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How Sinclair Lewis described his fictional fascist president

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.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Chas Dalseide on 11/14/2019 - 10:02 am.

    I last read that book perhaps 18 years ago. The main character was
    “Buzz W”. I couldn’t help but think of “W. Bush”.

  2. Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 11/14/2019 - 10:51 am.

    One of the first thing a dictator, left or right, does is take control of media and punish citizens who display “wrong think” in what they say.

    Given that, it’s ironic that the author would not question Mr. Stengel about his desire to see the 1st Amendment removed or revised to allow government censorship.

    “I came to see how our First Amendment standard is an outlier,” [Stengal] explained this week. “Even the most sophisticated Arab diplomats that I dealt with did not understand why the First Amendment allows someone to burn a Koran. Why, they asked me, would you ever want to protect that? It’s a fair question.”

    Personally, Stengal isn’t someone I’d care to have lecturing me about Fascism.

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 11/14/2019 - 12:12 pm.

      Yet some in this country don’t understand why the first amendment allows someone to burn a US flag. Or kneel during the national anthem. I think there are uncomfortable similarities between some of the uglier underbellies of this country as others.

    • Submitted by LK WOODRUFF on 11/14/2019 - 12:56 pm.

      “…a dictator, left or right, … Seems like one of those simply wouldn’t be possible. The ideology would prevent it.

  3. Submitted by Brian Simon on 11/14/2019 - 12:08 pm.

    “he was an actor of genius”

    In the context Donald J Trump, I have long thought his genius was in the art of self promotion. Like so many others, I bought into the mythology of “The Art of the Deal.” In hindsight, I chalk up my naivete to being a young college student, yearning to make millions. Though over the years my eyes slowly opened to the reality that every deal described in that book failed. Some spectacularly. Trump Airlines, the New Jersey Generals, Taj Mahal casino, all gone; big losers of cash. Yet somehow the genius of self promotion managed to come out on top, creating an aura of success despite a legacy of failure. I fear he is doing to the country what he’s done to so many of his businesses.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/15/2019 - 09:41 am.

      And of course ‘The Art of the Deal’ was written by someone else; another case of Trump taking credit for someone else’s achievement that was beyond his own capabilities.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/14/2019 - 01:12 pm.

    I would argue that Mr. Trump has already demonstrated, on multiple occasions in multiple contexts, that it CAN happen here.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/14/2019 - 01:16 pm.

    And then there was “The Plot Against America” (Philip Roth).

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/17/2019 - 09:22 am.

    Trump is obviously the figure head of a American Neo-Fascist movement, if you’re just beginning to think about this you haven’t been paying attention or you’re inclined to deny reality for some reason.

    Future historians will look back and marvel at the failure of our current historians and political scientist regarding their failure to recognize Trump as a Neo-Fascist.

    Part of the problem has been the actual mentality and intellectual habits of historians and political scientists. Instead of looking at Trump and his Neo-Fascist qualities, they’ve been comparing Trump to European Fascist prior to WWII. I don’t know why we have to remind anyone that we live in the United States, none of our political Parties look like those in Europe now OR then. Why would you expect an American Fascist to look like Hitler or Mussolini in the first place?

    If you step back and look at what Fascism IS, rather than what Fascist like Mussolini “looked” like, the conclusion if obvious… Fascism has arrived in the White House. You would have noticed that Fascism really made in appearance in the US during the Reagan presidency… Remember Oliver North?

    The primary differences between Trump and Mussolini are the uniform and the territorial expansion. But the fact that Trump doesn’t (yet) prance around in a uniform and talk about invading Canada doesn’t mean he’s not a fascist, he’s just an American Fascist.

    Germany and Italy had been militaristic Monarchy’s for hundreds of years, and they were still militaristic Monarchies just a decade or prior to the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. These Monarchy’s were in the midst of a lull in European Civil War begun by their Monarchy’s. And ALL of these governments were struggling to hold onto their colonial territories, which was a primary feature of their militarism.

    The US never had a Monarchy. Furthermore, the nature of US colonial conquest was very different from that practiced in Europe. This meant that our relationship with militarism is very different. Even when we elect former general as presidents they never prance around in military uniforms, we have a durable tradition of civilian leadership, our Constitution actually prohibits military rule.

    Trump does’t LOOK like Hitler because he’s an American Fascist, but he’s still a Fascist and his Fascist impulses are impossible to deny. His complete disregard for the law and Constitution. his enthusiasm for ruling by decree and his hostility towards anything that limits his personal power. Trump’s disdain for democratic institutions and legitimate election outcomes.Trump’s inherent belief in himself as the embodiment of the State is identical to Hitler and Mussolini. We have a Fascist/Neo-Fascist president, we just don’t yet have a Fascist government.

    I’m sorry but if you’re just NOW waking up to this fact, you’ve been part of the problem. And this isn’t just about Trump, Republicans have become a Fascist Party under Trump, so simply replacing Trump with Biden isn’t going to be the end of this story anymore than the the 1918 Armistice was the end of the European Civil War. Even when Trump is gone that will leave hundreds of Fascists in office all over the country. If you walk away after this thinking “normal” has been restored… you may be making a fatal assumption.

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