A demagogue becomes president of the United States by exploiting fear politics and promising to return the country to greatness!
No, not the President-elect. Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, who becomes President after running a populist-fueled campaign in It Can’t Happen Here, a 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis. After Windrip, a Democratic Senator from a Western state, takes office he proceeds to take over the government. He cancels Congress, takes control of the Supreme Court, and purges power from the states, establishing a fascist regime over which he has absolute power.
Lewis’ model for Windrip was Louisiana Senator Huey Long (1893-1935), who had also been Governor of the Pelican State and ruled it like a czar. But Mussolini and Hitler’s rise to power was what motivated Lewis to write the book. His wife, Dorothy Thompson, foreign correspondent for the New York Evening Post, interviewed Hitler in 1931 and wrote a book about it, I Saw Hitler.
Evidently, the hero of It Can’t Happen Here is a a small-town newspaper owner named Doremus Jessup, whose opposition to Windrip lands him in a concentration camp. I say evidently because I have not read the book.
However, many people are reading it right now. Suddenly there’s been a proliferation of articles on the internet calling it “the novel that predicted the rise of Donald Trump,” and since the election, It Can’t Happen Here “has sold out on some major online book retailers, including Amazon and Books-a-Million.”
Years ago I did try to read Lewis’ earlier novel The Jungle (1906) but as I recall his description of the deplorable working conditions in the meat-packing industry was more than I could stomach. Readers at the time were shocked, nonetheless the novel became a best seller and its popularity helped President Theodore Roosevelt (who disliked Lewis) push through the Meat Inspection Act of 1906.
Sinclair Lewis was a muckraker. That sounds derogatory but a muckrakers are people who expose misconduct in politics and public life. So, being a muckraker can be a good thing. Lewis’ 1922 satire of American culture and society, Babbit, was the work that was largely responsible for Lewis becoming the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature 1930. Before he died of alcoholism in 1951 at age 65, he authored a a few other once well-known books, including Main Street, Elmer Gantry, Arrowsmith and Dodsworth.
Well, it did happen here, or maybe we should say it might be happening here. And not just America. Fareed Zakaria in an article at Foreign Affairs writes that “Right-wing populist parties, on the other hand, are experiencing a new and striking rise in country after country across Europe.” This new populism is different from the traditional brand associated with left-wing politics. The trumpets of nationalism are beginning to blare, too. I don’t know if it will lead to fascism taking root around the world or no. I have a feeling, though, that whatever it leads to in America the next four years is not going to be much fun.
I put It Can’t Happen Here on my TBR list. It’s already pretty long. And it’s not only the list, there’s the pile . . .
Here is a short passage from the book I found online. The subject is Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip:
The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.
Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.”