Michael KreponIt Can’t Happen Here

Verse of the week:

“Everyone knows the great energies running amok cast/ terrible shadows, and each of the so-called/ senseless acts has its thread looping/ back through the world and into the human heart. – Mary Oliver, “Shadows”

Sinclair Lewis’s novel about the rise of fascism in the United States, It Can’t Happen Here, published in 1935, is so heavy handed as to be barely readable. Phillip Roth did way better in The Plot Against America (2004), but his timing was premature, and Roth’s corrective plot twist seemed artificial.

If there was a plot twist in It Can’t Happen Here, I stopped reading before reaching it. Lewis hit the nail on the head, however, with his League of Forgotten Men, whose disgruntled multitudes formed the shock troops for the fascist politician who rolled over democratic norms with the help of the faithful and those fearful of displacement.

Lewis has a media blowhard in his cast of disreputables, the Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson, and Rupert Murdoch of his day. Murdoch deserves permanent exile in Hungary for the way his media empire has badly damaged democracies in Australia, Great Britain, and the United States.

The ranks of the current League of Not To Be Forgotten Men and Women are likely to swell further with inflation rates, slick political messaging, the rising cost of food and gasoline, and a potential chart topper — the specter of a global recession.

Living through the 1930s must have felt something like this. Back then, the Japanese conquest of Manchuria (Manchukuo) in China was a foretaste of the second world war. I don’t see another world war in our future. Its odds have been further lengthened because Vladimir Putin’s aggressive war to incorporate Ukraine into greater Russia is not going as planned. Perhaps other strong man rulers will take note.

Back in the thirties, Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson advocated a global policy of nonrecognition in response to Japan’s war of conquest in China. That was the best choice available to Stimson and his President, Herbert Hoover, because an America First movement was holding the Republican Party in its grip. Today, President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have forged a bipartisan coalition at home and a broad coalition of states helping Ukraine to protect itself and to punish Russian forces.

Imagine the fate of Ukraine and NATO had Donald Trump been re-elected.  Whatever else Biden might accomplish in the entirety of his term, beating Trump will be his administration’s most important contribution to U.S. national security.

The siren song of America First still waits in the wings. The next presidential election will be as important as the last. There is mounting evidence that displacement anxiety and grievance mongering expand the Republican Party’s ranks more than the identity politics of the Progressive Left expand the ranks of Democrats.

Republicans on Capitol Hill act on the assumption that there are no penalties for refusing to compromise or to maintain unpopular positions. Thanks to single party districts and very few toss-up states, they are seemingly immune to national public opinion. When traumas result, Republican office holders blame the party that seeks legislative relief. And when legislative relief is blocked, all the more reason to vote for “change.” Democracy erodes when political candidates do not have to acknowledge incontestable facts and, worse, when they are penalized for doing so.

Please don’t label me as a hopeless partisan. I’ve praised Republican presidents and their advisors repeatedly in these posts. They accomplished great successes in arms control during and especially at the end of the Cold War. Then after the Cold War ended, the Republican Party lost its moorings.

A crisis of Democracy doesn’t stop at the water’s edge. Progress on arms control, as with so many other crucial issues, was and remains a reflection of a relatively sound civic and political culture. Protecting minority rights is crucial to the health of Democracy. Maintaining minority rule is toxic to the health of Democracy.

The techniques of minority rule and the tear down were first practiced on civil rights legislation (mostly by Democrats) and then applied to arms control (mostly by Republicans) before becoming commonplace. Treaties require the consent of two-thirds of the Senate. If a super-majority of the Senate cannot be cobbled together, a treaty remains in limbo. It takes sixty votes to shut down a filibuster. Otherwise, legislation cannot be passed in the Senate.

Arms control, whether by treaty or executive agreement can be held hostage by minority rule. Even supermajority votes can be reversed at the sole discretion of the president.

All of the arms control tear downs have manifestly resulted in less U.S. national and international security. Successful national missile defense capabilities are even more distant now than when George W. Bush withdrew from the Ant-Ballistic Missile Treaty two decades ago. North Korean nuclear capabilities are far greater now than when Bush withdrew from President Bill Clinton’s deals to stop missile flight testing and plutonium production. Check out Iranian nuclear capabilities in the aftermath of Trump’s exit from the deal struck during the Obama administration. Or his withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty — just what Europe needed. (I wouldn’t add the INF Treaty to this list; it was a goner anyway, due to Putin’s material breach of its terms.)

Nuclear danger has risen on many fronts due to these tear downs. I’ve written elsewhere and often about reconstruction. I believe there is a path forward to reaffirm and strengthen foundational norms in our line of work — especially the norms of no use and no testing — despite the troubles facing my beloved country. This path begins with Putin losing more than he gains from his war of aggression, and extending the seventy-seven-year-long norm of no use, thereby demonstrating the disutility of Putin’s nuclear threat making.

Of all the challenges facing arms control that we can recite in our sleep, the hardest of the lot is not Iran, or North Korea, or the extent of China’s strategic modernization plans. These are most definitely very hard problems, but there are ways to contain and counter them.

The hardest problem, at least in my view, is systemic. This problem cuts across all the rest, making them harder to tackle. I’m referring to the Republican Party, and what it no longer stands for. A healthy conservatism respects precedent. It doesn’t tear down something of value because it’s not valuable enough. And it certainly doesn’t prize disruption.

Effective counters to every arms control problem require buy in from Republican elected officials as well as Democrats. What will it take for the Republican Party to regain its moorings if it can succeed politically even after losing them?