It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
By Jim Swearingen
Let’s assume—for one mad, grotesque moment—that he wins the whole shebang. The big, brass ring. The White House. No, no, it’s too preposterous. Unthinkable. Americans would never allow such a thing. It can’t happen here.
Roughly 80 years ago, as unlikely a soothsayer as Sinclair Lewis anticipated this 2016 election season and a host of uncanny particulars, including the rise of a brash, ill-informed dilettante to most powerful office in the land. His “futuristic” novel, It Can’t Happen Here, written in 1935, chronicles the rise and fall of a completely unscrupulous Vermont Senator who launches a challenge to Franklin Roosevelt for the Democratic Presidential nomination of 1936.
Harry Truman is reputed to have said, “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” Exploring this cloth-bound, out-of-print volume reminds us that the fascists and philistines have always been with us, and in cahoots against most of us, impatient with the delicate balance of the American experiment.
In It Can’t Happen Here, a dark-horse presidential candidate, with the appropriately dyspeptic name Buzz Windrip, wages an ideological campaign so vitriolic and dismissive of non-white-male-Christian-American-capitalists that it leads some of his more sober characters to switch their lifelong political allegiances and vote across party lines. It also garners the support of the Ku Klux Klan. And, in yet another detail that seems plucked from the 2016 headlines, Windrip’s opponents indulge in gallows humor about relocating to Canada if the election goes against them. They are not serious, however — at least not at first — because, after all, it couldn’t happen here.
In Lewis’s dystopian narrative, President Franklin Roosevelt loses the nomination to Windrip, whose sanctimonious rhetoric and incoherent policy proposals — again, reminiscent of much we have been hearing this year — carry him all the way to the White House. Once there, President Windrip begins to deliver on his campaign promises.
He increases military spending to unprecedented levels, removes women from the workforce, bans labor unions, imprisons the leftists, and transfers all powers of the legislative and judicial branches to the executive, thereby ushering in a dictatorship. He never delivers on the promise of prosperity, instead tanking the national economy with his own idiosyncratic notions of economic recovery. Eventually, the regime engineers a trumped-up war against Mexico to distract the American people from their own oppression.
Windrip’s successful campaign tactics are cynical and simple: appeal to the voters’ hunger for a government that responds to the needs that have gone unanswered by more conventional politicians. Promise them money. Promise them efficiency. Promise them a return to greatness.
The novel’s main character Doremus Jessup—whose stream of consciousness analyses give voice to Sinclair Lewis’ own political views—bears witness to every one of Windrip’s blasphemies and atrocities. A local newspaper editor, Jessup is educated and sophisticated enough to perceive the hypocrisy and treachery of the new regime, but he has to lose nearly everything dear to him before venturing into serious counter-insurgency. The second half of the book reads like a cloak and dagger tale of the French Resistance transplanted to New England, complete with a “New Underground” railroad that smuggles renegade patriots into Canada.
Jessup, as we meet him in the first part of the novel, is a reflection of the complacency of journalists who propel a dangerous candidate’s viability, no matter how repugnant he is, by — again, awfully familiar — talking about him incessantly. The newspapermen so disliked Windrip that “they, by the unusual spiritedness and color of their attacks upon him, kept his name alive in every column.” Jessup — whose given name, Doremus, translates roughly as “we sleep” — also embodies the somnambulism of a citizenry that idly believes their shining city on a hill could never devolve into totalitarianism. It couldn’t possibly happen here.
Windrip’s base of support, which catapults him to world power, consists of legions of voters who have been suffering the effects of the Depression with no relief—angry, out-of-work Americans who think the system has ignored them. Windrip exploits their anger and resentment “coldly and almost contemptuously jab[bing] his crowds with figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.”
Writing in an era when there were still large numbers of Communists and Socialists active in the American body politic, Lewis captures the lethal inefficacy of the left. Closely mirroring some of the fractures that exist among liberals and leftists today, Lewis’s left-of-center characters resist forming a united front against disaster with their incessant bickering over granular points of economics and tactics. Even after being cooped up together in a concentration camp, six to a cell, these would-be challengers of the new order cannot put their divisions aside. With the opposition self-divided, the Windrip regime has little trouble picking them all off, one by one.
The people in Lewis’s imperiled America who could save the nation from itself are hampered by a smug delusion that dictatorships are a European phenomenon — a delusion that prevents them from taking action to stop the march of fascism until it is too late. That benighted attitude—that fascism and authoritarianism are innately German, or Russian, or Chinese, or North Korean, or indigenous to anywhere but our own country — is a mistake our founding fathers didn’t make. They deliberately crafted an inefficient form of government, full of checks and balances, because they understood that America was as liable to fall victim to totalitarianism as any other country.
Lewis wrote this dark novel at a time when intellectuals and bureaucrats of different stripes were willing to surrender “frivolous” freedoms to strong men—the Stalin’s and Mussolini’s and Hitler’s—for the sake of solving big problems and getting things done. He understood — in a message that speaks as much to our time as his — that the road to national catastrophe is built over time, mundane day by mundane day, by people who do not consider the price of their compromises with falsehoods, bigotry, and malice. And that is what makes it possible, even here.