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Robert Klose is a four-time winner of the Maine Press Association award for opinion writing.
I recently re-read Sinclair Lewis’s influential novel, It Can’t Happen Here, about the coming of fascism to America. Written in 1935, it details the ascent to the presidency of Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a demagogue who tells his followers they have much to fear and that he is the only one who can deliver them the pie-in-the-sky of economic miracles and societal bliss, served up with a topping of patriotism and a return to traditional values.
Lewis dedicated the book to the legendary journalist H.L. Mencken, who spent his career writing for the Baltimore Sun. Mencken’s modus operandi was the skewering of frauds and charlatans with language that cut like a whetted knife (he remarked that Calvin Coolidge was “as appalling and as fascinating as a two-headed boy”). Lewis chose the subject of his dedication with care, enamored of the man who wrote, “I believe that it is better to tell the truth than a lie. I believe it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe it is better to know than to be ignorant.”
The issue here is that, in disregarding Mencken’s wise counsel, we develop the plot of Lewis’s novel — in modern America.
In 2016, the Republic witnessed the ascent of our own Buzz Windrip, a demagogue, a sociopath, to the presidency, propelled by the frenetic cheering of his true believers — people Donald Trump reportedly once described as ” disgusting.” Let’s examine them through the lens of Mencken’s creed.
It is better to tell the truth than a lie. And yet Trump’s acolytes embrace the lies. At last count, the Washington Post had tallied some 25,000 falsehoods emanating from the prophet in the Oval Office. One could view this as brilliant strategizing onTrump’s part: continually tell lies and you create a fog of irreality, a belief that a lie is every bit as good as the truth, so long as the untruths are uttered at the top of one’s voice and blame others for the perceived frustrations of one’s followers (exhibit A: Mexicans are thieves and rapists coming to take your jobs).
It is better to be free than to be a slave. Those who hitched their wagons to Trump’s falling star surrendered freedom of thought in deputizing Trump to do the thinking for them. They viewed any critical appraisal of the president’s assertions as alien and abhorrent. Evidence became the enemy of truth, resulting in a sort of enslavement of the power of independent thought to the dictums of a man who, to paraphrase The Penguin from the Batman franchise, played his supporters like a harp from hell. And it was easy, so long as they regarded the president not as a man, but as a sort of secular pope, assumed to be infallible when speaking from the Resolute desk.
It is better to know than to be ignorant. But Trump’s supporters prefer the bliss of the latter, discounting evidence-based science (” Fire Fauci!”) and embracing the president’s snake oil remedies of light treatments and injected disinfectants, or discounting the coronavirus pandemic altogether.
This toxic stew of mendacity, ignorance, and betrayal of the intellect was permitted to ferment for four years. It is unlikely to evaporate overnight. (Poor Joe Biden has his work cut out for him.) If Trump had been reelected, would he have become so powerful that the United States would have come to represent the proclivities and needs of one man, rather than a diverse electorate, resulting in the fascist state of Lewis’s fears?
It can happen here. It almost did.