The Most American Thing of All

It’s true what historians say, you interpret the past through a filter of the present.

When I read Gore Vidal’s historical novel Lincoln in the spring of 2016, it was my first attempt to understand the sixteenth U.S. president. By custom and training, we approach Lincoln as an amalgam of bland superlatives that we learn in grade school. He was the most mythical of Americans; he flew so high, we truly believe he touched the face of God.

Indeed Lincoln’s aura began to take form even while he was still alive. His closest friends in the White House called him “the Ancient.” They seemed to know that he would go down as a giant in history.

The last, deeply affecting words that were spoken of Lincoln foretold the reverence we would always feel for the great man. “Now he belongs to the ages,” intoned Secretary of War Stanton as Lincoln breathed his last in William Peterson’s house. Well, he had always belonged to the ages.

Vidal’s novel about Lincoln caused wailing and gnashing of teeth when it came out in 1984, the high tide of Reagan’s America. If you’ve heard anything at all about the book, you probably caught that it was a hatchet job, done to chop Lincoln down to size. Great Americans, after all, do not contract veneral diseases, do not entertain atheist ideas. Infamously, Vidal insinuated the former of Lincoln and made a pretty plain case for the latter. (There is a whopping great literature on both controversies, and Vidal stoutly defends his sources. My purpose today is not to weigh in on this argument. If you’re interested in it, start here.)

But read Lincoln in any case, I implore you, no matter where your instincts lie about the subject. It is a 650-page novel, and Vidal spends 640-odd pages detailing other things about the man than his atheism or alleged case of syphilis. It is a deeply nuanced, complex portrait that does a far greater service than any patriotic haigography ever could. Indeed, for me, Lincoln establishes convincingly that truly a god became man and walked among us. Even seen through Vidal’s realist filter, Lincoln is so gravely noble, it is hard to feel worthy of his legacy. More on this in a moment.

The fact that Lincoln made the superhuman choices he did and suffered inhuman tragedies while bearing the burden of a potentially suicidal national question–Are we free or not?–and that he did all this on the strenth of only the most human resources–stubbornness, introspection, humor, conviviality, pragmatism and patience–shows that he was more verily a giant than our pious myths ever made him out to be.

Say what you will of Vidal’s cynicism or subversiveness, but the fact is, he accomplished something nearly magical with Lincoln–he humanized a god, but kept the god part. And in so doing, he illuminated the scope of greatness that is attainable by any American. If each of us could muster even a fraction of Lincoln’s genius or compassion or magnanimity–or, yes, foxiness–we would help build a better country, or at least we would be better friends, parents, neighbors, teachers, officials.

There is a scene from Lincoln that I suppose I will take with me to the grave, it speaks so affectingly of the man’s courage and decency. It is September 1862, and the president is touring the aftermath of Antietam, the bloodiest battle so far of the Civil War. Lincoln and his entourage are about to retire for the day, having been briefed by the (disappointing) General Mclellan and having visited hundreds of wounded Union soldiers. They mount their horses and start back toward Washington.

They were now opposite a large farmhouse on whose porch a dozen wounded men lay on pallets. Lincoln turned to his colonel-escort. “What’s this, Colonel?”

“Confederate prisoners, sir. Wounded at Sharpsburg. We’ll be sending them on to Washington once we’ve finished shipping our own wounded back.”

“I think I’d like to take a look at these boys,” said Lincoln. “And I’m sure they’d like to take a look at me.”

Lincoln’s bodyguard stiffened, hated the idea. The Southern press relentlessly portrayed Lincoln as a criminal and tyrant. Washington was rife with rumors of Confederate plots to kill him, and he repeatedly tempted fate by ambling around the city unguarded. Lincoln’s bodyguard thought surely one of the wounded men inside would stand up and strike a blow for the Confederacy once they saw their nemesis before them so vulnerable. But the president pressed on, together with friend and advisor Eilhu Washburne, a Repulican member of the House of Representives. “You stand outside,” Lincoln instructed his security detail, “while Mr. Washburne and I, two harmless Illinois politicians, pay these southern boys a call.”

