'It Can't Happen Here'
Hope springs eternal for prophets of fascism.
Aug 14, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 45 • By FRED SIEGEL
The publication of It Can't Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis's Depression-era novel of how homespun fascists took over America, was greeted with extraordinary praise. The New Yorker described it as "one of the most important books ever produced in this country . . . It is so crucial, so passionate, so honest, so vital that only dogmatists, schismatics, and reactionaries will care to pick flaws in it." Published in 1935, when the American population was but 127 million, the book quickly sold 320,000 copies. A theatrical version staged by the Federal Theater project was similarly successful. Opening just prior to the 1936 presidential election, the production ran in 18 cities drawing 379,000 in just four months.
Reissued periodically, It Can't Happen Here became part of every young intellectual's required reading and a national byword that persists to the present day. Readers of Philip Roth's recent The Plot Against America, a fable of sorts, in which Charles Lindbergh leads a fascist takeover of the United States in 1940, will be struck by the echoes of It Can't Happen Here. When New American Library recently brought out a new printing of It Can't Happen Here, columnists, bloggers, and pundits such as Paul Krugman and Anthony Lewis drew on the book's authority to warn against what they saw as the current slow motion right-wing takeover of the United States by another down-home strongman, George W. Bush. For today's alarmists, as for Clifton Fadiman in the New Yorker, the book, its implausible plot notwithstanding, is unchallengeable revelation.
But it didn't happen here, and the book's scenario, like that of Roth's Plot Against America, bore what was, at best, a tortured relationship to events at the time. The Nazi seizure of power in Germany, which had been reported extensively by Lewis's wife, Dorothy Thompson, set off fears of fascism in the United States. Marxists touting the Leninist line about how fascism was the last stage of capitalism saw a Big Business coup as imminent. But they were hardly alone. Prominent independent leftists such as Robert and Helen Lynd and Alfred Bingham thought that greedy capitalists drawing on the dark psyche of small-town America would seize power in the name of protecting the United States from alien influence. What Lewis provided was a scenario (then and now) for the hysteria.
The premise of the novel, written before Huey Long was assassinated, was that the charismatic Louisiana populist and Father Coughlin, the anti-Semitic radio priest, and other assorted demagogues, would combine to win the 1936 election for the Union party. The creaky plot says little about Franklin Roosevelt, who's given but a cameo role in the novel. FDR is brushed aside quickly as a man "far too lacking in circus tinsel and general clownishness to succeed at this critical hour . . . when the electorate wanted a ringmaster-revolutionary."
Senator Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, who, with his amalgam of a Finnish name and southern populist style, is meant to be a national version of Huey Long, wins the White House, and then proceeds to seize power. Part of what makes the scenario implausible is that Long and Coughlin were influential only as long as the public saw them as working with Roosevelt. When they opposed him, their popularity plummeted. Congressman William Lemke, a Midwest isolationist backed by Coughlin and Long's anti-Semitic aide, Gerald L.K. Smith, ran for president in 1936 and drew only 2 percent of the vote, which was barely noticed in the Roosevelt landslide over Republican Alfred Landon.
I hadn't read It Can't Happen Here since I was a teenager. Its mix of seriousness and satire doesn't wear well. The Nobel Prize-winning Lewis himself mocked the plaudits (for what he knew was a poorly written book) as politically motivated. "Boys, I love you all," he told a left-wing audience that was honoring him for It Can't Happen Here, "and a writer loves to have his latest book praised. But let me tell you, it isn't a very good book." He was right.
The characters, other than Lewis's alter ego, Vermont newspaper editor Doremus Jessup, are merely contrivances of the plot. Windrip, as his semi-satirical name implies, is a stage villain. He seems to be modeled, in part, on Elmer Gantry, the bogus/charismatic preacher in Lewis's earlier novel of the same name. But he's a far less compelling figure. There's some drama as the novel approaches Windrip's takeover, but then Lewis seems to lose interest and the plot plays out in near-rote fashion as Windrip establishes a Mussolini-style corporate state, only to be brought down by a heroic underground.
