Friday, March 04, 2016

Book Review: It Can't Happen Here (1935)

Sinclair Lewis (1885 – 1951) was the first American writer to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, and the novelist’s most famous work to this day is It Can’t Happen Here. This work of fiction describes, in terrifying detail, how America becomes a fascist dictatorship.

The novel is set during the election season of 1935 – 1936 -- approximately 80 years ago -- and focuses on a journalist named Doremus Jessup as he watches national events unfold in a surprising way.

Specifically, a Democratic candidate, Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip” secures the nomination for the presidency away from incumbent Commander-in-Chief FDR, and then defeats Republican candidate Walt Trowbridge in the general election to gain control of the nation in 1936. 

After Inauguration Day, folksy Buzz Windrip declares martial law, relegates the Supreme Court and Congress to advisory status, and unlooses his armed “Minute Men” militia -- originally an “innocent” marching club -- upon the country.

American citizens who protest this turn of events are sent to labor camps while Windrip systematically scapegoats Jews, blacks, and women for the nation’s troubles. 

Soon, President Windrip and his PR advisor/deputy/minister-of-propaganda Lee Sarason abolish the names of the states, and partition America into administrative provinces for easier management. The Republican and Democratic Parties are outlawed, and one party replaces them: The American Corporate State and Patriotic Party. 

Leading members of this party become known as “Corpos.”

Watching America succumb quickly to fascism, Doremus joins up with the N.U (New Underground), which helps beleaguered American citizens escape to Canada.

In the end, the tyrant Windrip is run out of office, but Sarason first, and then another dictator follow in his footsteps.

At the end of the novel, America is still not a free country, and the ruling party wages war on Mexico as a distraction from the internal strife. 

After an apparent false-flag operation, the Party recruits a million American men to fight in the war on the border…

The Dictator: Buzz Windrip

A good starting place in any discussion of this Sinclair Lewis novel is the title.

“It Can’t Happen Here” is the resounding belief and refrain of many Americans in the book, who just don’t believe something as European -- and therefore alien -- as fascism can take hold in the United States.

It’s easy to see why, in the 1930s, Americans would have said “it can’t happen here.”

They watched as Mussolini and Hitler rose in distant lands, but because of language and cultural differences, simply couldn’t see such men assuming power in Washington D.C. 

One of the key conceits of It Can’t Happen Here is that American fascism -- while still fascism -- will be cloaked in different trappings. If it rises here, according to Lewis, it will do so draped in militant Christianity and fronted by a candidate boasting a “folksy," tell-it-like-it-is manner.

The dictator in the book, Buzz Windrip, for instance, likes to claim his birth-date is December 25, the day celebrating Christ’s birth.  He tells stories about himself that make him sound like a winner, like someone amazing.

In addition to his (false) proclamations about his pious religious nature, Windrup relies on homespun wisdom and colloquial speech to meaningfully connect with the “masses” suffering in the Great Depression. 

In other words, he's a populist.

I try to make my speech as simple and direct as those of the Child Jesus talking to the Doctors in the Temples,” he declares at one point, again comparing himself directly to Christ.

Windrip’s appearance and attire are similarly deceptive in their home-spun nature.

The politician is known, for example to wear a “ten gallon hat” -- meaning a cowboy hat -- and he flaunts his ignorance and bad academic grades. 

Windrip likes to tell people the story of how a teacher once called him “the thickest-headed dunce in school.”

In short, this fictional fascist dictator evidences what Sinclair describes as an “earthy, American sense of humor.” 

At one point, the author even compares Windrip’s style to Mark Twain. In this fashion, the reader sees how homegrown fascism would look very different in America, from the model across the world.

Windrip’s characteristics purposefully align him with the less-educated “common men” who support him. Like them, he has a disregard for learning and flaunts a no-nothing attitude.

For instance, Windrip decries diplomacy, calling it “talky-talk” and notes that America is only “wasting our time at Geneva.” 

When he complains and bullies the press, he refers to journalists as “wishily-washily liberal.

The new President of It Can’t Happen Here also derides so-called elites in other ways. 

He dislikes “haughty megapolises” such as New York and Washington D.C., and to assure that the intelligentsia doesn’t get out of hand he even re-writes college curricula to be “entirely practical and modern, free of all snobbish tradition.”

Lewis describes the America dictator, in fact, as a “professional common man,” one who speaks so that all other “commoners would understand his every purpose, which was exactly the same as their own.” 

And when he seeks power, accordingly, Windrip does so for his brothers, not for himself…or so he claims

I do want power – great, big imperial power – but not for myself, for you!” He declares. His promise? To somehow recreate the past, a time when the people who are suffering now were doing great.

His Policies

Windrip assumes control of the White House in 1937 according to It Can’t Happen Here, and establishes fifteen policy goals.

Among these policies is the creation of a Central Bank -- to be administrated by a Board appointed directly by the President. 

Also, Windrip seeks the establishment of a commission to determine which labor unions are “qualified” to represent workers… again answerable to the President. 

Both these policies are crucial ones vis-à-vis fascism: the centralization of authority or power in one person.

Very significantly, Windrip’s platform demands the absolute freedom of religious worship, and a maximum wage. 

It is this latter promise that the wages of millionaires will be capped and that veterans will receive a stipend -- wealth distribution, essentially -- that carries Windrip to the Oval Office in Lewis’s text.

Furthermore, Windrip’s platform targets certain demographics. 

Women, for instance, may work as nurses or in other “feminine” settings such as “beauty parlors,” but otherwise must return to the home to raise children. Typically, women are not valued in a fascist state, except as they can give birth to loyal and strong soldiers.

African-Americans, meanwhile, are to be prohibited from “voting, holding public office, practicing law, medicine, or teaching any class above the grade of grammar school.”  Windrip's supporters seek a return to pre-Civil War society, before the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves.

