The first Sinclair Lewis novel I read, probably most aptly, was ‘Can’t Happen Here’. It is a dark and pessimistic story about a populist demagogue, probably based in part on Huey Long, who turns himself from US President to Fascist Dictator.
It was one of his later novels, written in the 1930s, where issues in his own life collided with the darkness of world events. Critics have contended that Sinclair Lewis probably was drunk whilst he wrote the second half of that novel.
Drunk or not, the themes in that novel are similar to what he raised in his earlier, greater, novels, Arrowsmith, Main Street, and (my personal favourite) Babbit. That is, that the American Dream can very easily be turned into a nightmare.
At age 27, when I read it, I was quite disturbed about it. My undergrad studies of US history and politics (enough points to add up to a full semester’s worth of full time study) were still recent enough that I was familiar with a lot of the underlying personalities and events which Lewis was basing his work on.
You wonder sometimes whether books like that are warning, prophecy, or merely the posturings of an embittered old man.
Another Sinclair, Upton Sinclair, writing a generation earlier in The Jungle, painted an even bleaker picture of America, as seen through the eyes of an Eastern European migrant, whose family and innocence are corrupted through the depravity of American capitalism and Tammany style machine politics.
Which is to say that it would be naive, when looking at what happened on 6 January in the Capitol Building in the USA, to think that there have not been issues in the Republic for a long time.
Corrupt politics, in the form of Tammany Hall and similar machines, has existed since at least post-civil war. Demagogues have used cheap populism to seek power since at least the 1890s.
And as for riots and civil disobedience? The 1960s included very much of that, let alone the past year’s BLM and Antifa protests – which could only be described as non-violent by either the naive or the dishonest.
What is unprecedented in the events of 6 January is that the holder of the highest office in that land, the US president, was actively inciting his mob of supporters to march on the Capitol. Mussolini did something like that in 1923, in order to seize power in Italy. The ancient Romans had a problem along those lines for the last century of their Republic, and that did not end well for their constitution.
It would be interesting to know what was going through the mind of President Trump? Was he hoping that his mob would intimidate the Congress into voting to throw out the results of a legitimate election, based on insane conspiracy theories circulating online as the primary evidence? Or was he regretting that he did not take the advice of General Flynn, his disgraced former advisor, who was openly advocating the declaration of martial law in order to conduct fresh and ‘free’ elections?
The insanity and sheer idiocy of this past week, and of many of the participants, is something best seen, if at all, in a tinpot third world dictatorship. Seeing it at the heart of the USA, historically the global champion of democracy and freedom since the last days of the First World War, is disturbing.
This is particularly the case because there are some countries out there which are large, powerful, and definitely anti-democratic. Russia is authoritarian and interested in expanding its hegemony. China is both communist and aggressive, showing more of the latter than it has in six hundred years. The USA is needed as a bulwark for the rest of the world against those potential hostile powers. The USA’s nuclear umbrella is what has kept us safe from invasion for a very long time.