Fascism and imagination: reading _It Can’t Happen Here_ in 2018

Over the past few weeks I reread Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here.  The book became very popular and discussed before and after Donald Trump’s 2016 election, and, as a literature person, I wanted to see how it might illuminate our time.

_It Can't Happen Here_ coverThis post is a mixture of review and partial analysis.  Naturally it’s full of spoilers.  I’ll start with a summary, some quick observations, then dive into the question of fascism in 1935 and 2018.  Unusually, I won’t have space to discuss the future.

This is also long, so grab a cup of coffee or tea and settle in.

The novel’s plot involves the rise and crisis of a fascist government in the United States, fascist in the literal sense, as Lewis’ tyrant is modeled closely on contemporaries Hitler and Mussolini, and draws much on reporting by his wife, Dorothy Thompson.  This American political disaster is observed then opposed by an aged, small town newspaper editor, Doremus Jessup, along with his family and friends.  The book begins as barbed bucolic satire then races into political nightmare, running from small town characters to concentration camps.

It’s a strange book to read in many ways, especially for its genre.  It reads like a kind of alternate history, with the major break from our timeline being that FDR somehow loses the 1936 Democratic nomination (this isn’t explained well), starts up a new political party (the Jeffersonians) which splits the general election, and just vanishes from the scene (67; Signet Classics edition).  At the time this wasn’t history, but a speculative future, so the book is an example of science fiction in two ways: future history and alternative history. 

At the same time there are many period details which give the alternate history texture and weight, like a good historical novel, which is another genre It Can’t Happen Here feels like.  There are also significant political details in the book, especially its last two thirds, ranging from international relations and political ideology down to the rearrangement of state and local government, which nudges the novel into political novel territory.  Ultimately, and less usefully, I was reminded of that odd offshoot of British fiction, the invasion story of imagined near-future wars and social calamities.  It’s like Ninety Eight-Four without the memory hole.

It Can’t Happen Here is also a comic novel.  Well, not entirely, but it’s  far funnier than I thought it would be.  Lewis enjoys himself immensely with goofy or satiric names: Mrs. Adelaide Tarr Gimmitch, Doc Itchitt, Captain Cowlick, Brigadier General Herbert Y. Edgeways, Bishop Paul Peter Prang, Treasury Secretary Webster Skittle, Senator Porkwood, Effingham Swan, governor John Sullivan Reek, Professor Almeric Trout, and my favorite, Dr. Hector Macgoblin.  “Berzelius Windrip” is a fantastic name for a tyrant, combining deprecation with fierce energy (try saying it out loud). 

Lewis also frequently offers good one-liners, even in the second, darker half of the book:

Malcolm had the insolent self-assurance of beef. (46)
[T]he rumbling Shad [was] a man for whom the chaplain might even have been a little sorry, after he was safely hanged. (133)
[I]n just such salons of unfortunate political escapists as the White Russians, the Red Spaniards, the Blue Bulgarians, and all the other polychromatic insurrectionists frequented in Paris. (174)
Holidays were invented by the devil, to coax people into the heresy that happiness can be won by taking thought. (117)

Poster for Detroit Federal Theatre Project presentation of ''It Can't Happen Here'' by Sinclair Lewis at the Lafayette Theatre, showing a stylized Adolf Hitler carrying a rifle standing behing a map of the United States and a fist in a raised-arm salute.A quiet bit of academic comedy runs throughout the book, as when the fascist government shakes up local government, and a “District Commissioner merely chased the Dartmouth students out and took over the college buildings for his offices, to the considerable approval of Amherst, Williams, and Yale.” (72).

Some of the comedy dates poorly, depending on the audience.  The satires of women now come off as sexist, especially the portrait of Emma Jessup, Doremus’ wife, which is mostly a maternal blank.  Calling Louise May Alcott a man (97) isn’t funny now.  I honestly don’t know Lewis or the 1930s well enough to know if the portrait of Windrip’s aide, Lee Sarason, as a gay man would have been taken for comedy or denigration at the time of publication; either way, it wouldn’t work today. 

