Why ‘It Could Happen Here’
In the 1930s, as Nazi Germany was gearing up for war against its European neighbors and starting to implement the antisemitic Nuremberg Laws that presaged the Holocaust, the brilliant American author Sinclair Lewis ironically titled his 1935 novel about the threat of unhinged despotism, “It Can’t Happen Here.”
That title reflects something all Americans have been told and taught, and even convinced ourselves about the American experience. In our history books, our civics lessons, our folklore, and our outlook — as a nation exporting democracy around the world while fighting the threats of fascism and communism — America was supposed to be different. This was a true democracy, a nation with flaws, but one that strove to be more perfect — a land of hope and freedom that welcomed all people to its shores and gave all citizens an equal voice.
America was a haven for immigrants, regardless of one’s origins. It was a melting pot, or, perhaps, a salad bowl. It was a great experiment in democracy, where our Constitutional freedoms and democratic institutions — while not always living up to their promise — nonetheless stood out as a beacon for other nations to emulate. Naked authoritarianism, vicious demagoguery, brutal antisemitism — those things just couldn’t happen here.
Even today, nobody wants to believe that extremism, illiberalism, and violence inspired by different variants of the virus of intolerance could unfold on our shores.
But as I write in my new book, “It Could Happen Here,” the title of which was inspired by, and is the inverse of Sinclair Lewis’ ironic formulation, our social fabric is weakening, and our communities are buckling under the pressure from hate seemingly generated on all sides.
Our society is becoming more vulnerable by the day to hate on both the left and the right. Beset by a pandemic that has devastated communities, unsettled everyday life, and cost millions of jobs, people are on edge, and ever more likely to blame the “other” for deepening economic inequality, excessive levels of personal debt, and other stressors.
From my vantage point as the CEO of one of the Nation’s oldest anti-hate organizations, the trends we’re seeing in America are alarming. Hate is on the rise everywhere — much more than many people realize.
Between 2015 and 2018, the US saw a doubling of antisemitic incidents.
In 2019, the ADL logged more antisemitic incidents than we had tracked in any year in the past four decades. And one need look no further than the attacks in Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, and Monsey, and the brazen assaults of Jews in the streets in May 2021 during the Israel-Gaza conflict, for examples of how antisemitic ideologies and rhetoric that are spread online have contributed to acts of real-world intimidation and outright violence.
We know that antisemitism is the proverbial canary in the coal mine — that a good barometer of the level of tolerance in any given society is to look at how accepting that country is to its Jewish people and other minorities. So we should not be surprised by the fact that it’s not just antisemitism, but hatred of all kinds – including anti-Black racism, anti-Asian hate, anti-Latino xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Muslim bias, and more — that’s exploded in recent years. In 2019, the US saw a reported 7,314 hate crimes, i.e. more than 20 each day. In 2020, hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders skyrocketed by almost 150 percent in large urban areas.
The problem is amplified and expanded thanks to social media. A 2021 ADL survey found that 41 percent of Americans had experienced online harassment, and that members of marginalized communities reported increased harassment as well. Facebook is not only the largest social media platform on the planet, but the service where users are far more likely to be harassed in comparison to other services. TikTok has also skyrocketed in popularity, particularly among young people, but the platform has experienced the problems of other platforms, including an abundance of bigotry and bullying.
And in recent years, we’ve seen democratic norms shattered again and again, particularly by right-wing authoritarians who recklessly have normalized a toxic brand of conspiratorial extremism. The attempted January 6 insurrection spurred by accusations of a stolen election and encouraged by the rhetoric of President Trump himself. It was also aided and abetted by conservative media outlets and freshman members of Congress repeating antisemitic QAnon conspiracies and the big lie about the 2020 election, or trumpeting hate through efforts like the short-lived America First Caucus calling for “common respect for uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.” The recent efforts to sanitize the violence on January 6 literally have no parallel in modern times, but evoke the legacy of laundering the crimes of Confederates after the Civil War.
While there is no precise parallel on the other side of the political spectrum, we should not underestimate the danger of an over-correction driven by the far-left flank of the progressive movement. There are real forces that repel ordinary Americans, but seem to be gaining steam. And yet the rise of cancel culture, the shrinking spaces for open discourse, the tolerance toward certain types of intolerance, and the determined efforts to undermine institutions like academia, law enforcement, and other bodies bodes ill for our society, which is bound together by norms and values.
While no one is suggesting that America is heading down the path toward a Nazi Germany or Cultural Revolution, there are abundant warning lights. Indeed, if social instability should deepen, if hateful attitudes become even more pervasive and entrenched, if traditional institutional protections are further eroded, and a much shrewder demagogue rises to power, our country’s great democratic experiment could become imperiled.
I wrote “It Could Happen Here” because we must confront this frightening but plausible scenario. As the grandson of a Holocaust survivor and the husband of a political refugee, I know we can’t afford to let it happen. And hopefully, we won’t. Still, I’m scared to death of what the future might hold for the Jewish people and other minorities if present trends persist.
But it is not too late. We can confront hatred head-on, and tear it out at the roots. The good news is that decent upstanding Americans far outnumber the haters and insurgents. The even better news is that we have the tools to fight extremism and hate, and push these plagues back to the sewer where they belong.
Jonathan A. Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of ADL (the Anti-Defamation League) and author of “It Could Happen Here: Why America is Tipping from Hate to the Unthinkable—And How We Can Stop It” (Mariner Books, 2022).