When the Tea Party first rose to prominence in 2009 as an antidote to the Obama administration’s corporatism, cronyism, and massive spending and regulatory overreach, the MSM suffered a slow-motion collective aneurism, convinced that the fascist revolt was finally at hand.
Yes of course, as Jonah Goldberg tried to warn them in Liberal Fascism, they were looking in the wrong direction, but there’s nearly a century of precedent for the elitist left to believe that main street America is the source of all evil in America.
This often reaches to absurd extremes; even before Obama took office, Garrison Keillor, the midwestern humorist and staple of NPR, saw his tone grow brittle and harsh when he surveyed the right:
The party of Lincoln and Liberty was transmogrified into the party of hairy-backed swamp developers and corporate shills, faith-based economists, fundamentalist bullies with Bibles, Christians of convenience, freelance racists, misanthropic frat boys, shrieking midgets of AM radio, tax cheats, nihilists in golf pants, brownshirts in pinstripes, sweatshop tycoons, hacks, fakirs, aggressive dorks, Lamborghini libertarians, people who believe Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk was filmed in Roswell, New Mexico, little honkers out to diminish the rest of us, Newt’s evil spawn and their Etch-A-Sketch president, a dull and rigid man suspicious of the free flow of information and of secular institutions, whose philosophy is a jumble of badly sutured body parts trying to walk.
Geez, why does Garrison Keillor hate Whoopi Goldberg so?
More seriously, if Keillor’s rhetoric sounds sclerotic and reactionary, it’s because he’s tapping into a nearly century-old tradition of “Progressives” who see no evil on the left; but plenty bubbling up from the right. In his new book, The Revolt Against the Masses, Fred Siegel looks back at Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 book, It Can’t Happen Here, which posited that the Rotary Club(!) was poised to seize American power:
The heart of It Can’t Happen Here is laid out in the opening chapter, which presents the local Rotary Club, with its Veterans of Foreign Wars tub-thumping patriotism and prohibitionist moralism, as comparable, on a small scale, to the mass movements that brought Fascism to Europe. Later in the novel, he has a character explain, half-satirically and half-seriously, “This is Revolution in terms of Rotary.” In other words, Lewis’s imagined fascism is little more than Main Street writ political. When he wants to mock Windrip, he describes him as a “professional common man” who is “chummy with all waitresses at . . . lunch rooms.” For Lewis, fascism is the product of backslapping Rotarians, Elks, and Masons, as well as various and sundry other versions of joiners that Tocqueville had once celebrated as the basis of American self-government. There is more than a hint of snobbery in all this. The book’s local incarnation of evil is Jessup’s shiftless, resentful handyman Shad Ledue, who was a member of the “Odd Fellows and the Ancient and Independent Order of Rams.” Ledue uses Windrip’s ascension to rise above himself and displace Jessup from his rightful place in the local hierarchy of power.
If the book were merely an indictment of red-state nativist intolerance, there would be little to distinguish it from numerous other novels and plays of the 1920s that were part of “the revolt against the village.” Lewis was hardly the only writer of the period to, Mencken-like, describe the average American as a “boob” or “peasant.” What made It Can’t Happen Here compelling was that it showed the boobs working through a familiar institution, the local Rotary, to become a menace to the Republic.
In a 2012 issue of Commentary, building on research for The Revolt Against the Masses, Siegel goes on to note that after World War II, the Frankfurt School picked up the left’s attack against middle America:
“In the over-developed countries,” wrote Herbert Marcuse, who became the most famous Frankfurt School theoretician of the 1960s, “an ever-larger part of the population becomes one huge captive audience—captured not by a total regime, but by the liberties of the citizens whose media of amusement and elevation compels the Other to partake of their sounds, sights, and smells.” He was arguing, in effect, for greater social segregation between the elite and the hoi polloi.
Dwight Macdonald, the most influential American critic of mass culture in the late 1950s, concurred with the Frankfurt School. Writing in crackling prose redolent of Mencken’s, he too argued that bourgeois prosperity was creating a cultural wasteland: “The work week has shrunk, real wages have risen, and never in history have so many people attained such a high standard of living as in this country since 1945,” Macdonald complained.
“Money, leisure, and knowledge,” he went on, “the prerequisites for culture, are more plentiful and more evenly distributed than ever before.”
Macdonald, who was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale and associated with the anti-Stalinist leftists at Partisan Review, still couldn’t bring himself to support the United States against the Nazis in World War II on the grounds that “Europe has its Hitlers, but we have our Rotarians.”
My dad, who passed away in 2006, was a life-long member of the Rotarian Club, and president of his local South Jersey chapter for a year in the mid-1970s. At the time, I just remember him putting on a gray suit, navy blue rep tie and his omnipresent double-soled black Florsheim wingtips to trundle off to the weekly meetings.
In retrospect, I had no idea how Absolutely. Hard. Core. he was.