Normally, though, this leader resides safely in the pages of American fiction.
Donald Trump’s ascent to become the presumptive Republican presidential nominee has released a spasm of mea culpas from reporters and pollsters who failed to anticipate the biggest story in national politics — and a spate of literary and film references among those fearing a turn toward dictatorial government. It is Plato’s “Republic” that anticipated the rise of Trump. Or maybe the 2006 political comedy “Idiocracy.” Or the 1981 young-adult novel “The Wave.” Or is it Howard Beale’s mad-as-hell rants in 1976’s “Network” that truly portended the anger erupting four decades later?
In particular, two novels depicting homegrown strongmen have become ways to interpret Trump’s campaign and to imagine his presidency. Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here” (1935) features a populist Democratic senator named Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip who wins the White House in the late 1930s on a redistributionist platform — with a generous side order of racism — and quickly fashions a totalitarian regime purporting to speak for the nation’s Forgotten Men. Salon has dubbed it “the novel that foreshadowed Donald Trump’s authoritarian appeal,” while Slate’s Jacob Weisberg writes that you can’t read the book today “without flashes of Trumpian recognition.”
Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” (2004) offers a similarly harsh vision of that era, imagining the slow implosion of a working-class Jewish family when the Republican Party nominates aviator Charles Lindbergh for the presidency in 1940. The victorious Lindy strikes a pact with Hitler, launches federal programs that break apart and resettle Jewish communities, and promotes anti-Semitic thuggery. “Roth’s novel could use another reading in light of the very real possibility that Trump might be the Republican nominee,” David Denby wrote in the New Yorker. “The counter-factual may be merging into fact just as virulently as Roth imagined.”
Reading these works in this moment, it is impossible to miss the similarities between Trump and totalitarian figures in American literature — in rhetoric, personal style and even substance. Yet the American-bred dictators are not the true protagonists. Ordinary citizens, those who must decide how to live under a leader who repudiates democratic values and institutions, are the real story. They must choose: Resist or join? Speak up or keep your head down? Fight or flee?
If Trump is elected and the fears of those crying “fascism” materialize, it is those characters and their choices that become especially relevant. In Donald Trump’s anti-America, what would you do, and who would you be?
The trappings of fictional strongmen will be familiar to anyone who has observed U.S. politics in the unimaginable year since a reality-television star took a Trump Tower down-escalator to launch a presidential bid. There’s the obligatory “Art of the Deal”-style manifesto. In “It Can’t Happen Here,” Windrip has a best-selling book, “Zero Hour” — “part biography, part economic program, and part plain exhibitionistic boasting” — that is required reading among the faithful. The leader also delivers awful yet captivating speeches. Doremus Jessup, the aging, small-town newspaper editor and hero of Lewis’s novel, marvels at Windrip’s “bewitching” power over large audiences. “The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic.” But he captivates supporters, addressing them as if “he was telling them the truths, the imperious and dangerous facts, that had been hidden from them.”
Much as Trump claims that only he is tough enough to restore national glory, in “The Plot Against America” Lindbergh is hailed as a “man’s man who gets the impossible done by relying solely on himself.” Republican Party leaders despair over Lindy’s refusal to take any of their wise advice on how to run his campaign. Defenders believe that Lindbergh’s strength of personality will enable him to strike deals — great ones, the best ones — with the world’s bad guys. “Lindbergh can deal with Hitler, they said, Hitler respects him because he’s Lindbergh.”
Oh, and people swoon over Lindy’s cool plane, too.
Like Trump, Windrip works hard to discredit the journalists covering him. “I know the Press only too well,” he declares. “Almost all editors hide away . . . plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pocketbooks by calumniating Statesmen who have given their all for the common good.” As the novel progresses, Windrip detains them and takes over their publications, producing puff stories exalting the governing “Corpos,” members of the newly created American Corporate State and Patriotic Party.
Trump, of course, has repeatedly called the press “dishonest” and has threatened to “open up” libel laws to attack unfriendly journalists. He, too, believes the media’s job is to praise him, not to ask troublesome questions. “Instead of being like, ‘Thank you very much, Mr. Trump’ or ‘Trump did a good job,’ everyone’s saying, ‘Who got it, who got it, who got it,’ and you make me look very bad,” the candidate complained during a May 31 news conference about his promised donations to veterans groups. In art as in life, the expectation of adulatory coverage is a stamp of the strongman.
