Donald Trump’s candidacy and now, presidency, have resurrected a public discourse not heard in this country since the Great Depression — an anxious discourse about the possible triumph in America of a fascist-tinged authoritarian regime over liberal democracy. It’s a fear Sinclair Lewis turned into a 1935 bestselling novel, It Can’t Happen Here — although, as Lewis told it, it sure as hell could happen here.
It did not happen, however. Not then, at least. Electing Franklin Roosevelt as president and taking up the labors of the New Deal, our parents and grandparents not only rejected the sirens of authoritarianism, they actually extended and deepened American freedom, equality and democracy. They subjected big business to public account and regulation; expanded the nation’s public infrastructure and improved the environment; empowered the federal government to address the needs of working people and the poor; mobilized farmers’ organizations, labor unions, consumer campaigns and civil rights groups and fought for their rights, broadening the “We” in “We the People.”
Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Simon & Schuster). He is currently writing Radicals at Heart: Why Americans Should Embrace their Radical History (The New Press).