Sinclair Lewis’s Nightmare: On “This Happened Here” and “Rising Fascism in America”
By David MasciotraMay 1, 2022
This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America by Paul Street
Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here by Anthony R. DiMaggio
But as early as 2015, historian and journalist Paul Street and political scientist Anthony DiMaggio warned of the crises, violence, and harm Trump would impose on the world. Both Street and DiMaggio have new books diagnosing and explaining the fascist threat that the United States is facing. Their rich, cogent, and brave books often overlap but differ in ways significant enough to demand individual readings.
Street’s This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America and DiMaggio’s Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here derive inspiration from Sinclair Lewis’s classic novel It Can’t Happen Here. The 1935 work of fiction imagines Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a charismatic con man, becoming president by promising unrealistic socioeconomic reforms and pledging a return to past greatness and traditional values. He then uses a paramilitary force — not unlike the January 6 insurrection — to transform the United States into a fascistic state.
A play on Lewis’s phrase makes a good title for any book about the radical danger within United States politics: complacency, apathy, and denial still dominate the broader American culture. Citizens who came of age on an endless diet of flag waving, Founding Father hagiography, and repeated proclamations that their country was the “greatest in the world,” the “land of the free,” and a “shining city on a hill” are unlikely to accept that the United States can collapse into despotism and mass violence.
Street and DiMaggio cut through the chauvinistic cacophony with distinctive yet harmonic styles. DiMaggio, a professor at Lehigh University, is more academic, using a staggering amount of data to scaffold his sociological argumentation, media criticism, and political analysis. While Street does not lack for documentation, his style is more combative, drawing on his own force of argument, journalistic studies, and experiences as an activist and educator in Chicago and Iowa.
Like philosopher Jason Stanley, whom both authors quote at length, DiMaggio and Street insist that fascism is not merely a static and comprehensive form of government. Many American commentators are committed to the position that fascism means only a particular form of state power resembling various European governments of the 20th century, most especially Nazi Germany. Street and DiMaggio counter that there exists such a thing as “fascist politics.” It is essential for any civilization to accurately identify, and energetically fight, fascist politics before they gain power and begin to transform a democracy, particularly a weak one like the United States’s, into a fascistic or autocratic state.
Early in their books, Street and DiMaggio provide lengthy summaries of the key traits of fascist movements. DiMaggio reviews the leading literature on fascism, from scholars like Roger Griffin and Robert Paxton, philosophers like the aforementioned Stanley and Theodor Adorno, and journalists like David Neiwert, and divides the critical characteristics of fascist politics into the following subsections: “White Supremacy and Ultra-Nationalism,” “Militarism and Empire,” “Mass Hysteria and the Cult of the Patriarchal Personality,” “Eliminationism and One-Party Rule,” “Corporatism, Anti-Communism, and the Political Dictatorship of the State,” “Social Darwinism,” and “Paramilitarism and the Mobilization of Mass Violence.”
It requires only an honest review of the public record to confirm DiMaggio’s conclusion:
Trump’s politics should be classified as neofascistic, meeting to various degrees six of the seven prerequisites of fascism while recognizing that contemporary America is not simply a retread of fascist Italy or Germany. The paramilitarism and eliminationist politics observed during the Trump years were not comparable in scope to the one-party dictatorships existing in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Still, to ignore the dangers inherent in the rising neofascistic movement on the American right during the Trump years (and beyond), and the ways that it has manifested itself in American politics, is to court disaster.
It is important to note that Trump’s failures do not exonerate his ambitions. With the backing of almost the entire Republican Party, and the amplification of powerful right-wing media, Trump tried to cancel votes, intimidate officials into stealing the 2020 election on his behalf, and, when all else failed, use mob violence. Arguing that Trump is not a fascist because he was not successful, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and others have done, is like claiming that the Cincinnati Bengals are not a football team because they did not win the Super Bowl.
For those who have forgotten the sheer insanity of Trump’s reign, Street has a chapter in This Happened Here in which he categorizes “410 Trumptrocities.” Reading this list, especially in one sitting, is dizzying. Some are familiar to anyone possessing both a pulse and conscience — the Muslim ban, family separation, defense and encouragement of hate groups, deliberate sabotage of the COVID-19 pandemic response — while others fell through the cracks of a press and populace unable to keep pace with the daily avalanche of assaults coming out of the White House.
Street provides a thorough description of Trump’s reactionary and fascistic response to the 2020 uprising following George Floyd’s murder: signing an executive order authorizing draconian penalties for any protestor involved in desecrating a public monument; deploying unmarked Border Patrol agents and ICE and Homeland Security officers to police to intimidate and punish street protestors; and convening a White House meeting with “defense contractors” (i.e., mercenaries and unaccountable fighting forces) to plan further crackdowns on Black Lives Matter demonstrators. There are times when Street’s prose offers levity in the face of all the horror, a joke in the middle of a slasher film. His description of Trump’s departure from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after barely recovering from COVID-19:
Upon returning to the White House after his brief COVID-19 hospitalization, Trump tore off his facemask for a bizarre, fascist-style, Mussolini-like photo-op on a White House balcony. His face was painted full and bright orange, giving him the appearance of a demented comic book villain before he went back inside, unmasked, to menace White House employees.
