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.   


Raging against the machine

As a consequence of our geographical isolation and preponderance of our country’s power Americans, at least since the Civil War, haven’t paid much attention to what is going on in the rest of the world. One can assume that few of us know or have thought all that much about how a Republic under president Trump isn’t just a sort of primal scream emanating from the failures of US politics and culture that we’ve been storing up for over a generation- though it is that as well- but stands as only one representative of a truly global phenomenon. In addition to Trump, populists strongmen now dominate many of the world’s most important and powerful countries and many lesser ones. There’s Xi Jinping in China, Narendra Modi in India, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, and yes, Vladimir Putin in Russia. Should Marie Le Pen take the French presidency in the upcoming elections a woman will join what for now is an all male club.

This wasn’t supposed to have happened. At the end of the Cold War we were promised an end to history. The world appeared to be inexorably moving in a liberal direction promising an end to the authoritarianism and dictatorship of the past, taking us through the providential telos of history now stripped of any reference to the divine or transcendent towards one world united and free world. The internet that emerged in this same era was thought to be the harbinger of a “global mind” of our finally unified world and would serve as the vector for a new and more democratic form of politics.

Many of us who once believed in this story are nowadays asking where did it all go wrong, whereas Pankaj Mishra in his new book The Age of Anger: a history of the present aims to show us why we were never right in the first place. Somehow we managed to forget, in all our talk about the end of history, the wisdom of markets, or the supposed disappearance of violence, that the inadequacy of the Enlightenment project had been apparent since Rousseau. To build a society on the basis of status seeking where only a tiny minority would ever scale the heights of wealth, meritocracy, and power, all the while proclaiming universal equality was a recipe for individuals being crushed under the weight of an inescapable ressentiment.

To aim for such as society at the same time we were willfully and inadvertently eliminating all the protections individuals had against such competition, whether in the form of the welfare-state built as consequence the disasters of the first age of ressentiment in the 20th century, or through more traditional means of support such as local communities, churches, and the extended and nuclear family- well, this was a recipe for revolution. And as we should have learned from fascism, revolution can just as likely come in a right-wing as a left-wing form.

What Pankaj Mishra sets out to do, and largely succeed in doing, in The Age of Anger is to wake us from our historical amnesia though an intellectual history that traces the roots of our failed enlightenment from its beginnings in the 18th century until today.

Underlying this history is a truth Mishra thinks too few liberals grasps. Ultimately the liberals are right in the sense that we do now live in one world in which every culture is going through a similar process of modernity. What liberals get wrong is ignoring the socially wrenching aspects of this modernity and in believing that the conditions it unleashes are sustainable or indeed even represent the type of society we should hope will be found in the human future.

For Mishra, Voltaire and other philosophes who during the 18th century imagined a commercial society in which the pursuit of wealth was made universal, and the upper echelons of power and status were open to those who rose into its ranks, rather than merely those born into it, were blind to is how this vision would collide with equality and democracy. Voltaire especially was the great fan of “enlightened despots” such as Russia’s Peter the Great. (The great myth of liberalism is that capitalism and democracy go hand in hand.) What was clear to the philosophes of the enlightenment was that you could have a competitive, meritocratic society in an already egalitarian society (US in the 1800s) which was politically democratic, but that you could not have a competitive social order which was both inegalitarian and democratic at the same time.

Intense competition in a society in which political action is either stifled or is no longer effective and which preaches universal equality results in many of those having lost in this competition becoming enraged. Mishra wants us to see a racist killer such as James H. Jackson and the ISIS inspired terrorist Khalid Masood as sown from the same cloth, both personified expressions of collective anger in the face of failure. It’s a very modern type of anger that looks for its resolution in concocting the new social bonds that Mishra claims was pioneered by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Rousseau was the anti-Voltaire who both identified the contradictions with the type of society the Enlightenment tried to create and who imagined solutions- from romantic individualism, to  nationalism to primitivist-environmentalism which have proven even more problematic than the very contradictions they were supposed to solve.

Mishra charts the global course of this conflict between Voltaire and Rousseau. It moves from France in the 18th century, to Germany in the 19th- sowing vile seeds that would later sprout with Nazism. It was a conflict that in the 1800’s made its way to Russia as well, a country that gave this conflict a spiritual and psychological depth it had never seen before or since in the works of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

In 1862 Dostoyevsky was in London, just one stop along his tour of Western Europe. One place in London in particular made a deep impression upon the young Russian- the massive structure in Hyde park known as the The Crystal Palace. Built in 1851 to house The Great Exhibition, the first exhibition of technologies from all over the globe (the progenitor of the World’s Fairs that run to this day) The Crystal Palace was supposed to serve as a sort of museum of the future, a world suffused with technology and material abundance where the competition between nations was a matter of who produced the best technology and grabbed the most market share. In other words, the future conceived as a shopping mall. It is little wonder that Dostoyevsky found it empty and a just a bit terrifying. As he wrote of his experience, which Mishra quotes.

