Dysfunction in America is no longer just knocking on the door

To borrow from Sinclair Lewis, it can’t happen here. Until it does

Cheering over the pitiful turnout at Saturday’s rally in D.C. for the jailed Jan. 6 insurrectionists would be ignoring the danger to democracy the unrest over the 2020 election represents, Curtis writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Cheering over the pitiful turnout at Saturday’s rally in D.C. for the jailed Jan. 6 insurrectionists would be ignoring the danger to democracy the unrest over the 2020 election represents, Curtis writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 23, 2021 at 6:00am

My college roommate has been much in demand in the last few years. (In truth, the presidency of Donald Trump marked a definite uptick in her mainstream media popularity.) You see, her academic specialty is Sinclair Lewis. And if his 1935 novel, “It Can’t Happen Here,” was once seen as dystopian political fantasy, it became — in some circles — a plausible blueprint for the state of the United States of America. What, exactly, is happening here?

It’s human nature not to take crises too seriously until they come knocking at your front door. But we’ve passed that point on a host of issues, with too many citizens either in denial or using the dysfunction as a partisan tool rather than an all-hands-on-deck call to action.

Joe Biden, in his first address to the United Nations as president, asked questions the world hasn’t yet answered: “Will we meet the threat of challenging climate — the challenging climate we’re all feeling already ravaging every part of our world with extreme weather? Or will we suffer the merciless march of ever-worsening droughts and floods, more intense fires and hurricanes, longer heat waves and rising seas?”

It wasn’t that long ago, in 2015, in fact, that Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe toted a snowball onto the Senate floor to prove that the globe was not warming. And while that demonstration stands out for its absurdity and rejection of science, there are still leaders who downplay the importance of the effects of global warming, despite the reality of ever-more-destructive hurricanes in the South, never-ending fires in the West and scenes of New York subway stations awash in flood waters.

The U.S. has rejoined the Paris climate agreement that the Trump administration backed the country out of. But the size and scope of provisions in the congressional budget package to deal with the effects of climate change, a major part of the Biden agenda, are still being debated, including within the Democratic Party that barely controls the House and Senate.

That won’t stop climate from touching almost every other issue, from housing to food production to immigration. Certainly, those seeking refuge in the U.S. from places such as Central America and Haiti, ravaged by developments they may have had nothing to do with, won’t be stopped by walls or agents on horseback.

And naysayers insisted that former Vice President Al Gore was exaggerating.

Even in a pandemic

COVID-19 has also had far-reaching effects, not surprising for a global pandemic. It has exposed worldwide inequities in health care, education, housing and more; affected the global economy; and redefined the meaning of who is “essential” for many who never gave those workers a second thought.

But even in the face of a U.S. death toll creeping toward 700,000, already surpassing that of the 1918 flu pandemic, there is resistance to a vaccine and the wearing of masks, both of which can save the lives of those you love.

Patients from Idaho, a state resistant to mask and vaccine mandates, are crowding into hospitals in neighboring Washington state, whose Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee is none too happy. He told MSNBC: “Washington citizens in many cases cannot get heart surgery, cannot get cancer surgery that they need, because we are having to take too many people of unvaccinated nature and unmasked, many of whom come from Idaho, and that’s just maddening, frankly.”

Idaho Republican Gov. Brad Little pushed back, blaming Washington counties with low vaccination rates. The dispute between governors mirrors a patchwork of mandates and rules across 50 states and spats among family members, neighbors and former friends.

Could Sinclair Lewis have foreseen the spectacle of citizens turning away from one another and toward self-described “experts” touting horse medicine as a cure?

Unfortunately, he may have predicted our political landscape. After all, the particular message of “It Can’t Happen Here” dealt with Americans looking for easy answers falling for a power-hungry politician/con man with a phony populist message and willing accomplices who saw opportunity in the grift. There were echoes of Hitler, Huey Long, Father Charles Coughlin and far too many so-called public servants looking to serve themselves.

Democracy at stake

While many citizens breathed a sigh of relief at the pitiful showing at last weekend’s rally in D.C. to support the jailed Jan. 6 insurrectionists, they would be ignoring the danger at the door.

The target, in January and last week, was democracy itself, and the unrest continues. Former President Donald Trump said in a statement that “our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly relating to the January 6th protest concerning the Rigged Presidential Election.”

And he’s the leader of the Republican Party.

Politicians may not have attended. But that may have been because they were too busy promoting election audits in states across the country, looking for fraud where there is none, or crafting legislation to make it ever harder for minorities, the poor and the disabled to vote, at a time when COVID-19 and climate disruptions are disproportionately affecting those communities.

Recently released court documents show Trump’s team knew the fraud claims were bunk, even as lawyers supporting him publicly laid out bizarre and accusatory charges. Yet, according to a recent CNN poll, 78 percent of Republicans said Biden did not win the election, with 54 percent believing there was solid evidence of that. No such evidence exists.

When the actual scars from Jan. 6, on the Capitol and on the bodies of the police who defended it, were still fresh, an American Enterprise Institute survey found that nearly 3 in 10 Americans, including 39 percent of Republicans, agreed that “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions.”

Politicians such as Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick now echo the sentiments of the most twisted marchers in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, widely spreading alarmist conspiracy theories about Democrats’ plans to bring in scores of “the other” to have children and vote and change America in unimaginable ways.

We live in a country where a police officer seriously injured protecting our elected representatives is smeared as a “crisis actor,” and everyone knows what that term — along with “false flag,” “QAnon,” “Great Replacement,” “Pizzagate” and a glossary of conspiracy lingo — means.

I may just have to reread that book, and give my roommate a call.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.