In our literature page, we look back on great works of literature realised in the current month, for March, Max Feldman chronicles the collapse of the American dream into fascism and fear with Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 cautionary tale: It Can’t Happen Here.
Rocked by the continuous shockwaves of Trump’s tempestuous presidency, it feels almost nostalgic to remember a time about a decade ago when politics could be safely ignored without the fear that you might miss the announcement of World War III and Brexit wasn’t even a reptilian twinkle in Nigel Farage’s beady eyes. The world’s current status RE: Hell and Handcart means it’s impossible for even the most wilfully ignorant citizen to ignore the headlines screaming out dire warnings in 100 point type. Even so there is still a tendency towards complacency, there’s no way that America could slide from its position of de-facto leader of the Western World to a home for authoritarian terror. However It’s exactly this kind of liberal complacency that Sinclair Lewis (the first American author to win a Nobel prize) had in his sights with his 1935 scorched earth political parody It Can’t Happen Here which details how a clownish, proudly anti-intellectual and anti-immigrant populist candidate was able to seize on public dissatisfaction with the status quo, become president and steadily transform America into a Fascist nightmare. Sadly the central difference between Trump and the fictional dictator Buzz Windrip is that Windrip is implied to have a level of superficial competence far beyond anything the current leader of the free world could aspire too.
Lewis wrote the novel because he was afraid of the meteoric rise of Louisiana senator Huey Long, a wild-man fighter for social reconstruction (and who ran his state like a King) who looked set to potentially unseat President Roosevelt in 1936. Whilst Long was assassinated before the election, Lewis’s novel remains a powerful warning about populist politics potential to place in chains the very people who fall prey to its promises. Whilst Windrip runs on a quasi-socialist platform (promising a free $5000 dollars a year for every “real American family) and is more interested in rapid militarisation than late night twitter storms, there are some unnerving parallels between this dreamed up-dictator and our current orange overlord. Like Trump, Windrip sells himself as the champion of “Forgotten Men,” determined to bring dignity and prosperity back to America’s white working class. Windrip loves big, passionate rallies and rails against the “lies” of the mainstream press. His supporters embrace this message, lashing out against the “highbrow intellectuality” of editors and professors and policy elites. Rather more alarmingly (and with Windrip’s tacit encouragement) they also take out their frustrations on blacks and Jews.
The novel even features a Steve Bannon equivalent, a coldly brutal ex-newsman named Lee Sarason. It is Sarason, not Windrip, who actually writes most of Windrip’s more apocalyptic, racist campaign promises and who rather worryingly eventually overthrows Windrip and seizes power himself. Sarason believes in propaganda, not information, openly arguing that “it is not fair to ordinary folks, it just confuses them, to try to make them swallow all the true facts that would be suitable to a higher class of people.” Through a combination of Sarason’s cynical race-baiting machinations and his own combination of deception and ugly charisma, Windrip ascends to the presidency while the nation’s liberals tremble. It’s only after the inauguration, though, that It Can’t Happen Here takes a truly dark turn, thankfully not one that (currently) corresponds with reality: Upon moving into the White House, Windrip immediately declares Congress an “advisory” body, stripped of all real power. When members of Congress resist, he locks them up without the slightest semblance of due process and begins the process of re-imagining the US as the Corporate States of America, where Big Business reigns supreme and unchallenged.
The novel was written at feverish speed and in some ways serves better as polemic than literature but its seasick and horribly familiar vision of what happens when a culture allows self-congratulatory complacency distract itself from clear and present constitutional dangers have rarely been as prescient or as biting. It Can’t Happen Here shows that it can indeed happen here, but only if you let it.