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)
ALL TOO FAMILIAR.
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.