Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 satiric novel about a fascist takeover, It Can’t Happen Here, has made a furious comeback at the expense of the maligned Donald Trump. That it is an act of supreme political ignorance for anyone to think Lewis’s novel somehow foreshadows the rise of Trump has not prevented such ignorance from manifesting itself. We see the mentality at work in a number of publications and, for a week following the 2016 election, the book was reportedly sold out on Amazon.
This poor excuse for literature could have been spun out of the pages of yesterday’s Washington Post.
Lewis (1885-1951) is not as bad a writer as he often reads. And one reads him for his cultural observations anyway. His Babbitt and Main Street offer devastating insights not just on small-town America but into a low side of the American character, a boorishness that made “Babbitt” a common noun. Other observers of America, such as Tocqueville, also noted this unfortunate quality in some Americans. Lewis delivers these shots from the perspective of a Progressive-era intellectual, who had moved from small-town Minnesota to Yale and then, in 1910, to his base of operations in Washington, D.C. The first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature, Lewis had nowhere near the gift for language as the most recent Minnesotan to snag the honor. Even so, Lewis does have some glorious moments.
A Demagogue of Demagogues
InIt Can’t Happen Here, Lewis portrays a 1936 Democratic Party nominating convention divided among several possibilities, including the incumbent Franklin Roosevelt and his labor secretary, Frances Perkins. (The real 1936 Democratic Convention renominated Roosevelt by acclamation. In his acceptance speech, FDR denounced “economic royalists” and the “new industrial dictatorship” as betrayers of the spirit of 1776 and enemies of equality, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.)
In Lewis’s convention, Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a senator from the midwest, wins the prize with a platform of repression and expropriation, assisted by a thuggish gang, the League of Forgotten Men. Deftly dispensing homespun wisdom, Windrip “denounced all ‘Fascism’ and ‘Naziism,’ so that most of the Republicans who were afraid of Democratic Fascism, and all the Democrats who were afraid of Republican Fascism, were ready to vote for him.” Windrip defeats his feeble Republican opponent (who flees to Canada) and a third-party “Jeffersonian” candidacy from FDR.
Once in office, the demagogue quickly dispatches his opposition through delegitimization, exile, imprisonment, mass executions, and, above all, intimidation. Congress, the courts, the parties, the media, unions, churches, the military, universities, and businesses all crumble, unless they join Windrup. He abolishes the States and institutes regional governments and concentration camps while plotting wars with Mexico and other countries. In the new order, blacks and Jews suffer a great deal, with Catholics not far behind.
He replaces the old establishment with new, reliable political allies from those who had been losers. (In a hilarious moment in the book, Windrip offers FDR the ambassadorship to Liberia, which he declines.) With the aid of his secretary of state, Lee Sarason, Windrip devises a new political religion with worship of the corporate state, war, and a new steering wheel logo along with a new national anthem (one, presumably, that would not cause Windrip’s enraptured followers to kneel in protest).
‘I’ve Done Better Books’
The reader looks upon this state of affairs through the eyes of a Progressive small-town Vermont newspaper editor, Doremus Jessup. He has predictable political and intellectual views—leading a comfortable life with wife, two sons and two daughters, and two mistresses on the side. But his talk and his editorials land him and his family into trouble.
At first he goes along, but as things develop he soon sees a number of intolerable things: first the new regime murders his son-in-law; next he finds one son pleading with him to shut up so he will have a chance at a judgeship; and finally he puts up with his other daughter using her allurements for the sake of the underground opposition. Jessup then winds up in a concentration camp, where he survives only through favored treatment by old friends. We last see him in the fields of Minnesota working for the resistance and fleeing Corpo bands.
On the national level, Windrip falls victim to a palace coup by his appointee Sarason. But subsequent White House same-sex orgies give rise to a military takeover, demanding a moral restoration and a war on Mexico, plunging the nation into civil war.
It’s all there on the surface, as the Dickensian names reveal. Sarason, a Saracen, Berzelius “Buzz” Wind-rip, a Beelzebub and bacillus, and Doremus Jessup who could be an Adoremus (we adore ) or Oremus (let us pray) Jesus—which embodies Lewis’s contempt for religious naïveté which, in his view, condemns all utopians. One biographer provides this telling account of Lewis’s meeting with the Communist-dominated League of American Writers which had gushed about his novel. A derisive Lewis mocked them:
Let me tell you, it isn’t a very good book — I’ve done better books — and furthermore, I don’t believe any of you have read the book; if you had, you would have seen I was telling you all to go to hell. Now, boys, … stand up, join arms… and sing, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.”
Even Worse Than the Left Thinks
What Leftists today don’t see in It Can’t Happened Here is that fascism has come to America through the Progressives, in particular the Democratic Party. Jonah Goldberg wrote a daring book making this argument, Liberal Fascism, which astutely describes the fascistic elements of Progressivism. Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural is replete with examples: his comparison of himself with Jesus, his call for moving populations from city to country, and the disturbing military allusions, with citizens to obey as privates in an army with FDR as the commander-in-chief.
What befell ethnic Japanese during World War II could happen to any group, without the excuse of wartime exigency. Such Progressive arrogance also shines through in campaign references to “experimentation” and to the era of enlightened administration.
But such Progressive ambitions had an even more brutal harbinger in a far worse novel, Philip Dru Administrator: A Story of Tomorrow, 1920-1935. The didactic screed was published anonymously in 1912 by Edward Mandell House or “Colonel House,” as he is known. House went on to become a close adviser to Woodrow Wilson and gave the president-elect a copy of the book the November Wilson was elected. The short utopian/dystopian novel’s hero is a West Point graduate who yearns for action and battle, and as well “human emancipation” against the greed and corruption of politics.
In a west-east civil war, Dru’s army vanquishes the forces of the corrupt President of the east. The unassuming hero reforms the Constitution and the country along progressive principles and then surrenders his dictatorial power as “Administrator” of the republic. Dru and his bride then leave on their honeymoon, sailing out of San Francisco Bay, both having recently acquired knowledge of Slavic languages, to a destination “unknown.”
Upon publication, the novel’s author was often assumed to be Theodore Roosevelt. But young Walter Lippmann in his New York Times review in 1912 had a better insight. While ridiculing the book’s literary qualities, he gave an eerie warning: “[I]f the author . . . is really a man of affairs, then this is an extraordinarily interesting book. It shows how utterly juvenile a great man can be . . . . If he is really an example of the far-seeing public man, then, in all sincerity, I say, God help this sunny land.”
Fascist visions and military coups have ever been the fantasy of the Progressive Left. It is no surprise that Leftists denounce others for spoiling their dreams.
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