Vol II no. 4 February 18, 2003  
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Could It Happen Here?

Alton Miller, who served as Press Secretary to Mayor Harold Washington, teaches "Politics and the Media" at Columbia College Chicago. He is also a member of PCG's Board of Directors. His other commentaries are also available online.

      He sees you when you're sleeping,
      He knows when you're awake.
      He knows if you've been bad or good,
      So be good for goodness sake!
        Santa Claus is Coming to Town
        by Haven Gillespie and J. Fred Coots

It couldn't happen here, could it? To paraphrase a president, the answer depends on what your definition of "it" is.

One of the formerly forbidden zones of political rhetoric was any comparative allusion involving Hitler, the Holocaust, Hitler's fantasy of a "Third Reich," or even by extension Weimar Germany.

To compare your villain to Hitler was to overstate by such a margin as to deny credibility to whatever point you were trying to make. Any reference to lethal oppression on the basis of ethnicity or religious orientation that explicitly evoked the Holocaust was treading upon sacred ground. Those conditions still pretty much apply wherever "political" means "correct." Slobodan Milosevic was no Hitler; Rwanda was no Holocaust.

As a rule, the closest we can get to that set of metaphors is to liken a situation to "Munich" -- a reference, of course, to the appeasement of Hitler.

The frequently hyperbolic rhetoric of the Bush administration has broken these rules: not only is the U.N. inspections process in Iraq another "Munich," but Saddam is Hitler, pure and simple. He runs a secular dictatorship of uniformed thugs, he wages wars of aggression, he uses poison gas on the battlefield (even Hitler stopped short of that), he rules by terror against his own people, and he is (in some sense, at least) "insane." Given the explicit anti-semitic (not just anti-Israel) tenor of Saddam's Bathist party, the comparison with Hitler has additional resonance.

So Hitler has his uses. But not in addressing the question, "Could it happen here?" That's over the top. It just isn't done.

Years ago, when I walked home from Stratford Junior High School in Arlington, Va., my route took me past a two-story home on a suburban street where lived one Lincoln Rockwell. He was the "Führer" of the American Nazi Party, and this quiet suburban neighborhood, a few blocks from where I grew up, was apparently covered by a very lax zoning ordinance. For in his front lawn was a flagpole, from which flew the swastika flag; and at his front door (in good weather) was posted a "Brownshirt" complete with jackboots and Sam Browne belt, standing at parade rest; and through the overly-large (even for that period) picture window that faced the street, you could see a living-room portrait the size of a ping-pong table, of an idealized Adolf Hitler.

Even at that tender age -- before I had ever heard of "drag queens" -- I remember experiencing an insight into the absurdity of Rockwell-type "revolutionaries" (an insight I have more recently applied to radical leftists who flash their little red Mao books). And that was this: If you seriously wanted to capture the hearts and minds of middle-class Americans, to launch a popular movement that would result in a revolutionary change in our form of government, what is the last symbol that you would conceivably employ to incline your countrymen to your position? By using a world-class demon as his hero, Rockwell had in one move inoculated himself against political relevance. He wasn't a player, he was play-acting, playing dress-up. He was the Führer at a pathetic costume party.

As a ninth-grader, dreaming my own dreams of world order, spinning political science fiction scenarios of alternative futures, I reckoned that an American Hitler would necessarily be "a man of the people." He would by definition be set apart, separated, by some charisma, but he could never be alien. A father figure, perhaps, with a kind of moral gravity that sucked you in, but never a Party boy like Lincoln Rockwell or David Duke.

The question, "Could it happen here?" is usually used rhetorically to raise concern about alarming trends. Most of the time the question has a three-part format:

first, complaints of authoritarian political or governmental behavior which, if unchallenged, could spell disaster;

second, a flattering reminder that we're a different sort of people from that lot that elected Hitler; unlike the Germans who grew up under the Kaiser, we have a history of democratic institutions and practices; and we are not terrorized, as they were, with what seemed to be a worse alternative in the form of armed and indoctrinated homicidal leftists, organized in paramilitary units, trained and financed by Moscow;

third, a short checklist of remedies that will address whatever the problems were that inspired the rhetorical question in the first place.

Bottom line: it couldn't really happen here. Like the other comparisons with Hitler and Naziism, the question is treated as MOA -- moot on arrival.

But maybe the question is not moot at all. Maybe in fact it's serious, even urgent. It just depends on what you mean by "it."

The Definition of "It"

Might fate have in store for America the rise to political power of a psychologically damaged war veteran with a funny mustache and the gift of gab, one able to rehabilitate himself from frustrated, maniacally obsessive, intellectually and emotionally challenged sociopath, to candidate for the highest office in the land, running on an anti-semitic platform, enjoying the support of the industrial, financial and military establishments in his bid for power? I don't know anyone who thinks so.

But maybe that's not asking the right question. Consider instead these rhetorical questions, in the light of the notion of American exceptionalism:

Would a genocidal program of eliminating "inferior peoples" from their ancestral lands, justified by a need for lebensraum, or even more mythically, by a spirit of "manifest destiny," analogous to Hitler's designs on the people and territories in the East, ever be acceptable to American sensibilities?

Would the subjugation of an entire "race" of humans, predicated on their natural inferiority and blessed by scripture and tradition, similar to Hitler's plans for Slavs, ever be acceptable to men and women of good will on this side of the water?

