From Sinclair Lewis and Philip Roth to Donald Trumps favourite film, Citizen Kane, US culture has long told stories about homegrown authoritarianism. What can we learn from them?
To have enslaved America with this hocus-pocus! To have captured the mind of the worlds greatest nation without uttering a single word of truth! Oh, the pleasure we must be affording the most malevolent man on earth! These words come near the end of Philip Roths 2004 novel The Plot Against America, but for some they could have been written yesterday. The election of Donald J Trump as president has been called unimaginable, but the truth is many people did imagine the forces that have brought him to power, or versions of them; we just stopped listening to them.
In 1944, an article called American Fascism appeared in the New York Times, written by then vice president Henry Wallace. A fascist, wrote Wallace, is one whose lust for money or power is combined with such an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends. Wallace predicted that American fascism would only become really dangerous if a purposeful coalition arose between crony capitalists, poisoners of public information and the KKK type of demagoguery. Those defending the new administration insist it isnt fascism, but Americanism. This, too, was foretold: in 1938, a New York Times reporter warned: When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labelled made in Germany; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, Americanism.
Today, George Orwells Nineteen Eighty-Four is No 1 on Amazon.com, while Hannah Arendts The Origins of Totalitarianism has been selling at 16 times its normal rate since December. The Trump administrations use of Newspeak (designed to diminish the range of thought, in Orwells words), its partiality for alternative facts, have sent readers diving back into history in search not only of explanations, but solutions.
One perspective fiction can offer is to imagine not alternative facts but alternative futures, based on shared pasts. These are the stories we call counterfactual, the what-ifs that might have emerged had historical forces twisted in different directions. Nineteen Eighty-Fourwas Orwells vision of postwar fascism, while Aldous Huxleys Brave New World, written just as European fascism began to consolidate in 1932, incorporated American culture into its dystopian vision, in which citizens of the World State pray to long-dead gods of technology (In Ford We Trust) and entertain themselves with Feelies (a play on talkies, the new sound films). Books are suppressed, but no one wants to read them any more anyway.
Books are the enemies of totalitarians, which is why they like to burn them. And there are certainly crucial lessons to be learned from Orwell, Arendt, Elie Wiesel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and many of other writers of the last century who emerged from the first waves of modern totalitarianism determined to share their painful lessons. Consoling tales about defeating nazism remain perennially popular, but darker counterfactual stories have gradually been reclaiming our attention. Len Deightons 1978 novel SS-GB, recounting an alternative history in which the Battle of Britain was lost and Germany occupied Great Britain, is being adapted for the BBC, while Amazons version of Philip K Dicks The Man in the High Castle (1962), which imagines the world after the axis powers triumphed, is filming a third season. Its plot hinges on propaganda films that literally offer alternative facts, as history changes according to individual choices.
Read more: www.theguardian.com