IT CAN HAPPEN HERE – It nearly did

An honest propagandist for any Cause, that is, one who honestly studies and figures our the most effective way of putting over his Message, will learn fairly early that it is not fair to ordinary folks­—it just confuses them—to try to make them swallow all the true facts that would be suitable to a higher class of people. And one seemingly small but almighty important point he learns, if he does much speechifying, is that you can win over folks to your point of view much better in the evening, when they are tired out from work and not so likely to resist you, then at any other time of the day.

Zero Hour, Berzelius Windrip
Sinclair Lewis, IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE, New American Library (republished 2005), p. 180.

Fearing mob violence, insurrection, and the erosion of democratic norms – consequences of Benito Mussolini’s and Adolph Hitler’s propaganda, and indulgence in unrelenting and unbridled repletion of alternative facts – Sinclair Lewis wrote his 1935 tour de force dystopian novel, IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE, depicting the slow-burning rise of an American dictator in the ilk of Il Duce and Der Führer.

Lewis, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, had good reason to be concerned – aside from what he saw happening in Europe. Media mogul William Randolph Hearst, fond of engaging in incendiary propaganda, had defined Americanism in Trumpian style (here I am thinking of when US President Trump called the racist, anti-Semitic, Confederate-flag-waving, Ku Klux Klan Chanting demonstrators “very fine people”):

Whenever you hear a prominent American called “fascist”, you can usually make up your mind that the man is simply a LOYAL CITIZEN WHO STANDS FOR AMERICANISM.

Watching the assault on Capitol Hill and desecration of the US Congress, the citadel of the US’s democracy, who would have believed that this was the United States of America? Who would have thought that it could happen here – in the US? It was not a coup. No dictator emerged. At dawn, the Republic was still intact, though marred, bruised, tested, weakened, humbled and humiliated.

What the world witnessed on January 6th was an attempted soft coup – the manipulation and agitation of a mob, with use of incendiary rhetoric and weaponized words, whipping them into a frenzy to intimidate legislators into undermining and delegitimizing the results of the 2020 US Presidential elections. When the sycophantic, cheerleading, and up until then, unfailingly loyal Vice President Mike Pence opted to comply with the US Constitution in lieu of doing President Trump’s bidding in effecting a procedural coup, President Trump commanded his mob to march to and – wink wink nod nod – storm the halls of Congress.

Egging on his gathered faithful, after first feeding them fantastical falsehoods of voter fraud and election theft, he urged them to march to the Capitol to stop the steal of his delusional electoral victory.

President Trump had been priming the thuggish elements of his base with lies and rhetoric, declaring well before the election that if he did not win, it was because of massive voter fraud. Insinuating through sloganeering the advent of inescapable violence rather than the peaceful transition of power should he loose, President Trump turned many of his followers already prone to hooliganism, racism, and intolerance, into opportunistic rioters, ready to spring into action upon command.

President Trump was not calling for a peaceful march, or for a simple trespass on government property for a peaceful sit-in. No. He primed the mob well in advance that something spectacular would occur on January 6 in Washington, D.C. – the day when the election of Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Kamala Harris as President and Vice President respectively, would formally and conclusively be certified by both houses of Congress sitting in joint session.

Lewis predicted the possibilities of Trumpism, where a charismatic leader through fearmongering and fear-instilling tactics, and through media echo-chambers, acting like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, would lead his followers into an anarchic abyss. Lewis was not alone. The late Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Roth also warned us in his 2004 dark masterpiece, The Plot Against America:

To have enslaved America with this hocuspocus! To have captured the mind of the world’s greatest nation without uttering a single word of truth! Oh, the pleasure we must be affording the most malevolent man on earth!  

Seemingly, President Trump is the leader and orchestrator of this violent mob. He had de facto command and control over them. They followed his tacit commands. His words gave way to action, and that action led to crimes. The superior responsibility criteria seem to have been met – de facto is as good as de jure.

