When I was in graduate school, I accidentally became enamored of dystopian fiction. The fascination is inexplicable; people who know me say I’m an unrepentant optimist, and dystopian fiction is about as pessimistic a take on the human condition as there is.
My first exposure to dystopian fiction was the stage play “1984” when I was a child (Yuma High School put it on back in the mid-1960s; I still remember they used a charcoal rendition of English teacher George Archuleta to represent Big Brother.) Later I watched the 1956 film starring Edmund O’Brien as Winston Smith, and still later, in high school, I read the original George Orwell novel.
It wasn’t until 2007, however, that I really got hooked. My daughter-in-law, one of the most perceptive people I know, bought several books for me for Christmas that year. Among them was Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” As it happened, a few weeks later I began taking the modernist literature class required by my course of study and, while “Handmaid’s Tale” wasn’t on the syllabus, “1984” was. And when I wasn’t reading Lawrence, Joyce, and Faulkner, I was delving into “Brave New World” and “Farenheit 451.”
There wasn’t much time post-graduate for reading, but I’ve still been intrigued by dystopian fiction, and late last year, with the presidential election hanging in the balance and Amazon’s “Man in the High Castle” popping up all over the internet, I decided to read the book on which the TV series is based. Coincidentally, my wife bequeathed me her unused Android tablet, so “High Castle” became my first download. After that came Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” and now I’m on to Jack London’s “The Iron Heel.” I got all swept up in the “Hunger Games” fever a few years ago and, not content to just watch the movies, read the books first. Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake” will be next and then maybe I’ll take a break before picking up some of the newer stuff.
It was Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” that really got to me, however, especially since I was reading it during the first 100 days of the Trump presidency.
Clearly, Lewis’ intent was to say that, yes, it can happen here. Remember, the novel, which literally predicts the rise of a Nazi-like tyranny in the United States, was written in 1935, just as the Nazis were revealing their true selves.
Insofar as Lewis’ bad guy is a racist, ultra-right-wing, in-bed-with-Wall-Street fascist, then yes, it can and has happened here. This is the Wikipedia description of the plot line:
“(T)he novel describes the rise of Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a politician who defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and is elected President of the United States, after fomenting fear and promising drastic economic and social reforms while promoting a return to patriotism and “traditional” values. After his election, Windrip takes complete control of the government and imposes a plutocratic/totalitarian rule with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force, in the manner of Adolf Hitler and the SS.”
Now, there’s a lot of that plot that sounds depressingly familiar, but it’s important to note a significant – indeed, a defining – difference. While Donald Trump has done almost all of the things the fictitious Windrip did, he neglected a crucial step – establishing his own paramilitary.
In other words, even Adolf Hitler (a real monster) and Buzz Windrip (a fictitious one) were smarter than Trump. For all of his adoration-soaked, flag-draped rallies, for all of his whipping up of racists and other losers into frenzies of violence and just plain stupidity, he forgot to give his legions the two things he truly needed to take over the government: Guns and organizational leadership. He squandered the opportunity that any truly cunning politico (Steve Bannon, anyone?) would have leapt at. Instead of the first American tyrant, we are left with a Clown in Chief, a pathetic liar and ignorant school boy grown old, a man so out of touch with the American people he can’t even rule us, let alone serve as our president.
That leaves unanswered the question: Could it happen here? Could an unofficial paramilitary organization overthrow the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and imprison hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of Americans bent on protecting their civil rights?
Fortunately, the answer is “no.” Unfortunately, the reason is … guns.
That’s right, guns.
We Americans are the most gunned-up bunch in the world. In order for Sinclair Lewis’ “corpos” to begin marching in the courthouse square, there would first have to be complete suppression of the Second Amendment. And that would be an affair so bloody that it boggles the imagination. We all know someone who voted for Trump. Some of them still support him. Now, imagine telling that person that, in order for Trump to deliver on his campaign promises, they have to give up their guns.
Let that just sink in for a few minutes.
Ah, you ask, but wouldn’t those be the exact people recruited by the paramilitary? Well, you’d think so, but Americans who have been in the military aren’t about to take orders from some power-hungry dumbass with a stripe on his sleeve. We’ve been there, done that, fuckyouverymuch. And Americans who’ve never been in the military are too damned independent or stubborn to follow orders from some shithead who was a janitor last week. (Seriously, why do you think we still have farmers!?) So no, “paramilitary” groups that the FBI watches are wannabe soldiers who’d run the first time a bullet came back at ‘em.
On the other hand, I’m fairly certain that, confronted by a few infantrymen in my front yard, I could cost the tyrant a few lives from my rooftop before I relinquished my own. And as I look down the country road I live on, I imagine that casualty rates would mount quickly (I know the guns some of my neighbors own) as the scene is played out again and again and again.
But that’s only the last resort. Long before we get to armed citizen resistance, the U.S. military establishment will refuse to give up its ships and MOABs and nuclear arsenal (one thing Lewis couldn’t have taken into account) to a bunch of thugs wearing fancy uniforms. Hell, the generals got Steve Bannon deep-sixed in less than six months.
You just don’t fuck with the JCOS, son.
So, no, it can’t happen here. The nice thing is that I can continue to enjoy my dips into dystopia confident that, at some point, the backlash against the current clown show will be so dramatic, so non-violently violent that tyranny will be chased back into the dark closet from whence it came for another generation.
After that … well, Lewis will always be wrong.