Editor’s Note: This article first appeared at Salon, claiming that the backlash against New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio by the city’s police is dangerous and equating the “patriotism” of supporters of the police to “fascism.” We reprint here.
In 1935, with Hitler and Mussolini forging a historic alliance in Europe and the world sliding toward war, Sinclair Lewis published the satirical novel “It Can’t Happen Here,”which depicted the rise of an indigenous American fascist movement. Lewis is a fine prose stylist, but this particular book has an overly melodramatic plot, and is highly specific to its era. It has not aged nearly as well as “Brave New World” or “1984,” and not many people read it today. (At the time, it was understood as an attack on Sen. Huey Longof Louisiana, the populist firebrand who was planning to run against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, but was assassinated before he could do so.) But certain aspects of Lewis’ fascist America still resonate strongly. His clearest insight came in seeing that the authoritarian impulse runs strong and deep in American society, but that because of our unique political history and our confused national mythology, it must always be called by other names and discussed in other terms.
Oh, yeah — Happy New Year, everybody! Now let’s get back to fascism. When the “Corpo” regime installed by tyrannical President Buzz Windrip in “It Can’t Happen Here” strips Congress of its powers, tries dissidents in secret military courts and arms a repressive paramilitary force called the Minute Men, most citizens go along with it. (Yeah, some of that sounds familiar — we’ll get to that.) These draconian measures are understood as necessary to Windrip’s platform of restoring American greatness and prosperity, and even those who feel uncomfortable with Corpo policies reassure themselves that America is a special place with a special destiny, and that the terrible things that have happened in Germany and Italy and Spain are not possible here. No doubt the irony of Lewis’ title seems embarrassingly obvious now, but it was not meant to be subtle in 1935 either. His point stands: We still comfort ourselves with mystical nostrums about American specialness, even in an age when the secret powers of the United States government, and its insulation from democratic oversight, go far beyond anything Lewis ever imagined.
I’m not the first person to observe that the New York police unions’ current mini-rebellion against Mayor Bill de Blasio carries anti-democratic undertones, and even a faint odor of right-wing coup. Indeed, it feels like an early chapter in a contemporary rewrite of “It Can’t Happen Here”: Police in the nation’s largest city openly disrespect and defy an elected reformist mayor, inspiring a nationwide wave of support from “true patriots” eager to take their country back from the dubious alien forces who have degraded and desecrated it. However you read the proximate issues between the cops and de Blasio (some of which are New York-specific), the police protest rests on the same philosophical foundation as the fascist movement in Lewis’ novel. Indeed, it’s a constant undercurrent in American political life, one that surfaced most recently in the Tea Party rebellion of 2010, and is closely related to the disorder famously anatomized by Richard Hofstadter in his 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”
There’s no doubt that the NYPD crisis has disturbing implications on various levels. Amid a national discussion about police tactics and strategy, and the understandable grief following the murders of two NYPD officers, it amounts to a vigorous ideological counterattack. In effect, many cops (or at least their more intransigent leaders) want to assert that law enforcement is a quasi-sacred social institution, one that stands outside the law and is independent of democratic oversight. Sometimes this is taken to ludicrous and literal-minded extremes, as in a recent column by Michael Goodwin of the New York Post celebrating the NYPD and the United States military as “Our angels in a time of danger and cynicism.” (Without realizing it, Goodwin was buttressing the conclusions of James Fallows’ must-read Atlantic article about the way American society has become disconnected from the military and sanctified it at the same time.) As Salon columnist and veteran New York reporter Jim Sleeper has noted, this tendency also makes clear how little the tribal, insular culture of big-city policing has changed, even in an era of far greater diversity.
We still don’t know where this confrontation between de Blasio and his cops will lead, or how it will be resolved. (So far, the city has been peaceful – and nobody on my block got a parking ticket all week! So it’s win-win.) But I’d like to strike a counterintuitive position and insist that it’s important not to overstate the threat, or to give an arrogant blowhard like Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association head Patrick Lynch more importance than he merits. My fellow Irish-Americans will recognize Lynch as a latter-day example of the small-minded bigots and “begrudgers” too common in the tribe. But set him against Joe McCarthy and Father Coughlin, and he barely registers on the historical scales of infamy.
In the final analysis I don’t find Lynch and his minions especially terrifying, for exactly the same reasons I don’t find Sen. Ted Cruz especially terrifying. Both may dream of a Corpo America, in which dissent is crushed with an iron fist and our glorious national destiny is reclaimed from the appeasers and multiculturalists and pantywaists. But they lack the political finesse or rhetorical subtlety to make it happen. Ultimately, the real dangers may be closer at hand, and more difficult to see.
With both the disgruntled NYPD leadership and the so-called intellectual leader of the Tea Party, the appeal to fascism – no, excuse me, to “patriotism” and “true Americanism” – is just too blatant, and their rejection of democracy too obvious. Many people inclined to feel sympathy for the police, and skittish about the street protests of recent weeks, were dismayed to see cops turn the funeral of a murdered officer into a petty political confrontation, against the wishes of the dead man’s family. It was, or should have been, a moment of mourning and contemplation, when the city and the nation were poised to reflect on the uniquely difficult lives of police officers, who so often bear the brunt of policies they did not create and attitudes they cannot realistically be expected to escape.
Read the rest of the story at Salon.