Would the average American ever accept a system of police and prosecutors and judges, working in tandem to perpetrate raids and searches without detailed warrants, and seizures of property from legally innocent suspects; to spy on citizens indiscriminately, gathering information not only from suspects but from everyone who uses a credit card or buys a book or rents a video; to encourage neighbors to spy on neighbors; to incarcerate a significant percentage of the population in prisons and camps with a wildly disproportionate representation by race -- one that targeted, say, Jews, or "Gypsies," or homosexuals, or drug addicts?

Even in the wake of a terrorist attack on the symbols of American power, like the burning of the Reichstag, bigger even, causing the deaths of thousands of their fellow citizens, would a majority of Americans accept a further curtailment of their own personal liberties, along with a complete suspension of Constitutional protections for certain targeted categories of the population, trusting that the authorities would use their powers only for good? -- particularly among that part of the political spectrum that is fond of saying government isn't the solution, it's the problem, and our elected officials can't be trusted on a good day?

Would a majority of Americans ever tolerate the idea of a "pre-emptive" massive attack against a much weaker state, an assault that would doom hundreds of thousands of civilians already subject to an evil dictator -- men, women and children who have no voice in their state's policies -- despite a worldwide outcry against such a cold-blooded act? Would Americans be gullible enough to accept the thinly reasoned pretexts, such as Hitler gave for invading Poland, including a spurious link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden?

Would Americans ever use nuclear weapons, except as a last resort when all else had been tried and failed?

Sinclair Lewis wrote a book called It Can't Happen Here which was published in 1935, during the era of Father Coughlin and Huey Long, a time when it very well could have happened. The central figure of this political science fiction is a populist president, Berzelius Windrip, elected in 1936.

In an Internet search for background on this novel, I found a sermon by the Rev. David R. Weissbard of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Rockford, Illinois, to whom I'm indebted for this citation:

    Windrip had a 15-point program which included anti-Semitic and racist planks, a promise to cap the salaries of the rich, and to give every household $5,000. The 15th plank was the key one:

    Congress shall, immediately upon our inauguration, initiate amendments to the Constitution providing (a), that the President shall have the authority to institute and execute all necessary measures for the conduct of the government during this critical epoch; (b) that Congress shall serve only in an advisory capacity, calling to the attention of the President and his aides and Cabinet any needed legislation, but not acting upon same until authorized by the President so to act; and (c) that the Supreme Court shall immediately have removed from its jurisdiction the power to negate, by ruling them to be unconstitutional or by any other judicial action, any or all acts of the President, his duly appointed aides, or Congress.

Political science fiction, of course. The President acting by fiat during a time of emergency? Congress impotently fussing, then rubber-stamping? The Supreme Court neutered or, worse, turned to political service? Sounds like Imperial Rome at its most decadent, not the American republic. Even (especially?) true conservatives wouldn't stand for that.

The "American Civilization" class I took at Stratford Junior High School taught me, among other things, that the Legislature is a check on the Executive. Only Congress can declare war. And within the Congress, the House of Representatives holds the purse strings, so an errant president wouldn't be able to contemplate a costly conflict without an appropriation of the necessary funds as well as a declaration of war. And also that the Judiciary serves as a further check on both Legislature and Executive, and may declare arrogations of power unconstitutional.

Even before, in grammar school, I had learned that America is a land of immigrants, whose quaint native dances we had to practice for at least one student assembly. Not only does the Good Book enjoin us to care for the alien as for our own widows and orphans; the Statue of Liberty herself had invited them in, had welcomed them all to her bosom. The spectre of an Immigration and Naturalization Service police force with a reputation for high-handed summary justice that rivals that of the Gestapo -- I never studied that.

As recently as the fall of 2000, I still revered the U.S. Supreme Court as a sacrosanct institution. I realized that it had been inspired by the frankly anti-democratic inclinations of our Founding Fathers. But I believed, as even many cynics did, that when those former politicians put on their robes, they rose above politics; they became jurists who would safeguard America's richest values despite political pressure or the passions of the moment.

And above all, I always took it for granted that we were the good guys. In a world of realpolitik, we were either too naive or too nice to be a bully. We were a superpower, yes, but like Superman and our other national heroes, we would use our might only as a force for good -- for "truth, justice, and the American way."

Now it's clear that these were not safe assumptions.

Under this administration, the Bill of Rights is under assault, along with many other American values. The "artillery" of right-wing rhetoric has softened our defenses. Now the "ground troops" are taking direct action on the underlying fundamental principles we have always assumed stood for the American ideal.

And, most immediately, we have a president who has, in our name, published a new doctrine of international power relations, that rejects the interdependence of nations in favor of a unilateral, "hyperpower" status. Moreover, he has announced his intention, without a declaration of war by Congress, and despite world opinion and the angry denunciations of many in the U.S., to rain down destruction on the men, women and children of Iraq -- in part, reportedly, because he would lose credibility if he didn't match his Marlboro Man rhetoric with decisive action.

He has made it clear that if you are not with him, you are against him. Spokespeople for his position have questioned the patriotism and loyalty of critics. His attorney general has defied Congress to assert that the Constitution is no safeguard to the rights of those accused under this new regime of counterterror.

And too many Americans, trusting or fearful, are doing what good Germans did, 70 years ago.

Do you think it could happen here? Test yourself: do you find it far-fetched to think that writing a column like this might sooner or later make me a candidate for special treatment at the airport metal detector? How about being on a mailing list to receive a column like this?

© 2003 Alton Miller
Use freely with notification & attribution
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