How Sinclair Lewis predicted Trump, and how he didn’t


I have to admit I found Sinclair Lewis’ novel It can’t happen here painful to read. This was less because Lewis’ tale of a fascist takeover of America felt so close to home, which at points it did, than the fact that the book as a piece of literature was just plain awful.

I won’t go into details on that much, suffice it to say that if not for the novel’s importance as a dystopian thought experiment and political warning no one now, and in the future, would likely be talking about it. Perhaps it’s best to look upon It can’t happen here less as a novel and more of as a sort of political compass, for my guess is, as long as our American Republic lasts, we will return to it whenever we feel ourselves lost and in danger of wandering in the darkness towards dictatorship.

It can’t happen here depicts a 1936 presidential election won by a populist candidate named Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip who heads the League of Forgotten Men. After winning the election Windrip proceeds to dismantle the American system of government and create an authoritarian regime. The novel is told from the perspective of its protagonists, Doremus Jessup, a Yankee journalist who will eventually join the resistance against Windrip’s “Cor-po” state- a fusion of corporate interest, white nativists and the military. As Windrip’s presidency fails to resurrect economic growth he is replaced in a coup by his Secretary of State, Lee Sarason, who moves the country even further in the direction of European style fascism upon which widespread rebellion breaks out. The novel ends with the country in the grip of a second American Evolution/ Civil War.

You would not be remiss in seeing in Windrip, a populist president with the potential for authoritarianism with his blending of white nativism and corporatism (in addition to his affection for generals) a twentieth century version of Donald Trump. Indeed, Lewis begins a number in chapters of It can’t happen here with a quote from Windrip’s imagined autobiography entitled Zero Hour that seem eerily similar to the types of speeches Trump made at his infamous rallies, though Buzz uses bigger words.

Here’s how Windrip feels about the press:

I know the Press only too well. Almost all editors hide away in spider-dens, men without thought of Family or Public Interest or the humble delights of jaunts out-of-doors, plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pocketbooks by calumniating Statesmen who have given their all for the common good and who are vulnerable because they stand out in the fierce Light that beats around the Throne. (Chapt. 5)

Here’s one example of how he makes his appeal to the common man:

When I was a kid, one time I had an old-maid teacher that used to tell me, “Buzz you’re the thickest-headed dunce in school.” But I noticed that she told me this a whole lot oftener than she used to tell the other kids how smart they were, and I came to be the most talked-about scholar in the whole township. The United States isn’t so different, and I want to that a lot of the stuffed shirts for their remarks about Yours Truly.  (Chapt. 11)

And here’s an example of the American dictator’s economic nationalism:

I shall not be content till this country can produce every single thing we need, even coffee, cocoa, and rubber, and so keep our dollars at home. If we can do this and at the same time work up tourist traffic so that foreigners will come from every part of the world to see such remarkable wonders as the Grand Canyon, Glacier and Yellowstone etc, parks, the fine hotels of Chicago, & etc., this leaving their money here we shall have such a balance of trade as will go far to carry out my often-criticized yet completely sound idea of from $3,00 to $5,000 per year for every single family-that is, I mean every real American family. Such an inspiring Vision is what we want, and not this nonsense of wasting our time at Geneva and talky-talk a Lugano, wherever that is. (Chap. 12)


As a novelist, Sinclair Lewis is most insightful where the essential skill of the novelist is needed most, that is, in showing us how the foibles and weaknesses of human psychology can lead both individuals and societies towards dark choices and disaster. Here’s are the words justifying a vote for the demagogue Windrip which he puts into the mouth of an imagined banker R.C. Crowley who sees authoritarianism as a short road to efficiency and his own economic interest:

Why are you so afraid of the word ‘Fascism,’ Doremus? Just a word—just a word! And might not be so bad, with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours—not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini—like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good old days—and have ’em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again. ‘Nother words, have a doctor who won’t take any back-chat, but really boss the patient and make him get well whether he likes it or not!”  (Chap. 2)

In large part Lewis wrote It can’t happen here as a kind of political prophylactic against the populist demagogue- Huey P. Long challenging and beating president Roosevelt, whose policies had yet to really dent the suffering of the Great Depression, in the 1936 election. (Long would actually be assassinated in September, 1935). Yet Lewis’ novel was also a kind of mea culpa for a colossal political failure by his wife- the journalist Dorothy Thompson.