The colonel led Lincoln and Washburne up the steps and into the house, which consisted, at this level, of a single large room lined on both sides with cots. At least a hundred men and boys lay on the cots, some missing arms or legs or both. Some were dying; others were able to limp about. The smell of flesh corrupting was overpowering; and Washburne tried not to breathe. But Lincoln was oblivious of everything except the young men who were now aware that a stranger was in their midst. The low hum of talk suddenly ceased; and the only sound in the room was the moaning of the unconscious. . . . [S]lowly, [Lincoln] removed his hat. All eyes that could see now saw him, and recognized him.

When Lincoln spoke, the famous trumpet voice was muted; even intimate. “I am Abraham Lincoln.” There was a long collective sigh of wonder and of tension and of . . . ? Washburne had never heard a sound quite like it. “I know that you have fought gallantly for what you believe in, and for that, I honor you, and for your wounds so honorably gained. I feel no anger in my heart toward you; and trust you feel none for me. That is why I am here. That is why I am willing to take the hand, in friendship, of any man among you.”

The same sigh, like a rising wind, began; and still no one spoke. Then a man on crutches approached the President and, in perfect silence, shook his hand. Others came forward, one by one; and each took Lincoln’s hand; and to each he murmured something that the man alone could hear.

The honor, goodwill and magnanimity Lincoln shows in this scene are almost beyond belief. But we know it happened. There were several eyewitnesses, and two of them recorded Lincoln’s words more or less as he must have spoken them.

For more than a year after I read this passage I believed that Lincoln’s decision to go into that house to speak those words was the most “American” thing that had ever happened in our history. Knowing full well he was lying about being a harmless Illinois politician (the famous Lincoln irony), Lincoln presented himself to those soldiers as their enemy personified, the very man who had caused the deaths of thousands of their comrades.


In facing those troops, though, and praising their conduct, he was insisting that they must retain the ability to behold one another as equal men even in the midst of a war that pitted them as inhuman enemies. Lincoln’s offer of friendship was a superhuman act of decency. I confess that I sometimes fight back tears when I read this passage. Time and again Lincoln forced himself to feel the full weight of responsibility for the ruinous war he was waging. If ever there were an American president who felt in his bones that his nation should resolve to know war no more, it was Lincoln. When he walked unguarded into that house and gave that speech, it was because he believed more deeply in our bonds of affection and our better angels than in our civil war and our demons.

But I no longer think that that speech is the most American thing of all. Today I think the most American thing of all was the bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth that exploded Lincoln’s brain and drove his thoughts from the world. Today we put more store in the power of violence to silence challenges to our country’s political identity than in civilized dispute and argumentation. We desire to be a country full of good guys with guns ready to mete out rough justice that bypasses any effete philosopher’s wish for peace, decency, and greater freedom for all.

[Image: PBS]
Like the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamozov, who meets Christ face-to-face and finds that he hates him, today’s Republican high priests appear to scorn everything that made Lincoln great. Still more does the mob behind them reject everything Lincoln stood for.

The current adminstration is a hateful burlesque of presidential leadership. Lincoln’s high and noble legacy casts the noxiousness of Trumpism into deep relief. Insolence, sniggering, and the wholesale evasion of responsibility define not just Trump’s political style, but the whole substance of his administration. But for his mob we might be able to dismiss Trump’s rise as an anomaly that will pass with merciful quickness. Unfortunately, though, the currents of reactionarism run deeper than that. A large part of our country rejects the decency and humanity of our greatest president, and rather than striving to emulate any part of what made him great, we bow to a buffoon who mocks the very idea of responsibility and accountability (and tells us he does so). Republicans, are we? If so, it is not a republic that the Ancient would recognize.



What Sinclair Lewis Really Hated


Joining a recent trend, I finally got around this year to reading Sinclair Lewis’s dystopian novel It Can’t Happen Here, which depicts the rise of a fascist dictator in 1930s America.

