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Dystopian, yes. Unimaginable, no. In fact, a version of our present moment was imagined more than eight decades ago by novelist Sinclair Lewis who wrote a still readable (if now fictionally clunky) novel, It Can’t Happen Here. Its focus: the election as president of a man we might today call a right-wing “populist,” but who, in the context of the 1930s, was simply an American fascist. Lewis gave him the fabulous name Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip and, unlike our president of the moment, he wasn’t a billionaire from New York but a politician from the Midwest.
As we all know, fascism didn’t come to America in the 1930s. Still, in his instant bestseller, Lewis caught the essence of an American tendency that hasn’t left us. And if you read his book now, you can’t help but be struck by certain passages that have the eerie ring not of 1935 but of 2017. Take Lewis’ description of the journalistic Svengali, Lee Sarason (think: Steve Bannon), who wrote his fictional president’s single famous book: “Though he probably based it on notes dictated by Windrip — himself no fool in the matter of fictional imagination — Sarason had certainly done the actual writing of Windrip’s lone book, the Bible of his followers, part biography, part economic program, and part plain exhibitionistic boasting, called Zero Hour — Over the Top.”
Exhibitionist boasting? Sound faintly familiar? Or take this passage about a U.S. Army major general who leads a militaristic show of support for Windrip at the political convention that nominates him: “Not in all the memory of the older reporters had a soldier on active service ever appeared as a public political agitator.” Though Michael Flynn (the “lock her up” guy) was a retired lieutenant general when he strutted his stuff at the 2016 Republican convention, doesn’t it sound uncannily familiar? Or to pick another example, at one point in Windrip’s ever more authoritarian presidency, the book’s protagonist, journalist Doremus Jessup, has these thoughts, which have a distinctly Trumpian feel to them: “He simply did not believe that this comic tyranny could endure. It can’t happen here, said even Doremus — even now.” Admittedly, the ability to tweet was still 70 years away, but comic nightmare, dystopian revelry, a nation slipping further into a militarized state of autocracy?
These days, all of us, it seems, are Doremus Jessups, facing both the increasingly grim and bizarrely comic aspects of the Trump era and all of us have to deal with them in our own lives in our own ways. With that in mind, we’ve turned to TomDispatch regular Frida Berrigan (and her children) for both inspiration and a striking meditation on the dystopian world of Donald Trump and how to face it.