It Can’t Happen Here

Author: Sinclair Lewis

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1935

I read it: January 2017


The national and international moods must have been similar leading up to the 1936 and 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Sinclair Lewis wrote his book as a cautionary tale about the possibility of an American dictatorship, and had I read it a couple years ago I probably would have agreed with the sentiment in the title. (“Country’s too big for a revolution. No, no! Couldn’t happen here!”)

Instead, I read it between the election and the inauguration, a strange and disconcerting time in the country that paralleled the plot of the first third of the book. I was underlining things every other page. Much of it had happened here. The story illustrates the rise of Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip to gain a populist foothold on the national stage. The comparisons to Donald Trump came in a torrent.

There are the visions of a campaign season:

[Other candidates] were far too lacking in circus tinsel and general clownishness to succeed at this critical hour of the nations’ hysteria, when the electorate wanted a ring-master-revolutionist like Senator Windrip.

[The opposition] represented integrity and reason, in a year when the electorate hungered for frisky emotions … and all the primitive sensations which they thought they found in the screaming of Buzz Windrip.

The man himself:

The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic.

In between tricks [he] would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts—figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.

The single superficial reason behind his popularity:

He advocated everyone’s getting rich by just voting to be rich.

The appeal to racism:

Nothing so elevates a dispossessed farmer or a factory worker on relief as to have some race, any race, on which he can look down.

The crisis of a decaying media:

Even [detractors], by the unusual spiritedness and color of their attacks upon him, kept his name alive in every column.

It was maddening that it seemed impossible now to know anything surely.

The general confusion of pinpointing causes and predicting outcomes:

“I’ve got to keep remembering that Windrip is only the lightest cork in the whirlpool. He didn’t plot all this thing.”

No, Buzz isn’t important—it’s the sickness that made us throw him up that we’ve got to attend to.

And the antics of a child behind a megaphone with the non-stop Twitter pettiness:

“Windrip began, even before his inauguration, to dictate to the country.”

“A President-Elect has unhallowed power, if he so wishes.”

So here we are, a couple days away from the reality. My underlining dropped off a bit when the story covered the post-election debacle and slide into dictatorial horror that swept across a scared country. The novel rivals 1984 in its vision, and surpasses that book by being somehow funny, incredibly insightful, fully American, and much more tangible.

The parallels to Trump aren’t iron-clad across the board: Buzz Windrip is molded by a much smarter puppetmaster, a more classical war fervor is in the air, and newspapers are the relevant medium of the day. All told, the speculative presidential administration in the book is a combination of the worst parts of the Trump and Bush II eras. If that scares you, just remember, it can’t happen here.

Except for when it does.

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