The dictators whom Roth and Lewis conjure share the intolerance underlying Trump’s most controversial proposals — banning Muslims from entering the United States, building a wall straddling the U.S.-Mexico border, deporting millions of undocumented immigrants — but the fictional characters often go further and scarier. Lindbergh moves Jews from urban centers into the rural heartland through an ominous Office of American Absorption, leaving them vulnerable to anti-Semitic violence. Windrip creates concentration camps for dissidents; establishes a sham judiciary; and bars black Americans from voting, holding public office, practicing law or medicine, or teaching beyond grammar school. “Nothing so elevates a dispossessed farmer or a factory worker on relief,” Jessup realizes, “as to have some race, any race, on which he can look down.”
That’s as true when the demeaned group is Jewish Americans or African Americans, Muslims seeking passage into the United States or undocumented immigrants — or even an Indiana-born judge who is derided as anti-American, a hater, because of his Mexican heritage.
How ordinary people respond to oppressive authority has been the subject of disturbing studies, from the historical writings of Hannah Arendt to the obedience experiments of psychologist Stanley Milgram. In the novelizations of Lewis and Roth, denial, opportunism, compliance, fear and violence are all at play, driven by high principle, base incentives and self-deception.
Throughout the 2016 race, conservative skeptics and GOP leaders have fantasized that Trump has simply been saying what he must to win, latching on to the fading hope that he would eventually become more “presidential.” This seemed savvy at first; now, desperate.
That hope recurs in the literature of totalitarianism. In “It Can’t Happen Here,” Jessup hears all the time that he needn’t worry. “You don’t understand Senator Windrip,” Jessup’s son Philip, a lawyer, lectures him. “Oh, he’s something of a demagogue — he shoots off his mouth a lot about how he’ll jack up the income tax and grab the banks, but he won’t — that’s just molasses for the cockroaches.” And the father believes it for a while, in denial even after Windrip imposes martial law. “The hysteria can’t last; be patient, and wait and see, he counseled his readers. It was not that he was afraid of the authorities. He simply did not believe that this comic tyranny could endure.”
In “The Plot Against America,” a leading Jewish figure assures the nation that Lindbergh is not really anti-Semitic, even though the president hosts a high-ranking Nazi official at the White House. “Before his becoming president he at times made public statements grounded in anti-Semitic cliches,” Rabbi Bengelsdorf acknowledges. “But he spoke from ignorance then, and admits as much today. I am pleased to tell you that it took no more than two or three sessions alone with the president to get him to relinquish his misconceptions.”
Herman Roth, the Jewish father and salesman who is the sad hero of “The Plot Against America,” responds to Lindbergh’s rhetoric in a manner reminiscent of many Trump opponents. “Others?” Herman demands. “He dares to call us others? He’s the other. The one who looks most American — and he’s the one who is least American. The man is unfit. . . . He shouldn’t be there, and it’s as simple as that!”
The editor’s son in “It Can’t Happen Here” and the genial rabbi in “The Plot Against America” make their choices, finding accommodation with their new leaders mainly out of self-interest. As Jessup grows radicalized in his opposition to Windrip, his son feigns concern, warning Jessup that he’s going to get into trouble if he keeps opposing local Corpos. But soon Philip’s motive emerges: The government is offering him an assistant military judgeship, he admits, and the appointment could suffer over his father’s intransigence. Rabbi Bengelsdorf, meanwhile, reaches the highest ranks of the Lindbergh administration, the token Jewish adviser, counseling the first lady and running the Office of American Absorption.
Consider how Trump’s success has produced agony among longtime Republican foreign policy experts, to name one group, who wonder if they could live with themselves working in a Trump administration that threatens to target the families of terrorists and destroy trade deals. And top GOP elected officials, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, have made their bed, if not their peace. Principle vs. opportunity is their unending dilemma.
For others who embrace Trump, resentment is a more powerful motivator than careerism. Much has been made over the bond he has forged with white working-class voters, especially those with relatively less education — “I love the poorly educated!” the candidate gushed after the Nevada primary — and who feel abandoned in the rush toward globalization and multiculturalism. Darker is his tie with the alt-right; his tardy, unconvincing disavowals of white supremacists have done little to deter the growing insults, threats and online targeting against Jewish journalists by Trump supporters.
This bond is also found in fictional accounts of American dictatorship. A fascinating character in “It Can’t Happen Here” is Shad Ledue, handyman for the Jessups, an uneducated white laborer whom the family looks down upon but who exacts revenge when he acquires power — not much, just enough — under the Corpos. “I suppose you think I had a swell time when I was your hired man!” Shad says to Jessup, after overseeing the execution of the editor’s son-in-law following a sham legal proceeding. “Watching you and your old woman and the girls go off on a picnic while I — oh, I was just your hired man, with dirt in my ears, your dirt!”
