Sunday, June 12, 2016

American Literature Contemplated an Authoritarian Like Donald Trump

American writers over the years have written fictional accounts of America falling victim to a home grown dictator.  Typically, these individuals are demagogues, lie profusely and play on the hatreds and insecurities of far too many of the citizenry.  While most of us see these novels as works of fiction, with the rise of Donald Trump, some are revisiting these books and there are chilling parallels between the fictional dictators and Trump.  Frighteningly, too many people - right wing Republicans in particular - despite these warnings continue to flock to Trump's banner.  A very lengthy piece in the Washington Post looks at these disturbing parallels and, among other things, raises the question of whether true patriots will resist or join in the killing of democracy.  As readers can tell, I side with resisting.  Here are article excerpts (please read the entire piece):
Americans have seen this leader before. Boastful, deceptive, crudely charismatic. Dabbling in xenophobia and sexism, contemptuous of the rule of law, he spouts outlandish proposals that cater to the lowest instincts of those angry or frightened enough to back him. He wins the nation’s top office, triggering fears of an authoritarian, even fascistic U.S. government.
Normally, though, this leader resides safely in the pages of American fiction.
Donald Trump’s ascent to become the presumptive Republican presidential nominee has released a spasm of mea culpas from reporters and pollsters who failed to anticipate the biggest story in national politics — and a spate of literary and film references among those fearing a turn toward dictatorial government. It is Plato’s “Republic” that anticipated the rise of Trump. Or maybe the 2006 political comedy “Idiocracy.” Or the 1981 young-adult novel“The Wave.” Or is it Howard Beale’s mad-as-hell rants in 1976’s “Network” that truly portended the anger erupting four decades later?
In particular, two novels depicting homegrown strongmen have become ways to interpret Trump’s campaign and to imagine his presidency. Sinclair Lewis’sIt Can’t Happen Here (1935) features a populist Democratic senator named Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip who wins the White House in the late 1930s on a redistributionist platform — with a generous side order of racism — and quickly fashions a totalitarian regime purporting to speak for the nation’s Forgotten Men. Salon has dubbed it “the novel that foreshadowed Donald Trump’s authoritarian appeal,” while Slate’s Jacob Weisberg writes that you can’t read the book today “without flashes of Trumpian recognition.”
 Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America” (2004) offers a similarly harsh vision of that era, imagining the slow implosion of a working-class Jewish family when the Republican Party nominates aviator Charles Lindbergh for the presidency in 1940. The victorious Lindy strikes a pact with Hitler, launches federal programs that break apart and resettle Jewish communities, and promotes anti-Semitic thuggery. “Roth’s novel could use another reading in light of the very real possibility that Trump might be the Republican nominee,” David Denby wrote in the New Yorker. “The counter-factual may be merging into fact just as virulently as Roth imagined.”
Reading these works in this moment, it is impossible to miss the similarities between Trump and totalitarian figures in American literature — in rhetoric, personal style and even substance. Yet the American-bred dictators are not the true protagonists. Ordinary citizens, those who must decide how to live under a leader who repudiates democratic values and institutions, are the real story. They must choose: Resist or join? Speak up or keep your head down? Fight or flee?
If Trump is elected and the fears of those crying “fascism” materialize, it is those characters and their choices that become especially relevant. In Donald Trump’s anti-America, what would you do, and who would you be?
Much as Trump claims that only he is tough enough to restore national glory, in “The Plot Against America” Lindbergh is hailed as a “man’s man who gets the impossible done by relying solely on himself.” Republican Party leaders despair over Lindy’s refusal to take any of their wise advice on how to run his campaign. Defenders believe that Lindbergh’s strength of personality will enable him to strike deals — great ones, the best ones — with the world’s bad guys. “Lindbergh can deal with Hitler, they said, Hitler respects him because he’s Lindbergh.”  Oh, and people swoon over Lindy’s cool plane, too.
Like Trump, Windrip works hard to discredit the journalists covering him. “I know the Press only too well,” he declares. “Almost all editors hide away . . . plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pocketbooks by calumniating Statesmen who have given their all for the common good.” As the novel progresses, Windrip detains them and takes over their publications, producing puff stories exalting the governing “Corpos,” members of the newly created American Corporate State and Patriotic Party.
Trump, of course, has repeatedly called the press “dishonest” and has threatened to “open up” libel laws to attack unfriendly journalists. He, too, believes the media’s job is to praise him, not to ask troublesome questions. 
The dictators whom Roth and Lewis conjure share the intolerance underlying Trump’s most controversial proposals — banning Muslims from entering the United States, building a wall straddling the U.S.-Mexico border, deporting millions of undocumented immigrants — but the fictional characters often go further and scarier. Lindbergh moves Jews from urban centers into the rural heartland through an ominous Office of American Absorption, leaving them vulnerable to anti-Semitic violence. Windrip creates concentration camps for dissidents; establishes a sham judiciary; and bars black Americans from voting, holding public office, practicing law or medicine, or teaching beyond grammar school. “Nothing so elevates a dispossessed farmer or a factory worker on relief,” Jessup realizes, “as to have some race, any race, on which he can look down.” How ordinary people respond to oppressive authority has been the subject of disturbing studies, from the historical writings of Hannah Arendt to the obedience experiments of psychologist Stanley Milgram. In the novelizations of Lewis and Roth, denial, opportunism, compliance, fear and violence are all at play, driven by high principle, base incentives and self-deception.
Throughout the 2016 race, conservative skeptics and GOP leaders have fantasized that Trump has simply been saying what he must to win, latching on to the fading hope that he would eventually become more “presidential.” This seemed savvy at first; now, desperate.
For others who embrace Trump, resentment is a more powerful motivator than careerism. Much has been made over the bond he has forged with white working-class voters, especially those with relatively less education — “I love the poorly educated!” the candidate gushed after the Nevada primary — and who feel abandoned in the rush toward globalization and multiculturalism. Darker is his tie with the alt-right; his tardy, unconvincing disavowals of white supremacists have done little to deter the growing insults threats and onlinetargeting against Jewish journalists by Trump supporters.   This bond is also found in fictional accounts of American dictatorship.

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