On The Prescience of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here

Sinclair Lewis’s early novels —Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth— were blistering satires of American middle-class complacency, however his most notable later work, It Can’t Happen Here (1935), was distinct. It was written during a time of heightened anxiety with the rise of demagogues and tyrants around the world –Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco– and yet in the United States there was an oft repeated refrain: “It can’t happen here!” It Can’t Happen Here explores a satirical, historically-revisionist question: what if a fascist dictator rose to power in the United States? I was inspired to read this book, in part, after reading a few Sinclair Lewis novels from my survey of the Pulitzer Prize winners, but also I heard the historian Niall Ferguson recommend this book in light of recent political events in the United States. It serves as a cautionary tale, warning us about the appetites and excesses inherent within the democratic regime, along with the tendency of grass movements to elevate frivolous, self-serving demagogues to positions of power. Though It Can’t Happen Here was intended to be pure propaganda, Sinclair Lewis later noted: “it is propaganda for only one thing: American democracy.”

The milieu of It Can’t Happen Here is one of populism, the natural result of which is extremism, as the American fascist movement gains steam under the banner of the American Nazi party as well as the German-American Bund. Populists like Huey Long carve out their own power grabs, and Bishop Prang (based on Father Charles Coughlin) propounds a populist radio program promoting antisemitic conspiracy theories as well as wealth redistributionist policies in order to defy secret cabals of elites. His is a revolution that begins in Rotary Club meetings and halls of the American Legion –Sinclair Lewis clearly thought the fascist threat in America would emerge from the likes of country bumpkins and complacent middle class wasps like George Babbitt, Will Kennicott, and especially Reverend Elmer Gantry.

Our protagonist is Doremus Jessup, a cynical publisher of the Daily Informer. He is a competent businessman and earthy New Englander, while his paper is the bible of rural farmers in Fort Beulah, Vermont. Jessup is born in 1876 into a Unitarian family, and he lives in the hill country of Vermont, a land of stove-heated red brick homes.

In a crude parody of Willie Stark in All The King’s Men, the 1936 presidential election leads downtrodden Americans to elect Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip as the next President of the United States. Windrip is a folksy New England version of Huey Long, though he is every bit a threat to the political order as the dictatorial Kingfish of Louisiana. Windrip travels across small towns praising the “forgotten common man” while promising to restore America to its former greatness. He whips up paramilitary groups like the “Minutemen” (a reference to the famous Revolutionary War militia group) and in doing so, Windrip easily bulldozes all opposition –including Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It is a fascinatingly prescient story. Consider the following observation of Windrip while on the campaign trail:

“Doremus Jessup, so inconspicuous an observer, watching Windrip from so humble a Boetia, could not explain his power of bewitching large audiences. The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store” (71).

And another quotation in which Doremus wonders how dangerous Buzz Windrip might be despite being such a comical figure:

“The hysteria can’t last; be patient, and wait and see, he counseled his readers… It was not that he was afraid of the authorities. He simply did not believe that this comic tyranny could endure. It can’t happen here, said even Doremus –even now… The one thing that 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.”

This “professional con man” and “prairie Demosthenes” is swept into the White House under an agenda of “Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Man” loosely based on Huey Long’s “Share-The-Wealth” campaign. The reforms call for centralized authority in the executive branch which apparently only Windrip can accomplish because of his popularity within the Democratic base. This temporary transfer of power to President Windrip is necessary in order to restore American greatness, or so he claims. He calls on all patriots to stand. up and support his cause. In the words of Samuel Johnson: “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” What does Windrip stand for? He is for the unions but against all strikes, he is for the bankers but against the banks, he is pro-freedom but anti-disloyalty. Above all, he supports himsef. Windrip is a mix of contradictions, hence why he appeals to such a wide swath of disaffected working class voters. While the ordinary worker says to himself, why am I struggling? Why is my life so difficult? The populist politician like Buzz Windrip comes along and says: Fear not! None of this is your fault. You have simply been made the victim of vile people, invading bands of immigrants, greedy Jews who are hoarding all the money, minorities who seek to replace you and your family, ivory tower elites who don’t care about you, and so on. The message is always the same: you have been betrayed, and I alone can fix it.

Abroad, Windrip pursues a policy of isolationism which actually winds up looking more like a praise of America’s greatest enemies: “‘I don’t altogether admire everything Germany and Italy have done, but you’ve got to hand it to ’em, they’ve been honest enough and realistic enough to say to the other nations, ‘Just tend to your own business, will you?'”

Despite overwhelming support for Buzz Windrip and his degradation of American culture, a resistance movement grows among educated classes and media figures like Jessup, but Windrip’s political enemies increasingly disappear. These people become mere roadblocks on the path toward American greatness, and so Jessup is imprisoned after he joins the Underground resistance movement. In time, Windrip’s authoritarianism draws anger from his own cabinet, especially when the fabled economic prosperity that he promised does not materialize, and it leads to high profile departures, some of his senior officials flee to Mexico and Canada. The Secretary of State leads a military separatist group against the President, and the ensuing factions lead to civil war as the military effectively claims power and begins running portions of the country. This then leads to a string of coup d’états. One General invades the White House forcing Windrip to flee to France, while another has plans to invade Mexico. The novel ends in questionable fashion as the country hangs in the balance, but Jessup begins working with the “New Underground” movement which has arisen. Thus ends a foreboding and eerily familiar glimpse of what happens when political farce becomes dangerous reality.

It Can’t Happen Here has continued to have a surprisingly powerful legacy. On October 3, 1937, nearly two years after the publication of this novel, more than 2,000 American Nazi stormtroopers rallied at Madison Square Garden and by 1939 that number grew to over 20,000 of the German-American Bund to hear Fritz Kuhn, the so-called “American Fuhrer.” Fascist inclinations continued for decades, and as I write these reflections, Republican politicians across the country are openly campaigning on efforts to overturn future elections in the hopes of disenfranchising American voters. Unsurprisingly, following the results of the 2016 United States presidential election, sales of It Can’t Happen Here surged and it became a bestseller for the first time in decades (for obvious reasons). While I have never been the biggest cheerleader for Sinclair Lewis, I thought It Can’t Happen Here was a starkly clear reminder that the renewed price of freedom is still eternal vigilance.

Lewis, Sinclair. It Can’t Happen Here. Penguin, Signet Classics. New York, 2014.

Click here to read my reflections on Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men

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