As for incitement, it may be useful to consider Professor Richard Ashby Wilson’s checklist of factors based on persuasion and political communication, in his excellent book Incitement on Trial: prosecuting international speech crimes (reviewed here):

  1. The speaker occupies an official position of authority.
  2. The speaker is perceived as credible by his/her audience.
  3. The speaker is perceived as charismatic by his/her audience.
  4. The speaker is adept at summoning up pre-existing cultural symbols and narratives to cultivate historical grievances.
  5. The speaker makes dehumanizing references, refers to past atrocities, and calls for revenge against the out-group.
  6. The speaker uses intense language replete with vivid images, graphic metaphors, and exaggerations.
  7. His or her speech is experienced as “powerful” by an audience.
  8. The message of the speaker is repeated across a variety of mass communications formats, from radio to television to Twitter.
  9. The speaker wields a monopoly on the means of communication or can censor and suppress information.
  10. The emotional state of the audience is affected by wider circumstances of insecurity and uncertainty.
  11. His or her speech arouses fear by labelling a direct threat and then identifying a distinct and foreseeably violent course of action that can be taken by the audience to remove the source of that threat.

Considering all facts and viewing how the events unfolded, the hallmarks of conspiracy to commit sedition and incitement of insurrection are arguably present. Whether any of the above factors listed by Professor Wilson are relevant, and if yes, whether President Trump’s conduct meet any of them, and whether he and others committed or attempted to commit any crimes (during a conspiracy or otherwise), I leave it to others to draw any conclusions. A comprehensive, objective investigation is necessary. Let the cards fall where they may. If the agitator-in-Chief, his family members, and other close minions (here I am thinking of his lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, and others) are responsible for any crimes, they should be held to account.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that President Trump is guilty of any crimes. If charged, he deserves his full day in court – like everyone else. In any event, I am not trying to ascribe guilt. Rather, I want to emphasize a simple and undisputed fact: words matter. Depending on who is speaking and the choice of words that are used, serious consequences can flow.

The Republic survived, but at what cost. Blood was spilled. Five lives were lost over words that turned into destructive, dangerous, deadly action. Had the mob been armed – as they have been on other occasions – who knows what loss of life we would be mourning.

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Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including, pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

5 thoughts on “IT CAN HAPPEN HERE – It nearly did”

  1. Fine post. Well phrased. But, we should not forget, those recent events, bear naturally unique features. General historical lessons or insights, can’t always match ongoing or modern events. One should avoid strict and overwhelming analogy.

    For example,That check list of factors (of professor Richard Ashb ) states for example, I quote # 9:

    ” The speaker wields a monopoly on the means of communications or can censor and suppress information.”

    Well, that is almost totally the contrary. Trump and his followers, are constantly blocked and censored by media means (according to them, since they are in the right wing indeed.)

    Here for example, titled:

    “It took an assault on Congress for Facebook and Twitter to draw a line on Trump”

    Here:

    https://edition.cnn.com/2021/01/06/tech/twitter-trump-riots-us-capitol/index.html

    Thanks

  2. Dear Mr. Karnavas:
    It is certainly opportune from you to remind us of the ever present danger of Fascism that lurks everywhere.
    However, it is important to consider also that Fascism comes out from fear ,division and intolerance in a society.
    Nowadays, Woke Culture and specially Cancel Culture became as fascist as any discourse from Mussolini and not only in the United States. So no wonder that as a response you can find a more extremist , right wing conservative discourse in society.
    The issue of the election fraud which the woke media routinely despises as an invention, deserves a careful consideration by the Judiciary instead of hiding behind legal terms like “lack of standing”. As I live in a country with an intimate, reiterated relationship with electoral fraud I can smell it from miles away. On several occasions I served as a voluntary clerk in our General Elections. I was threatened twice and experienced some the schemes , cheating and tricks denounced in the States of Georgia and Michigan.
    By the way, a recently elected Democrat representative proposed in the House that those representatives that claimed that there was fraud in the elections should be expelled from the Chamber and a U.S. Corporation (Twiter) decided that it can silence the President of the most powerful country in the world because it doesn´t like what he says. A democratic society should not allow this censorship. This is why I stressed the idea that fascism is all around and the intolerance of one side triggers the behaviour of the other.
    Nothing feeds fear and exaggeration like lack of clarity. An opportune judgement that considers all the evidence submmitted and requested by the parties and proved that there was really no fraud or that it was not big enough to change the results of the election could smooth down tensions and make it difficult to rally people behind any radical behaviour, or on the contrary, that there was fraud and the result must change.
    Of course, I have no personal interest in the results of the election but precisely in this time of History the idea that the United States may slip into an authoritarian State, where a Company decides who can speak and who cannot, should be frightening to everyone since outside its borders it is still consider as a beacon of democracy .
    CLAUDIO GUILLERMO MORASSUTTI

    1. Dear Professor Marassutti,

      Thank you for your comment. I appreciate your frank views, though I disagree with much of them.

