“It Can’t Happen Here” is Sinclair Lewis’ satirical prediction of how an All-American dictatorship, led by personable, patriotic deal-maker Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, could rise.
Most of the story takes place in a small town in Vermont, and it’s told through newsman Doremus Jessup’s eyes. Jessup is an established liberal newspaper editor with a capable, unimaginative wife. His family and friends are a full cast of characters. Lewis wrote this when he’d just returned from Germany in the early thirties, and he saw a number of different reactions to Hitler’s rise. Some people saw the danger, some didn’t, and some enthusiastically cheered the Nazis on. I’d guess that some real-life reactions inspired his characters.
Windrip is an interesting villain. “The one thing that most perplexed [Jessup] was that there could be a dictator seemingly so different from the fervent Hitlers and gesticulating Fascists and the Cæsars 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. 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?”
As a newsman, Jessup he feels the need to stand up for free speech and human rights, but as a social democrat, he believes that the system is sound. It supported his comfortable lifestyle, it gave him what he needed. It must be capable of repairing itself. He says “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.”
And, of course, he was wrong. Most Americans don’t think it can happen here. We believe our Constitution protects us from demagogue wannabes. That’s the genius of this book. Lewis shows us how a master dealmaker could wrap himself up in the flag, carry a cross for good measure and with the right steps in the proper order, shred the Constitution and our system of checks and balances.
Just in case anyone was looking for warning signs, those steps are:
1. Give them what they want. Doremus Jessup describes Windrip’s folksy appeal: “watching Senator Windrip from so humble a Boeotia, 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.”
2. Attack first amendment rights. Encourage Americans to spy on each other. In the book, the problem started in the colleges where “Any member of the faculty or student body of Isaiah who shall in any way, publicly or privately, in print, writing, or by the spoken word, adversely criticize military training … shall be liable to immediate dismissal from this college, and any student who shall, with full and proper proof, bring to the attention of the President or any Trustee of the college such malign criticism by any person whatever connected in any way with the institution shall receive extra credits in his course in military training, such credits to apply to the number of credits necessary for graduation.”
Jessup recognizes this as “fast exploding Fascism”.
3. Attack the fourth amendment – claim that you’re doing this for security or our ‘own good’
4. Build up an army of goons from an angry downtrodden group. Arm, train and encourage them.
5. Make outrageous, clearly pie-in-the-sky promises. Use goons and fervent followers to threaten anyone who isn’t fooled.
6. After you’re elected, don’t follow through on the promises you’ve made. When people are justifiably angry, call the protests a “Crisis”, declare Martial Law and shut down all dissent. This, of course, is for our ‘security’.
“[Windrip compared] the Crisis to the urgency of a fireman rescuing a pretty girl from a “conflagration,” and carrying her down a ladder, for her own sake, whether she liked it or not, and no matter how appealingly she might kick her pretty ankles.”
7. Sit back, enjoy the spoils, and watch your back.
One Amazon reviewer from Soviet Russia noted that “It Can’t Happen Here” was forbidden in the USSR because Stalin’s censors knew that an imagined fascist hell in America would look too familiar for readers in a “socialist paradise”.
Whenever we’re faced with a boorish racist lout who encourages his followers to beat up dissenters we ask “is this another Hitler?” Maybe he is, or maybe he’s another Mugabe, Erdogan, Assad, Charles Taylor, Papa Doc Duvalier. But although America flirts with the lunatic idea of a ‘benevolent dictator’, it hasn’t come to pass yet, mostly because generally pragmatic and self-reliant Americans won’t tolerate it.
That’s the central message behind “It Can’t Happen Here”. We can’t depend on the system to protect us. We have to act to protect ourselves.
Are we still self-reliant and pragmatic? It’s not clear. Which is why I’d definitely recommend this book.