(Actually, Lewis follows his German inspiration closely along these lines, with many passages describing the fascists as gay or effimate, and not always comically, as far as I can tell. For example, “[a fascist] trooper, girlish-faced, crimson-lipped, fawn-eyed, throw himself on the fallen cornet and, whimpering, stroke that roustabout’s roast-beef cheeks with shy gardenia-petal fingers.” (49).  I don’t know if today’s reader would view this in terms of the homophobe-who-is-really-gay trope, or just as homophobia.)

And some of the jokes might be too bleak for 2018:

Probably many of them cared nothing about insults to the Corpo state, but had only the unprejudiced, impersonal pleasure in violence natural to most people. (90)
Father Stephen Perefixe, when he read the Fifteen Points, was considerably angrier than Doremus. He snorted, “What? Negroes, Jews, women—they all banned and they leave us Catholics out, this time? Hitler didn’t neglect us. He’s persecuted us. Must be that Charley Coughlin. He’s made us too respectable!” (37)
These were the chaplains-at-heart, who, if there was no war in which they could humbly help to purify and comfort the poor brave boys who were fighting, were glad to help provide such a war. (169)

The comedy fits well in the contemporary tradition of satirizing fascism, from Chaplin’s Great Dictator (1940) to Spike Jones:

Rereading, I’d forgotten that this is very much a Vermont novel.  That state is where most of the action takes place, from the first sentence onward.  Lewis invents the town of Fort Beulah, but it could easily be any number of the state’s small towns.  He has a good sense of just how unseriously people took and take Montpelier.  He knows that Vermont played a key role in the Underground Railroad. And he knows the beauties: “An upland hollow and mist beneath the moon—a veil of mist over apple blossoms and the heavy bloom of an ancient lilac bush beside the ruin of a farmhouse burned these sixty years and more.” (12) One plot device even involves a sap bucket (124).

sap bucket_Jessamyn West

Sap bucket. In Vermont.

It Can’t Happen Here is also a novel about relationships and families.  The Jessup family and friends are the main group of action throughout.  Members and associates pick up different roles, from active anti-fascism to quiet complicity to becoming assassins.   There’s a fascinating subplot about Doremus’ romance with local freethinker Loridna Pike, weirdly encouraged by Ceclia, Doremus’ daughter (63).  I think this was supposed to be a celebration of free love, or a way of showing how political passions spill over into interpersonal connections.  I’m not sure how contemporary readers viewed the abandonment of Emma Jessup, now how it would be read today.  Readers of dystopias will be familiar with the classic trope of the heroic, romantic couple.

What does this have to tell us about the Trump era?

Obviously so much of the book is grounded deeply in its time.  Huey Long and Father Coughlin are repeatedly name checked and clearly inspire characters.  Multiple writers, popular culture figures and politicians appear, like Granville Hicks, Albert Einstein, Herbert Hoover, senator La Follette, admiral Byrd, and Father Divine.  Upton Sinclair appears as an early Windrip supporter (42) and becomes America’s ambassador to the United Kingdom (66). We have to set aside much of this, as historically entertaining as it is, in order to find commonalities.

Readers thinking in terms of racism today will find a much more terrifying resonance in the Windrip administration’s plans, such as this platform plank worth reading in its horrible fullness:

(10) All Negroes shall be prohibited from voting, holding public office, practicing law, medicine, or teaching in any class above the grade of grammar school, and they shall be taxed 100 per cent of all sums in excess of $10,000 per family per year which they may earn or in any other manner receive. In order, however, to give the most sympathetic aid possible to all Negroes who comprehend their proper and valuable place in society, all such colored persons, male or female, as can prove that they have devoted not less than forty-five years to such suitable tasks as domestic service, agricultural labor, and common labor in industries, shall at the age of sixty-five be permitted to appear before a special Board, composed entirely of white persons, and upon proof that while employed they have never been idle except through sickness, they shall be recommended for pensions not to exceed the sum of $500.00 per person per year, nor to exceed $700.00 per family. Negroes shall, by definition, be persons with at least one sixteenth colored blood. (35)

That is a chilling blend of 19th-century American white supremacy with early 20th-century fascism, “scientific” racism and United States eugenics.

