It Can't Happen Here
Updated: Oct 7, 2020
By Sinclair Lewis (RIP 1885 - 1951)
Published in 1935, Lewis wrote this short novel in only a few months. This is not Lewis's best novel; which might be either Babbitt or Main Street. However this book, like his other great works is all about the lives and anxieties of Americans in the first half of the 20th Century. After writing more about the ordinary lives of Americans, in It Can't Happen Here, Lewis wrote about the fictional fall of America away from a liberal democracy into a fascist dictatorship. There was much insecurity in the country then; the stock market crash of 29, the great depression, the dust bowl, heavy migration out of the plains and the south to the west and north. Jim Crow laws, lynchings and the KKK were all stifling the lives of Black Americans. Fascism and Nazism were growing and threatening Europe and the world. The novel is set during the time it was written, the mid 1930's in America.
Using a historical approach to fiction, Lewis traces how American Fascism grew out of this insecurity and how it dressed itself in the traditions of America; this time with the Democratic party bearing the guilt. The fictional fascist president Buzz Windrip promised prosperity and jobs for everyone, he presented his views as if they were sanctioned by God, and every aspect of flag waving nationalistic expression was used in his presidential campaign. With such appropriation of patriotism and religion, it artificially forced the opponents of dictatorship to have to push back on shows of patriotism and religious faith or be identified with the fascists, who claimed these only for themselves or those who follow them with unquestioning adoration.
The signs of fascism emerged in various predictable and tangible ways: questioning, blaming, limiting and then taking over the free press; politicizing of the military; personal appropriation and then destruction of various policies and traditions related to separation of the various powers of government; control over congress; elimination of objective oversights in government agencies; the stigmatization of immigrants and refugees along with experts and academics; the formation of a private unofficial military unit with no regular military oversight; the hiring of various henchmen advisors to carry out these plans with glee; shortly turning peaceful protests into criminal acts; then mass incarcerations and eventually executions; using racism and anti-semitism to divide the country and to form a fearful, angry, fanatical base. The removal of women's right to vote and their return to home, wife and mother as their only approved identities. The anti-democratic play book really is as old as time.
Of course the story does not end well. The country is left in shambles, democracy is dead. The hero of the story, Doremus Jeffers, is a mild mannered newspaper editor from a small town in Vermont, who resists and though having been imprisoned, tortured, his business confiscated, his civil freedoms all gone, some family members killed; he escapes via an underground smuggling ring taking freedom fighters to Canada and there mounts a fight along with others. In the end, Doremus reflects on all this scene and concludes that government "of the profits, by the profits, for the profits“ detached from human connections, compassion, reason and moral responsibility (otherwise known as materialistic capitalism) as being one of the underlying causes of this collapse of democracy. The weight of inequality and exploitation simply drained the country of character, strength and hope. The argument reflects the potential distortions of run away capitalism when profits are the only measure of value. He also sees how anti-intellectualism, racism, poverty and a reliance on religious certitude or exclusiveness all contributed to conditions of vulnerability for political divid and control. The book ends with the hope and quest for a restoration of democracy still being pursued by some; yet with the knolwedge of such loss of life and dignity and the destruction of moral and rational democratic practices that the recovery might never be full and the pursuit of the journey back would be many generations long.
Most current critics have pointed out many similarities between this fictional story from 1935 and the rise of Trump and trumpism in 2016 and argue that Lewis's novel offers our very own American warning against extremist ideologies, candidates or leaders. Though I found this book hard to read, it was my second attempt, it is mainly due to the morbidity of the story and the very real parallels with events in history and in our own times. Democracy must be lived daily and protected vigorously. A just democracy requires full engagement by educated and reflective citizens who share a moral commitment to one another and all peoples of the country and the world. Capitalism must be guided by morality and reason. It requires a robust and just democracy for all; free press; a non political military; the full separation of church and state; free speech and free assembly and rights to protest; “equality and justice for all under the law”, to name only a few of the core foundations.
It is a scary book for me. We have seen the desperate and deadly results of fascist governments throughout history. But it is a brilliant book on democracy, its risks and foundations. And also a book about courage and responsibility for one's own deepest beliefs.