It Can’t Happen Here is a dystopian novel about the rise of an American dictator that Sinclair Lewis wrote in 1935.
“It Should Happen Here,” is an even more dystopian idea, authored by Mike Flynn in 2021, and it’s non-fiction. In case you missed it, when asked this weekend why America can’t have a Myanmar-esque coup (after a democratic election didn’t go their way, the military seized control and declared a state of emergency), Flynn responded, “No reason. I mean, it should happen here.”
This is a former general and national security adviser endorsing a military coup to overthrow a democratic election, depose Joe Biden, and install Donald Trump as president. Insanely, Flynn did so at a Memorial Day weekend event full of Qanon conspiracy theorists, while speaking under a logo with one of that movement’s slogans on it. (Yes, Flynn later reversed his comments on a social media platform that I have never heard of, but it’s clear what he said in the first place, and he’s been not so subtly signaling his Q sympathies for years now.) This rhetoric is dangerous, and even more so coming on the heels of the GOP’s refusal to support a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection.
It’s highly unlikely that Flynn meant to invoke Lewis, the Nobel prize-winning novelist, with his response. Nevertheless, his line does evoke similarities with the novel.
Buzz Windrip, the populist demagogue turned dictator, is the character most obviously comparable to Trump. Lewis describes him as “a Professional Common Man” who was “vulgar, almost illiterate,” and “a public liar easily detected.” Sound familiar?
The comparison is both obvious and unoriginal. As The New York Times noted just before his inauguration, “Like Trump, Windrip sells himself as the champion of ‘Forgotten Men,’ determined to bring dignity and prosperity back to America’s white working class. Windrip loves big, passionate rallies and rails against the ‘lies’ of the mainstream press. His supporters embrace this message, lashing out against the ‘highbrow intellectuality’ of editors and professors and policy elites.”
“Now you boys never mind about the moral side of this. We have power, and power is its own excuse!”
At one point, Windrip says, “The way to stop crime is to stop it!” Windrip isn’t perfectly comparable to Trump, but the similarities are clear. Just as we have seen the rise of paramilitary groups like the Proud Boys who Trump told to “stand down and stand by,” Windrip had his own pseudo-Gestapo, ironically called the “Minute Men,” to provide muscle to his movement.
If there’s a character resembling Flynn, it would be Herbert Y. Edgeways, the general who rails against “college professors, newspapermen, and notorious authors.” Regarding American power, Edgeways says he’d like to come out and tell the whole world, “Now you boys never mind about the moral side of this. We have power, and power is its own excuse!’” Like Flynn, this admission against interest came in response to a pushy question from an arguably even more right-wing audience member.
Considering that it was just one year ago that Trump used the police and National Guard troops against peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park, this boast from General Edgeways stuck out to me: “But now, when the shameless fools and the advocates of Communism try to hold pacifist meetings—why, my friends, in the past five months, since January first, no less than seventy-six such exhibitionistic orgies have been raided by their fellow students, and no less than fifty-nine disloyal Red students have received their just deserts by being beaten up so severely that never again will they raise in this free country the bloodstained banner of anarchism! That, my friends, is news!”
Although Flynn was promptly pushed out of his position as national security adviser, that happened at the very beginning of the Trump administration, when the new president was still getting his hands around the levers of power. It’s scary to contemplate how Trump might have reacted later in his term. What is more disturbing is imagining what America might have looked like if Trump had a few terms to really extirpate “the deep state” and put more Flynns in high places.
The Flynn flap also makes me wonder how prevalent the sort of conspiracy thinking embraced by him is. Trump is reportedly telling people he will be reinstated by August, echoing comments recently made by “Kraken” attorney Sidney Powell. A recent poll shows that 15 percent of Americans (not Republicans, Americans!) believe that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.” The same number believe that “(b)ecause things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”
The question facing patriots now is, how do we preserve this precious democracy when a good chunk of Americans are actively rooting for a democratic election to be forcefully overthrown, and that chunk is over-represented at the upper-echelon of one of the two major political parties whose “leaders” are too weak or too addled to stand up to this madness?
No, General Flynn, it shouldn’t happen here. But maybe it can.