The Magazine

'It Can't Happen Here'

Hope springs eternal for prophets of fascism.

Aug 14, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 45 • By FRED SIEGEL
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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.