national correspondent for The New York Observer, columnist for Salon.com and head of The Nation Institute Investigative Fund. His latest book is It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush.
Political journalist Joe Conason joins us in our firehouse studio to discuss his new book, "It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush." Conason writes, "For the first time since the resignation of Richard M. Nixon more than three decades ago, Americans have had reason to doubt the future of democracy and the rule of law in our own country." [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: It Can Happen Here.
JOE CONASON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did you choose that title?
JOE CONASON: That’s the title — well, there was a book in 1935 written by Sinclair Lewis called It Can’t Happen Here, which was kind of a satirical novel about the rise of fascism in the United States, which doesn’t sound like a very funny subject, but he managed to bring some humor to a very grim subject, which was our descent into an authoritarian state after the 1936 election.
Sinclair Lewis was married at the time to a foreign correspondent named Dorothy Thompson, who was one of the greatest of her time and maybe of all time, who had been kicked out of Nazi Germany in 1934 and had come home — for telling the truth about Hitler — and had come home and basically spent a lot of time telling her husband that the world was on the verge of a potential fascist takeover and he ought to try to do something about it. And this is why he wrote this novel.
I read that book at the urging of my editor at St. Martin’s Press, and it occurred to me that there were many striking parallels, actually, between what Sinclair Lewis had imagined as the kind of authoritarianism that could come to America and some of the things that we had been seeing in the last several years here.
AMY GOODMAN: You make some stark parallels between what’s happening now and the Nixon administration, when it came to trying to obliterate the checks and balances. Explain.
JOE CONASON: Right. Well, in his own clumsy way, Nixon was drawing all power into the White House, felt no accountability to Congress, felt that he could violate the law. You know, he told David Frost after he was forced from office that if the president does it, it’s not against the law, and which is false. And it was the statement that ended his presidency, really, that attitude.
But there were people who came to power under George W. Bush, principally the Vice President Dick Cheney, who were veterans of the Nixon administration, who felt that Nixon actually was the victim and who agreed with him that in times of emergency, which they regarded the protest against the Vietnam War as being part of an emergency in times of war — and they now see us involved in a war that has no end — that presidential power is absolute. Presidential power brooks no opposition or check from the legislative or judicial branches. And Cheney believes in that very strongly.
AMY GOODMAN: Cheney and secrecy, right through to the federal directory.
JOE CONASON: That’s right. Well, Cheney — that’s the vice president — does not tell the federal directory or anybody else who works in his office or what their jobs are, as a matter of policy, which is stunning, indeed.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about going back to DC 9/11, that movie about President Bush? Why does that fit in here? It’s like a docudrama. Who cares?
JOE CONASON: Well, you know, because it portrayed in an almost Soviet style — you know, Jim Hoberman, who’s the Village Voice film reviewer, compared it to the old Soviet movies about Stalin, in which Stalin was the infallible hero and, you know, was leading the country against the enemy. And it really kind of falsified what had happened on 9/11, in fact, with Bush sort of running around the country and not knowing what to do or what to say. None of us were supposed to pay attention to that at the time. And this film was made in order to create a false image of Bush as this infallible leader, the leader, the beloved leader type of thing, which is not what we do in democratic countries. That type of propaganda is — which was made, by the way, in full cooperation with the White House and Republicans in Hollywood — is just — it’s a type of thing that you see in countries that don’t have very good democratic traditions.
AMY GOODMAN: And Fox’s role in this? I mean, now Fox occupies the podium at the White House with the press spokesperson named Tony Snow.
JOE CONASON: Well, you know, in Sinclair Lewis’s book, all of the press was taken over, basically, by the government and expropriated, except for the Hearst Corporation’s newspapers and radio stations, which served the dictatorship very abjectly and basically did whatever the new president Buzz Windrip said. I draw some connection between that type of behavior and Fox’s behavior as a propaganda outlet for the White House in ways that I don’t think we’ve seen before in this country.
AMY GOODMAN: The rise of the religious right and particularly Ralph Reed.
JOE CONASON: Well, Ralph Reed served as a — he was a new type of operative, who made a connection between the traditional religious right, which was kind of at the grassroots in the churches, and the corporate lobbying world in Washington, which was a very critical alliance in the Republican Party, because what it did was combine money and propaganda power that existed in Washington with troops on the ground at election time. And this is the modern Republican Party, in many ways.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Joe Conason. He is author of It Can Happen Here. I want to end with the NSA letters and what they mean. Gonzales is embroiled in the U.S. attorney firing scandal. Now it’s become clear the FBI did not reveal the number of NSA letters that it gave out, particular talking about the secret databases, the cooperation of telecommunications companies. Explain what an NSA letter is. Why is this significant? Who is getting spied on?
JOE CONASON: A national security letter is essentially a — it allows the government to violate your constitutional rights without getting any warrant. I mean, it substitutes for a normal warrant in allowing them to go into your home, go into your communications, on the theory that you are some kind of a threat to the security of the United States. And when I say "you," the problem is it could, in theory, be anyone. It’s supposed to be a terrorist or somebody who’s connected with terrorism. But that definition is left very much in the dark, because there is no check and balance on it. And that’s one of the problems that people see with it now.
They have admitted, after an inspector general’s report looked into who was getting these letters and what they were being used for, that there have been abuses of it. And the FBI director, I thought, very forthrightly admitted the other day that not only were there abuses, but there wasn’t a system set up to make sure that abuses could be prevented. And this is exactly what people feared in the wake of the PATRIOT Act, that this kind of non-system would lead to, you know, grave abuses of people’s privacy and liberty.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the role of the media in increasing consolidating the power of the state. What about in fighting the rise of a fascist state?
JOE CONASON: Well, you know, the only way that — and I don’t think we’re anywhere close to a fascist state. Now, what we have is a group of people in government who have authoritarian impulses that they pursue and that they would like to pursue. And the only check against that is an informed citizenry, Amy, as you know. I mean, you help to do it every day. This is how people can oppose this, is only if they know what’s going on. And the mainstream media does, you know, a mediocre job of informing them every day, I’m afraid.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll end this conversation with the quote you begin with, Sinclair Lewis’s quote: "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." Where do you see us in the spectrum?
JOE CONASON: Well, right now, I actually feel hopeful, because, after all, you and I can sit here and talk about them and say whatever we want. And we did have an election last fall, in which the opposition won a pretty substantial victory, at least in the House. And now there are members of the House who have decided that they’re going to try to roll back some of these abuses. Jerrold Nadler, who’s now the chairman of the Constitution Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, was with me in New York the other night, put out a long list of things that they intend to do to start to question and to change some of these abuses that we’ve seen in the last several years. Chris Dodd and Senator Pat Leahy, the Judiciary Committee, have already put in a bill to restore the writs of habeas corpus, which is one of the sort of grossest things that the administration did in passing the Military Commissions Act last year. So I think you’re going to see some pushback.
AMY GOODMAN: Joe Conason, thank you very much for joining us. It Can Happen Here is the title of his book, Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush.