This article appears in slightly different form in the Financial Times.
In 1935, Sinclair Lewis published It Can’t Happen Here, a novel today more referred to than read, which imagined fascism coming to the U.S. The movement’s leader is Buzz Windrip, a populist demagogue who promises “to make America a proud, rich land again,” punish nations that defy him, and raise wages very high while keeping prices very low.
You can’t read Lewis’ novel today without flashes of Trumpian recognition. Windrip is a demagogic huckster, “an inspired guesser at what political doctrines the people would like,” who understands how to manipulate the media and considers the truth an irrelevancy. His constituency of economically dispossessed white men moos at his xenophobic nationalism and preposterous promises. After he wins the 1936 election, Windrip moves to assert control over the press, lock up his opponents, and put competent businessmen in charge of the country.
Though the novel is in truth not a very good one, Lewis develops it around a key insight: that if fascism came to the US, it would be as a variation on American themes, not European ones. The American man on horseback would be more Huey Long than Benito Mussolini, a folksy opportunist rather than a red-faced ideologue. Lewis was shrewd in guessing that an American fascist leader would likely declare himself an opponent of European fascism.
This is a point that some of those accusing Donald Trump of fascism—including many on the right—misunderstand. Sure, Trump may retweet the odd quote from Il Duce and wonder why anyone would object. Admittedly, his rallies teeter on the edge of racial violence. Again this week, black protesters were forcibly ejected from his events with the help of white supremacist thugs. True, the world leaders Mr. Trump admires are the dictators, not the democrats. Certainly, he sounds like a dictator himself.
But Trump does not draw on traditions of European totalitarianism or even appear to know anything about them. He is not consumed with historical grievances; he’s not an anti-Semite; he hasn’t tried to build a mass party; and he doesn’t demand the restoration of tradition or an old moral order. Indeed, as a reality TV star and cyberbully on his third wife, he is himself a good illustration of the breakdown of any moral order possibly remaining.
Rather, Trump represents what autocratic attitudes look like in a modern American context. He is unfriendly toward the free market, the free press, and the free exercise of religion while paying lip service to these values. He is xenophobic, conspiratorial in his worldview, admiring of violence and torture, contemptuous of the weak, and unwilling to tolerate criticism or peaceful dissent—but all in the name of correcting excesses of tolerance. Various global and historical comparisons shed light on his style and thinking: Perón, de Gaulle, Silvio Berlusconi, Vladimir Putin, and others. But Trump isn’t importing Latin caudillismo or Russian despotism. He bullies those who resist him in the contemporary vernacular of American celebrity culture.
This is why those arguing that Trump’s policies are more moderate than those of his rivals Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio miss the point. Trump’s authoritarianism is an amalgam not of left and right but of wacko left and wacko right: He thinks that George Bush was to blame for 9/11 and that Muslims should be barred from the U.S. Believing both of those things does not make Mr. Trump a centrist—it makes him an eclectic extremist. When it comes to policies, he actually has none in the conventional sense.
The conflict in the 2016 campaign is no longer Trump versus his Republican opponents; it is now Trump versus the American political system. That system is on the verge of missing its best opportunity to spit him out. Since Super Tuesday, the GOP’s reaction to Trump has been mildly heartening, with anti-Trump ads on television and principled politicians like Mitt Romney denouncing him amid torrents of personal abuse. Three cheers for Sen. Lindsey Graham, who says Trump is a “nut job” and that the GOP has gone “batshit crazy.” Fellow Republicans have taken to calling Chris Christie, who cravenly endorsed Trump last week, a “Vichy Republican.” But this is all probably too little, too late.
If sane Republicans fail to derail Trump, that job will fall to Hillary Clinton and the November electorate. Fifty-five percent say they would never vote for Trump, according to a YouGov poll. Nonetheless, there is now a nontrivial risk that he could win the election. The American founders designed a constitutional order to prevent the exercise of tyrannical power. But the country has arguably never had to contend with a dictatorial president, as opposed to a president’s dictatorial acts. One can believe in the efficacy of the system without wishing to see it tested in this way.
An America in which Trump can represent one of the major parties feels like a very different country from the one many of us thought we lived in. Like a lot of people, I was much too complacent. It can happen here, and it might.
*Correction, March 4, 2016: Due to a photo provider error, this article’s photo caption originally misstated that Milford was in Iowa. It is in New Hampshire.