What’s the worst that could happen in the upcoming presidential election? A classic novel takes us to that world gone wrong so that we can see the chilling results unfold step by step.
Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951), the first American to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote It Can’t Happen Here (1935) to warn his fellow citizens about candidate Huey “the Kingfisher” Long, whose bid for the White House appeared in full swing in 1935.
At the time, Long already had served as the 40th Governor of Louisiana and was serving as U.S. Senator. (Long is perhaps best remembered today as the inspiration behind another work of fiction, Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel All the King’s Men.) A controversial loose cannon of a populist, Long rose to political power, according to some, by acting more like a demagogue than a representative of the people.
Lewis distrusted what he viewed as Long’s cult of personality, so he penned It Can’t Happen Here to remind readers that Long might be saying everything they wanted to hear—or, to use today’s newspeak, “telling it like it is”—but he could only keep his extravagant promises to the people by twisting the American system of government out of shape and consolidating greater power in his own office and person.
Where would this stop? Dictatorship, Lewis believed.
The short-term point of the novel became moot when physician Carl Weiss fatally shot Huey Long at the Louisiana State Capitol a year before the 1936 presidential election. The long-term relevance of the book, however, deserves our immediate attention.
Who’s Afraid of Berzelius Windrip?
Sinclair Lewis wrote his novel as fascism reared its head in Europe, and he outfitted his Huey Long avatar, charismatic President Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, with all its outward trappings. In It Can’t Happen Here, Windrip ends up with a private militia, concentration camps, and a Chief of Staff who sounds suspiciously like Nazi propaganda wizard Joseph Goebbels.
Despite this, President Windrip is not a Nazi.
He’s not an ideologue of any kind. Cynical and opportunistic, Windrip is part con man and part entertainer, a manipulator who plays the social, economic, and political fears of the people—and their related desire for a “strong leader” to take control and “fix things” from the top down—like a musical instrument. He appeals to their basest urges, including racism and xenophobia to convince them to abdicate their rights and responsibilities and give him unprecedented power. In short, Windrip represents a peculiarly U.S. form of authoritarianism.
It is an extreme but logical end product of what scholar Robert Higgs, using a term coined by his former PhD student Charlotte Twight, has identified as the current U.S. system: participatory fascism.
If none of this sounds familiar, you probably haven’t been paying attention.
It Keeps Happening Here
After a series of not-so-unforeseeable disasters (including a completely unjustified U.S. invasion of Mexico), It Can’t Happen Here leaves the audience poised at the beginning of a new U.S. civil war. But between the lines in constant refrain echoes a clear message: It’s not too late to avoid this calamitous future—as long as we don’t blindly follow the lead of self-serving politicians.
Over the last eighty years, Lewis’s vision has inspired others who share his concerns. The original 1983 television miniseries V, which launched a 1984 sequel and then two television series (in 1984-1985 and 2009-2011, respectively), was directly inspired by It Can’t Happen Here. In 2011, the fifth episode of the politically wary Person of Interest gave the novel its own cameo appearance.
With Sinclair Lewis, John C. Moffitt adapted the novel for the stage in 1936, and that play continues to be produced. In addition, the Berkeley Rep plans to perform a new adaptation by artistic director Tony Taccone and screenwriter Bennett Cohen in September 2016. The theater’s press release puts it this way:
Sinclair Lewis’ astoundingly prescient novel gets a fresh update in this world premiere adaptation that examines what brings a citizenry to the point of sacrificing its freedom and how a courageous few can prevail to overcome the fall. ‘This story is as relevant today as it was in 1935.
Whether we pay attention to Lewis’s warnings is now the biggest question at hand.
Want more to explore? Check out the resources below.
Malcolm Harris, “It Really Can Happen Here: The novel that foreshadowed Donald Trump’s authoritarian appeal,” Salon.com. September 29, 2015.
Charlotte M. Canning, “Could Fascism Take Root Here? Ask Sinclair Lewis,” Newsweek.com. April 17, 2016.
It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, 1935. Online at Project Gutenberg Australia.