The Universal Notebook: You think it can’t happen here?

  • Mail this page!
  • Delicious
  • 0

“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.

  • Charles Martel

    Nice try, Bernie…I mean Edgar. After 8 years of NerO welcome to Edgar’s dystopia.

    “Lewis’s works are known for their insightful and critical views of American capitalism and materialism between the wars.”

    “Lewis studied at Yale University, becoming an atheist and card-carrying socialist. He lived for a time at a sort of commune started by Upton Sinclair, the future Socialist Party candidate for governor of California. When Jack London, the socialist candidate for mayor of Oakland, California, went to Yale to speak for socialism, Lewis met him.”

    The Democrat icon, FDR, was also one of the worst presidents regarding economics the country has ever had. But, that’s another issue.

    • Queenie42

      FDR did not take his marching orders from an ex KGB thug.

      • EdBeem

        Washington, Lincoln and FDR are regarded by historians as the three best presidents in U.S. history.

        • Queenie42

          I remember going to D.C. with my Dad when I was 14. We visited the Memorials to Washington and Lincoln during our stay there. I can’t travel much anymore but I would love to see the memorial to FDR. I was born during his presidency.
          The memorial that has had the most lasting influence on me was the Lincoln Memorial. Those long steps and then there he is, looking right into one’s soul. And reading the words he wrote that are forever branded on my heart. Sacred words indeed.
          I suppose if there ever is a statue of das Trumpenfuhrer it would have to be symbolic. A large, orange blowfish with a mushroom cloud in the background. Push a button and it tweets.

        • Charles Martel

          “Despite all the evidence to the contrary, FDR, more often than not, is remembered as perhaps one of our greatest presidents.” “FDR ignored his own words and that of Einstein and continued his Progressive (i.e. New Deal) agenda throughout the 1930’s despite all the evidence suggesting it was not working.” -pg. 60
          “Progressive Dystopia”. Thank God, only 8 more days!

      • Charles Martel

        Duh! Putin was born in 1952. FDR, however, was an anti-Semite & had an admiration for Mussolini and allied the U.S. with Stalin.

        • justanotherfakename

          You’re an idiot.

          • Charles Martel

            Thanks. Slurs are the only comeback available for Leftists without facts.

  • MisterMainer

    “Sinclair Lewis meant his novel to be prophylactic, a cautionary tale.”

    So did George Orwell.

  • peterplus

    Oh, Mr. Beem, you are wasting your time by making reference to a writer as brilliant as Sinclair Lewis because the people who read your column and vilify you are not nearly intelligent enough to understand even a page of Lewis’ novel. Let me remind you that they are the morons who stood shoulder to shoulder with the KKK and the Neo-Nazis to elect an obvious pig and a madman as president. If I were you I would give up trying to educate them. They are a pathetic collection of terrified white men, incapable of intellectual growth, who will soon fade away with the orange-haired gasbag they admire, taking their particular brand of ignorance and cowardice with them.

    • EdBeem

      And I thought I had it bad.