Are there other connections between Trump and Windrip in terms of style or personality?  Many passages will probably resonate with today’s readers, like this snarling line: “The [then] Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic” (38).

Windrip portrayed in a Charleston stage play.

We can detect an echo of Trump’s hatred of some of the press in passages like this:

I know the Press only too well. Almost all editors hide away in spider-dens, men without thought of Family or Public Interest or the humble delights of jaunts out-of-doors, plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pocketbooks by calumniating Statesmen who have given their all for the common good and who are vulnerable because they stand out in the fierce Light that beats around the Throne. (21).

There is also an eerie anticipation of how much free campaign time American tv news gave (and continues to give) Trump in this detail of how contemporary journalists covered Windrip’s rise:

The few [people] who did fail [to admire Windrip], most of them newspapermen, disliked the smell of him more than before they had met him. . .. Even they, by the unusual spiritedness and color of their attacks upon him, kept his name alive in every column.  (40; emphasis added). 

In addition the presidents share a background as entertainers and con men, although in different ways.  One bit of Windrip’s background, for example, is classic snake oil, and could well remind us of Trump steaks, Trump University, or Trump’s tv career as a putatively imposing businessman:

In that costume, he looked like a sawed-off museum model of a medicine-show “doctor,” and indeed it was rumored that during one law-school vacation Buzz Windrip had played the banjo and done card tricks and handed down medicine bottles and managed the shell game for no less scientific an expedition than Old Dr. Alagash’s Traveling Laboratory, which specialized in the Choctaw Cancer Cure, the Chinook Consumption Soother, and the Oriental Remedy for Piles and Rheumatism Prepared from a World-old Secret Formula by the Gipsy Princess, Queen Peshawara. (38).

It Can’t Happen Here is very much a novel of the Great Depression, not just because it was written in its very center, chronologically, but because that economic crisis shapes politics.  Playing on economic woe plays a major role in Windrip’s rise, as he hammers home a message of just giving cash to voters (again, we don’t get a sense of how FDR failed on this score, which weakens the novel).  One key detail about economic gloom does sound a note for today’s readers, concerning class mobility: “The Horatio Alger tradition, from rags to Rockefellers, was clean gone out of the America it had dominated. [Now it] seemed faintly silly…” (54). 

The differences, though, are extensive.  I don’t mean “gosh, it’s weird how Hupmobiles aren’t important in 2018”, nor to criticize a work of fiction from nearly a century ago for failing to accurately forecast our time in minute detail. 


A Hupmobile.

I think the differences have to do with the ways fascism isn’t a good descriptive tool for analyzing Trump.

Some of the differences are superficial, starting with Windrip being a Democrat (!), rather than a Republican.  That points more to contemporary overlap between some elements of the left and right, with some politicians learning tactics and policies from their enemies. There are also small but important gaps in style between the two presidents, as seen in this gorgeous passage:

The supreme actor, Buzz Windrip, was passionate yet never grotesquely wild. He did not gesture too extravagantly; only, like Gene Debs of old, he reached out a bony forefinger which seemed to jab into each of them and hook out each heart. It was his mad eyes, big staring tragic eyes, that startled them, and his voice, now thundering, now humbly pleading, that soothed them. He was so obviously an honest and merciful leader; a man of sorrows and acquaint with woe. (51).

Elsewhere Doremus describes Windrip as “a dictator with something of the earthy American sense of humor of a Mark Twain, a George Ade, a Will Rogers, an Artemus Ward” (71). This sounds more like the villain in A Face in the Crowd (1957) and less like the abrasive, unsympathetic, and mostly one-note New Yorker Trump.