Thompson was one of the most influential women of the early 20th century who broke ground for women in journalism ever after. It is a great shame, therefore, that she seems to be largely forgotten. Unfortunately, this otherwise brilliant journalist also wrote a piece about Adolf Hitler that totally missed his import and the great dangers he posed. In 1931, before Hitler had become the German chancellor, but when it was already clear he was poised to gain a leadership role, Thompson had the opportunity to meet and interview the future dictator who would transform Germany into a totalitarian state and plunge the world into its second world war in a generation. It was a meeting which became the source for her infamous essay I saw Hitler. She was not impressed:

When finally I walked into Adolph Hitler’s salon in the Kaiserhof Hotel, I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany. In something less than fifty seconds I was quite sure that I was not.

Thompson’s conclusion was that other political figures, parties, leading economic interests, and rival states would act to contain Hitler whom she considered a raving buffoon whose ideas defied common sense. In other words, his mania would be checked by its collision with reality.

I thought of this man before me, seated as an equal between Hindenburg and Bruening, and involuntarily I smiled. Oh, Adolph! Adolph! You will be out of luck!

She was, of course, horribly wrong.

So when Lewis writes It can’t happen here he is, in a sense, trying to undo Thompson’s mistake. Hitler has made the idea of buffoons like Long or Father Coughlin coming to power and overturning the American system plausible and Lewis is in effect pleading with readers to take the idea of an American dictator seriously. The question is, was it? And now, more importantly, is it?

To answer the first part of that question a little history is in order. The historian Arthur Schlesinger in his monumental history of the Roosevelt administration The Age of Roosevelt has several chapters devoted to “the rise of the demagogues” and a number of lessons can be drawn from it. One is just how experimental American politics became during the crisis years of the Depression and how Roosevelt, rather than having any preformed ideology about what should be done in response to the crisis proved himself a master at adopting experiments dreamed up elsewhere. Much of this experimentation and brake with the consensus of laissez faire economics came from populists such as Long or Father Coughlin whose position on the right-left spectrum is less than clear-cut- both were early supporters of Roosevelt, or in the case of Upton Sinclair were leftists but not to the point of embracing communism.

Long, the most well-known of these figures was himself a complicated character. He was more akin to a Hugo Chavez than a Hitler having established his own fiefdom in Louisiana, which at the same time it crippled the economic oligarchy that had formerly ruled that state and distributed its riches to the poor, also replaced democracy with one man rule and lined the very deep pockets of the “Kingfish”.

Yet even had Long lived, run against Roosevelt, and won the 1936 election it’s doubtful he could have be able to do the same thing to the US as a whole. Louisiana was a small, poor state. It’s institutions were too weak to withstand political pressure and they crumbled before Long’s political maneuvering. It was different for Roosevelt whose New Deal was often stymied by the Supreme Court and had his subsequent efforts to pack the court in his favor rejected. It’s not so much that Long would have found any attempt to do to the US what he did to Louisiana impossible, so much as resisted by one or another political or economic institution or group at every step along the way. Exactly the scenario Dorothy Thompson had expected to play out in Germany.

When Lewis imagines Buzz Windrip taking control of the presidency he pictures the whole American system being knocked over as easily as a deck of cards. US states are abolished and replaced with administrative districts, African Americans stripped of the right to vote, Windrip’s personal militia “The Minutemen” are granted the same status as the traditional US Army, both the US Congress and the Supreme Court are stripped of their veto power, and in the latter case legislative powers, and their members are actually placed under house arrest.

What Thompson got wrong was in failing to see that the relatively new and untried democratic institutions in  post- World War I Germany were vulnerable to complete collapse in the face of the mass unemployment and hyperinflation unleashed by the Great Depression and thus open to precisely the kind of manic gamble Hitler and the Nazis represented. What Lewis probably failed to see was that despite the depth of the Great Depression, the fact the the US had suffered no physical destruction or revolution on account of that same war left it far less vulnerable to any sudden overthrow of its much older institutions, which brings me back to Trump.

With Trump we get a chance, in a sense, to re-play Lewis’ imagined history in which a populist demagogue with a disdain for democratic norms breaks his way into the White House. My guess is that Long would have been heavily constrained by still functioning US political institutions and mobilized opposing interests, and that Trump will suffer a similar fate. Indeed, Trump’s position is even worse than Long’s would have been for perhaps a better 1930’s analog to Trump isn’t the Kingfish but the radio celebrity Father Coughlin. Long at least had a state’s political machinery under his thumb whereas Coughlin was merely used the new media of radio to do an end run around print media and the ruling political machines in the same way Trump has used social media an alternative news outlets to do something similar against mainstream media and the GOP.

