For some of my friends and relatives these are the best of times, for many more these are the worst of times, as polarization seems to have us all enthralled in sickening crusades of anti this or that feelings (anti Obama, anti Trump, anti communist, anti capitalist, and on and on…). Where are we to find guidance for combatting this malaise?
In the early days of the Obama presidency many “swamp dweller types” were avidly reading a book titled The irony of American History, written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the euphoric and triumphal post World War II years. In these tumultuous first months of the Trump “administration” I hear many of our fellow Americans are reading -or rereading- It can’t happen here, written during the hectic and dangerous years between the two World Wars by our first Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Sinclair Lewis.
I do not believe our current POTUS has read either book, and I understand it is all but impossible to get him to read anything that runs longer that a couple of pages. Still, it might do wonders for those around him to get acquainted with these two books. I am all but certain that National Security Advisor McMaster has read Niebuhr’s classic on the limits of American power, whether he agrees with its conclusions or not. But after the sounds and images of the last few weeks, Lewis’ novel about how easily we could experience the demise of democracy in America looks more like a prophesy than anything else.
Lewis writes about the rise to power of a slick politician called Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, describing him as “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ideas almost idiotic.” Windrip’s foil, and the novel’s central character, is a small town journalist, Doremus Jessup (his wife, Emma, calls him Dormouse). The book describes how easy it is for a crew of unsavory characters that have realized “that this country has gone so flabby that any gang daring enough and unscrupulous enough, and smart enough not to seem illegal, (to) grab hold of the entire government and have all the power and applause, and salutes, all the money and palaces and willin’ women they want.”
Lewis wrote in 1936, when Hitler and Mussolini were already entrenched in power, and Niebuhr in the early fifties, when both Adolf and Benito had been confined to the dustbin of history. But there is an interesting symmetry between both books to the extent the irony in one and the incredulity in the other are both nurtured by the same traits -arrogance, hypocrisy and self-delusion- perceptible in our society today. Niebuhr makes the point that our nation is not so different from other great powers in the history of mankind as Americans believe. Lewis’ prophesy takes aim at the frailty of our political system and institutions, around which we coalesce in our frequent spasms of self-celebration in the kind of pep-rallies Mr. Trump loves.
Niebuhr calls for self-awareness, bereft of what he calls “the halo of moral sanctity”, as the tool with which Americans can reach a more realistic and mature appreciation of their place in history and their role in the world, in his day and today. And Lewis gives us a vivid image of what we are going through today, when a sufficient number of voters choses to be ruled by someone who promises to save the country from itself (MAGA), a task he claims only he can achieve.
We may seem to be going through an age of foolishness (and goofiness), an epoch of incredulity, and it is easy to find a simile between the Trump clan in the White House and the Clampetts, of Beverly hillbillies fame, in their L.A. mansion, in terms of how out of place both family groups look. Lewis points out to the American common man’s belief “in the superiority of anyone who possessed a million dollars”. Niebuhr calls us “the most consistent bourgeois nation”, and we may still be.
So how do we gain the self-awareness we need to confront this age? We need to take a hard look at the mirror and turn our backs to those who strive to build walls and borders, who are bent on showing us there is only one truth narrated by “irrefutable historians”, and who want us to exclude those whose skins and beliefs are not the same as ours.
But even in this season of darkness (or of light, if you bought into it), the fact is that we are still a people who uphold democracy as the preferred “method of finding proximate solutions for insoluble problems”, in Niebuhr’s words. And, no matter how strong our anti this or that feelings may be, democracy is the only way out of this winter of despair (or spring of hope, for some true believers). And that’s the way it should be!