This Happened Here takes on multiple meanings. After moving beyond the dystopic surreality of the Trump nightmare, it is only natural to conclude that any country that could allow all of “this” to happen — without a cohesive, unified, and comprehensive response to severely penalize the culprits and ensure that none of “this” happens again — is, in politically, socially, and institutionally significant ways, a failed society. Within the failed society, there are also innumerable people who have clearly lost all respect for themselves. It is tantamount to abject debasement to allow a “demented oligarch” (one of Street’s favorite appellations) to not only lead the federal government but also come dangerously close to demolishing democracy.
“Demented oligarch,” “demented comic book villain,” and the consistent use of the adverbs “insanely,” “absurdly,” and “viciously” appear throughout This Happened Here. Street’s unrelenting stridency might seem cumbersome, but it is accurate. Lenore Taylor, the editor of Guardian Australia, viewed a Donald Trump press conference in September 2019 and argued that the American media, either due to professional demands or deference to power, edited Trump’s nonsensical ramblings to make them seem minimally thoughtful.
Reflecting on her own experience covering the press conference, Taylor wrote:
In writing about this not-especially-important or unusual press conference I’ve run into what US reporters must encounter every day. I’ve edited skittering, half-finished sentences to present them in some kind of consequential order and repeated remarks that made little sense.
In most circumstances, presenting information in as intelligible a form as possible is what we are trained for. But the shock I felt hearing half an hour of unfiltered meanderings from the president of the United States made me wonder whether the editing does our readers a disservice.
She concluded that adherence to journalistic standards, in the case of Trump, “normalises” his “racism, misogyny and demonisation of the free press” and “alarming incoherence.” Street’s prose, while repetitive, has the virtue of honesty and sanity. His reaction to Trump’s atrocities is the response that anyone of average morality would have in a country with a fully functional social compact, democracy, and respect for human rights. He also creates a specialized and useful vocabulary for understanding the fascist movement in the United States. “Amerikaners,” a play on “Afrikaners” from apartheid South Africa, describes Trump supporters and their hostility toward multiracial democracy, and “Trumpenleft” captures the pathetic group of leftists who continue to delude themselves into believing that Trump is a “populist” hero for the misguided “white working class.” Among Trumpenleft offenders, Thomas Frank, who has called the fascist GOP a “blue-collar protest party” and dismissed concerns from writers, scholars, and activists, like Street and DiMaggio, as “liberal hysteria,” is an illustrative example.
On the latter point, DiMaggio puts the Trump base under a microscope, using data as dissection tools to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the true motivations of Trump supporters are white nationalism, Christian fundamentalism, and contempt for democracy, if democracy does not guarantee the permanent rule of white, heterosexual Christians.
Both DiMaggio and Street make strong cases for applying the term fascism to Trump and contemporary Republican politics, but whether one prefers Timothy Snyder’s “tyranny,” Masha Gessen’s “performative fascism,” or what many political scientists call “competitive authoritarianism,” one of the most important questions is “How could this happen here?”
Street leads readers through the United States’s long and dark history of genocide against Indigenous people; systemic enslavement, torture, and subjugation of Black people; and decades of imperialistic aggression and state-sponsored terrorism, including the massacre of millions of civilians in Vietnam and the unlawful invasion of Iraq, to argue that, contrary to what countless red hats might tell us, the United States was never that great.
With Rising Fascism in America, DiMaggio more thoroughly examines American political culture, presenting a brilliantly intricate argument that decades of “eliminationist” hate talk from right-wing radio and Fox News, and mainstream media’s capitulation to it, along with a corporate-compromised Democratic Party and a whole host of “liberal enablers,” made the rise of fascist politics possible. Combined with an apathetic public under the spell of “individualism” and “American exceptionalism,” conditions became ideal for Trump’s brazen demagoguery and white supremacy. DiMaggio also eviscerates any Republican delusions that Trump crawled out of a sewer apart from the party’s own racist, anti-intellectual, and nativist territory. From Newt Gingrich treating moderate Democrats as treasonous criminals to George W. Bush lying the country into war, the GOP has a long track record of placating far-right extremism and obliterating the truth.
Street is more revolutionary and aggressive than DiMaggio, but both scholars emphasize the desperate need for a mass movement of ordinary Americans to contain the fascist threat. In the absence of a democratic consensus — visible in the streets, pop culture, and ballot box — institutions will fail to save the country. As DiMaggio eloquently writes in his closing passages:
Regardless of the specific organization(s) leading this antifascist effort, a mass movement will need to be built in coming years, centered on public consciousness raising in the face of a continually growing neofascistic danger that operates in the streets, in American homes, in the media, in law enforcement institutions, and within the political leadership class. So long as the majority of people in the United States continue to sleepwalk into the future, refusing to recognize the severity of the dangers they face, this movement will continue to grow, perhaps reaching a point of no return if the country falls into full-blown dictatorship, and as democracy as we know it will finally come to an end.
Street and DiMaggio have each written masterful accounts of what is happening in the United States, and their work, even if the political assertions of mediocre reporters and commentators will receive more attention, eliminates ignorance as an excuse for inaction.
David Masciotra is the author of Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters (Bloomsbury, 2020). He has also written for Salon, The Progressive, and CounterPunch.
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