But before I picked up It Can’t Happen Here, I first took in Lewis’s other major novels–Mainstreet, Babbit, Elmer Gantry and Arrowsmith. It was an entrancing journey. Lewis is a keen, searching critic of American society, even if he is not quite in the front rank of America’s great novelists. His morality tales bravely answer Kafka’s demand that, “Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us.”

Furthermore, Lewis’s novels form a fascinating historical bridge between post-Civil War, steam-powered America and the country we know today. Lewis was born in 1885, the year after Huckleberry Finn was published, and he died in 1951, the year Boeing produced the first B-52 bomber, which is still in service. Much of the language in Lewis’s early dialogues is either hilariously cornball (“Gee!” once expressed real vehemence, if you can believe it.) or barely intelligible (“Punk” was an adjective, not a noun, meaning inferior or objectionable.). By the time of his last novels, though, Lewis’s dialogue needed no translation even for those of us born after 1960.

For anyone who grew up in the rural Midwest, as I did, here is another charming part of Lewis: he mounts his critique of American prejudices and blindspots straight from the amber-grained heartland, bypassing the urban coasts where the smart set presumes all our great national debates begin and end. There is something wickedly fun about watching Lewis attack American complacency from the same Minnesota plains that inspired Laura Ingalls Wilder to pen stories of such innocent wonder. The name “Mankato,” signifying a shining, magical place where Pa Ingalls went to buy real glass window panes for the little house and peppermint candy for the kiddoes, will never ring the same after Lewis uses the village to stage the self-satisfied duncery of middlebrow townies.

sinclair lewis
Sinclair Lewis, national scold (image: IMDb)

It was only by accident that I read Lewis’s back catalogue before I took in It Can’t Happen Here, but I’m very glad I did. Lewis was a great chronicler of social change in America. By the time he wrote It Can’t Happen Here, in 1936, he had already rendered a fine-grained map of the national mindset, one that is still capable of enlightening us postmoderns. It was this deeper fund of insight that I found more useful in making sense of Trump than the novel that was supposedly “about” him.



When the U.S. Electoral College produced Donald Trump’s presidential win in 2016, obervers who had abstractedly scratched their chins and wondered what the College was truly for suddenly had concrete reason to ask whether this quirk in the system could somehow open democracy’s gates to barbarism. Could tyranny happen here, based on a technicality?

Trump’s first shot across the bow of democracy, on day one, was typical for an aspiring tyrant. Sending Sean Spicer out to shout plain falsehoods about crowd size to the press was a variation on one of Hitler’s and Stalin’s go-to tactics, the Big Lie. The Big Lie is a crucial test for an aspiring dictator. It doesn’t matter whether the people believe it or not, but if a large enough group is beguiled by its mere boldness–if they are stirred by the strong man’s ability to say whatever he wants and not be constrained by convention–that group becomes a mob. And mobs are very good for aspiring dictators.

Even if you dismiss Trump as a mere grandstanding, phillistine bigot, not a credible tyrant, his win was still disquieting. It raised the question of what might happen next, after Trump spends four years test-driving the country through the basic maneuvers of fascism.[1] Might a competent dictator then arrive?

A year and a half after Trump’s win, with white supremacists still Sieg Heiling him, ICE agents increasingly comporting themselves like stormtroopers, and Trump’s inner circle insisting he is above the law, we have ample reason to wonder how loathesome Trumpism can become before it hits a limit of some kind. And this is where the novels of Sinclair Lewis prove to be instructive. Lewis’s subject was always, in some way, the American national character, and if there are limits on Trumpism, it is in our character we are likely to find them. After all it was the American idea that gave rise to the Constitution, not vice versa. Unfortunately, to get to the heart of what Lewis had to say on this subject, you have to bypass some significant flaws in the novel that has brought his name back into national light.

The first thing an educated reader notices about It Can’t Happen Here is the technical implausibility of its plot at several key junctures. When the dictator-president, Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, imposes emergency rule mere hours after his election and has his Brown Shirt militia arrest several key opponents, the judicial branch offers not a squeak of resistance. With no device to explain this development, Lewis simply has every judge in the land roll over for Windrip. Are populist militia men poised to arrest the judges? We don’t know; Lewis fails to convince.

