My former colleague James Jernberg at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs used to have a sign on his desk that read, "SOME THINGS NEVER END."
It always brought a smile to my face as we discussed controversies at the U that never seemed to go away.
I thought of Jim's sign recently, prompted by the January riot at the U.S. Capitol, by my reading of Nobel Laureate Sinclair Lewis's 1935 book "It Can't Happen Here" and my recollection of a famous 1947 comic book, an anti-communist screed published by the Catechetical Guild Educational Society in St. Paul, titled "Is This Tomorrow?"
In the comic book, a left-wing communist conspiracy manages to take over the U.S. government, which declares martial law under a communist-led dictatorship. The inside cover provided the dire statement: "The average American is prone to say, 'It can't happen here.' Millions of people in other countries used to say the same thing. … Today they are dead — or living in Communist slavery. It must not happen here!"
The late 1940s and early 1950s were days of school kids huddled under desks, practicing to protect themselves from atomic bombs; of Wisconsin's U.S. Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy's wild claims of communists operating throughout the U.S. government (he was partly right); of anti-communist Fulton Lewis, Jr., raving every night on the radio; of the radio drama "The FBI in Peace and War"; of "The Cross and the Flag," Gerald L.K. Smith's Christian Nationalist Crusade magazine; and of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's trial, conviction (1951) and execution (1953) for espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.
The Sinclair Lewis book, on the other hand, describes a fictional right-wing political movement that develops in the United States in the middle of the Great Depression, masterminded by those who took advantage of social, economic and political unrest to elect a fascist president, Berzelius Windrip, who was violently opposed to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal policies and whose administration clamped down on civil liberties.
Windrip imposed authoritarian control over economic activity and the free press, enforced by a nationwide cadre of "Minute Men" drawn from the ranks of angry, unemployed, lower-class men organized in paramilitary fashion, who brutally and lawlessly suppressed dissent.
"It Can't Happen Here" appeared at a time when right-wing fascist movements had gained popular support and taken over governments in Germany (Adolf Hitler), Italy (Benito Mussolini), Spain (Francisco Franco) and Japan (Hideki Tojo).
Here in the U.S., in 2020, we just voted out of office a president who declared his admiration for strongman governments and referred to Egypt's president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as "my favorite dictator." Meanwhile we have at least one member of Congress regularly spouting wild conspiracy theories.
The bottom line is that we must not take sane, informed, democratic government for granted. There will always be people, at both ends of the political spectrum, who will push for extreme measures to remedy what they see as crises in society needing correction on their terms — and willing to run roughshod over established laws and norms to achieve their objectives.
We saw some of that during the past four years — and we see some members of Congress willing to go to the other extreme during the next four. Sadly, we see local examples on our Minneapolis City Council; we see them in our state Legislature.
"It Can't Happen Here" and "Is This Tomorrow?" are dystopian but cautionary tales; they should be considered for the continuing but underlying tendencies they expose.
You can see "Is This Tomorrow?" at tinyurl.com/tomorrowredscare. "It Can't Happen Here" is available at the local library or bookstore.
Some things never end!
John S. Adams is emeritus professor of geography at the University of Minnesota.