Jessup, a self-described “small-town bourgeois Intellectual,” espoused all the appropriate theoretical sympathies for the working class but long regarded Shad as a fool he must civilize. He saw him every day, but never knew him, never understood what he could become. “With all the justified discontent there is against the smart politicians and the Plush Horses of Plutocracy — oh, if it hadn’t been one Windrip, it’d been another. . .” Jessup muses later. “We had it coming, we Respectables.”
The options for opponents of the strongman are clear: fight or flight. Jessup hopes his traditional journalism can make a difference; he continues writing editorials that “would excite 3 percent of his readers from breakfast time till noon and by 6 p.m. be eternally forgotten.” But as the ruthlessness of the Corpos becomes clear, he joins an underground resistance group, producing leaflets in clandestine publishing shops, and even fantasizes about murdering Shad. He doesn’t go through with it; others do.
In the 2016 race, anti-Trump protesters have crossed into violence; at a recent California event, some protesters assaulted supporters of the candidate. The allure of force, invariably justified as resistance, is prevalent in the novels, proving destructive to all sides. In “The Plot Against America,” a New Jersey Jewish community begins an armed self-defense patrol — the Provisional Jewish Police — which ends up clashing, fatally, not with anti-Semitic Lindbergh supporters but with local police. Herman, hiding with his family in a neighbor’s home as fighting stalks their block, declines to wield a gun. “I believe in this country,” he says simply.
In “It Can’t Happen Here,” Jessup’s daughter avenges her dead husband by killing the judge who sentenced him, dying herself in the process. “Now I know why men like John Brown became crazy killers!” Jessup rages, comparing the nation’s plight to the abolitionist cause. He does not engage in violence, but his sedition gets him arrested and thrown into a concentration camp for his troubles.
When such dissenting voices are silenced, exit is a last resort. In these novels, that usually means Canada, the land of American exile fantasies. Anyone vowing to move there if Trump wins will find fellow travelers in “It Can’t Happen Here” and “The Plot Against America,” in which the Great White North offers the promise of freedom and the anguish of surrender. The Corpos guard even the smallest trails approaching the border — a big, beautiful wall of sorts, keeping people in — and interrogate families seeking to flee. Even when Jessup escapes his detention and makes it across the border, he regards his temporary home as a “prison of exile from the America to which, already, he was looking back with the pain of nostalgia.”
For Herman, Canada implies defeat. When the government conspires with his employer to relocate Jewish salespeople to the American heartland, the family wonders whether they should join their many friends who have already gone north. Normally in control of his emotions, Herman explodes when his wife, Bess, brings it up. “ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘not Canada again!’ as though Canada were the name of the disease insidiously debilitating us all. I don’t want to hear it. Canada,’ he told her firmly, ‘is not a solution.’ ‘It’s the only solution,’ she pleaded. ‘I am not running away!’ he shouted, startling everyone. ‘This is our country!’ ‘No,’ my mother said sadly, ‘not anymore.’ ”
The 2008 election told us something about America. The 2016 election is telling us something else. Both may be true, but only one can be right.
Like Doremus Jessup and Herman Roth, it is easy to grow despondent. “Why, there’s no country in the world that can get more hysterical — yes, or more obsequious! — than America,” Jessup moans. Or, as Herman wonders, “How can this be happening in America? . . . If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.”
Trump feels like an American hallucination: wealth, sex, reality television, social media — he is every national fixation in excess. Yet, more than electoral college math or the Democratic nominee, what stands against his brand of politics is America itself, its self-perception and self-knowledge. That is what the fictional Roth family concludes in a visit to Washington, where they encounter anti-Semitic Lindbergh supporters but soak in the historic buildings and recite hallowed inscriptions on national monuments. “It was American history, delineated in its most inspirational form, that we were counting on to protect us against Lindbergh,” Herman’s youngest son decides.
Perhaps American principles do provide that bulwark. When “It Can’t Happen Here” was published, reviewers noted the rhetorical parallels between Windrip and Louisiana’s Huey Long, for instance, but such leaders have not reached the presidency, at least not outside the realm of fiction. Even there, they can be airbrushed out. In “The Plot Against America,” Lindbergh mysteriously disappears — perhaps a plane crash, maybe a defection to Germany — and Franklin Roosevelt returns to the White House. Pearl Harbor happens, the United States joins World War II, and history resumes much as we’ve known it.
I don’t imagine that is possible beyond a writer’s imagination. Even now, whether or not Trump wins this election, whether or not he builds his walls and subverts our laws, he has set loose passions and compelled choices that will long mark us. If the politics he represents take deeper root, as in so many other nations and times, tweeting #NeverTrump or slapping a “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Hillary” sticker on the car will offer little solace. And the man promising to make America great again will have succeeded in rendering America, finally and conclusively, unexceptional.