There are other similar plot gaps. They all turn on technicalities, but in a state governed by a constitution, court rulings, and a written body of law, technicalities are of primary importance. When Trump’s administration tried to pass off a jejeunely written, tub-thumping pamphlet as an executive order banning Muslims last year, the courts duly trimmed it down to lawful size. An essential technicality.

By mistake or by design, though, Lewis simply doesn’t attend to mechanisms like this, the features of our political system that could realistically curb a tyrant’s ambitions.

So why read him, then? Because he plumbs the deeper question I just alluded to about national character, which has implications for the potential cultural limits on Trumpism. Lewis compels as to ask biting, stinging questions about who we are and what the American idea is.

The most apalling thing about Trump’s movement is not the man himself. As George Will stoically pointed out recently, “Trump is what he is, a floundering, inarticulate jumble of gnawing insecurities and not-at-all compensating vanities, . . . .  The real horror of Trumpism is the relish with which his fanbase metabolizes his garish flaws, converting celebrity worship into organized bigotry. What kind of citizen has our country brought forth, capable of seeing Trump’s attacks on tolerance, honesty and responsibility as a tonic for our democracy?

I am an optimist about the truth and its importance for democracy. Sort of. I do not believe one man can tell lies as big as Trump’s and be believed based only on what he says. There must be people out there who already want to believe things that are extravagantly false. As I read Lewis’s novels this spring, it dawned on me how deep this well of credulity is in America. We’ve been digging it since we started to become a prosperous, modern country. In a moment, I’ll offer some thoughts on Lewis’s back-catalogue novels that deal with this history.

But, first, back to It Can’t Happen Here. In the riproaring weeks leading up to Buzz Windrip’s election, the establishment candidate is campaigning “as placidly as though he were certain to win.” (Sound familiar?) This is because the populist firebrand Windrip is simply not credible on the stump; his threats, promises and harrangues are all super sized. The novel’s hero, though, crusty old newspaper man Doremus Jessup, is starting to realize that  Windrip’s base, fueled by grievances not facts, will carry the day. “This,” Jessup pronounces, “is revolution in terms of Rotary.”

What did Lewis mean by that? What’s so bad about Rotarians? Aren’t they self-starting, optimistic do-gooders, boosters of the local community? How could their brand of public-spiritedness possibly menace American democracy? Shouldn’t it actually be good for Americans? De Tocqueville thought very positively of our habit of forming and joining prosocial clubs. Lewis’s ultimate Rotarian character, George Babbitt, describes his fellows’ worldview as “a loyal and vigorous faith in the goodness of the world, a fear of public disfavor, a pride in success.” This attitude seems virtuous enough, even if slightly parochial. What malice did Lewis sense lurking behind such small-town pride?

I said earlier that Lewis is a fascinating writer because he links vaguely-intelligible ideas of an American past to the familiar country of today. And so, his idea of “Rotary,” while suggestive of a certain late-Victorian mindset, requires a bit of recontextualizing to bring it up to date. For Lewis the Rotarian mind was one that equated get-ahead commercialism with civic virtue. In the Anytown, USA of Lewis’s day, it was the local business leaders who were creating the jobs that floated everyone’s boat a little higher. If anyone deserved to be listened to above others, it must have been these yeoman of the American dream. Without them, thousands, possibly millions of Americans gifted with less grit or creativity would have floundered in poverty.

This cross-section view of American class structure reveals something of great historical significance, the idea that all political power derives from property. Our Declaration of Independence says each person may claim freedoms based on her status as a human being, but our culture says she’ll need to beg permission of the wealthy first. It is they who safeguard the land’s political power and mete it out to those they deem deserving.

Today, the the quintessence of the Rotarian persona survives in the class of white, male Christian property owners, who believe implicitly that the political opinions of the differently-minded must pass a tribunal of WASP values to enter the marketplace of ideas. Gay marriage?–Hmm, maybe, but only after enough rich white Christians convince the mob to go light on Leviticus and Deuteronomy and politely ignore whatever it is the fags are up to.

