When Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” was published in the mid-1930s the world was in a frightening mess. America was trying to survive the Great Depression. Hitler’s forces were menacing Europe. Where could one turn for relief from economic anxiety and poverty at home and savage repression elsewhere by Storm Troopers?
As Lewis writes in great detail, Americans’ turned to a U.S. senator named Berzelius Windrip from the Vermont town of Fort Beulah, hoisting him to the presidency in 1936. As he had promised, Windrip set out to overturn the political landscape with a radical plan to
make Americans, as he put it, “the greatest race”.
He began by surrounding himself securely with a handful of guys called Minute Men, (private security in Trump World). He laid out a stern 15-point program for the country that as a “Ringmaster revolutionist” guaranteed the newly formed League of Forgotten Men a much better existence. Americans would be “proud and rich” again. After all, Windrip’s supporters were “sick and tired of being dispossessed”. (Reminder: The novel came out in the 1930s!)
Every living soul would receive $4,000 from the Feds. The guardian Minute Men grew into thousands.
Women would be guided back into the kitchen. Blacks would be denied voting rights, holding any public office, practicing law or teaching above the grade of grammar school. Congress would only serve in an advisory role.
Foreign made products? Hear Windrip: “I shall not be content till this country can produce every single thing we need, even coffee, cocoa and rubber, and so keep all our dollars at home”..He loathed the press and called his critics crooks. Soon there were concentration camps for dissenters, who were mercilessly beaten and killed. Private homes were invaded and the contents destroyed. Everyone was suspect.
As fascism was brutally hammered into American soil, the author offers a common theme that it could only do so through the indifference of the people. Doremus Jessup, a small-town editor, couldn’t understand how Windrip, as senator, was already “bewitching large audiences”. The senator was “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected and in his ideas ‘almost idiotic…” as the first signs of a dictatorship were appearing without a challenge while folks were concerned more about communists.
Early in the book a group of friends sat around in Fort Beulah talking about the prospects in their country. One shrugged off any fear of dark consequences, saying: “It might be a good thing to have a strong man in the saddle , but – it can’t happen here.”
To which the Reverend M. Falck replied: “The hell it can’ t.”
Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah anyway!