Books for Our Times: "It Can't Happen Here," by Sinclair Lewis (a Novel)

10/01/2016 12:28 pm ET Updated Oct 02, 2017

Eighth in an ongoing series, Books for Our Times.

Throughout this ugly presidential campaign, the prospect of fascism coming to America has been raised repeatedly to describe a Donald Trump presidency (also here and here). Polls at this time show Hillary Clinton and Trump uncomfortably close.

While the term "fascist" is often flung loosely, to disparage someone or something the speaker doesn't like or agree with, it's still the case that democracies, based on popular support, are vulnerable when that popular support flows to a strongman leader promising a New Day. Fascism is generally understood to be strongman rule; after that, it gets less clear.

Since these are turbulent times and this type of leader is likely to come forward again, it's important to understand the dynamics of the mix. Best to return to the dictionary. The full definition of fascism given by the Merriam-Webster dictionary is this: "a political philosophy, movement, or regime....that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition."

Trump's actions in many ways meet this definition. Though he presents nothing so coherent as a political philosophy, he stokes the resentment of white America over its lost primacy---"Make America great again"---by scapegoating the aliens among us (the 11 million illegal immigrants) and dangerous outsiders (Muslims, Mexicans), leading white supremacists to embrace him warmly. Invoking a collapsed America, Trump presents himself as a strongman savior: "Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it" and "I am your voice." He stokes violence, from the roughing-up of protesters at his rallies, to suggesting active defense of the Second Amendment if Clinton is elected, to suggesting Clinton's Secret Service agents disarm ("See what happens to her"). And Trump is fine with torture.

Is the barbarian, the fascist, at our door?

Sinclair Lewis thought so when, in 1935, the depths of the Great Depression, he wrote his novel It Can't Happen Here---"it" being the fascism he saw spreading in Europe with Hitler and Mussolini and at home with the demagogue Huey Long. The common American response was, "It can't happen here," but Lewis saw the fragility of democracy, especially if faced with organized violence, and concluded, "It can." News stories filed from Europe by his wife, journalist Dorothy Thompson, on the Nazis' anti-Semitism and their establishment of concentration camps fed his anxiety. Lewis wrote his cri de coeur of a novel in just four months.

By then Lewis had already won the Nobel prize for literature (in 1930, the first American to do so) for his powerful novels published in the 1920s---Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth. These iconoclastic works skewered the boosterism and smugness of America's growing middle class. But with that middle class largely wiped out by the Wall Street crash of 1929, and with fascism spreading in Europe, Lewis could hardly engage in his usual skewering of character; he went after the system. It Can't Happen Here is satiric and heartless.

Lewis allowed himself no historical perspective, but set his novel in own time; in fact, a bit ahead. The novel opens in the summer of 1936, just before the Democratic national convention. While fascism is often thought of as a right-wing phenomenon, Lewis shows it taking form on the left. President Franklin Roosevelt is expected to be nominated again as the party's standard-bearer. (Lewis uses historical figures throughout: FDR, Huey Long, Father Coughlin, William Randolph Hearst.) But times remain bad since the '29 crash and FDR is seen as not doing enough.

Enter the demagogue presenting himself as the people's savior---Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip. A senator and a radical redistributionist, Windrip promises a $5,000 cash payment to every family, while soaking the rich. His attacks on the enemy within---the Jews and the Negroes---are frontal and ugly. Not surprisingly, he has the ardent support of the League of Forgotten Men, a 27-million-member organization stirred to fever pitch by the Jew-hating Bishop Prang. (The language Lewis uses in these passages, and the n-word for Negroes, sickens.) Ominously, Windrip has a private army at his back, the Minute Men, an erstwhile marching organization.

Eyeing the White House, Windrip wrote the apocalyptic Zero Hour---Over the Top, "the Bible of his followers, part biography, part economic program, and part plain exhibitionistic boasting"; excerpts open many chapters. Launching his presidential campaign, Windrip announces the "Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Men," to include: government control of all finance and all labor unions; tax hikes on the rich, capping incomes; a commission to study a $5,000 cash payment to families; and prohibitions on Negroes voting, women working outside the home, and anyone advocating Communism, Socialism, or Anarchism, on pain of treason. Point 15 is key: Upon his inauguration, Congress shall cede emergency powers to the president, with Congress only advising and the Supreme Court stripped of its "power to negate."

Why would anybody support such a restrictive regime? To usher in "a Paradise of democracy in which....every humblest worker would be king and ruler," a paradise ensured by a strengthened executive.

Windrip wins the nomination, forcing FDR to form the Jeffersonian Party (and exit the novel). At a rally in New York's Madison Square Garden days before the election, Windrip's speech shows him in full demagogue mode:

"....it's true, it's absolutely true I do want power, great, big, imperial power---but not for myself---no---for you!---the power of your permission to smash the Jew financiers who've enslaved you, who're working you to death to pay the interest on their bonds; the grasping bankers---and not all of 'em Jews by a darn sight!---the crooked labor leaders just as much as the crooked bosses, and, most of all, the sneaking spies of Moscow that want you to lick the boots of their self-appointed tyrants that rule not by love and loyalty, like I want to, but by the horrible power of the whip, the dark cell, the automatic pistol!"

Windrip wins the White House and immediately enacts his Fifteen Points, which enactment entails---"It can't happen here!"---"the whip, the dark cell, the automatic pistol." When Congress in a joint resolution declares his action unlawful (only in fiction does Congress act), Windrip declares martial law, enforced by the Minute Men, now the armed auxiliary to the Regular Army. Unemployment is reduced to zero by placing the workless in labor camps, where they are subjected to extreme hardship. The political parties are abolished, with only one allowed: the American Corporate State and Patriotic Party (the Corpos). Concentration camps are set up to hold the resisters and traitors. Arrests, torture, and executions follow.

At this point, just a third into the book, the reader wonders at the implausibility of events and how they relate to our presidential campaign. But then the reader wonders: With Donald Trump's authoritarian grasp of the law, what would the deportation of 11 million illegal aliens be like? Recall Trump, regarding torture, initially said of the generals, "If I say do it, they're gonna do it." (He later recanted, sort of.) And so the reader reads on in this otherwise extremely unpleasant book.

For me, the novel's best element, the value added, is the point-of-view character, Doremus Jessup, aged 60, the editor of a small Vermont newspaper, "locally considered a 'pretty smart fella but kind of a cynic.'" It's through Doremus' eyes that we see the gathering storm embodied by Windrip, who's rarely presented close-up. As a liberal and intellectual, Doremus knows he's seeing fascism on the hoof. But as is often true of liberals and intellectuals, he feels helpless in the face of force and violence---much like liberals feel vis-à-vis Trump. Tracking Doremus' intellectual fits and starts, I kept thinking of Captain Ahab's disdain for his first mate Starbuck's "soft humanity." Doremus' evolution to heroic action gives the novel its human thrill.

Back when Windrip is one among many presidential candidates, Doremus has this to say to the town's owner of the granite quarry, who favors Windrip:

"Yes, I agree it's a serious time. With all the discontent there is in the country to wash him into office, Senator Windrip has got an excellent chance to be elected President....and if he is, probably his gang of buzzards will get us into some war, just to grease their insane vanity and show the world that we're the huskiest nation going. And then I, the Liberal and you, the Plutocrat, the bogus Tory, will be led out and shot at 3 a.m. Serious? Huh!"

Doremus notes, "There's no country in the world that can get more hysterical....than America. Look how Huey Long became absolute monarch over Louisiana," and says, if Windrip wins, it means "a Fascist dictatorship!" To which the quarry owner says:

"Why are you so afraid of the word 'Fascism,' Doremus? Just a word---just a word! And might not be so bad, with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours---not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini---like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good old days---and have 'em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again."

So, says Doremus, "Cure the evils of Democracy by the evils of Fascism?" To which the response is: "It just can't happen here in America."

This denial Doremus encounters all around. He finds the townspeople's take-away of Windrip's Fifteen Points are three: the tax hikes on the rich; the condemnation of the Negroes, "since nothing so elevates a dispossessed farmer or a factory worker on relief as to have some race, any race, on which he can look down"; and the $5,000 payment. Argument is defenseless against a dream: "This is revolution in terms of Rotary." Nor can he get his "heedless" family to engage the fascist danger. As the Windrip juggernaut gains, Doremus sighs, "But what can I do? Oh---write another editorial viewing-with-alarm, I suppose!" His endorsement goes to the Republican nominee, Walt Trowbridge, who suffers "from the deficiency of being honest and disinclined to promise he could work miracles." Consoling himself, Doremus thinks:

"What I've got to keep remembering is that Windrip is only the lightest cork on the whirlpool. He didn't plot all this thing. With all the justified discontent there is against the smart politicians and the Plush Horses of Plutocracy---oh, if it hadn't been one Windrip, it'd been another.... We had it coming, we Respectables..... But that isn't going to make us like it!"

With Windrip's election, Doremus initially pulls inward, trying to reread the classics, relearn Latin, dive deeper into his religion (Universalist), but nothing allays the guilt: "Too many years he had made a habit of social duty. He wanted to be 'in' things." But, with Minute Men making arrests and the concentration camp looming, to be "in" things now carries life-and-death risk. Doremus takes the risk.

He writes an editorial attacking the Administration, is arrested, is released to advise his replacement at the paper. As the peril rises further---his son-in-law is executed, his hired man becomes a power-mad Minute Man, his lawyer son is offered a judgeship in the Windrip administration if he, Doremus, would soften his attitude---Doremus takes radical action: "I think it's time now for me to begin doing a little high treason" (italics mine). Taking the leap, he's determined to "see if there's any dirty work at the crossroads I can do." He finds it, ultimately, after being tortured in a concentration camp and escaping, in the New Underground, a rebel organization run from Canada by the former Republican presidential nominee, Walt Trowbridge.

Meanwhile, Buzz Windrip, with his imperial designs on all North America---he made war on Mexico---after two years is deposed and exiled by his Secretary of State, who in turn is murdered days later by his Secretary of War. It should not surprise that, in all this calamity, no family gets their $5,000 cash payment and, with labor unions outlawed and wages remaining stagnant, the big industrialists are the only winners.

A New Day for America must rest with the New Underground. The last we see of Doremus, he is dodging a posse, riding to a cabin hidden in the Northern Woods, where, Lewis writes, "quiet men awaited news of freedom."

To conclude: It Can't Happen Here is a strange, strange novel, with a serious, serious message: Beware the leader in rough times promising a New Day via violence. Let's not let it happen here.

An adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' "It Can't Happen Here" is being presented at Berkeley Repertory Theater, Berkeley, CA, from now until November 6.

For Sinclair Lewis' Nobel lecture, see here. For other commentary on "It Can't Happen Here" and Trump, see here, here, here, and here.

Carla Seaquist's latest book is titled "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality." An earlier book is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death" and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal." (Archives here.)