As militarized police in riot gear and armored vehicles barreled into peaceful protesters in cities across America, and its president emerged from a bunker to have citizens tear-gassed on his way to a church he’d never attended, holding a Bible he’d never read, many people recalled a famous saying often misattributed to Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here: “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Because Lewis’s novel is the best remembered of the many warnings against American fascism in the interwar years, he has latterly been credited with the admonition, but they are not Lewis’s words.
The adage probably originated instead with James Waterman Wise, son of the eminent American rabbi Stephen Wise and one of the many voices at the time urging Americans to recognize fascism as a serious domestic threat. “The America of power and wealth,” Wise cautioned, is “an America which needs fascism.” American fascism might emerge from “patriotic orders, such as the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution… and it may come to us wrapped in the American flag or a Hearst newspaper.” In another talk that year, he put it slightly differently: American fascism would likely come “wrapped up in the American flag and heralded as a plea for liberty and preservation of the constitution.”
An American fascism would, by definition, deploy American symbols and American slogans. “Do not look for them to raise aloft the swastika,” Wise warned, “or to employ any of the popular forms of Fascism” from Europe. Fascism’s ultra-nationalism means that it works by normalizing itself, drawing on familiar national customs to insist it is merely conducting political business as usual. As José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the leader of Spain’s proto-fascist Falange party, proclaimed in 1934, all fascisms ought to be local and indigenous:
Italy and Germany… turned back towards their own authenticity, and if we do so ourselves, the authenticity which we find will also be our own: it will not be that of Germany or Italy, and therefore, by reproducing the achievement of the Italians or Germans we will become more Spanish than we have ever been… In fascism as in movements of all ages, underneath the local characteristics there are to be found certain constants… What is needed is a total feeling of what is required: a total feeling for the Fatherland, for life, for History.