I was maybe 10 years old when this happened.
Mom is driving, I'm in the back seat. It's night. She's trying to cross Vermont, a busy L.A. thoroughfare, from a side street. Southbound traffic is jammed, but a guy in a truck makes a hole and waves us through. We've almost cleared the intersection when a car, speeding northbound, clips us. We go spinning up over a low brick wall onto somebody's lawn. My head smacks the window hard enough to crack it. And I remember thinking — I may have even screamed it — "This can't happen to us!"
As a child, you see, I had a morbid fear of accidents. So somehow, I convinced myself we were immune to them. Oh, they might happen to people who were not us, but we were special somehow, protected somehow, exempt somehow.
America, I'd say, lives by a similar delusion where fascism is concerned. We can only hope last week's extraordinary letter from White House counsel Pat Cipollone will serve the same corrective function for the country as a car window once did for me.
In it, Cipollone declares the administration's intent to stonewall the House of Representatives in its impeachment investigation. Subpoenas will be ignored, documents withheld. The White House, writes Cipollone, "cannot participate" in the probe. Given that he writes on behalf of a president who calls himself "the chosen one," brags of his "great and unmatched wisdom" and muses about staying in office beyond two terms, this letter, essentially placing that president above the law and beyond the Constitution, is cause for grave concern.
One need not be a legal scholar to know Cipollone has written constitutional gobbledygook. For instance, he complains the House has denied the president "the right to cross-examine witnesses, to call witnesses, to receive transcripts of testimony." Given that the impeachment is only at the investigatory phase, that's like a murder suspect complaining that he doesn't get to tag along with detectives building the case against him. And since when can a president just decline to "participate" in an investigation?
Take it as a reminder of how fragile freedom is. The power of a democracy, you see, lies less in the force of its laws and customs than in mutual, unspoken agreement to be bound by those laws and customs. The First Amendment has power because we agree it does. The courts have the final say because we agree they do. And you obey subpoenas because you obey subpoenas.
But what if some of us refuse to be bound by that social covenant? And what if one of them is president?
In a 1935 novel, Sinclair Lewis envisions that scenario, a fascist dictatorship coming to America. "Nonsense!" snaps one of his characters. "That couldn't happen here in America, not possibly. We're a country of freemen."
To which Lewis' protagonist, Doremus Jessup, retorts, "The hell it can't. Why, there's no country in the world that can get more hysterical — yes, or more obsequious! — than America." And he launches a recitation of the many times civil society has been subverted by demagoguery — from Father Coughlin and the Ku Klux Klan to "Liberty cabbage" and the Scopes monkey trial. "Why, where in all history has there been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours!"
The words reverberate in a nation where the president considers himself a law unto himself. Reading the book, one is disheartened and surprised at the speed with which mighty institutions of democracy fall into line with the new way of things. Lewis' book, written as Hitler came to power, was called, "It Can't Happen Here." And that, too, reverberates. Because obviously, it can.
Indeed, some might say it is.
Leonard Pitts is a best-selling author and nationally-syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald.