As I said earlier, despite their different contexts, the NYPD’s cold war with de Blasio, the Tea Party movement and the not-entirely-fictional American fascism of “It Can’t Happen Here” all have the same philosophical roots. It’s not just about race, although America’s racial divisions play an inescapable and central role. (In Lewis’ novel, Windrip’s movement seeks to suppress Blacks and Jews, and revoke female suffrage.) At root it’s also not about police-state policies and tactics, even if those might seem to be the desired outcome. (Tea Partyers claim to oppose those things, with varying degrees of sincerity — except when Muslims or other varieties of dark-skinned immigrants are involved.) Rather, these worldviews rest on the idea that America is not defined by its democratic institutions, but by a mystical or spiritual essence that cannot be precisely described — but is understood far better by some of its citizens than by others. If those attuned to this patriotic frequency overwhelmingly tend to be white males, that is not evidence of racism (they might say) but of the clarity and selflessness of their political vision.
In this view, Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people” takes a distant second place to John Winthrop’s vision of America as a transcendent “city upon a hill.” This vision does not have to be specifically religious or Christian (though it sometimes is) to be infused with a puritanical sense of manifest destiny, and of the unbridgeable gulf between the elect, who perceive the true nature of America, and the damned, who do not. (I would argue that this kind of American exceptionalism is an inherently religious idea — but that’s a topic for another time.) Democracy is only valued insofar as it produces the “correct” results, and comes to be seen as debased and perverted when it does not. So for the committed patriot of the Pat Lynch/Buzz Windrip/Ted Cruz persuasion, only some democratic outcomes are legitimate expressions of “America” (see Bush v. Gore, 2000), only some elected leaders are worthy of respect, and only some exercises of authority require deference.
I’m no defender of the Democratic Party in general or of Bill Clinton or Barack Obama in particular, a pair of Wall Street flunkies and national-security ridealongs who are both to the right of Richard Nixon on most meaningful issues. But the concerted and unceasing campaign to depict both men as criminals and usurpers, whose spurious claims to the White House could magically be undone with a stained cocktail dress or a Kenyan birth certificate, provides one of the clearest manifestations of America’s proto-fascist disorder. The central issue was never whether Clinton should be impeached for lying about a sleazy affair, or whether Obama qualified as a “natural-born citizen.” (Which he probably would have, even had he been born overseas.) Those things were headline-grabbing expedients, symbolic fictions from the Leo Strauss playbook (Benghazi!), meant to stand in for an esoteric truth the benighted public was incapable of grasping: Those guys were not real Americans. The Force was not with them; they had no right to the throne; any method used to defeat them was justified.
These have been upsetting and dramatic weeks in New York and across the nation, and 2014 is likely to be remembered as a pivotal year in our society’s relationship with the police profession. But I suspect the spectacle of those cops turning their backs on Bill de Blasio is best understood as a rearguard action, a pathetic echo of the campaigns of vilification and de-Americanization conducted against Clinton and Obama. It’s fascist wishful thinking, a nostalgic appeal to a white working-class, “Reagan Democrat” demographic that is fading away. It might yield some short-term political benefits for the Republican operatives who apparently orchestrated it, but it is not the first stage of a putsch.
If there’s an urgent lesson to be drawn from Lewis’ 1930s allegory, it might come from turning its premise upside down. We don’t need an unctuous hypocrite like Buzz Windrip, or a buffoonish blackshirt like Pat Lynch, to end up with something close to fascism. (Lewis was arguably not fair to the real-life Huey Long, who was an exceptionally complicated figure – part Napoleon, part Occupy Wall Street. He would be viewed as a dangerous radical today, not acceptable in either political party.) Congress has already rendered itself irrelevant; any president who stripped it of its powers would be applauded. We already have the secret courts and the secret police, in the form of agencies we do not have the right to know about. Our president is charming and urbane, and despised by the old-school, would-be fascists with the Dad pants and the bad haircuts. So the fact that he has amassed unprecedented executive power he will hand on to his successor, and stands astride a vast subterranean “deep state” no one can see or control, is not something to worry about. This is America, and America is a special place. It Can’t Happen Here.
By: Andrew O’Hehir