Today is the birthday of the great American author Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951).
And today I must take this opportunity to apologize to the members of my old book club. Ten or 15 years ago at my behest we made Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here the monthly pick. I’d gone through my initial Sinclair Lewis phase in my early twenties, when I read his best known novels Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927) and Dodsworth (1929). It Can’t Happen Here had been next on my list. I love such dystopian visions, so it was a book I’d wanted to read for a long time. I owe my old pals the apology because at the time I argued that “it” (a Fascist takeover of the United States) could never happen in 21st century America. My reasoning was essentially that the country had become too diverse and (silly me) that though there were still many racists about, there weren’t enough to tip the balance electorally. I actually said that! And my book-club friends, who were all Democrats but no wild left-wingers by any means, being all businessmen, bankers, corporate lawyers, and guys of that ilk, were like: “You’d be surprised.” And was I ever surprised. Most unpleasantly. Much like the dupes and naifs of Lewis’s own day (who inspired the book’s title) I always assumed that in the clinch, America was above all that. For a peek at how naive I was even just a few years ago, you can see my earlier post on Lewis and the novel here.
It Can’t Happen Here paints a dystopian picture of what would happen if an American Fascist party gained control of the national government. This was in 1935. Mussolini had been ruling Italy for some time, but Franco was not yet dictator of Spain, and the Nazis had only been in power for two years, with most of their most heinous atrocities still ahead of them. Lewis’s portrait of oppression is thus mild in light of what would happen in later decades (murder on a genocidal scale), not only in the Fascist countries but in Soviet dominated Eastern Europe, Communist China and elsewhere. Still Lewis had his native inspiration in the form of the Ku Klux Klan, the German-American Bund, and demagogic Louisiana politician Huey Long, who had Presidential designs but was assassinated that year.
But today the parallels with Donald Trump seem uncanny, particularly the unholy marriage of corporate oligarchs and rank and file lower class racists who form a paramilitary militia in the book called the “Minute Men” (sound like the “Tea Party”?) And as with Trump, the book’s blowhard dictator-villain, named by the always-satirical Lewis “Buzz Windrip” can’t deliver on his fantasy campaign promises. Luckily this eventually causes the collapse of support for his regime. The book may be read for partial inspiration. It’s hero, a newspaper editor participates in a healthy underground, though when Windrip is eventually toppled, his army general replacement seems hardly better. The historical trend is that when the power of an office has expanded, it is seldom voluntarily relinquished by a tyrant’s successors. Which is why you always wind up looking at phrases you thought you’d never see, such as “Obama’s drone strikes”. Still you must hope. And It Can’t Happen Here does end on a hopeful if inconclusive note, with the forces of Good still fighting the forces of Evil. And in the end, that’s always the best you can hope for, even if we sometimes live in blissful ignorance of just how evil Evil can be.