America is currently Having a Moment, and various historical works have been identified as having predicted or foretold her Current Predicament, including Sinclair Lewis in his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. Since I am interested in tracing the cultural and historical origins of the Present Unpleasantness – and since I have already made the effort to read the US fascists’ utopian vision so you don’t have to – I thought I would give this book a go and find out how prescient it was. I was interested in seeing how much of the current trends in the Republican party had their roots in longstanding cultural phenomena that Americans themselves could identify, what mistakes they though the left wing opposition made to allow this to happen, and how they got out of it. Unfortunately, this book was largely a disappointment on all of these counts.

The book chronicles the rise of an all-American dictator, Buzz Windrip, as he first wins the presidency in an election and then proceeds to rapidly dismantle all America’s constitutional protections and political institutions on a rapid road to dictatorship. The story is told through the perspective of Doremus Jessup, editor of a small-town newspaper in rural Vermont, as he tries to first understand, then live with, and finally fight back against the regime of the Corpos, as Windrip’s party come to be known, and the struggles of his family and friends as they try to accommodate, collaborate with, or oppose the new order. Doremus is near retirement when the Corpos come to power, and is presented as the kind of soul of America or something (it’s not very clear); his viewpoint is given authority and superiority even though he is obviously a blinkered, naive man with a massive investment in exactly the system of capitalist exploitation that Windrip pretends to want to tame but ultimately takes over. He is a biased and self-serving narrator at best and, compared to the ideologically pure and driven characters at the centre of the Turner Diaries, very ignorant about how class and race interests drive American society. He is also, in the context of modern America, something of an anachronism. There is very little independent local media in America now, the entire media industry is now much more dependent on advertising revenue and corporate interests than it was in the 1930s, there is now a major mainstream media organization directly dedicated to promoting fascism in the USA[1], the editors of most major newspapers in the USA are now openly right-wing and happy to enable the kind of illiberal politicians that Windrip is modeled on, and it is highly unlikely that someone of his age and class position in the USA now would be “objective” or “open-minded” or have a balanced view about things like unions, which Doremus pretends to do in this book.

Doremus’s class position makes him a poor judge of Windrip, and a bad character through which to view the political realities of Windrip’s ascent to power. He doesn’t understand class politics, is completely ignorant of the racial character of American oligarchy, and is deeply wedded to an ideal of free speech and debate as valid tools for resolving conflicting social interests. He also has a sneering disregard for poor and working class people and is openly dismissive of people who go off the rails or live differently to a very straight and narrow vision of work and family. It’s really obvious why his handyman, Shad Ledue, hates him and why he is viewed with so little respect by the local fascists once they have America in their grip. Right to the end he seems to think that running a printing press and handing out a few pamphlets about how bad Buzz Windrip is will convince people in the grip of a fascist terror regime to rise up and restore democracy; and he genuinely seems to believe that America can return to its old settled system after Windrip is gone as if all the class and race conflicts that divide America will just disappear overnight – because fundamentally he doesn’t understand where they come from. The protagonists of the Turner Diaries don’t have any such difficulties: they have analyzed all of America’s situation on race lines and have a very clear idea of where it is going wrong and what is needed to fix it. Doremus is almost the perfect depiction of the stereotypical liberal that Twitter leftists despise, or the embodiment of the kind of squishy liberal Lenin would sneer at (or King would warn black Americans against). Wikipedia tells me this book is meant to be a satire, so maybe this choice is deliberate, but I’m not sure – the book ends with a paean to Doremus’s fundamental importance to the American condition, so I suspect it is meant to be lauding him while gently laughing at his more sedate personal characteristics. Whatever it is doing, it doesn’t work, and it is hard to have much sympathy for Doremus as the fascist regime closes its grip around him and the only effort he makes to struggle is against the ruddy crassness of it all, until it is too late and he realizes how he has been done in.

The book does find some interesting similarities with Trump in Windrip’s pre-dictatorial rise. He is supposed to be crass and lewd, a witty entertainer who is capable of bewitching people at his rallies (yes, he holds lots of rallies) and swaying skeptics with his folksy speeches and ribald style. He rises through the Democrats (who were the party of racists at that time I think), and some think of him as a communist because he promises to improve the rights of workers and the poor, with vague promises that Jessup is sure will never be delivered on; at the same time he is appealing to corporate oligarchs with promises of increasing their strength and control and removing the fetters on their business, and appealing to religious conservatives with a promise of a new American dawn. In this he is very much like Trump, who somehow managed to get away with being seen as more left-wing than Clinton (remember “Hilary the Hawk, Donald the Dove”? Or that primary debate where he somehow managed to convince otherwise Serious People that he was serious about healthcare reform?) When he gets into power of course he doesn’t deliver on any of this: the $5000 each household has been promised never materializes, unions are destroyed and all the oligarchs become his personal agents, in a perfect recreation of European fascism in America (perhaps we could call it Fascism with American Characteristics). Doremus seems to just dismiss this obvious fakery as typical politicians’ dishonesty, which is exactly why he is such a dupe for this shit. Another similarity between Trump and Windrip is Windrip’s slimy advisor Sarason, who is a bit of an enigma and is sometimes seen as the real power behind the throne, with some vague parallels with Stephen Miller. It also implies that Sarason is the real force behind Windrip’s politics, and Windrip is just a blowhard – this is exactly the same stupid and naive idea that gets people thinking Trump isn’t really serious about his racism, or that he doesn’t believe in the fascist stuff he’s doing. But this implication at least isn’t clear in the book, unlike in the Twitter feeds of modern pundits who are always so sure that Trump doesn’t really mean what he says. Windrip’s regime is also incompetent and chaotic, with senior leadership constantly changing and also fighting with each other for promotion and favours, and it’s just as corrupt as the Trump regime (more, obviously, once it gets full and unfettered control of all branches of government). Windrip has also written a book, which I guess is the same as Trump, who has a book written in his name.

