Sleepless Before Election Night in the America of Fact and Fiction

On election night four years ago my daughter, who was not yet 7, got to stay up as late as she wanted to find out who the next president would be. She's been up since. Sleep-walking through the last four years of color-coded fears and patriotic stupor doesn't count. Tonight might bring some relief, unless that quirk of American democracy -- the duly elected president -- really is an item for the Smithsonian's next exhibit.

It doesn't look promising. Ohio's electoral system wants to borrow a page from Afghanistan's idea of balloting by bullies. Florida's system is the same lost cause it was four years ago, thanks to a governor who knows a profitable botch when he sees one. The U.S. Supreme Court is four years older but still five justices short of wise on universal suffrage. And, even without schemes tailored to swing this particular election as far from a precise popular count as possible, the results of any election can't hide that almost half the electorate doesn't vote, that money devalues every vote and that the media's cult of balance puts the appearance of even-handedness ahead of accuracy. Democracy has had better days.

In 1935 Sinclair Lewis imagined an America taken over by a dictator on a tide of populist promises. Not much more than the title of the book is remembered today: "It Can't Happen Here." The words have been used a few times to suggest that a second Bush term would bring the nation as close as it's ever been to a dictatorship, given the disappearance of Congress as a branch of any consequence since 2001 and the cloning of the federal bench in President Bush's image. It's a wild exaggeration. Things aren't nearly that bad. But they're bad enough. The United States doesn't need to go down the path of Italy or Germany in the 1930s to reach a shameful threshold. What has happened here in the last four years is unbecoming enough of what the United States has stood for and what we, in our hearts, expect it to be, despite "the unfolding of the unforeseen," as Philip Roth puts it in his newest novel.

The unforeseen began, it seems to me, at a specific point. It wasn't Sept. 11, 2001. The attacks did their damage, devastating as it was. But the unforeseen that changed the country began Sept. 14, 2001, at the memorial service for the victims of the attacks at Washington's National Cathedral. That was the moment when Bush framed America's chosen response. The choice was between belligerence as policy and peace as mission, with belligerence only as safeguard of last resort. The turning point was up to him. Bush and Billy Graham delivered war speeches. Then, they led the assembly in the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." It would be war and not just war. It would be a crusade after all. So it has been, an "unfolding of the unforeseen" for the rest of us, but one that was, nevertheless, willfully chosen.

That Roth line is taken from "The Plot Against America," the Lewis-like novel in which Roth imagines Charles Lindbergh defeating Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 election and immediately signing nonaggression pacts with Hitler and Japan. The plot isn't far-fetched. Lindbergh led the America First movement to keep the United States out of European wars in the 1930s and early '40s and was spoken of as a Republican presidential candidate. His affinities for Nazi Germany, his polite but no-less rank anti-Semitism and his beliefs in the superiority of the white race are well-documented. In the novel, Lindbergh's ascendancy is followed by mass approval, except by Jews, who are Lindbergh's first, and presumably not last, target for "absorption" in the more wholesome, white bread "heartland."

Roth, who judges Bush "unfit to run a hardware store let alone a nation like this one," insists that he didn't write the novel to make a statement about the last three years. Nor does it have to be such a statement. It speaks powerfully enough to the foolishness of assuming that life would go on as we know it just because it has gone on that way in the past -- just because we're America. (The assumption has the same tinge of righteous arrogance one hears when Bush told Bob Woodward in an interview that he didn't care if "we may be the only ones left" fighting the war on terror. "That's OK with me. We are America.")

But then Roth writes about "the right-wing saboteurs of democracy -- the so-called patriots and the so-called Christians," and parallels seem irrepressible. One of his characters asks, "And how long will the American people stand for this treachery perpetrated by their elected president? How long will Americans remain asleep while their cherished Constitution is torn to shreds by the fascist fifth column of the Republican right marching under the sign of the cross and the flag?" And another: "Every day I ask myself the same question: How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country? If I didn't see it with my own eyes, I'd think I was having a hallucination." Finally, Roth has Fiorello La Guardia, the great mayor of New York and one of the novel's few politicians who attempt to rescue democracy, ask: "It can't happen here? My friends, it is happening here."

Fact and fiction intersecting in "The Plot Against America" are nothing like the intersections of fact and fiction in today's election. The difference in this page-turner is that, if enough bother to read between the lines, if enough of us turn out, we could still affect the ending. Or the beginning. We might even get some sleep.

© 2023 Pierre Tristam