That said, no one should want to repeat the same mistake as Dorothy Thompson which was to not see that a buffoon who would be dictator can successfully use a severe crisis to overturn a democracy. However unlikely such a scenario is with Trump (here a major terrorist attack, war, or even catastrophic scale natural disaster would play the role of Germany’s Reichstag fire enabling a lunge towards actual fascism) the best defense is to assume the worst and oppose Trump’s continued violations of democratic norms and ongoing moves towards a cruel carceral state with continued political and institutional resistance. Such opposition would make Lewis and Thompson proud and allow It can’t happen here to fulfill its true purpose which is making sure that it never happens here because we chose not to let it.   



The lessons the left should (and shouldn’t) take from the victory of Macron

Anna Berezovskaya, Abduction of Europa (2015)

In 2016 populism burst upon liberal democracies like a whirlwind. Yet, since Trump’s election in November of last year the storm appears to have passed. There was the defeat of the far right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer in Austria (of all places) in December of last year followed by the loss of the boldly pompadoured (which seems to be a thing now on the right) Geert Wilders in parliamentary elections in the Netherlands a few months back, followed by the seeming victory of the Kutcher faction over the Bannon faction in the Trump administration, and now, the loss of Le Pen in France. Whew- glad that’s over.

Of course, it’s not over, for it leaves us with the same unaddressed problems that gave rise to popular discontent in the first place. The one and only danger of the populist fever peaking too soon is that it will feed the very complacency among elites that gave us this wave of destructive popular anger in the first place. The fever will just come back, and perhaps next time in a form much worse should manage to sweep 2016’s craziness under the rug.

As of yet this wave of anger, despite its ugliness or the views of its more vicious fans, hasn’t been so much fascists as populists. This distinction, as distinctions often are, is important. John B. Judis, one of the first to see the populist wave coming in his book The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics.

I’ll get to fascism in a moment, for now, let me note that the distrust of elites driving the populist explosion makes perfect sense given the almost two decades of failure of the power elite from  9-11, to the Iraq war, to the 2008 financial crisis, to the Euro crisis, to the implosion of Syria and the refugee crisis. These acute crises are combined with more structural ones, such as the fact that elites have either twiddled their thumbs, turned the other way, or themselves enabled the erosion of the middle class and the flat-lining of that class’ income growth despite economic gains, in developed countries since the 1970’s. At the same time the political system has grown increasingly sycophantic and corrupt.

As Mark Leibovich pointed out in his book This Town elites in Washington enact the play of hyper-partisanship even as both Republicans and Democrats engage in an incestious government-coporate revolving door. The way the financial sector played the US government that the former head of the IMF compared what happened to a Third World coup. 

Trump twisted his way into the White House on the claim that “he alone” was able to overturn this system. Instead, what his election seems to mean is that the US is now fully and completely free to join other countries such as China where the distinction between the interest of the rich and the common weal do not exist. Wealthy classes in China and elsewhere understand the new American way of politics very well.

Macron who Trump-like staged his own coup against the declining French political parties was himself an investment banker and his candidacy was as much a desperate by the French an EU establishment as any move towards real and democratic reforms.

The fact that Trump’s populism has proven as artificial as the man’s skin tone along with the fact that other populists, most especially the dangerous figure of Marine Le Pen, have lost in recent elections present the left with an unprecedented opportunity. But it’s an opportunity that can be seized only if the left can come to understand that not all, or even most, of the supporters of Trump or Le Pen are fascists- a prospect that would require massive and likely violent political resistance in order to ensure the survival of our political and social freedoms.

It’s here where Judis’ book becomes so helpful. In The Populist Explosion Judis identifies the defining feature of populism as anti-elitism. He explains that the early 21st century populism which grew out of the financial crisis hasn’t just come from the right, but also from the left. The left-wing Podemos in Spain is a populist party, as is Syriza in Greece. Both left-wing and right-wing share a disdain for elites they believe have failed us.

For Judis what distinguished right leaning from left leaning populism is that the former adds the category of an enemy minority – Muslims, Mexicans etc that elites supposedly coddle to the detriment of the larger population. (The first step right-wing populism takes towards becoming fascist.)

To step away from Judis for a moment, one of the ideas now becoming dangerously popular among liberals is that populists’ distrust of experts is equal to ignorance and a disdain for science and even rudimentary facts. What liberals don’t acknowledge is their own role in the growth of such mistrust. Elites have promoted the idea that economics is akin to science when it’s closer to astrology. The scientists perhaps best known to the public are those who have made careers out of attacking widely held beliefs by making claims beyond science’s purview.

