There was a good deal of talk about Sinclair Lewis’ semi-satirical, 1935 political novel, It Can’t Happen Here, in the run-up to this month’s American presidential election, due to the fact that Lewis’ story features a tactless, fearmongering, Donald Trump-like character. Slate’s Jacob Weisberg mentioned it as “a novel today more referred to than read, which imagined fascism coming to the U.S. The movement’s leader is Buzz Windrip, a populist demagogue who promises ‘to make America a proud, rich land again,’ punish nations that defy him, and raise wages very high while keeping prices very low.” He goes on to remark:
You can’t read Lewis’ novel today without flashes of Trumpian recognition. Windrip is a demagogic huckster, “an inspired guesser at what political doctrines the people would like,” who understands how to manipulate the media and considers the truth an irrelevancy. His constituency of economically dispossessed white men moos at his xenophobic nationalism and preposterous promises. After he wins the 1936 election, Windrip moves to assert control over the press, lock up his opponents, and put competent businessmen in charge of the country.In Salon, Malcolm Harris called Lewis’ book “a wonderful example of prophylactic fiction,” observing that “Lewis used his position as one of the nation’s top novelists”—he had penned Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), and Elmer Gantry (1927), after all—“to show his countrymen exactly how authoritarianism could rear its head in the land of liberty. The assassination of Louisiana Governor Huey Long (better remembered in literary history for inspiring Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men) and the re-election of Franklin Roosevelt rendered Lewis’ warning moot for a time, but 80 years later the novel feels frighteningly contemporary.”
It’s been a long while since I read It Can’t Happen Here; but Wikipedia’s plot description reminds me of the tale’s most significant and frightening turns:
Though having previously foreshadowed some authoritarian measures in order to reorganize the United States government, Windrip rapidly outlaws dissent, incarcerates political enemies in concentration camps, and trains and arms a paramilitary force called the Minute Men, who terrorize citizens and enforce the policies of Windrip and his “corporatist” regime. One of his first acts as president is to eliminate the influence of the United States Congress, which draws the ire of many citizens as well as the legislators themselves. The Minute Men respond to protests against Windrip’s decisions harshly, attacking demonstrators with bayonets. In addition to these actions, Windrip’s administration, known as the “Corpo” government, curtails women’s and minority rights, and eliminates individual states by subdividing the country into administrative sectors. The government of these sectors is managed by “Corpo” authorities, usually prominent businessmen or Minute Men officers. Those accused of crimes against the government appear before kangaroo courts presided over by “military judges.” Despite these dictatorial (and “quasi-draconian”) measures, a majority of Americans approve of them, seeing them as necessary but painful steps to restore American power. Others, those less enthusiastic about the prospect of corporatism, reassure themselves that fascism cannot “happen here,” hence the novel’s title.I won’t give away the whole story, but I will mention that Windrup’s authoritarian chokehold on power is eventually undermined by reports that the economic prosperity he’d promised to bring the United States fails to materialize. As more and more people become disillusioned with the Windrup administration, rivalries break out among his lieutenants, a gratuitous war on Mexico destroys what remained of the public’s faith in the “Corpo” dictatorship, and civil war breaks out as voters realize they have been conned into believing lies told by charismatic but self-serving politicians.
Open opponents of Windrip, led by Senator [Walt] Trowbridge, form an organization called the New Underground, helping dissidents escape to Canada in manners reminiscent of the Underground Railroad and distributing anti-Windrip propaganda. One recruit to the New Underground is Doremus Jessup, the novel’s protagonist, a traditional liberal and an opponent of both Corpoism and communist theories, which Windrip’s administration suppresses. Jessup’s participation in the organization results in the publication of a periodical called The Vermont Vigilance, in which he writes editorials decrying Windrip’s abuses of power. Shad Ledue, the local district commissioner and Jessup’s former hired man, resents his old employer and eventually discovers his actions and has
Jessup sent to a concentration camp. Ledue subsequently terrorizes Jessup’s family and particularly his daughter Sissy, whom he unsuccessfully attempts to seduce.
I don’t own the 1961 Dell paperback edition of Lewis’ yarn shown atop this post, but it features a cover painting by the now 89-year-old, Illinois-born artist Howard Terpning, another of whose book fronts I applauded in an earlier “Friday Finds” post.
Sixty-nine years after Sinclair Lewis’ novel first saw print, the what-if scenario of fascistic forces overrunning the U.S. government cropped up once again in Philip Roth’s better-written The Plot Against America (2004), which imagined celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh, running as a Republican, defeating Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 and bringing his fringe agenda to the White House. “Lindbergh, in real life as in the novel, famously admired Hitler and even accepted a medal from Hitler’s government,” observed Paul Berman in his New York Times review of this book. “He looked on the American Jews as a pretty suspicious group, all in all. Even so, millions of other Americans admired him.”
Before the release of Roth’s book, though, in 1968, ABC-TV broadcast a “movie of the week”/series pilot titled Shadow on the Land, which was inspired by It Can’t Happen Here and found “freedom fighters” battling fascism across the United States. That teleflick was written by Sidney Sheldon and Nedrick Young, and starred John Forsythe, Jackie Cooper, Carol Lynley, and Gene Hackman. Although it’s not easy to find anymore, if you act quickly, you can watch it on YouTube. There’s no telling how long it might remain available.
READ MORE: “Amazon’s Best-Seller List Takes a Dystopian Turn in Trump Era,” by Brian Stelter (CNN Media); “President Donald J. Gantry: On the Prescience of Sinclair Lewis,” by Jacob Lambert (The Millions).