America votes: Which path will we choose?

    Left: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hugs the American flag after speaking at a rally on Monday in Virginia. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) Right: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gestures as she takes the stage during a campaign rally on Sunday in New Hampshire. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

    Left: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hugs the American flag after speaking at a rally on Monday in Virginia. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) Right: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gestures as she takes the stage during a campaign rally on Sunday in New Hampshire. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

    If this is truly the path we prefer — an authoritarian sensibility, a strongman cult, a systematic breakdown of our democratic institutions — then, by all means, Donald Trump is the man to make it happen here. I tend to believe that most voters will prefer imperfect continuity to the existential dangers of an authoritarian future.

    We have finally reached our historic fork in the road. This guy illuminates one of the paths:

    “An honest propagandist for any Cause, that is, one who honestly studies and figures out 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 …

    “My one ambition is to get all Americans to realize that they are, and must continue to be, the greatest Race on the face of the Earth, and to realize that whatever differences there may be among us, in wealth, knowledge, skill, ancestry or strength — though, of course, all this does not apply to people who are racially different from us — we are all brothers in the wonderful bond of National Unity.”

    So wrote the fictional Buzz Windrip in his political manifesto “Zero Hour” — shortly before he was swept into the presidency in 1936. Hailed by his followers as The Savior of the Forgotten Men, he speedily transformed our fragile democracy into an authoritarian thugocracy, swathing his despotism in red, white, and blue.

    Such was the plot of Sinclair Lewis’ bestselling 1935 novel, “It Can’t Happen Here.”

    Oh, yes it can.

    It can happen tomorrow if a critical mass of voters — be they naively oblivious, feckless, well-meaning but credulous, or just plain racist — decide to hire a huckster who incites violence, who harasses and intimidates a free press, who threatens to jail his opponent in the tradition of banana republics, who slanders people of color, who gives aid and comfort to anti-Semitic extremists, who builds a wall between truth and disinformation, who role-models the Russian despot and invites him to hack American citizens, who attacks the legitimacy of our entire election process.

    If this is truly the path we prefer — an authoritarian sensibility, a strongman cult, a systematic breakdown of our democratic institutions — then, by all means, Donald Trump is the man to make it happen here. In his words, “I alone.”

    But I tend to believe we’re better than that.

    I tend to believe that most voters will prefer imperfect continuity to the existential dangers of an authoritarian future. I’ve been telling audiences for weeks that Hillary Clinton — who is flawed like most of us; who is eminently more qualified, more resilient, smarter, and more temperamentally fit for the presidency than virtually all of us — will likely win this election by four or five percentage points, buoyed by record-high Hispanic turnout (thanks, Trump) and overwhelming support from white college-educated women (normally a strong Republican cohort).

    And the race still feels that way, especially now that FBI chief James Comey has intruded one final time to say “Remember those emails I knew nothing about? Never mind!” (Yo, “Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul” fans: Comey should be exiled incognito to a mall in Omaha, where he can co-manage that Cinnabon with Slippin’ Jimmy.)

    But seriously. Buzz Windrip was the fictional protagonist of a cautionary tale, a demagogue who told his acoloytes that “lowdown crooks, liars, and schemers” were trying to rig the election against him; that dishonest reporters, “without thought of Public Interest,” were coming out of their “spider dens” to plot his downfall; that members of the “Nordic” race should rule because they are kindhearted to “people of inferior races.” And yet, life could imitate art tomorrow if voters are not vigilant about our enduring American values.

    Perhaps a soldier can make the case better than I. Jake Cusack, a Marine Corps officer who served three years in Iraq, wrote a piece the other day that deserves to resonate far and wide:

    “Some of my friends and family have [embraced] Trump’s aggressive stance and anti-establishment voice, even as they are fully cognizant of his massive personal flaws. But what they don’t see is how tenuous it all is. I’ve spent my life since Iraq in and out of conflict zones and fragile states. I’ve seen educated, wealthy communities descend overnight into ethnic cleansing. I’ve seen family men turned into butchers. I’ve seen a charismatic reformed warlord, surrounded by capable technical advisors, steer his country irretrievably into the abyss.

    “I was traveling across Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, and Sierra Leone when Trump escalated his comments suggesting that he’d try to put Hillary Clinton in jail and doubled down on his assertion of ‘rigged elections.’ People there knew exactly what he meant, because they have heard that rhetoric before. This is the language of lands without strong institutions, bereft of the mutual trust that glues our democracy together. It’s the language of civil wars.”

    Cusack acknowledges — as do I — that millions of well-meaning decent people intend to vote for Trump (and have done so already, in the early-voting states). But, as I told an audience last week, authoritarian movements are often successfully fueled by well-meaning decent people whose impulse to send an anti-establishment message tragically overrides their common-sense concerns about the messenger.

    Yes, it can indeed happen here. That future is down the dark path at the fork in the road. If we take it, we own it.

    I’m off on Election Day. Back here Wednesday morning, crunching the numbers.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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