Whenever I’ve read about the Second World War, it has seemed such a romantic period to me: a period when the forces of good battled the forces of evil, and won. The fact that I wasn’t even born helps of course. As does the fact that I know how it all ended. In hindsight, men and women who faced the air raids and the concentration camps seem like heroic figures, martyrs even, united in a common purpose.
India’s Independence struggle too has taken on a mythological dimension in my mind. I was born in a free country; I never had to live in an occupied land. I was barely aware of America during the Kennedy assassination. I came to the United States after the Vietnam War had ended; Watergate was history by the time I arrived.
Sometimes it seems as if I have missed all the important eras in history; I wonder what it would have been like to witness those epochs.
But no more! Now I know. And I wish I didn’t know.
Now that I am living inside a dystopian reality television show, I wish I could wake up and discover that it was all a horrible nightmare. The difference between reading history and living history, I realize now, is that the former is rendered golden in the aura of its (happy) conclusion. The latter, on the other hand, is unbearable precisely because we don’t know how it is going to end.
Listening to an audio recording of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic tale, The Road, I never felt threatened, precisely because I was wandering the lush green hills above my house while doing so. I don’t think I will be able to relish the book in the same way today.
Since World War II, novelists have woven gruesome scenarios in which the Nazis have won the war. There is now even a show, titled The Man in the High Castle, based on a Philip K. Dick novel, in which Germany and Japan have divided the conquered territories of the United States. The show, which began in the fall of 2015, long before anyone took Trump’s candidacy seriously, couldn’t be more timely. Then there is The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 story of an America where a woman’s role is limited to procreating. And serving men. It is now a Hulu television series.
But perhaps no dystopian fictional work is more pertinent today than Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here. Written in 1935, the novel depicts Berzelius Windrip, a fascist and a candidate of “forgotten men,” who declares Americans to be “the greatest race on the face of this old Earth.” With his populist message, Windrip defeats Franklin Roosevelt and installs a totalitarian government, turning the press into his propaganda machine and sending the opposition to concentration camps.
The terrifying fact is that the novel was not an idle fantasy. As fate would have it however, Huey Long, the real politician on whom Windrip was based, was assassinated just before the election of 1936. So America never learned the consequences of electing a demagogue as president.
Nearly ninety years later, we are living through Sinclair Lewis’ prophecy. The novel was staged as a play at the Berkeley Rep, just as Trump was falling in opinion polls after the release of the Access Hollywood tape. Reading a New Yorker review of the play today, I get the chills. The words sound as if they were written a hundred years ago, so naïve is the author’s presumption of a Trumpian defeat.
Alas, merely twenty days after the review was published, Trump went on to win the election. And we entered a Lewisian dystopia from which there appears to be no exit.
Democrats have breathlessly been talking about impeachment of course. But all the while, Trump has methodically been removing every obstacle in his path toward megalomania. First he fired Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for New York, who was investigating conflicts of interest between Trump’s businesses and his presidential office, including violations of the emoluments clause in the Constitution. Next, Trump fired the FBI Director James Comey who was investigating his Russia connections. There is nothing now to stop Trump from firing the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who poses the danger of testifying against him, or even the Special Counsel Robert Muller, who doesn’t enjoy the same protections that the special prosecutors in the Nixon or Clinton cases did.
There is nothing to prevent Trump from discontinuing the White House press briefings either, while slowly getting rid of federal and state attorneys who might be inclined to protect our constitutional rights.
In other words, Donald Trump can and is following the totalitarian handbook. What’s more, no matter how loudly the Democrats scream impeachment, Trump knows that the Republicans in Congress possess no moral compass to rein him in. He also knows that even if he shoots someone in broad daylight in Times Square, right wing media like Fox News will support him.
Where does that leave you, the poor citizen? You, who are living inside a dystopian reality television show? You, who haven’t even gotten to the first commercial break in the first episode of the first season?
You need to remember that like any successful show, this one is likely to go on for seven or eight seasons. By the time the series finale is played out, I doubt you will recognize America, so degenerate and corrupt will it have been rendered at the hands of the Trump mafia.
What should you do then?
Wait for impeachment?
Or call on your representatives and ask them to start developing policies that will help them win both houses in congress in the next mid-term election?
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.