The first major difference between Lewis’ imagined fascist and our president president concerns anticommunism.  Lewis’ villains, like many conservatives of his time, were keenly focused on communism as their main enemy.  Repeatedly they and their supporters justify their acts in terms of protecting Americans from Moscow and Bolshevism.  Not only do the fascists accuse people of being communists (and anarchists), but there actually are communists in the story, and they play a significant role in American politics and society.  They organize and act in public in ways that do suit the 1930s, and are sometimes heroic, as when a group fights off brutal Minute Men (49). Indeed, one communist criticizes our protagonist for being a wimpy liberal in ways a 2018 audience might find very accurate:

“But plenty things like this happened before Buzz Windrip ever came in, Doremus,” insisted John Pollikop… “You never thought about them, because they was just routine news, to stick in your paper. Things like the sharecroppers and the Scottsboro boys and the plots of the California wholesalers against the agricultural union and dictatorship in Cuba and the way phony deputies in Kentucky shot striking miners. And believe me, Doremus, the same reactionary crowd that put over those crimes are just the big boys that are chummy with Windrip.” (127)

antifa sticker_WikipediaIn contrast Trump barely notices the left in our post-Soviet world, and communism is at best a rarely evoked phantom.  When Trump supporters attack “the left” they usually mean MSNBC, not any Communist Party organ. Occasionally they talk themselves into a frenzy over a supposed antifa movement, which might now number several hundreds people in a nation of 320 million.  Indeed, during the presidential campaign Trump spend more time fulminating against ISIS, hispanic immigrants, and Chinese trade policies than against communists.  Bernie Sanders, the best known leftist of our time, is not a communist but a democratic socialist who actually sounded more like an FDR Democrat.  The Democratic Socialists of America may be enjoying a growth spurt now, but remain a tiny speck on the political landscape, and haven’t yet become public enemy #1.

(The Resistance to Trump movement is by no means communist.)

A second difference builds on anticommunism, and concerns mass movements.  Windrip rides to power on a popular paramilitary movement, starting as The League of Forgotten Men, a political club akin to Huey Long’s Share the Wealth Club, then reshaped into the Minute Men (47), who go on to become the stormtroopers of his regime and the novel’s main source of villains.  The MMs organize support for Windrip’s campaign, intimidate opponents, mass murder civilians under his orders (69ff), then staff concentration camps (here places of torture and incarceration, rather than extermination; Auschwitz still lay in the future when Lewis wrote).  MMs lacking enthusiasm are terrorized and/or shot (69).  Other agents sabotage would-be opponents and even have one figure forcibly committed to an asylum.  In response there are “strikes and riots all over the country, bloodily put down by the Minute Men” (71), giving Lewis’ America the appearance of a low-grade (but building) civil war. 

The United States has nothing like this now.  If we’re looking for paramilitaries, they are hard to find in the wild and aren’t state-sponsored.  The 1990s militia movement barely exists, never enjoyed federal support under president Bush(2), and lacks such support now.  There isn’t a trace of Minute Men nor any Trumpist political clubs.  Indeed, the Republican party is the only organization behind Trump, and its membership rolls aren’t growing.  Nobody has to join the GOP to get a better job or impress their friends.

Moreover, America is actually at war, and has been so for seventeen years.  In contrast, It Can’t Happen Here occurs at a time of peace, with World War One a fading memory.  As one passage has it, “It was just long enough after the Great War of 1914-18 for the young people who had been born in 1917 to be ready to go to college. . .or to another war, almost any old war that might be handy.” (6-7)  President Windrip has to haul the nation away from peacetime by whipping up martial spirit and warlike hysteria.  The novel’s military exercises and habits eventually become central to culture and the subject of widespread enthusiasm.  In contrast, in our present reality the War on Terror occurs today with barely any media attention, despite its global scope, the large numbers of people involved at home and abroad, and Trump’s desire for a big parade. 


A third difference concerns another enemy of the state.  Of all ethnic and religious prejudices antisemitism looms largest in both the Corpos’ policies and in the minds of many supporters, far larger than bigotry against blacks, hispanics, Asians, or Native Americans.  Charges of being Jewish or of being friendly to Jews pepper the novel, emitted by fascist leaders and everyday people.  One particularly brutal scene sees two Windrip officials brutally assault and murder two Jewish scholars, post facto justifying the act by claiming to have caught the dead men performing “ritual murders” out of nineteenth century antisemitic fever dreams (82ff). Windrip repeatedly inveighs against Jews:

