“I think I’ll indulge in the luxury of being independent, for once, and vote Prohibition or the Battle Creek bran-and-spinach ticket, or anything that makes some sense!”
Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here is an alternative history novel about fascism coming to the United States of America. It’s not so much prescience. The book was written in 1935 as the Nazis were ratcheting up their good works in Germany, and a lot of the story was more or less a direct transfer of Nazi tactics to a North American sensibility. But there are some fascinating parallels, not with 1930s Germany, but with the 2016 US Presidential Election, particularly in the early chapters, before the election of Senator Benzedrine “Buzz” Windrip [sic]. No, it’s not prescience. These are timeless Americanisms. Almost a century later, politics in America has gotten better, has gotten worse, has stayed exactly the same.
Trump supporters aren’t called the League of Forgotten Men but they could just as easily have been. There isn’t a Reverend Paul Peter Prang, whose “weekly radio address … was to millions the very oracle of God”; there are dozens of them, though there certainly have been competitors for the title of Lee Sarason. And men, it seems, have never stopped paying lip service to “draining the swamp”.
“[E]ven if our Buzzy maybe has got a few faults, he’s on the side of the plain people, and against all the tight old political machines …”
Windrip was a clown, a liar, and a charlatan, “ascending from the vulgar fraud of selling bogus medicine, standing in front of a megaphone, to the dignity of selling bogus economics, standing … in front of a microphone.” He was “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store. Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. … [He] would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts–figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.”
When approached by supplicants vis a vis the moral defense/condemnation of a burlesque show, he “called the clergymen “Doctor” or “Brother” or both; he called the promoters “Buddy” and “Pal”; he gave equally ringing promises to both; and for both he loyally did nothing whatever.” Similarly, “it was known that, though he drank a lot, Senator Windrip also praised teetotalism a lot, while his rival, Walt Trowbridge, though he drank but little, said nothing at all in support of the Messiahs of Prohibition.”
So, at the tragic end of the tragic day, the people saw in him, “for all his clownish swindlerism, a free vigor which promised a rejuvenation of the crippled and senile capitalistic system.”
Coincidentally, Windrip is a Democrat, but then so was Trump once. In the end, it makes no difference. America is a two-party country, both of them for the rich, and the poor are just pawns kicked around the chess board.
Windrip’s opponent in the presidential election, Walter Trowbridge, “quietly, steadfastly, speaking on the radio and in a few great halls, explained that he did advocate an enormously improved distribution of wealth, but that it must be achieved by steady digging and not by dynamite that would destroy more than it excavated.” Windrip flatly promises $5000 to every “real American family”.
As Lewis writes, the “conspicuous fault of [the opposition] was that it represented integrity and reason, in a year when the electorate hungered for … all the primitive emotions they thought they found in the screaming of Buzz Windrip.” It didn’t matter that “one tenth of 1 per cent of the population at the top have an aggregate income equal to 42 per cent at the bottom. Figures like that are too astronomical. Don’t mean a thing in the world to a fellow with his eyes–and nose–down in a transmission box …”
It’s an obvious observation (though not obvious enough for the country to have done anything about it) which Lewis puts keenly when he writes that “Windrip’s just something nasty that’s been vomited up. Plenty others still left fermenting in the stomach … No, Buzz isn’t important–it’s the sickness that made us throw him up that we’ve got to attend to”. At another spot, he adds that “Windrip is only the lightest cork on the whirlpool. He didn’t plot all this thing. With all the justified discontent there is against the smart politicians and the Plush Horses of Plutocracy–oh, if it hadn’t been one Windrip, it’d been another.” Of course this is also where life outstrips the greatest imagination. Who did 2016 America elect to defend this “justified discontent” but the plushest of the Plush Horses!
Dark times follow, which we are not here to discuss. A good history book of Nazi Germany will suffice. Instead, Lewis offers up a prayer for all of us:
Blessed be they who are not Patriots and Idealists, and who do not feel they must dash right in and Do Something About It, something so immediately important that all doubters must be liquidated–tortured–slaughtered!
With respect to this, Trump’s America is both better and worse. Trump has not built an overt state-run terror machine to violently suppress minorities, the press and political opponents, but that is not to say that every one of these groups has been terrorised in myriad ways more insidious and thereby more difficult to combat and resist.
Lewis astutely observes that “the world struggle today was not of Communism against Fascism, but of tolerance against the bigotry that was preached equally by Communism and Fascism. But he saw too that in America the struggle was befogged by the fact that the worst Fascists were they who disowned the word “Fascism” and preached enslavement to Capitalism under the style of Constitutional and Traditional Native American Liberty.”
But the book does end, there is an ‘end’ to the trials of Doremus Jessup–yes, he’s the hero of the story, the editor of a small local paper called The Informer, and sure it’s quite a late introduction for the main character, but this is not a book review so what does it matter, here he is anyway–and approaching the final chapters, I couldn’t help being nervous about the potential resolution. Was everyone going to die? Does he love Big Brother? Part of me wished for a happy ending but as Lewis himself reminds us (referencing Romain Rolland), “a country that tolerates evil means–evil manners, standards of ethics–for a generation, will be so poisoned that it never will have any good end.” How does a country recover from totalitarianism?
Let’s not forget that It can’t Happen Here was written and published in 1935, before the outbreak of the second World War, nor had a world war precipitated in the book by the time the story ends in 1939. But yes, spoilers ahead, I’m going to tell you how it ends. Like I said, there is no easy road away from totalitarianism. The dictator Windrip is deposed by his second-in-command Sarason, who is soon after removed by the Secretary of War and head of the military Colonel Dewey Haik, and things, which up until that point had been atrocious and irredeemable, get even worse. War is declared on Mexico, less for any substantial reason than in the hopes of uniting the country against an outside enemy. Fortunately, the move backfires and instead plunges the country into civil war, which, very soon thereafter, in one final dig at America and perhaps highlighting the root cause of all the aforementioned and -quoted evils, “halted, because in the America which had so warmly praised itself for its “widespread popular free education,” there had been so very little education; widespread, popular, free, or anything else, that most people did not know what they wanted–indeed knew about so few things to want at all.”