Can It Can’t Happen Here happen here?
In 1935, It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, was published. Lewis tells the story of how a populist demagogue with strong authoritarian leanings becomes president and eventually a dictator. Some parallels to this year’s presidential election campaign are striking.
Written as fascism was taking hold of Germany and Italy, the novel served as a warning that democracy is secure only to the degree that the people we elect respect the safeguards in the Constitution. Many scholars speculate that Lewis modeled Senator Berzelius Windrip after Senator Huey Long of Louisiana, who many thought would run as a third-party candidate on a “Share Our Wealth” platform prior to his assassination in September 1935.
The story begins in 1936. While a degree of recovery from the Great Depression has occurred under the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, many people are still out of work, living day-to-day, fearful of a hostile global picture and wanting someone who can articulate the frustration of the average American.
This discontent convinces Senator Windrip to challenge FDR for the Democratic nomination. Windrip clearly voices the frustration of many people in a homey voice-of–the-people manner, promising to restore this country’s greatness via “Americanism.” He promises to build the military, restore law and order, block corporations (and labor unions) from actions that harm the American worker and generally redistribute the wealth of the country so all will benefit.
There is a dark underside to Windrip’s promises as he targets unpopular groups for scapegoating. He wants to keep Negroes as a permanent underclass, is against feminism and is tolerant of Jews (as long as they pledge allegiance to the New Testament). Communists, socialists, anarchists, atheists and agnostics are targeted for persecution. Protesters are met with violence. The press is called biased because it does not report facts the way Windrip sees them.
Many dismiss Windrip’s candidacy because he is seen as a buffoon and thus they fail to take his candidacy seriously. We learn that this image was actively cultivated by Windrip and his operatives to make his authoritarian ideas seem less threatening. His candidacy is lent an air of legitimacy by the endorsement of mainstream politicians who hope to benefit if Windrip is elected.
Once elected, Windrip and an independent Congress quickly tangle. Windrip issues the mother of all illegal military orders: Congress and the Supreme Court are to be placed under arrest. Sympathizers who are members of an organization called the Minute Men follow those orders. While no wall is built on the borders, the borders are secured, not because immigrants want to get in, but to keep a stunned American public (and their assets) from getting out. Law and order is restored via military courts with no right of appeal. The story goes on from there.
Lewis makes it clear that Windrip’s rise is made possible by a comfortable electorate that sees its role as voting but not actively working through legal means to oppose those whose words do not reflect the principles of our constitutional democracy. He also makes it clear that once an authoritarian government takes hold, there may not be another free election to reverse it.
In this most unusual election season, It Can’t Happen Here is as pertinent today as it was in 1935 and should be on everyone’s summer reading list.
Steve Soltys is a retired Springfield physician who is still active as an emeritus professor doing volunteer teaching at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.