The real trouble with the Jews is that they are cruel. Anybody with a knowledge of history knows how they tortured poor debtors in secret catacombs, all through the Middle Ages. Whereas the Nordic is distinguished by his gentleness and his kind-heartedness to friends, children, dogs, and people of inferior races. (96)

In contrast, the Trump campaign and administration have largely aligned with the modern American right’s love of Israel (which didn’t exist when Lewis wrote his novel).  Yes, there are some rare and possible dog whistles from Trump and several associates, which is appalling, but worlds removed from the frantic and widespread antisemitism essential to the Windrip regime.  Yes, some anti-semitic idiots have been happy to see Trump take office; that’s far, far removed from their actually being in power.  White supremacy statements play against other religions and ethnicities.

The Windrip regime depends on mass propaganda, as befits a period fascist state, and this marks a fourth difference from Trump’s.  The state seizes private newspapers and remakes them: “[I]n Boston or New York… the morning papers had been combined by the government into one sheet, rich in comic strips, in syndicated gossip from Hollywood, and, indeed, lacking only any news.” (103)  The radio waves faithfully carry Windrip’s message.  The Corpos adore a sacred political text supposedly written by their leader, a la Mein Kampf, with the awesome title Zero Hour: Over the Top, excerpts from which open many chapters. 

There is nothing like this today, beyond the occasional journalistic reference to The Art of The Deal (1987).  The one thing the books have in common is being ghost written.  More to the point, Trump owns no propaganda outlet.  Yes, he tweets, and is widely followed by a mixture of supporters, opponents, bots, and those seeking Twitter entertainment.  That feed – one of more than 320 million – is by no means anything like state propaganda, being vastly outnumbered by the rest of Twitter, privately owned, and forced on nobody.  Fox News comes closer to the 1930s ideal, except that it predates Trump’s political career by decades, is held by a private company rather than the state, and maintains its own weird independence.  Arguably CNN does a better job of carrying Trump’s water by virtue of its nonpartisan reputation and mad love for the president, evidenced by their nonstop coverage.  But they usually run anti-Trump stories.  Trump has a long way to go before getting anywhere close to Windrip’s propaganda machine.

A fifth difference concerns actual governing and the implementation of dictatorship. The very ill prepared Trump has struggled to get things done, even with a solid majority in both the Senate and House.  Several of his signature plans have failed to launch: undoing the Affordable Care Act, building the Mexican border wall.  His main achievements have included tighter immigration controls on a handful of countries (barely, and after fighting for a year with his own government) and a big tax cut that’s a classic Republican desideratum. 

In contrast president Windrip dives into action right after his inauguration.  After setting up his Minute Men as a kind of violent and terrorist national police force, he purges Congress and the Supreme Court through arrests and violence.  Windrip abolishes states – not just state governments, but states themselves, in favor of a new political framework (think Airstrip One instead of England) as a “Presidential mandate abruptly end[ed] the separate existence of the different states, and dividing the whole country into eight ‘provinces’”.

The new “Northeastern Province” included all of New York State north of a line through Ossining, and all of New England except a strip of Connecticut shore as far east as New Haven. This was, Doremus admitted, a natural and homogeneous division, and even more natural seemed the urban and industrial “Metropolitan Province,” which included Greater New York, Westchester County up to Ossining, Long Island, the strip of Connecticut dependent on New York City, New Jersey, northern Delaware, and Pennsylvania as far as Reading and Scranton. (72)

Loyalty Day replaces Labor Day (79).  All political parties are abolished except for “one: The American Corporate State and Patriotic Party” (76).  A military/police operation  “arrested every known or faintly suspected criminal in the country. They were tried under court-martial procedure; one in ten was shot immediately, four in ten were given prison sentences…” (101) A New American Education reboots K-12 and higher education by dumbing them down and teaching obedience to the new order (101ff).  Striking workers are massacred (106).  Books are seized and book burnings widespread (107ff).  The American Legion is outlawed, “completely suppressed, and a number of [iots] leaders had been shot. Others had tactfully taken posts in the M.M. itself.” (143)

All of this happens within two years of Windrip’s election.

