After the election of President Donald John Trump, sales of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 soared. I think that a homegrown American novel is the one that deserves a wider and closer readership. In 1935 Sinclair Lewis wrote his semi-satirical novel: It Can’t Happen Here:
The novel describes the rise of Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a politician who defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt and is elected President of the United States, after fomenting fear and promising drastic economic and social reforms while promoting a return to patriotism and “traditional” values. After his election, Windrip takes complete control of the government and imposes a plutocratic/totalitarian rule with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force, in the manner of Adolf Hitler and the SS. The novel’s plot centers on journalist Doremus Jessup’s opposition to the new regime and his subsequent struggle against it as part of a liberal rebellion.
I thought of Lewis’ work, which I read in high school, as I read Peter Maass’ What Slobodan Milosevic Taught Me About Donald Trump for The Intercept this morning. Maass begins:
During his inaugural address, Donald Trump deployed rhetoric that was familiar to anyone who spent time in the Balkans in the 1990s. “You will never be ignored again,” Trump thundered, with Congress as his backdrop. He expanded on the idea a few days later, during a visit to the Department of Homeland Security, where he said, “To all of those hurting out there, I repeat to you these words, we hear you, we see you, and you will never, ever be ignored again.”
Trump’s message was a variation, directed at his largely white constituency, of the you-shall-not-be-beaten-again rhetoric used with malignant effect by Slobodan Miloševi? during the collapse of Yugoslavia. Trump is not Milošević and the United States is not Yugoslavia, of course, but the echoes between these paragons of national shamelessness reveal the underlying methods and weaknesses of what Trump is trying to pull off.
In 1987, Milošević was sent to Kosovo to soothe angry Serbs who felt threatened by Albanians who dominated the province. A low-profile communist official at the time, Milošević visited a municipal office and spoke to a crowd of unhappy Serbs who had gathered outside. Milošević was uncertain as he addressed them, but everything changed when he voiced a nationalist message they had never heard before: “No one will be allowed to beat the Serbs again, no one!” he said.
The crowd began to chant his name. Even though he remained cold (he had almost no charisma), it was a decisive moment in which he realized the political usefulness of tapping into the resentments of Serbs who felt slighted by other identity groups in Yugoslavia. This had been a taboo, and he broke it. When Milošević returned to Belgrade, he took up the banner of Serb nationalism and ousted his low-energy mentor, Ivan Stambolić. He provoked other republics to secede from Yugoslavia, and this led to years of warfare and war crimes.
This is the bit, however—to hear why, listen to Sebastian Gorka own Marco Werman on yesterday’s The World—in Maass’ piece that gave me chills:
Milošević created his own reality. I have never interviewed Trump but I have an unforgettable memory of what it’s like to sit in a room with a gaslighter-in-chief and try to pin him down. I was one of the few American journalists whom Milošević spoke with before he was overthrown and extradited to a war crimes trial in The Hague, where he died of a heart attack in 2006.
Milošević was shameless in lying about obvious truths. “We are blamed for a nationalistic policy but I don’t believe that our policy is nationalistic,” he said. “If we don’t have national equality and equality of people, we cannot be, how to say, a civilized and prosperous country in the future.” As we spoke, the military forces he had organized were continuing to lay waste to Bosnia, encircling Sarajevo and other major cities with medieval-style sieges.
We sat together for 90 minutes, with nobody else in the room. Though he didn’t have the bluster of Trump—Milošević was a quiet and controlled speaker, with just occasional flashes of anger that were tactical, not impulsive—he was a master of the alternative fact, even in the face of someone who knew they were lies, because I had reported from Bosnia on the crimes perpetrated by military forces under his control. When I later wrote a book about all this, I described Miloševi?’s relationship to the truth in a way that I now realize fits Trump, too.
I would have had better luck trying to land a punch on a hologram. Milošević existed in a different dimension, a twilight zone of lies, and I was mucking about in the dimension of facts. He had spent his entire life in the world of communism, and he had become a master, an absolute master, at fabrication. Of course my verbal punches went right through him. It was as though I pointed to a black wall and asked Milošević what color it was. White, he says. No, I reply, look at it, that wall there, it is black, it is five feet away from us. He looks at it, then at me, and says, The wall is white, my friend, maybe you should have your eyes checked. He does not shout in anger. He sounds concerned for my eyesight. I knew the wall was black. I could see the wall. I had touched the wall. I had watched the workmen paint it black.
Comparisons of political leaders are of limited usefulness, because no two are exactly alike—they bring to mind Tolstoy’s line about unhappy families, each is unhappy in its own way. Milošević was whip smart, disciplined, and he wasn’t a narcissist in the way of Trump. He didn’t have a lot of public meetings, his face wasn’t plastered on Serbian media, and he spent most evenings at home with his wife, a hard-line professor named Mira Milošević who was also his principal confidante. And no matter what Trump does, I don’t believe the United States is heading for the kind of violence that Milošević knowingly steered Yugoslavia toward.
Yes. Lewis was wrong in 1935. Fascism did not come to The United States of America (though there were those like Charles Lindbergh who thought we ought to stay neutral or even side with Nazi Germany in the World War); it didn’t happen here. Then.
Now? I don’t think we can afford to wait and see.