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‘It Can’t Happen Here’: Sinclair Lewis’ message reverberates

The New York Times and much of the U.S. press had opposed his election, but their constant attacks had only served to enhance his electoral prospects. Now, during his second year in office, the president wanted “louder, more convincing Yeses from everybody around him,” according to the nationally known writer who chronicled his rise to power.

The description of an American president surrounded by “yes” men may have a contemporaneous ring, but these words were written more than 80 years ago by Minnesota native Sinclair Lewis about his fictional creation, a president with the unlikely name of Berzelius Windrip.

The ignominious Windrip appeared on the pages of Lewis’ 1935 novel just as Hitler and Mussolini were tightened their hold on their beleaguered nations. At home, two American demagogues, Louisiana’s Huey Long and Detroit-based Father Charles Coughlin, had gained a national following during the early years of the Great Depression.

In “It Can’t Happen Here” Lewis tells the story of Berzelius Windrip, known as Buzz, who is elected president in 1936 and transforms the United States into a totalitarian dictatorship. Loosely patterned after Huey Long, Windrip is serving in the U.S. Senate as a Democrat from an unidentified state when he bursts onto the national political scene.

“He was an actor of genius … with the power of bewitching large audiences,” Lewis writes. “There was no more overwhelming actor on the stage, in the motion pictures nor even on the pulpit. He would whirl arms, bang tables, and glare from mad eyes. … But below this surface stagecraft was his uncommon natural ability to be excited by and with his audience, and they by him.”

Attacks on the press, appeals to prejudice

Throughout his book. Lewis develops themes that continue to resonate in the world of 21st-century American politics. As the story unfolds, Windrip begins his rise to power, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1936. Buzz augments his theatrical talents with attacks on the press and overt appeals to the racial and religious prejudices of his core supporters. The centerpiece of his 15-point program is a populist call for increased taxes on the rich and the redistribution of those tax dollars to ordinary Americans in the form a $5,000-a-year federal payment.

Sinclair Lewis in 1944
Wikimedia Comons
Sinclair Lewis in 1944
Buzz succeeds in wresting the Democratic nomination away from Franklin Roosevelt (who expected to face a real-life challenge from Huey Long in 1936. But Long’s life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet in September 1935, just as Lewis’ novel was being published).

Windrip goes on to defeat his Republican challenger, Walt Trowbridge, in the November 1936 general election. Trowbridge was defeated, Lewis explains, because he “represented integrity and reason in a year when the electorate hungered for frisky emotions, for the peppery sensations associated, usually not with monetary systems and taxation rates, but with baptism by immersion in the creek, young love under the elms, straight whiskey, angelic orchestras soaring down from the full moon.”

Windrip’s despotic takeover of the U.S. government is seen through the eyes of a small-town newspaper publisher named Doremus Jessup (known as Dormouse to his friends and family). As the novel opens, Jessup is living a bucolic life in the town of Fort Beulah, Vermont. Gradually, Jessup comes to recognize the threat that the newly elected president poses for the American democracy.

President declares martial law

The book’s tone shifts to dystopian when Windrip declares martial law after Congress refuses to pass his bills, giving him full control over legislation and stripping the Supreme Court of its ability to block his edicts. His private army, the Minute Men (M.M), begins rounding up opposition congressman. Those who resist are charged with “inciting to riot,” while those who supported Windrip are “safeguarded” by the M.M. to protect them from “irresponsible and seditious elements,” according to a White House spokesman.

When Jessup writes a scathing editorial criticizing the Windrip regime and its Corporate State (Corpo) he s beaten by M.M. thugs and forced to convert his newspaper, the Fort Beulah Daily Informer, to a mouthpiece for Windrip and Corpo. Then, when Jessup’s loyalty to Corpo is questioned by neighbors who now support the Windrip regime, he is imprisoned in a concentration camp set up outside of Fort Beulah. Eventually Jessup escapes and joins the resistance, the New Underground, led by an exiled Walt Trowbridge, who is living in Canada.

(In a nod to his native state, Lewis makes Minnesota the center of the resistance and sets one of the key battles between Corpo and the New Underground in the town of Osakis, located 15 miles from his home town of Sauk Center.)

Jessup blames himself and others like him

As fashioned by Lewis, Jessup may be a hero, but one with self-aware flaws. At one point, after he has been imprisoned by the M.M., he blames himself and others like him for the destruction of the American democracy. “The tyranny of this dictatorship isn’t primarily the fault of Big Business nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work,” he tells himself. “It’s the fault of Doremus Jessup! Of all the conscientious, respectable, lazy minded Doremus Jessups who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest.”

Despite his archaic references and overly melodramatic plot, Lewis delivers a message that has disturbing implications for current state of American politics. “It Can’t Happen Here” serves as a cautionary tale for modern-day Doremus Jessups, who let “demagogues wriggle in without fierce enough protest.”

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/11/2019 - 09:35 am.

    Indeed, it does reverberate. The parallels have become increasingly frequent and obvious in the past couple of years, with overtones of farce, as well (e.g., Dr. Strangelove). It’s too easy to forget that Mussolini was legally appointed as Prime Minister of Italy, and that Adolf Hitler was legitimately elected. The downhill slide came afterward.