      Yes, Fascism lurks about us, but it does not come out of fear, division, and intolerance in a society. Demagogues who seek power, be they on the right or left, use the spoken word and other tactics to whip up fear, divide, and instill or augment intolerance. A good demagogue, such as President Trump, uses fear, division and intolerance to win over a segment of the electorate susceptible to his deplorable divisive language and venomous lies. He did so primarily through privately owned and operated social media (more on this below in response to your claim of censorship).

      You claim that Woke Culture and specially Cancel Culture became as fascist as any discourse from Mussolini is as hyperbolic as it is misguided. By Woke Culture I am assuming you are referring to those involved in left-leaning social and political movements, such as Black Lives Matter and the Me Too Movement, Environmentalism, feminism, LGBT rights, etc. As for the Cancel Culture, also known as Call-Out Culture, I assume you are referring to the form of ostracism inflicted by left-wing advocates on those who may have voiced different views on issues near and dear to them. While I agree that in these movements – as in all movements – there are intolerant, unreasonable, even extremist elements, the vast majority of them are fighting for nothing other than the right to be treated as equal, to have equal opportunities, to have equal rights that are actually afforded in deed and not just in word, to have an equal opportunity to live in an environmentally safe world, and so on. Equating Woke or Cancel Culture discourse – which, admittedly, can occasionally be offensive and inelegant – with Mussolini’s rhetoric (let’s remember that Hitler borrowed heavily from Mussolini’s rhetorical repertoire, taking it to a higher level) is absurd.

      The “extremist, right wing conservatives” did not come into existence because of Woke Culture. The Proud Boys, the white supremist, the neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, to name a few, have been around. Trump tapped into their bigotry, racism, intolerance, ignorance, fears, and insecurities, by demonizing the “others.”

      Your claim that the Judiciary hid behind legal terms like “lack of standing,” is misguided. Anyone who brings a claim must first demonstrate that they have standing – that they have a legal right to sue. A first-year law student knows this. Of course, the issue of standing is not always cut and dry, in other words, it is a matter that must be litigated. Once successful, the court will look at the merits of the claim, with the claimant expected to provide proof. So, when President Trump claims fraud, he needs to bring to the courts credible evidence – authentic, reliable, relevant proof in support of the claims. He had over 60 opportunities. All of his legal efforts failed because States, lawmakers, and others filing the lawsuits lacked standing or offered no evidence of election fraud. Let’s face it, if he had proof, he would not have had to cajole, pressure, and threaten the Secretary of the State of Georgia to find him some 11,800 votes to overture the election results after three recounts. The Supreme Court rejected Texas’ lawsuit to overturn the election for lack of standing because it had no judicially cognizable interest in the outcome of the election in other states.

      You claim that there were cheating schemes in Georgia and Michigan. If so, what are they? Where is the proof of any schemes? What prevented Trump and his extensive legal talent from showing, transparently, these schemes – other than claiming, as you do, of schemes. But of course, Trump would have the public believe the lack of proof is the proof – fraud was committed through such clever schemes that it was undetected by election officials, observers, cameras, or recounts.

      As to the one Democratic House representative who indicated that representatives claiming election fraud should be expelled, context is relevant. I do not believe that any of the representatives or senators who wanted to disenfranchise the voters by claiming election fraud during the 6 January certification proceedings did anything legally wrong since the law does give them the right to challenge the election results, however inane and mendacious their arguments may be. That said, prior to the proceedings, they were publicly stoking the flames with false claims of fraud (as noted, no proof – just repeated unsubstantiated claims), and even after the seditious storming of the Capital Building, they continued to make these false claims. Illegal as it may not have been to continue to peddle false claims during those proceedings, it does break with the basic norms of a peaceful transition of power. Should they be held to account for what happen? Yes. Do they have blood on their hands? Yes. Should they do the honorably thing and resign? Yes.

      As for your Twitter comment, again, you miss the point and seem to be claiming that somehow this is a form of censoring. Twitter is not controlled by the US Government. It is a private company. It has the right to deny access to anyone for cause, that is, for not abiding by the rules Twitter has set out for all its users. There is ample evidence that President Trump used Twitter to stoke fear, division, intolerance, and most sinisterly, to incite violence. President Trump was described as “borderline enthusiastic” as he watched on TV the sacking of the Capital, having incited them to take matters onto their own hands to help reverse the elections results, since his last-ditch effort of having Vice President Mike Pence reversing the election results failed. Twitter gave Trump and his enablers wide berth to lie and manipulate, to brainwash and incite, to sack and threaten. What happened on 6 January was no Arab Spring or Orange Revolution. It was an attempt to reverse the election results through violence – after all legal options having failed – completely, unequivocally, irreversibly.