But history occasionally cracks open to empower the voiceless. The tension in It Can’t Happen Here arises because America’s tycoons wake up to the Great Depression to find their presumptive status as gatekeepers under threat. History’s tectonic plates shifted in 1929, and the poor and unlucky were suddenly claiming a form of political agency that did not need or seek the say-so of the rich. Windrip’s campaign succeeds in It Can’t Happen Here because he promises to quiet the rabble and restore the gatekeeper status of the go-getter wealthy.

Lewis only imagined there were Americans who would believe a Windrip’s pledge to make America great again. With Trump’s rise, we now know there are living, breathing citizens of this country who favor a humiliating power order that compels the poor, the female, the colored and other bothersome little types to apply to the rich for political patronage.

For the rich and famous, things don’t get much better than this. The peasantry is actually cheering them on, praising the height and beauty of the walls they have built around their treasures. Lewis’s back-catalogue novels are great because they document the besetting sins that made this level of abasement possible.

Babbitt records the American idea that wealth is the best measure of a person’s value. Wealth worship starts out innocently enough. Everyone has to make a living; George Babbitt simply propounds the idea that, the more pep one puts into money-making, the better sort of person he is. Babbitt’s life falls apart because of the moral bankruptcy of this view, but never mind.

Elmer Gantry establishes the indispensibility of religious fundamentalism for political credulity and the special role it plays in subjugating the poor to the the rich. Once a preacher turns the trick of fooling most of the people most of the time, he has produced  the ultimate political commodity–blind faith. And with God on any given politician’s side, there is nothing a mob cannot be persuaded to believe from him. Gantry is a profane, dimwitted womanizer who nonetheless succeeds as a preacher because he stands up and fights for the tribal Christian identity of America.

Mainstreet addresses the overwhelming power of social conformity, especially in small towns. The novel’s heroine, Carol Milford, leaves the big city for true love in a small town, but she soon discovers how overpowering her new neighbors’ desire is for sameness of thought. A panoply of structural injustices (against women, children, minorities, etc.) is disguised as the loyalty ordinary folks feel toward traditional ways. By trying to make the smallest of changes to her new surroundings, Carole discovers how deeply entrenched the old power order is and how strong its immunities are to new ideas.

Arrowsmith showcases the social significance of populist skepticism about science. One interesting division of a society is the kinds of invisible things its members believe in. Scientitsts tend to believe in entities too small to see–genes, atoms, microbes, etc. Non-scientists tend to believe in entities too wondrous to see–the Trinity, the Invisible Hand, the power of prayer, and so forth. In Arrowsmith, Lewis suggests, gloomily, that the latter camp will always have the upper hand. Science is fine as long as it makes money or reinforces the established power order, but as soon as it starts to upset the received view, the mob closes ranks to denounce it as “just” a theory.

Taken together, Lewis’s back catalogue goes a long way toward explaining the rise of the Trumpist mob. America used to be great, goes their narrative, before differently-minded people appeared on the scene to challenge the implicit political superiority of the country’s WASP gatekeepers. This is what Lewis really hated–the bland, presumptive assholery of WASP Mainstreet. His most blinkered characters believed that hardworking white Americans were just doing what came naturally to an organically virtuous, industrious people, and anyone who stood out–or stood up to them–was just asking for trouble.

Lewis’s novels encompass much more than this critique, of course. Read him for all he has to say. But you just might find yourself thinking he has a lot to say about who we are today.


  1. In an effort to keep my essays moving, I sometimes don’t slow down to define key terms. I realize I am using tyranny, authoritarianism and fascism more or less interchangebly about Trump depsite the fact that they mean different things. Without consulting a primer on political science, I consider tyranny to be a form of government, which elevates the ruler’s will over the law; authoritarianism to be a style of government, which coopts institutions to reinforce a ruler’s will; and fascism to be a political culture that uses nationalism, militarism and industrialism to advance an aggressive, rights-violating agenda. I don’t believe my slurring over these concepts does any serious injury to precision in describing Trump’s political style.