    • Submitted by Thom Roethke on 11/12/2019 - 01:11 pm.

      “The downhill slide came afterward.”

      Not quite. Weimar Germany was not a well functioning state that slid haphazardly into tyranny after Hitler gained power. It had been sliding downhill all by itself for several years prior.

  2. Submitted by William Duncan on 11/11/2019 - 09:47 am.

    While it is true, many Americans are complacent about the rise of a demagogue, many of those most vocally in protest of said demagogue are totalitarian in their assumptions, favoring the rule of unaccountable corporations, the Intelligence Community, and banks.

    So in that sense, American citizens are caught between the potential authoritarians of the right-wing crony oligarchy, and the oligarchs/plutocrats of the neo-liberal on the so-called but misnamed Left.

  3. Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 11/11/2019 - 10:08 am.

    What I got out of “It Can’t Happen Here” is how much Socialism/Communism and Fascism, ideologies that are supposedly diametrically opposed, have in common.

    Fascist regimes of the past used the same appeals to emotion to promote the idea, “the good of the whole supersedes the good of the individual”, that have brought Socialist/Communist regimes to power. Both seek government control of the population and both fall to brutal methods to maintain control once they have it.

    But we also need to remember what was going on when Lewis wrote this book; Hitler and Mussolini were coming to power on the one hand, and Sinclair Lewis was corresponding with Upton Sinclair who was undoubtedly passing along his Socialist ideology.

    As to the idea that is being suggested here, ie; Trump is destroying Democracy (!!!), the fact is that in the current year; nah. Neither socialism or fascism could be successfully implemented in a country as large, as institutionalized and divided as America is. We’ll be fine.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/11/2019 - 12:46 pm.

      The implication that it’s an either / or question – that the good of the individual is somehow more important than the good of the whole – is specious. When the “good of the whole” is the only viable viewpoint, you get totalitarianism – of the left, of the right, of whatever side you want to favor. When the “good of the individual” is the only viable viewpoint, you get the kind of silliness promoted by Ayn Rand. There are no societies – nor have there ever been any societies – where the individual trumps (no pun intended) the group on a consistent basis.

      No matter where it falls on the political spectrum, a functioning society needs to make allowances for, and foster, both individual rights and the rights of the group as a whole. Societies with too heavy an emphasis on the group eventually fail, and societies that place all the emphasis on the rights of the individual don’t exist – they don’t really get off the ground.

      • Submitted by Bob Petersen on 11/11/2019 - 01:54 pm.

        I will beg to differ because our country was founded and based upon people with a common belief that everyone has individual unalienable rights. Groups have no rights. We are a representative government of people elected by their individual rights. If groups had rights, that leads to government having rights over individuals. When you have a government that is greater than the individual, that leads to oppression and loss of individual rights.

        • Submitted by Brian Mann on 11/11/2019 - 03:05 pm.

          Do you see the dichotomy here? That a “group” supporting individual rights is still a group? Hence the Founders recognizing the danger of any “group-think” suppressing all others, and setting up the natural human conflict in our divided government. Because, to paraphrase the late Rodney King, humans can’t all “just get along”. Setting up society to handle disagreement is far more important that setting up society by an overbearing group – regardless of philosophy.

        • Submitted by George Kimball on 11/11/2019 - 03:26 pm.

          And I will beg to sort of slightly differ from your differing opinion. You correctly referenced sentiment from the Declaration of Independence (“…unalienable rights…”), but when our founders gathered to thoughtfully create our new nation’s law of the land (the Constitution), their Preamble words carefully constructed a philosophy that looks out for the rights and welfare of the “common” (arguably, “group”) good.

          As in, “…promote the general welfare….” Also, a focus on individual rights was addressed after the fact, with the addition of the first ten Amendments four years later. And, in fact, a number of amendments arguably address “groups” such as 13 (end of slavery – blacks), 15 (no rights denied due to race or color), 19 (women’s right to vote), and 26 (young people’s – as a group – right to vote).

          I don’t quite understand the sentiment of “If groups had rights, that leads to government having rights over individuals.” But in fact groups do have rights that are PROTECTED by the government (Constitution), but that doesn’t mean government rights OVER individuals.

        • Submitted by richard owens on 11/12/2019 - 04:34 pm.

          I think it fair to say the Bill of Rights doies protect ‘groups’ in that the first amendment clearly deliniates 5 freedoms that are protected from government action:

          1 Religion
          2 Speech
          3 Assembly
          4 the Press
          5 the right to lobby the government for redress

          several of those would protect a group from the government, no?

          A (d)emocratic hero who fought against fascism and totalitarianism with his words:

          ” “Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

          ― George Orwell

  4. Submitted by Joe Musich on 11/12/2019 - 09:02 pm.

    I would like to see this title in one of those live tevee telecasts aired on an evening where maximum number of people’s could tune in. A modern adaption ….. And then maybe a double feature with Cradle Will Rock.

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