You become aware of a colossal idea; you sense that here something has been achieved, that there is  victory and triumph. You may even begin vaguely to fear something.  However independent you may be, for some reason you become terrified. ‘For isn’t this the achievement of perfection?’ you think. ‘Isn’t this the ultimate?’ Could this in fact be the ‘one fold?’ Must you accept this as the final truth and forever hold your peace? It is all so solemn, triumphant, and proud that you gasp for breath.

You sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is, not to accept the material world as your ideal.  (68-69)

Dostoevsky would use The Crystal Palace as a symbol of what he found to be the soul crushing utilitarian materialism of the West in his novella The Notes from the Underground. That book ridiculed not only the new type of society and man born with the The Crystal Palace but the anarchist- utopianism that arose when Russia tried to assimilate these alien ideas. A vision of the world made new found in Nikolai Chernyshevsky utopian novel “What is to be done?”, whose title Lenin would rip as an homage for his now much more well known polemic.     

Indeed, The Crystal Palace is a good jumping off point for anyone who wants to understand what separates the world before the industrial revolution and the post-industrial era that is our own. For The Crystal Palace is where a seemingly already determined future – a future that would be based on material prosperity that was global in scope- came clearly into into view, along with the rebellion against it.

What can  be seen in the protagonist of The Notes from the Underground is just how soul crushing the quest for material goods and petty competition for status can be absent some larger source of meaning. The protagonist lives in the quest of a kind of status he can never achieve while at the same time lacking any source of values and that includes the value that would be bestowed by the esteem of the persons he is so keen to impress. A kind of self and world- destructive cynicism and nihilism lies very close to the competitive materialism unleashed by the modern age.

The kinds of contradictions and psychological distortions classical liberalism unleashed, which Dostoyevsky helped identify, exploded in the early decades of the 20th century and helped give rise to both fascism and state communism. During this same period the conflict between Rousseau and Voltaire found its way into European colonies and beyond to sow seeds only being reaped today.

Mishra largely skips the period of the Cold War- an era in which liberalism deliberately constrained itself, prohibited financialization and boom- and- bust cycles in the economy and adopted worker support and protections. In good measure this tempering of liberalism was a consequence of the existence of a revolutionary alternative in the USSR. Once the idea of a communist alternative began to unravel in the 1970’s, and especially after the Soviet Union and its empire collapsed in the 1980’s and 90’s, a version of liberalism that sought to be free of restraints became truly ascendant and became the project of not just elites in the US and UK, but throughout the world.

It’s here where Mishra’s story enters the contemporary period. The religion of the free market has ruled the world for a generation now, and while it has surely helped millions lift themselves out of poverty and into a global middle and upper class, it has also been the era of middle class erosion in the developed world. Billions have come to aspire to the material comforts of the richest nations and classes- a goal unobtainable in their lifetime, and given a world of finite resources should not be pursued at all.

Mishra states it this way:

In 2014 The Economist said that, on the basis of IMF data, emerging economies- or, most of the human population- might have to wait for three centuries in order to catch up with the West. In this assessment, the last decade of high growth was an ‘aberration’ and ‘billions of people will be poorer for a lot longer than they might have expected just a few years ago’.

The implications are sobering: the non-West not only finds itself replicating the West’s trauma on an infinitely larger scale. While helping inflict the profoundest damage yet on the environment- manifest today in rising sea levels, erratic rainfall, drought, declining harvests and devastating floods – the non-Wet also has no real prospect of catching up with the West.  (48)

So we’ve got a situation where we’re in an increasingly connected world where everyone can see what anyone else is doing- even if that person is on the other side of the world. It’s a situation where inequality within- though not necessarily between- societies is increasing rapidly and in which renewed growth appears unlikely to either restore the middle class to its prior glory in developed societies, or ever establish such middle classes in many developing countries to begin with. In such a world the lower middle and working class in advanced countries feel their way of life eroding even as many people in the developing world feel compelled to move to those countries to achieve opportunities for their families out of reach in their own societies. A vicious cycle of walls and refugee flows are predictable features of these conditions.

Automation will only make this worse as it simultaneously erodes middle class employment in the developing world while precluding developing countries from following the historical path to development which has always begun with leveraging cheap labor in manufacturing.

While Mishra’s Age of Anger offers us no solutions it does leave readers with an invaluable perspective. Understanding why human beings seem driven to embrace anger, populists authoritarianism, and violence at this particular historical juncture he shows us has very little to do with the clash of civilizations. From hillbillies to salafists were all stuck in the same modernity with all the damage it does by crushing humanity through its narrow sieve. Such anger will continue to return in periods and give rise to explosions until we finally stop acting as if we can base society on human greed and vanity.