      Michael G. Karnavas

      1. Dear Mr. Karnavas:
        Thank you for taking the time to answer my post. I very much appreciate it.
        Concerning the issue of fascism, I based my opinion on Eric Fromm´s book “The Fear of Freedom”, 1942., which is a profound psychological work on a tyrant`s mentality and its ability to use fear in a society. I also recommend Hanna Arendt`s “The Origins od Totalitarisms” but this last book is more a sociological and historical study than a psycological work. I don´t think one can understand political violence without recourse to psychology.
        All those tactics you described like dividing society through intolerant speech can only work in a society already in turmoil, divided or in deep fear of the future. Remember that the United States was deeply affected by the Lehman Brothers crisis and many people thought (right or wrong) that their economic way of life was sacrificed to save bankers and financial speculators. If you add the effects of Globalisation such as relocating american factories in China and other countries and the robot and computer revolution that changes or wipes away millions of jobs, you have large segments of society ready to accept violent behaviour, aggressive discourses, magical solutions and above all a Saviour or Champion that would roll back all that is wrong and bring back the golden Eisenhower years.
        Observe that at the same time the same issues and the banking crisis of 2010 in Europe, created resistance against the European Union, xenophobic parties and ultimately Brexit. In both cases there is a growing distrust or hate of the “establishment”. Remember that revolutions usually stem from the middle classess and when middle classess suffer an economic crisis that affects the whole political system.
        I don´t think Trump would have beaten Bill Clinton in the 90`s . Something must have happen first. A traditional politician would have never stirred up the masses . That is why I said that fear, division and intolerance ARE the cause and NOT the effect of a Trump Presidency.
        Concerning Woke Culture and Cancel Culture I wouldn´t consider them dangerous had they not get a strong support among the International Media, Big Corporations and specially the Entertainment Industry (Hollywood, Netflix, etc).
        I recommend the very interesting works of Douglass Murray . “The Madness of the Crowds” and “The strange death of Europe”. Murray elaborated and articulated a precise critic of the Woke culture. You can also watch interviews of the author on the internet.
        We have a problem with Woke Culture in Argentina as well and I find Murray`s works enlightened.
        Woke Culture not only try to impose there views on the rest of the Western World but they also want to supress anybody who do not agree with them. It is not just a few extremist. The whole movement is a part of Postmodernism which ideologically based its premises in Marxism.
        Unlike the civil rights movements of the 60`s these people do not want to liberate or to demand acceptance or equal rights . They want to impose there views and change the rest of society and even language. Most of them are not even part of the minorities they fight for. That is why a fair questions would be why do you want to change society supposedly to the benefit of a group of persons you don´t belong to? It`s very difficult to find a conservative person who does not think that the Woke movement real goal is to attack family as a basic institution in society rather than to provide equal rights to minorities. They are eager to place on the Government the responsibility to teach moral values to children.
        People, like me who accept Human Rights and acceptance of the others as a must, got confused. If I accept other people´s way of life why would this people try to affect “my” way of life and pretend to reeducate other people`s children with there values? That`s why I say that there is fascism at the core of the Woke movement. They want you to abide to their views, to submit to their will and they are ready to punish you if you offer resistance. Thought control is a clear feature of fascism.
        Woke Culture promotion of censorship developed slowly from University campus to Mass Media. See for instance “The Economist”, June 4th- 10th 2016 “Free Speech under attack”.
        Concerning your opinion of the right wing groups like the Proud Boys , the Ku Klux Klan, et cetera I agree with you that they come out of different circunstances and they are really dangerous . I also agree that the President did not condem them and most probably profited from their vote. Whether Donald Trump is racist or not I cannot say but he doesn´t strike me as a liberal.
        Since I clearly believe that there was some measure of fraud in the U.S. Election I would like to tell you where did I get it from.
