A pure coincidence. A few days ago, as I prepared to interview writer and former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Richard Stengel about his latest book, I stumbled on a piece about Stengel in which he talked about a slightly obscure Sinclair Lewis novel (not as famous as “Babbitt,” “Main Street” or “Arrowsmith”) about a demagogic yahoo named Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip who defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination in 1936 and then is elected president of the United States. It didn’t go well from there; Windrip is a sort of fascist, establishes a military dictatorship. It was titled “It Can’t Happen Here,” but in those Hitlerian days, the title obviously was meant to warn us that it could happen here, in the tumultuous 1930s.
My conversation with Stengel included a lot of Trump stuff, specifically about the changing nature of “public diplomacy” since Stengel’s days in the Obama administration, to today’s Trumpian scrambling of what America stands for the world.
But I never got around to asking him about “It Can’t Happen Here,” which I definitely decided to read as soon as I finish the 10 books by which I’m currently overwhelmed.
Then, wouldn’t you know, the excellent Minnesota historian and MinnPost contributor Iric Nathanson puts up a whole excellent piece on “It Can’t Happen Here” on good ol’ MinnPost (its relationship to Minnesota history is that Lewis was a Minnesota boy.)
(Nathanson’s piece is right here. Please read it.) So I won’t write that piece, except as this piece, which is nothing but an excuse, with apologies to both Nathanson and Sinclair Lewis, to paste in a couple of paragraphs from the introduction to Buzz Windrip in “It Can’t Happen Here” in case you might enjoy Lewis’ version of an American fascist in his era:
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. … Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.
… [But] he was an actor of genius. There was no more overwhelming actor on the stage, in the motion pictures, nor even in the pulpit. He would whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a gaping mouth; but he would also coo like a nursing mother, beseech like an aching lover, and in between tricks would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts–figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.
Below this surface stagecraft was his uncommon natural ability to be authentically excited by and with his audience, and they by and with him. He could dramatize his assertion that he was neither a Nazi nor a Fascist but a Democrat–a homespun Jeffersonian-Lincolnian-Clevelandian-Wilsonian Democrat–and (sans scenery and costume) make you see him veritably defending the Capitol against barbarian hordes, the while he innocently presented as his own warm-hearted Democratic inventions, every anti-libertarian, anti-Semitic madness of Europe.