Novel * Sinclair Lewis * OR CAN IT?! * 1935
Fascism. That’s what can’t happen here. “Here” being the United States. The title should probably be Fascism Can’t Happen in the United States for ultimate clarity, but that’s not quite as snappy. Clickbait was a thing in 1935, it seems. That’s it! Throw this book in the trash, fake news. I can tell already that this does not conform to my always-already worldview, which is the only true and proper way to assimilate and disseminate information, and therefore I am correct and right to dismiss this novel out of hand without a second thought. Fake. Fucking. News.
Okay, that was gross. Sorry, but if you’re going to read this book get ready to feel all squiggly like that a lot. There’s “oh, that’s a bit on the nose” and then there’s something like It Can’t Happen Here, which is uncomfortable and upsetting in that the first act of the novel might as well take place in 2016. The story, written by a pissed-off Sinclair Lewis in 1934, documents the career of the first American dictator, who has just the best, most perfect name ever: Buzz Windrip. Buzz is the most American. It’s his brand. He appeals directly to the those marginalized by corporate hegemony and localized economic despair and rallies their support by having huge grandstanding rallies where he spews folksy, relatable rhetoric that disparages minorities and props up a flawed worldview while making wild, grandiose promises that he clearly has no intention of keeping.
Most of the story is told from the viewpoint of a guy named Doremus Jessup. He’s a small-town newspaper editor who is watching all this hot fascist bullshit unfold in front of him and can’t even believe it. Doremus is an older man and isn’t really down to fight the power. He just wants to chill with his family and maybe his side-piece every once in a while. Okay, that sounds gross but in the context of the story Doremus’ long-time affair is a less a mark against his character than it is an acceptance of changing social mores. Look, whatever, the point is Doremus eventually realizing that he needs to #resist, and while the rest of his family is down to clown, his wife is absolutely not. One nice surprise is that there is a wealth of strong female characters here. The girlfriend, Lorinda, is a rebel and ends up running an underground railroad for political refugees. Sissy, one of two daughters, is a sassy young woman who likes to drive fast and take chances. She’s down for whatever. There’s also an older daughter who straight-up assassinates a dude, so she’s pretty badass herself.
It Can’t Happen Here is, then, a story about a fascist dictator who ascends to power in the United States and those who would fight against him. The pattern follows very closely that which unfolded in Germany and Italy, because obviously that’s what was happening in the mid-1930’s over in Europe. The title of the book is simply what many Americans would tell themselves while watching Hitler clamping down in real-time. Most of what happens in the novel occured in reality in Germany. Windrip wins power democratically before assuming direct control over the government. He maintains power by amassing a large militia group to protect him and his nascent dictatorship. He assumes control of the press and purges anyone with a dissenting voice. Eventually there’s concentration camps and checkpoints and executions and all the other nice things one associates with an authoritarian dystopia.
Once It Can’t Happen Here moves past the actual election of Buzz Windrip, it gets easier to read. I mean, there’s no getting past the fact that the character of Windrip is Trumpy as hell, and it can be uncomfortable. There are many alarming/unbelievable/terminally embarrassing things happening in our country right now, but there are some key things which are not happening. Most importantly, Trump does not have an organized militia at his beck and call. Further, Trump has not managed to disband the Supreme Court and Congress. Oh, he clearly wants to, but he’s nowhere near the kind of popularity he would need to pull that shit off. That kind of near-universal popularity is incredibly hard to come by, and lucky for us here in 2017 there’s a key ingredient missing.
Most people don’t want a fascist dictator. They don’t really want a king, or a czar, or an emperor. Most people just want to live their lives in peace and safety and ease. However, sometimes the world can be dangerous and threatening, and when that happens people will turn to someone who will promise peace, and safety, and ease. Of course, the price for those promises is quite high, constituting the complete and total surrender of personal freedom. Usually, the dangerous threat must be extremely severe to convince most people to appeal to the strong authority figure to ‘save’ them, at the price of utter loyalty. In the case of Hitler and Mussolini, it was the chaos and ruin left over from World War I that drove the populations of those countries to choose them over personal freedom.
The dangerous threat in the United States during the mid-1930’s was, of course, the Great Depression. The U.S. had the good fortune to not have an apocalyptic war on their own soil, and so the industrial infrastructure was spared decimation. While the U.S. lost many good soldiers during the war, the casualties suffered were nowhere near those of the European combatants. However, the Depression wrecked shit all the way up. The fear was that the Depression would never end, that capitalism just ate the country and the vast majority of Americans would never again know prosperity. Conditions were far riper for an American Hitler to sweep in and make promises, and then take over. The “great recession” of 2008 was a big deal, and the slow recovery has been painful for many, but it still lacks the immediate threat to a majority of citizens to truly usher in another era of totalitarians.
I hope. What It Can’t Happen Here does best is illustrate how people react to certain situations. As Windrip’s campaign gains popularity, you see the type of person he attracts in the form of Shad Ledue. This fuckin’ guy is Doremus Jessup’s handyman, and he sucks. He’s dumb, vindictive, and petty. He also represents a great swath of the population that Lewis is rather ruthlessly making fun of. You know, a real basket of deplorables. Guess what happens when Windrip sweeps into power? All the smarty smart-asses who ran the government are run out on rails, their positions given to dudes like Shad who make excellent toadies. Guys who are all about being a petty tyrant in their local area and who know how to really get down and lick boot when it comes to the bigger fish. And meanwhile the general population keeps repeating “well let’s just see how this all plays out, after all, it can’t happen here.”
For all the easily made correlations to the current political situation in the United States, It Can’t Happen Here is a direct product of its time. Lewis was writing a topical satire, and it was meant to be consumed and thought about in the mid 1930’s. Buzz Windrip is based on a Louisiana Senator who was apparently assassinated before the publication of the novel. Many of the characters within are either real people of the time or are based on them. Other than F.D.R. and William Randolph Hearst, I don’t know my political history well enough to recognize them. This is all to the good, because otherwise it would be really easy to read It Can’t Happen Here and panic, like the thing fell through a temporal wormhole and delivered an alternate-reality United States into 2017. But relax. While it totally can happen here, it hasn’t. Yet.