The feisty Jessup is an engaging character, a staunch Jeffersonian liberal. He has no use for overmighty corporations and he "doesn't like murder as a means of argument." Skeptical about the nostrums of both left and right, he has little good to say about American Communists who had made Russia their "holy land." In one of the book's many set pieces, Jessup exclaims: "There is no Solution, there will always be envy and inefficiency. . . . All the utopias--Brook Farm, Robert Owen's sanctuary of chatter, Upton Sinclair's Helicon Hall--and their regulation end in scandal, feuds, poverty, griminess, disillusion."
Doremus Jessup has been forgotten, but the novel, or at least the conceit that inspired it, endures because its lasting appeal lies elsewhere.
The success of It Can't Happen Here is based on an intellectual and imaginative failure. Lewis, who was never much interested in politics, doesn't take the trouble to think through what an American fascism would be like. He simply asserts that when it comes, as it must, it will be cloaked in the flag and patriotism while assuming the form of Mussolini's corporate state, serving the interests of the fat cats pulling the strings behind the scenes. He makes some passing remarks about big businessmen as "pirates," but does little with this. He never establishes a plausible nexus between the failings of small-minded small-towners and the gigantic tentacles of Windrip's centralized police state.
The heart of the novel is laid out in the opening chapter, which tries to present the local Rotary Club--with its Veterans of Foreign Wars tub-thumping patriotism and prohibitionist moralism--as comparable, on a small scale, to the mass movements that brought fascism to Europe. He has a character explain, half-satirically, half-seriously, that "Rotary is Revolution." In other words, Lewis's imagined fascism is little more than Main Street or Babbitt, the novels that made him famous by depicting the failings of the Midwestern middle class, writ large.
When he wants to mock Windrip, he describes him as a "professional common man" who was "chummy with all waitresses at . . . lunch rooms." Fascism, for Lewis, is the product of back-slapping Rotarians, Elks, and Masons, as well as various and sundry other versions of joiners that Tocqueville had once celebrated as the basis of American self-government.
There is more than a hint of snobbery in all this. The book's local incarnation of evil is Jessup's shiftless, resentful handyman Shad Ledue, who was a member of the "Odd Fellows and the Ancient and Independent Order of Rams." Ledue uses Windrip's ascent to rise above himself and displace Jessup from his rightful place in the local hierarchy of power.
If the book were merely an indictment of Red State nativist intolerance, there would be little to distinguish it from numerous other novels and plays of the 1920s that were part of "the revolt against the village." Lewis was hardly the only writer of the period to, H.L. Mencken-like, describe the average American as a "boob" or "peasant" who believed the Allied propaganda of World War I and was convinced by Windrip that you could raise all salaries and lower all prices at the same time.
What makes It Can't Happen Here so appalling is that Lewis sees not merely garden variety malevolence in the heartland, but the basis of the radical evil we associate with the concentration camps of Europe. This feeds the worst conceits of today's bicoastal leftists, who see themselves fighting off the angry hordes who, led by Bill O'Reilly and Karl Rove, are plotting to end our freedoms.
There is a strong affinity between Lewis and many of today's leftists. He and his intellectual generation were so scarred by the "patriotic" excesses of the Great War, so provincial in their own right, that it wasn't until the very eve of World War II that they began to grasp the nature of what was happening in Germany. Similarly, today's MoveOn.org-ers are still living in the shadow of Vietnam and its disillusionment. Like Sinclair Lewis, their parochial idea of evil is homegrown; they hate George W. Bush more than they hate Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden.
The shame of it is that, 70 years after Fadiman wrote his doting review, a part of the American political class still imagines "it" is happening here. It still thinks in Fadiman's words that It Can't Happen Here "is so crucial, so passionate, so honest, so vital that only dogmatists, schismatics, and reactionaries will care to pick flaws in it."
Fred Siegel is at work on a book about the course of American liberalism.