Obviously that’s a far, far cry from Trump’s record.

Summing up, there are some fascinating echoes between the 1935 novel’s character and today’s commander and chief.  Lewis’ analysis of American culture lays bare certain tendencies and tropes which we still possess.  Yet the Windrip regime occupies a different world in so many different ways.  Anticommunism, a state-led militia movement, propaganda, antisemitism, and above all the rapid implementation of a 1930s-style fascist dictatorship: if that’s a test for fascism, Trump fails, and fails badly.  One way of reading would be to dub Trump an incompetent fascist.  I don’t think so.  Instead, he’s something else, but Lewis’ novel does give us a partial start in figuring out what that is.

There are other ways of thinking about the Trump administration in terms of fascism.  Nearly a century’s worth of writing and analysis offers many different ways to approach the question, from Umberto Ecco’s weirdly useless checklist to Antonio Gramsci’s diagnosis from the belly of the beast.  If I have time, and if readers are interested, I’ll tackle some of them.

(sap bucket photo by Jessamyn West; Windrip from the Charleston City Paper; “Make America Fascist Again” from the Clyde Fitch Report; all other images from Wikipedia; many thanks to my wife for putting up with me reading out loud from the novel)

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8 Responses to Fascism and imagination: reading _It Can’t Happen Here_ in 2018

  1. Ellen Moody says:

    I may misunderstand as I’ve not read the book, but the paramilitaries sound to me like the armed militias around the US: white supremacist groups, which Trump does threaten to use as rioters. I also think that because Trump does not aim himself at communism does not mean he is not prepared to at a moment’s notice. He used the word for Sanders. I grant that Trump’s way of destroying our democratic gov’t is not pro-active: he’s not taking over other state gov’ts, abolishing elected bodies. Instead he is simply letting the gov’t agencies rot by not filling positions or filling them with people hostile to the very mission of the agency. He and the Republican party are also transforming the agencies and our processes (like elections, the courts) by a whole group of techniques which undermine and make them hollow. I would not take comfort in the differences between what Lewis imagines and the realities today. We don’t have concentration and exterminationn camps but this is a country where black people can be casually murdered and no one arrested in a world of mass incarceration where they are disenfranchised, enslaved, thrown into solitary confinement.

    Thank you for the detailed description. I used to read Sinclair Lewis when I was much much younger: his Arrowsmith, Dodsworth, Babbitt, Main Street are all spot on analyses of aspects of American culture. I think of Elmer Gantry since Trump was elected.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      You’re welcome, Ellen. I confess that I haven’t read far into his other novels, and am now eager to.

      Trump and militias: nothing happened. Ditto with other groups.
      Sanders: yes, Trump and others (including some Dems) called him a Communist, which is (to pick a Trump word) sad… but that was a *tiny* bit of the election discourse, whereas it’s central to the one in Lewis’ novel.
      Trump’s office-filling: see, this is the Grover Norquist school of thought, of hobbling the government, whereas the fascists (both in this novel and in history) wanted to drastically strengthen it.

      I think these are problems, but I don’t think “fascism” is the right descriptor.

  2. Sinclair Lewis’s The Goose-Step might be another to revisit.

  3. Pingback: Can it happen? | raptnrent.me

  4. Susan A. Kenen says:

    What I find particularly interesting is that although the book is “anti-fascist,” and Lewis was an avowed socialist, I know of at least one man who was sent to a gulag, and who died there, in the USSR, for reading this book. His sister took the library card to the authorities, saying “see! This book is permitted -it’s a library book!” To which the authorities said “that book is okay for some people to read, but not your brother.” How’s that for irony?

    We knew the family because they moved to Russia during the Depression, thinking it would be the promised land. They were Finns, as was my father’s side of the family. The man who died was my father’s childhood friend in NJ. A really fun family story. My father never forgot his friend till the day he died.

    His sister came to visit us in 1981. An avowed communist, she bragged about her maid having to ask for a day off to get married. Somehow, that didn’t sound like an egalitarian society to me.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Ah. Depending on the tides of Soviet politics, this could be seen as too critical of state power – indeed, showing how to dismantle one!

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