        Until very recently I mostly read about U.S. politics in the Liberal Media (Politico, The Huffington Post, CNN, Vox, The New York Times, Business Insider , The National Interest, The Economist, among others). But after the first claims of fraud from the Trump Campaign and since liberal Media simply dismissed them as unsubstantiated and didn´t even explained why I started to look in other channels and blogs on youtube. Thus I heard recorded videos of witnesses testimonies before the State Senates of Georgia, Arizona and Michigan including so called informatic experts that testified about Dominion voting machines. One of them even hacked a Dominion machine while he was speaking before the Senate as a demonstration. Also, I read Sydney Powell claim presented in Georgia. I was astonished to see that a claim presented in Nevada with around 20 binders with thousands of names of dead people who voted in the election (I saw the photograph of the binders) was rejected for lack of standing or something else, while it would have been very easy to simply check whether the dead really voted by mail. I watched interviews of governor Kempf of Georgia and his Secretary of State and they don´t look like Officials who want to look into the matter. In a Senate hearing in Georgia an “expert witness” explained where the illegitimate votes came from. He gave the numbers and indicated the Official records of deceased people he consulted to reach his conclusions.
        In Pennsylvania allegedly voted 205.000 more persons than the ones registered for the election. I can´t believe that this cannot be checked easily. There was also a notorious hostile resistance of State´s authorities to investigate “irregularities”.
        So there is plenty of evidence. Plenty of affidavits (around 6.000), plenty of experts testimonies, the new Italiagate /Vatican issue (don´t look at it in Google try http://www.duckduckgo), the not yet revealed intervention of China and so on. You have to consider that not all claims were similar. A Senator from Pennsylvania simply wanted to suppress all Mailing ballots out of an illegal tecnical issue but other claims, in all States, were presented with an abundance of evidence and requests for leave to produce more evidence and they were rejected. Not all the claims were made by the Trump Campaign.
        If the State Courts, the Federal Courts and the Supreme Court do not take the claims where do you go ? What protection the system provide to the candidates ?
        I also read about the interpretation of the Constitution concerning the Vicepresident certification of votes and agree it was difficult for Pence to reject the objected votes.
        I understand that in the Civil Law system rules concerning the right to sue are more simple than in the U.S. law but I cannot believe that in a developed country like the U.S. a candidate have no judicial remedy to fight an alleged fraud. If you believed to be victim of a fraud what do you have to do if the Courts don´t even bother to consider your claims? Would you invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act and designate and Special Attorney to accuse Biden before a Military Court on the charge of treason?
        I don´t think that the Courts realize the importance of clarification at this time in History. In our shores the “lack of standing” looks like a Coup d’Etat or even cowardice or collaboration.
        I do not accuse American judges of these actions because I don´t know these Judges but again you can´t hide behind a law book or a precedent no matter your legal tradition. If there is turmoil in the country and a very resourceful, determined man want to rock the boat someone must put order in the house and in a Democracy those are usually the judges with or without “standing”.
        If some expected that with a friendly Media and Twiter censorship people would simply accept the dubious result and get on with their lives I think they should consider the matter again.
        I am sure that somehow a Statute, a precedent, an older Act, a Court decision or a new precedent could be find to examine the merits of at least the main claims. If, God be thanked, there is no fraud then a thorough Court decision can easily appease the population and make it turn away from demagogue claims. Trump cannot claim they stole the elections if one suit after another is dismissed on the merits. Remember the “stab on the back” of General Luddendorf ? “We didn´t loose WWI the Communist forced us to surrender”. At the time German people believed that and Hitler exploited it later.
        Last and not least if fraud really existed and Trump won the election then the leaders of both parties should consider seriously what did they do wrong since after four exhausting years everybody expected Trump to loose. Perhaps they should replace themselves and let better people to control the parties.
        I never ceased to explain in my classes at the University and on the internet forums where I collaborate the importance of the U.S. for the survival of democracy in a world at the risk posed by totalitarian regimes.
        It would be a paradox of History that the man most difficult to trust is the one who dare to present his case in Court, thus allegedly trusting the system, while the candidate of the establishment, the “rational”, the one with “common sense” hides behind the Media.
        By the way, please observe how opposite our positions are. Not only because as nationals of the United States and Argentina we had different experiences with democracy and world views but also because I suspect we got information from different sources. I dare not say that all that I read is absolutly true but I don´t believe everything is fake either. For instance, I´m puzzled that so many Americans do not believe or don´t seem to care about the alleged corruption issues involving China and Joe and Hunter Biden.
        Thanks again for your answer and I hope we can meet in The Hague once the China Virus is over (here in Argentina we never forget that the virus spread from China).
        Yours very sincerely

        CLAUDIO GUILLERMO MORASSUTTI

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