen King sense: a grotesque clown that, according to Wikipedia, “exploits the fears and phobias of its victims.” But there’s nothing supernatural about Donald Trump; he’s just a politician, more colorful than most, who can be opposed through the usual political channels. By portraying him as a uniquely horrific threat to the republic, the Left simply elevates his status among his supporters.