Is Trump our version of Buzz Windrip?

Is Donald Trump a real-life Sen. “Buzz” Windrip, the phony populist-turned dictator in It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis’ cautionary novel for 1935 America?

Wrote Lewis: “He was an actor of genius. There was no more overwhelming actor on the stage, in the motion pictures, nor even in the pulpit. He would whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a gaping mouth.” Windrip, too, was “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture.”

Donald Trump is a con artist and fake populist. He’s a shameless demagogue who panders to racism, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia and religious bigotry. He lies nonstop, insults our democratic allies and fawns over murderous dictators, oligarchs and authoritarians.

Cover of a first edition of "It Can't Happen Here" by Sinclair Lewis
Cover of a first edition of “It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis

In It Can’t Happen Here, Windrip gets elected president after wrapping himself in the flag and promising to restore old-fashioned American values. He proceeds to use a brutal paramilitary force to make himself dictator. Windrip was obviously a fictional American version of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, both of whom perverted democracy in their countries and used brute force to gain absolute power.

In the 1920s, the Fascist Mussolini and his terrorist Blackshirts ended Italy’s fragile constitutional monarchy. A decade later, the Nazi Hitler and his terrorist Brownshirts destroyed Germany’s nascent post-World War I Weimar Republic.

Trump has set ablaze decades of smoldering racial and ethnic animus among many whites. Most of it is directed against federal legislation and court rulings and against non-white immigrants.

“While white resentment has often been an important source of votes for political parties in much of modern American history, initially for Democrats in the old South and then increasingly for the Republicans who replaced them, outright appeals to racialist considerations have been rare,” wrote Gerald Baker in the Times of London last July. “More common have been ‘dog whistle’ political campaigning, in which concerns about crime or standards in schools have served as surrogates for direct pitches to some white voters’ fears about the status of blacks.”

Baker warned that in Trump, “We may now be seeing in [modern] America the more explicit legitimization of white alienation and its embrace in national politics. That will have profound consequences for the country, its cohesion and the relative economic and social condition of its ethnic groups for years to come. In the view of Professor [Henry Louis] Gates of Harvard, the Trump era has important parallels in American history. He believes there is now a fully fledged white backlash against the empowerment of African-Americans (and other minorities) that is similar to what happened in the decades after the Civil War.”

It was hoped that the decades following World War I–the war that was supposed to end war and make the world “safe for democracy” – peace and democratic governance would forever replace imperialist power blocs, armed conflict and authoritarian emperors and monarchs.

At first, almost everybody dismissed Mussolini, Hitler and their followers as guttersnipes and crackpots, violent and dangerous, to be sure, but too few in number and too far out on the political fringes to seize power.

But Mussolini and Hitler ultimately succeeded by exploiting hard economic times and by blaming and scapegoating minorities, “the other.” Mussolini ultimately aided and abetted Hitler’s murder of six million European Jews.

When Trump famously descended that golden escalator and declared himself a candidate for president, many Americans dismissed him as a bad joke – an asinine, preening, clueless reality TV host and thrice-wed womanizer who had never held any political office.

Almost nobody thought Trump had the slightest chance to win the GOP presidential nomination, much less the presidency. “Serious” candidates in the Republican field dismissed him as a buffoon.

“I think he’s a kook,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, who bowed out before the primaries. “I think he’s crazy. I think he’s unfit for office.”

Sen. Ted Cruz called Trump a “pathological liar” and a “narcissist.” He said Trump was “utterly amoral.”

Sen. Marco Rubio dismissed Trump as “an embarrassment,” warning that Trump supporters were “people that – whether it’s now or five years from now or two years from now or six months from now – are going to be explaining for a long time how they fell into this.”

After Mussolini and Hitler grabbed power, Italian and German conservatives — many of them pro-Fascist and pro-Nazi — were sure they could manipulate and control both of them.

Likewise, when Trump won the GOP nod, establishment party leaders figured they could rein him in. “I think we’re much more likely to change him because if he is president, he’s going to have to deal with sort of the right-of-center world, which is where most of us are,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

And now? Now, McConnell is Trump’s leading lickspittle on Capitol Hill. Graham, Cruz and Rubio are close behind.

Of course, hogs will fly before McConnell’s Senate finds the impeached Trump guilty and turns him out of office. That will say more about what’s become of the old party of Lincoln and Liberty than of Trump.

If the latest Real Clear Politics polling average is right, more than 43 percent of Americans — doubtless almost all of them white — view Trump favorably. That says more about the body politic than it does about the president.

Neither Mussolini nor Hitler became dictators on their own. Thousands of Italians and Germans eagerly  served — and even sacrificed lives and limbs — for the Fascist and Nazi regimes, many supporters refusing to abandon them them, even at the end.

“The demagogue may be boundlessly confident in his own skills and force of political personality, but he cannot succeed on those alone,” Obama White House counselor Bob Bauer wrote in The New York Times last month. “He can thrive only in political conditions conducive to the effective practice of these dark arts, such as widespread distrust of institutions, a polarized polity and a fractured media environment in which it is possible to construct alternative pictures of social realities.

“Weak political parties now fall quickly into line with a demagogue who can bring intense pressure to bear on party officials and officeholders through his hold on ‘the base.’ As we have seen with Mr. Trump, the demagogue can bully his party into being an instrument of his will, silencing or driving out dissenters. Republican officeholders know that Mr. Trump can take to Twitter or to Fox News or to the podium at rallies — or all of the above — to excoriate them for a weak will or disloyalty.”

On October 9, just before the 2016 election, Jules Stewart wrote in the British newspaper The Guardian about It Can’t Happen Here and Trump. “The 1935 novel that predicted the rise of Donald Trump” teased the headline.

It Can’t Happen Here was only a novel, he wrote, “and millions of Americans cling to the belief that it will remain so. Fingers crossed on 8 November.”

Fingers crossed again this November 3rd.

–30–

Cross-posted from the LA Progressive.

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Berry Craig of Arlington, Ky., is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community College in Paducah and an author of seven books and co-author of two more, all on Kentucky history. His latest book is Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor: Stories from the Day of Infamy, published last fall by South Limestone Books, an imprint of the University Press of Kentucky.

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