Note: Here's a book review I wrote that appeared recently in the ABQ Free Press.
Sinclair Lewis’s classic American satire, It Can’t Happen Here, was first published in 1935 in an era of economic depression and growing fascism at home and abroad. The dystopia was an immediate bestseller, spurring an unabridged series in the New York Post and countless theater productions.
Yet today’s citizens know little about it. They should pay more attention.
Consider the main character Buzz Windrip, a presidential candidate who is a professional common man. His folksy, down-to-earth speeches use simple words to extol the greatest nation on earth, bash the big banks, the political elites and the press. He suggests that Negroes and Jews be barred from civic activity (even though he allows that many, many Jews are part of his movement) and that women stay at home. For safety’s sake, foreigners present too great a risk to America’s way of life to permit their presence. Windrip’s 15-point plan enlarges the military, increases veteran’s benefits and expands the definition of treason to include among other things, advocating foreign alliances.
Sound familiar? Just replace the word Mexican or Muslims for Jews and Negroes and it’s hard not to think of Donald Trump. In the novel, the rise of the Chief, as he is later called, is preceded by an era of radio demagoguery voiced by a Father Charles Coughlin figure that bears a striking similarity to Rush Limbaugh. Like the anti-Semitic Coughlin, Bishop Paul Peter Drang has a huge following. His “League of Forgotten Men” is 27 million strong and forms the base of Windrip’s growing support. It is composed of formerly middle class men dispossessed by the big banks. It is strongly reminiscent of the Tea Party.
In an era of economic insecurity and a fear of foreign forces, Buzz Windrip is elected legally. Opposition does not mobilize quickly and he carries out his promises, which most had not taken seriously. He declares martial law. The Supreme Court is abolished. Congress becomes an advisory body. The “MM”, formerly a private marching club tasked with beating up opponents who dared to appear at Windrip’s campaign rallies, becomes a national police force, staffing checkpoints and concentration camps to which dissenters are sentenced—when they are not summarily shot. Ironically the wall Windrip said he’d build to keep foreigners out is ultimately used to keep Americans from escaping to Canada.
It Can’t Happen Here is not regarded as one of Sinclair Lewis’s best books. He won the Nobel Prize for his others: Main Street, Arrowsmith and Babbitt, mainstays of high school English classes. But this is his strongest protest against middle class complacency and the tendency of most Americans to opt for security—tendencies that have lingered into our era, and now loom over the 2016 presidential race.
Where are the heroes, the protestors, and the resistance to Lewis’s creeping fascism? The protagonist of It Can’t Happen Here is a small town newspaper editor, a reluctant liberal, who values his individualism and intellect too much to take action in time. Finally, he joins the resistance just as the totalitarian regime declares war on (where else?) Mexico. At the end of the novel, his success is uncertain.
In 2016, my friends assure me that Donald Trump will never be elected. Too many constitutional protections, too much media scrutiny. But in the wake of terrorist attacks, the shrinking middle class, and the waning hopes of our youth, I can’t help but worry. Anything can happen when fear takes over. Especially, as Lewis demonstrates, when the groundwork for fascism has already been laid.