But here the differences also become clear. Windrip’s book – and his speeches generally – are coherent, he is not a man sliding into dementia. Windrip didn’t run for office to cover up his tax fraud and to close off the tightening investigations into his Russian money-laundering, but to actually implement a full fascist program, which he does. Windrip is not enabled by a corrupt party, he doesn’t win senate or house and has to take power from them by imprisoning his political opponents “for their own protection”. Windrip is backed up by a huge and very well organized stormtrooper organization called the Minute Men who he deploys almost immediately to destroy all political opposition, including the Supreme Court – in 1935 America the political institutions are much less supine and partisan than they are for Trump, and Windrip has to destroy them rather than relying on them to do his bidding. Windrip is, in short, much more competent and organized and coherently fascist than Trump. He has a network of secret prisons and concentration camps set up pretty much immediately after dissolving congress, and after that he quickly completely reorganizes American life beyond recognition. So no, he’s no Trump.

The book is also strangely vague on the actual reasons for Windrip’s appeal or partial electoral success. What exactly about him do people like, and what about his appeal is so slippery that the supposedly all-powerful media organizations can’t see and counter? He promises everyone $5000 and the media point out that this is obviously bullshit, but everyone ignores them, and there is no explanation for how he hand-waves away all these problems in his platform or with his obvious slide into fascism. At the beginning a lot of people in Doremus’s circle dismiss the worst possibilities with the eponymous phrase “it can’t happen here” but nobody at any point bothers to explain why it can’t or why it did. The only clear “political” opinion that flows through the book is the scorn everyone in Doremus Jessup’s social circle feels for poor and working-class Americans, and the huge gulf between his class and theirs. Windrip appeals across this gulf to the “forgotten men” of America but the book cannot explain why this contempt is so clear (and can’t seem to judge it, except perhaps to gently rib it) and can’t explain why or how Windrip has seen it or how to manipulate it. It can’t really even say if this is what helped Windrip win – there is no analysis of what coalition of voters he built, who he appealed to, or how the vote worked out, so we have no idea how this supposedly vulgar and empty suit managed to pull off his coup. The centre of the book is strangely empty of any attempt at analysis. It’s just a story, and not very well told. Compare this with Orwell’s description of the collapse of the Republicans in Homage to Catalonia, or his explanation of the ideology of the Party in 1984; or consider Koestler’s description of the party and its ideology in Darkness at Noon. There’s just nothing to explain anything at the heart of the political events in this book. I was recommended it as a way to make sense of how Trump rose and won, but this is exactly the only part of the story where there is no information. In the end the book is as much of an empty shell as Windrip himself.

It’s also quite boring. It’s not particularly well written, aside from a few nice descriptions of Vermont countryside. The characters all have awful and weird names, and are generally insufferable. I’ve never read Dickens but I think this might be riffing on that style? In any case it’s just horrible and I can’t take them or their opinions seriously, nor can I care about their fates when they’re so stupid and vacuous and judgy. There is essentially little plot – Windrip wins, then there is some faffing around with watching America fall in line, then Jessup finally loses his shit (for no special reason) and writes a stirring editorial that gets him arrested (and of course achieves nothing); he is spared and starts to secretly work for a comically inept opposition coordinated from Canada; finally gets caught and put in prison; then is rescued improbably and ends up fleeing to Canada to recover before returning as an agent to America, when the story ends. Boring. Even when his son-in-law is killed no one seems to really get roused, and you just can’t get much energy to side with these characters. It’s all just weak. If a book was intended to make you side accidentally with fascists it would be this book when Jessup’s former handyman Shad Ledue gets the chance to lord it over scornful, contemptuous and patronizing Jessup (who thinks himself so good and decent).

As an example of this inspidity there is one section where Jessup takes it on himself to attend a Windrip rally before the election, during which he describes the violence of the Minute Men and the fervour of the crowd. In the audience he is almost beguiled by Windrip despite having seen his men beat up people outside (and knowing what is happening in Germany and Italy); he goes home without much further comment and doesn’t make any attempt to join any dots or inquire any deeper into what is happening to make this movement grow. He simply doesn’t have the critical tools to understand what is happening in his own country, and doesn’t have the curiosity to figure it out. He then writes an editorial that basically just boils down to “isn’t this guy and his followers a bit of a crass oaf, who could support that?” He is an empty shell, and the book doesn’t offer anything to flesh him out personally or politically.

So, this book is very boring and poorly written, with annoying and frustrating characters who don’t seem to have a clue or get one at any point in their political and personal journey. As an insight into America’s Current Predicament it is of little use, since it comes from a different time with different politics and it is, in any case, politically shallow and incurious. It lacks any of the passion and invective – or the insight – of its better peers from Europe and the UK. Attempting to understand what’s going on in America from this book would be a waste of time. There is no insight here, so don’t bother.

fn1: Which, incidentally, is why Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent is now irrelevant