Furthermore, all African-Americans are to be taxed 100% of all income in excess of 10,000 dollars per family, a year.  Here, we see that a fascist philosophy believes it is appropriate to limit the right to vote to certain groups of people, so as to hold on to power.

As mentioned above, absolute freedom of religious worship is protected in Windrip’s platform, but there’s an important caveat.

No atheist, Jew, or “believer in Black Magic” shall be able to hold office until first swearing allegiance to the New Testament.  

In other words, you have to be a Christian to enjoy absolute religious freedom in Windrip’s America.

If one wonders why Windrip’s agenda specifically targets women, blacks, and non-Christians, it is because, in Sinclair Lewis’s words, “every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on.” 

Fascism thrives, we can discern, when there is an enemy to hate, and an “inferior” to lord it over. 

Furthermore, any socialist, communist or anarchist in Windrip's America is to be tried for high treason. The minimum penalty upon conviction is 20 years in a labor camp, and the maximum penalty is death by hanging, or whatever method the judge in the case happens to find convenient.

In terms of the other branches of government, Congress will serve only in an advisory capacity and The Supreme Court shall have “removed from its jurisdiction” the power to rule the president’s actions unconstitutional, according to Windrip’s plan.

Finally, Windrip’s agenda includes “consistently” enlarging the military of the United States until it shall equal “the martial strength of any other single country or empire in the world.”

Actions Once in Office

After Windrip takes the oath of office in It Can’t Happen Here, he establishes a new cabinet position: Secretary of Education and Public Relations. In other words, this is the propaganda division of the re-formed U.S. government.

Then “The Chief,” as Windrip is called, disbands Congress with his re-branded“Shock Troops of Freedom,” the Minute Men, whom he has ordered recognized as an “official auxiliary of the regular army.” 

The Minute Men are issued machine guns, rifles, bayonets and other weapons.

It is clear that Windrip and his PR Man, Sarason, also understand the value of imagery and symbols. 

The Minute Men wear white uniforms and their ubiquitous symbol is a five-pointed star, like the one on the American flag. Obviously, there's a corollary for the use of this symbol in history, vis-a-vis the Swastika.

In this new America, the unemployed are sent to labor camps and paid a dollar a day for their work.  Unfortunately, it costs them between 70 and 90 cents a day for their room and board in the camp…

This is the new reality of President Windrip’s America.

Lewis writes: “There was a certain discontentment among people who had once owned motorcars and bathrooms and eaten meat twice daily, at having to walk ten or twenty miles a day, bathe once a week, along with fifty others, in a long trough, get meat only twice a week…and sleep in bunks, a hundred in a room.” (page 188).

Historical Context

FDR is one real-life historical figure featured in It Can’t Happen Here. He loses in a primary his bid for a second term because he can’t end the Depression quickly enough for the taste of many suffering citizens. 

Instead, FDR starts a new party, the “Jeffersonian” Party, which represents “integrity and reason.”

However, this is the wrong approach for the time, according to Lewis because this particular election year is about an electorate hungering for “frisky emotions.”  The public is angry, and desires a leader to channel that anger.

What Lewis hints at, then, is that fascism is a philosophy that hinges on emotions such as anger and resentment, and which isn’t, ultimately, susceptible to reason.  

Once you understand that resentment and other emotions are key to fascism, it is clear that the logic, and even the former positions of the dictator are largely unimportant.  He is a strong-man, one whose rage, not reason, is responsible for his popularity.

In the text, one of Windrip’s key supporters is Bishop Prang, a character based on real-life radio personality Father Charles Coughlin (1891 – 1979). 

Coughlin was a fierce anti-communist, a position which led him to come perilously close to advocating for the policies of Hitler or Mussolini at some points.  Coughlin was also apparently, anti-Jew, a quality reflected in his comment: “When we get through with the Jews in America, they'll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing.

“The Chief” -- Windrip himself -- is loosely based on Huey Long (1893 -1935), the Democratic governor of Louisiana from 1928 – 1932, and a U.S. Senator from 1932 - 1935.  In fact, Long had planned to challenge Roosevelt for the presidency in 1936, but was assassinated in 1935. 

His platform called “Share the Wealth” featured elements of Windrip’s “maximum wage” plank.

I suppose the big question about It Can’t Happen Here involves how the American people could possibly let a fascist government come to power. 

In the first case, there is denial among the regular folk (hence the title…).  Nobody takes the threat of the fascist candidate seriously until it is too late to stop his ascent.

Secondly, It Can’t Happen Here suggests that fascism comes to a nation when the people are suffering and poor, and looking to blame someone for their situation.  In such a context, a strong-man who promises quick remedy, and does so with apparent “common sense,” “earthy” humor, and religious piety is difficult to resist. 

One of the reasons that It Can’t Happen Here is so abundantly worth reading today is that the issues it addresses have not disappeared. In fact, the book is scarily prophetic.

It Can’t Happen Here is a cautionary tale about what a lack of vigilance could bring to America if the so-called "poorly educated" get very angry, and tempers run irrationally hot; if experience and wisdom are no longer valued by voters and a strong man -- an authoritarian -- is sought.

For eighty years, Lewis's story has remained a cautionary tale, a fantasy. If we are vigilant, careful and informed, we have nothing to worry about.

Long may that be the case.


  1. This nightmare could have been adapted to an episode of SLIDERS(1995-2000).


  2. See also Trump's 2016 campaign.

  3. Unfortunately, as always, those who might benefit most from reading such a work are those least likely to ever even consider picking it up. I've been through many, many election cycles where I was sad, disgusted or even, on occasion, indifferent. This is the first where I am actively frightened by the possible outcome. These are dark days...