Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America
Edited by Cass R. Sunstein
Dey Street Books 496 pp. $17.99
By Jim Swearingen
In the summer of 2016, Donald Trump launched his blitzkrieg on the American political system. When the smoke cleared, the weakly defended bastions of American exceptionalism lay vanquished. Our new commander-in-chief's first victory came not over a foreign foe, but over us. Over the “us” we thought we knew.
Whether Trump's attacks on democratic institutions are part of a Russian-engineered, blackmail-driven violation of American sovereignty or simply the impulsive acts of a waspish delinquent smashing things that baffle him, the fragility of our democracy has become apparent.
Have our institutions become brittle with age or has the Republic always been loosely held together by a compound of loyalty, precedent, and restraint? Those questions lie at the heart of Harvard professor Cass Sunstein’s new collection of essays, Can It Happen Here?, a splendid book with precious little redundancy despite its multiple complementary conclusions.
The book, whose title inverts that of Sinclair Lewis’ dystopian novel, allows an array of nineteen law professors, social scientists, and journalists to answer the existential question of our time. Like any collection of thoughtful legal opinions, its answers range from, “Yes,” and “Maybe,” to, “It already has.” “It” refers to the sweeping away of our Constitutional protections, the dismantling of the legislative and judicial branches of government, and the imposition of a dictatorship.
The essayists provide an illuminating examination of this nation’s economic structure, legal institutions, political traditions, media conventions, and military chain of command. With each chapter tackling the question from a different angle, the book presents paradoxes and contradictory forecasts. But the aggregated responses provide a cautiously optimistic answer. at the very least, the worst may be avoidable.
Many of the essays argue that our immense, complex, well-entrenched government institutions do not lend themselves to a fascist putsch. The independence of the legislative and judicial branches, the size and disparate nature of our economy, along with the rights of free speech, assembly, and the press all help prevent a sudden lurch into tyranny.
The courts, in particular, can—and have—struck down the President’s unconstitutional excesses. And with a vast Federal bureaucracy, populated as it is by anti-authoritarian functionaries, the overextension of executive power may be thwarted, so long as civil service protections remain intact.
Several of the contributors remind us that “It” has already happened in this country, to African and Japanese Americans (though Native Americans go unmentioned). They suffered the deprivation of every Constitutional right that we now fear could be denied us.
University of Chicago Professor Geoffrey Stone lists additional historical suppressions of basic Constitutional rights, from John Adams to Woodrow Wilson. In each of his examples a dire external threat triggered federal violations of civil liberties. Thus, were “It” to come about, it would not be a total historical aberration. And a number of the contributors to the book fear that another 9/11-level attack, this time under the Trump regime, could trigger a worse set of abuses.
Several of the book’s contributors describe Trump as a symptom of our democracy’s fissures, rather than the root cause of our authoritarian angst. Although he shares numerous similarities with historical dictators, were Trump himself not galvanizing existing racial and working class resentment, some other demagogue would be. The greater question then becomes, what about us has changed that has made Trump’s ascendance possible, the implication being that the fault, dear reader, is not in the executive, but in ourselves.
NYU Law Professor Stephen Holmes speaks for many of the contributors when he writes, “The unthinkable is not yet probable, but neither can it be casually ruled out.” The venerable, old mansion of our democracy requires renovation if it is to survive the 21st century. One of the greatest challenges to that undertaking, in his view, is the historical amnesia of American populists. When many of our countrymen lack historical literacy, how can we expect them to love, honor, and protect a democratic legacy that seems to many of them lumbering and ineffective, if not invasive and elitist?
As University of Chicago law professors Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq observe, much of our democratic sustainability relies on tradition, precedent, and restraint. But, dispense with these—which happens daily under the present administration—and the safeguards against dictatorship weaken. Our 230-year-old Constitution poses feeble resistance to modern, totalitarian threats to democracy.
While several of the authors echo the left’s contempt for the politically unschooled and for the “infantile emotionalism” of those who cast a rage vote for Trump, Professors Karen Stenner and Jonathan Haidt find resentment of demographic change to be fueling populist lust for a strongman to “right” the nation’s course.
Their essay closes with an empathetic projection of change-fatigue. Do we not all have a limit to the amount of flux we can stomach in a concentrated period of time, they ask? If a third of us have reached that threshold, how can our democracy absorb and address that anxiety without dismantling—or smashing—the entire system?
As with any collection of essays on a common political topic, one can walk away from Sunstein’s powerful political anthology won over by the optimists or the pessimists. Different readers may be persuaded that things will work out for the best, that the situation is desperate and unraveling, or that this is, simply, a shameful but temporary experience that—if history is any indicator—we will come to regret and forget. With Trump now floating the idea of having a “President-for-life,” we must all enlist in the defense of American democracy from the enemies within.