“The one thing that most perplexed him was that there could be a dictator seemingly so different from the fervent Hitlers and gesticulating Fascists and the Caesars with laurels round bald domes; a dictator with something of the earthy American sense of humor of a Mark Twain, a George Ade, a Will Rogers, an Artemus Ward.”
So wrote Nobel Prize-winning novelist Sinclair Lewis in “It Can’t Happen Here,” his 1935 novel in which Americans elect a populist demagogue who turns into a fascist dictator.
Lewis (1885-1951) made a name and a fortune for himself satirizing the smugness of small-town life (“Main Street”), the conformity of American consumerism (“Babbitt”), the hypocrisy of evangelical preachers (“Elmer Gantry”) and the questionable ethics of the medical care community (“Arrowsmith”), but it is “It Can’t Happen Here” that has the greatest currency these days.
When he wrote “It Can’t Happen Here,” Lewis was watching the rise of fascism in Europe and seeing how the Depression gave rise to populist firebrands in this country. He based his own fictional Sen. Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip largely on Louisiana Sen. Huey Long. Long’s slogan was “Every man a king.” Windrip’s was “Every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on.”
Windrip runs for president on a platform of full employment and nationalism.
“My one ambition is to get all Americans to realize that they are, and must continue to be, the greatest Race on the face of this old Earth,” he declares, “and second, to realize that whatever Differences there may be among us, in wealth, knowledge, skill, ancestry or strength – though, of course, all this does not apply to people who are racially different from us – we are all brothers, bound together in the great and wonderful bond of National Unity, for which we all should be very glad.”
Windrip’s winning strategy is to buy air time so he can talk directly to the people, to portray the media as liars and to not to let the facts get in the way of his rhetoric, because, he argues, “it is not fair to ordinary folks – it just confuses them – to try to make them swallow all the true facts that would be suitable to a higher class of people.”
When Windrip wins the primary, FDR charges that he was chosen “not by the brains and hearts of genuine Democrats but by their temporarily crazed emotions.” Roosevelt sets up a Jeffersonian Party to appeal to “integrity and reason,” but Windrip prevails because “the electorate hungered for frisky emotions, for peppery sensations associated, usually, not with monetary systems and taxation rates but with baptism by immersion in the creek, young love under the elms, straight whisky, angelic orchestras …”
Upon election, Windrip consolidates his power by curtailing the rights of women and minorities, eliminating states in favor of administrative sectors, and declaring that henceforth Congress will serve only in an advisory capacity and the Supreme Court will be prohibited from finding any law unconstitutional.
All of this has great initial appeal to Windrip’s followers, who are called the League of Forgotten Men, and to his 500,000-man private army of “patriots and pugilists,” known as the Minute Men.
“Despite strikes and riots all over the country, bloodily put down by the Minute Men, Windrip’s power in Washington was maintained.”
President Windrip’s administration is peopled by Corporatists, or Corpos, people who identify the State entirely with business and industry. All citizens are required to recite the Corporatist pledge: “I pledge myself to serve the Corporate State, the Chief, all Commissioners, the Mystic Wheel, and the troops of the Republic in every thought and deed.”
The Corporatists have a strong anti-intellectual bent such that all universities are required to teach the same curriculum, “entirely practical and modern, free of all snobbish tradition.”
Just as he promised during his campaign, unemployment vanishes under President Windrip, but that is because the previously unemployed either join his Minute Men brigade or are interned in enormous work camps. Civil unrest erupts and anti-Corporatist dissidents flee to Canada and Mexico.
Eventually, Gen. Dewey Haik, one of Windrip’s warmonger supporters, stages a coup and exiles Windrip to France. Haik then attacks Mexico in the state-run newspaper and institutes a draft in preparation to invade it. “It Can’t Happen Here” ends with America on the brink of civil war.
Sinclair Lewis meant his novel to be prophylactic, a cautionary tale. We can only hope it does not prove to be prophetic.
Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.