Book review: “It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis

David Michael Reardon (1951-2015)
November 29, 2015
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Book review: “It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis

The Vermont doctor, successful and respected, is with friends, listening to the radio as Senator Buzz Windrip is nominated by the Democratic Party to become President of the United States.

Windrip is a shoo-in in the 1936 election, and some of the friends around that radio fear that, given his proposals and the sorts of people he has gathered around himself, Windrip will become an American dictator. Bosh, the doctor says.

Dictatorship? Better come into the office and let me examine your heads! Why, America’s the only free nation on earth. Besides! Country’s too big for a revolution. No, no! Couldn’t happen here!

Yet, it does. And the doctor is one of the first to be marched out behind the courthouse and summarily executed by a firing squad.

The book, written in 1935, is by Sinclair Lewis. Its title is: It Can’t Happen Here. And it’s all about how it can and, in this story of the then near-future, it does.

Throughout the book, one character after another says, one way or another, says, “It can’t happen here.” And yet it does.

 

Alarming vision

Windrip is a version of Louisiana Senator Huey Long, a demagogue, who was gearing up to challenge Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Democratic presidential nomination when he was assassinated on September 10, 1935.

That was a month before Lewis’ novel was published so the book didn’t hit stores with the immediacy it might have otherwise carried. The United States, after all, was a nation with an unsettled, confused and scared populace. The country was still trying to crawl up out of the Depression, and, in fact, was undergoing a major recession. Millions were out of work. Widespread unrest was a great fear.

Like Long, Windrip, as a candidate, makes sweeping and unkeepable promises of improvements in the lives of all Americans, including a promise of an annual payment to every adult of $5,000 (the equivalent of about $90,000 in present-day money). Like Long, Windrip doesn’t worry about the facts.

FDR was said to be plenty relieved when he heard of Long’s death. He didn’t relish the 1936 election campaign with a wild card like Long out stumping for votes.

Alas, today, we have our own Huey Longs. And Lewis’ alarming vision is a warning for all of us.

lewis.cant happen

 

“A public liar”

Let me say, straight out, that I do not expect the nation to be transformed into a totalitarian regime on the basis of the coming election.

Nonetheless, in a democracy, when an unprincipled, charismatic candidate is elected, anything goes. That’s the theme of Lewis’ book and also of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America. Both are cautionary tales, especially pertinent at this moment in the arc of American history.

As this year draws to a close and the 2016 presidential campaign looms just a few weeks in the future, the Republican field of candidates is filled with Huey Longs, the most Long-ish of whom is businessman Donald Trump.

Like Windrip, Trump makes unkeepable promises of future economic benefits to all Americans through a tax plan that, according to objective observers, won’t work. Like Windrip, he plays fast and loose with what he says are facts, such as his discredited claim of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating when the World Trade Center towers were hit by the two jetliners.

Here’s how Lewis describes Windrip:

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….

Buzz Windrip was a Professional Common Man. Oh, he was common enough. He had every prejudice and aspiration of every American Common Man. He believed in the desirability and therefor the sanctity of thick buckwheat cakes with adulterated maple syrup, in rubber trays for the ice cubes in his electric refrigerator, un the especial nobility of dogs, all dogs, in the oracles of S. Parkes Cadman, in being chummy with all waitresses at all junction lunch rooms, and in Henry Ford…and the superiority of anyone who possessed a million dollars.

Sound a bit familiar?

It’s not an exact description of Donald Trump, but it does bring to mind the bombastic billionaire as well as many of the other GOP hopefuls, including Sen. Ted Cruz, Dr. Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee.

 

“General clownishness”

Roosevelt feared Huey Long. How could he argue policies and programs with someone who refused to stick to facts?

In It Can’t Happen Here, neither FDR nor his Labor Secretary Frances Perkins stands a chance of winning the Democratic presidential nomination when faced with the bread-and-circuses offered by Windrip and his circle:

[E]very delegate knew that Mr. Roosevelt and Miss Perkins were far too lacking in circus tinsel and general clownishness to succeed at this critical hour of the nation’s hysteria, when the electorate wanted a ringmaster-revolutionist like Senator Windrip.

Is Donald Trump a “ringmaster-revolutionist”? He’s certainly running as an entertainer, someone who tells the voters what they want to hear even if that doesn’t fit any reality. (Professional politicians, of course, try to do the same thing but, in some general way, feel compelled to base their promises in a reasonable understanding of the real world.)

 

“Cruel-mad”

The central character in It Can’t Happen Here is Doremus Jessup, a small town newspaper owner and editor, who, in the aftermath of Windrip’s inauguration, is trying to talk himself out of worrying about the kind of dictatorship the new President might impose. After all, Windrip dosen’t come across as, say, Hitler.

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 sense of humor of a Mark Twain, a George Ade, a Will Rogers, an Artemus Ward. Windrip could be ever so funny about solemn jaw-drooping opponents, and about the best method of training what he called “a Siamese flea hound.” Did that…make him less or more dangerous?

Then he remembered the most cruel-mad of all pirates, Sir Henry Morgan, who had thought it ever so funny to sew a victim up in wet rawhide and watch it shrink in the sun.

 

Look down on

The Germans bought Hitler because, in some deep way, his mix of megalomania, truculence and frenzy fit their expectations from a leader. In Lewis’ novel, Windrip wins election by entertaining the voters — by asking them to laugh and shout, and not to think.

Sound familiar?

The German intelligentsia treated Hitler like a buffoon. Not so the business leaders. They knew that his plans for a huge army and worldwide conquest would be good for business. And that’s why the money people latch onto Windrip in It Can’t Happen Here. He gives them what they’d always gotten from American democracy, but even more so — “a government of the profits, by the profits and for the profits.”

Sound familiar?

Hitler used the Jews of Germany and the rest of Europe as scapegoats for many of the ills that beset the nation. Windrip targets Jews and Negroes. Indeed, Lewis borrows Huey Long’s motto (“Every man a king”) to explain why most Americans buy into Windrip’s bombast:

And they had the Jews and Negroes to look down on, more and more….Every man is a king as long as he has someone to look down on.

In this election campaign, just substitute the word “immigrants” for “Jews and Negroes,” and the picture may become familiar.

 

Yes, it can

I don’t think it’s going to happen here — that a demagogue will win election and impose a totalitarian regime on the nation.

Yet, it can happen.

And it is more likely to happen when Americans — you and me — let charismatic liars and unprincipled promise-makers get away with lies and impossible pledges.

It can happen here.

Patrick T. Reardon
12.7.15

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