The mainstream media, the bane of populists everywhere, has indeed been guilty of colossal failures- such as the run up to the war in Iraq, and continues to have a disturbing fetish for American bombs and power.  The last few years have revealed an intelligence apparatus not only frequently incompetent- having missed 9-11, and the Arab Spring to name just two recent failures, but a bureaucratic machine seemingly uninterested in preserving our constitutionally guaranteed rights. In conditions as they stand, mistrust of elites is no vice.

As Judis explains it populism was invented in the US in the 1890’s in the revolt of mid-western farmers against their economic strangulation by financial powers in the East. The drama even gave America what is perhaps its most outstanding fairy-tale- The Wizard of OZ.  

Since then, the US has had a whole series of populist- most from the right. In the 1930’s there was Huey Long and Father Coughlin, in the 1960’s there was George Wallace, in the 1990’s Ross Perot (perhaps) and Pat Buchanan. Now we have Trump- the first populist to actually break his way into the White House- a fact that is surely a symptom of just how decayed our political system has become. Judis points out how, since the 1970’s this formerly uniquely American form of politics became a global affair. So here we are.

Judis, in my view rightly, is at pains to distinguish right-wing populism from its ugly cousin fascism. What made fascism of the 1930’s variety, which remains our template, distinct from populism and so incredibly dangerous was that it used the full powers of the state to hunt down and destroy its internal enemies- fascism was born in states that were in conditions of revolution and civil war. Fascism, also unlike populism, was characterized by openly expansionist that aimed to overturn the geopolitical order rather than merely withdraw from it. Populism isn’t fascism so much as it points ” to tears in the fabric of accepted political wisdom” as Judis so sharply puts it.

This is not to say that right-wing populism cannot morph into fascism or that left-wing populism can’t evolve into communism (more on that another time) it is that a perhaps greater danger that the system can not be shocked into fundamental change at all- that we seem incapable of freeing ourselves from the ultimate logic of the economic and political artifice in which we are embedded- despite the fact that we are acutely aware of the depth of its unsustainable contradictions.

Judis was among the first to see 2016’s wave of populism coming, yet I think his much needed attempt at drawing a line of historical continuity between populism in the last two centuries and our own perhaps obscures what makes populism in its current manifestation unique. For that we can turn to another recent book on the subject, David Goodhart’s Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics. In that book Goodhart makes the case that what is perhaps today’s primary political cleavage is between those who have thrived in, benefited from, and identify with, globalization and those who define themselves in terms of place. He calls the former group “Anywheres” because they seem to have fully embraced global mobility in the search for success as individuals, which does not mean they have abandoned all collective identities such as culture or religion and especially family only that they see their range of action encompassing the whole earth.

Somewheres by contrast are communitarian rather than individualistic in their identities. They remain deeply connected emotionally to their homeland, their culture, and sometimes, their ethnicity and derive their self worth primarily through this collective identity rather than their own personal accomplishments.

Obviously these are ideal types and all of us in the modern world have some of each about us. Yet Goodhart’s two types does seem to capture something essential about politics not just in the US or the UK but globally. We have these great global cities interconnected with one another and more diverse in their populations than ever before while at the same time possessing neglected hinterlands where the growth engendered by globalization largely does not flow.

It’s quite clear that the Anywheres have the moral high ground over the Somewheres when it comes to their embrace of diversity. What is much less clear is if Anywheres can actually be the basis of a functioning social democracy for they seem to lack the kinds of communitarian virtues a thriving democracy requires as they remain focused on their own material and social advancement. It might be the case that the type of political order that best fits a world of globally mobile self-seeking individuals happens to be something other than a democratic one.

The economists Dani Rodrik actually has a name for this- he calls it the globalization trilemma, which goes like this:

…countries cannot have national sovereignty, hyper-globalisation and democracy; they can only ever choose two out of the three.

Given the huge global economic disparities between regions and cultural differences and disputes we could have hyper-globalization with open markets and the free movement of peoples under either a system of empire and enlightened/liberal despotism or under a democracy that was truly global in scope. From where I sit the former seems much more likely than the latter.

For whereas the latter would require peoples embedded in democracies to willingly surrender their control over their own affairs to other people’s who did not share in their history of priority- a transformation of politics that would probably require something like a global civil war- the former can emerge from mere inertia as the power of democratic and other states is slowly eroded away making global actors and individuals the de-facto if not dejure seat of sovereignty.

If the European Union is our best current, if geographically limited, experiment in what hyper-globalization might ultimately look like, then Macron’s defeat of Le Pen offers us a second chance to test whether such integration can also be made truly democratic in the way we currently have with nation-states. Should the EU not embrace democratic reforms in light of his victory and learn to create a new home for the Somewheres this chance might just be its last.