Certain though Doremus had been of Windrip’s election, the event was like the long-dreaded passing of a friend. “All right. Hell with this country, if it’s like that.”—Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here
The title begs the question: what is the “It” that can’t happen here? The free, democratic election of a fascist (lowercase F, even though any difference in degree or style of fascism is truly no difference at all)? Or any movement to resist it after it takes power?
Sinclair Lewis gives one succinct answer at the end of the second chapter of his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here: “The hell it can’t.” In the chapter, several of the leading lights of life in fictional Fort Beulah, Vermont, are conversing and considering the campaign promises of U.S. Senator Buzz Windrip, who is considering a run for the Democratic Party nomination against President Franklin Roosevelt.
A banker asks the local newspaper editor, Doremus Jessup, “Why are you so afraid of the word, ‘Fascism,’ Doremus? Just a word—just a word! And might not be so bad, with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours—not so worse to have a real Strong Man … really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again.” (Here in 2016 America, that phrase “Just words,” came up in the presidential campaign recently. When I saw this passage in Lewis’s work of science fiction, his dystopian fantasy of a future America, I put the novel down for the night. I could not sleep. It was too strangely close.)
A businessman (who becomes a future officer in the fascist American government after the 1936 election) agrees that a strong leader is what America needs but adds, “It just can’t happen here in America.” His statement is one of rueful resignation that America lacks something that the Germany of that era and Italy do not lack. He wishes it could happen here:
‘It just can’t happen here in America.’
And it seemed to Doremus that the softly moving lips of the Reverend Mr. Falck were framing, ‘The hell it can’t!’
Senator Windrip takes the nomination from Roosevelt and campaigns on a fifteen-point program that promises to nationalize finance, pay each household $5000 per year, make everyone “swear allegiance to the New Testament,” build up the military, take the vote away from black people (but pay them $700 per family per year), and double all bonus pay for veterans. He wins.
The one point out of fifteen that most voters notice and demand to be fulfilled is the $5000-per-year income guarantee. Most voters are described as interpreting Windrip’s more outrageous promises (anti-black, antisemitic, taking women out of the work force and returning them by law to family life) as just that: promises. Ideals. Not anything that can be brought to pass. Promises made to attract the votes of certain parts of the population but certainly nothing anyone can expect to have happen:
And it was Buzz’s master stroke that, as warmly as he advocated everyone’s getting rich by just voting to be rich, he denounced all “Fascism” and “Naziism” so that most of the Republicans who were afraid of Democratic Fascism, and all the Democrats who were afraid of Republican Fascism, were ready to vote for him.
Upon inauguration, the Windrip presidency combines the rhetoric of Hitler’s Nazi Germany with what was known to be happening in Stalin’s Soviet Union: purges, secret police, internal exile for undesirables. For a reader in 2016, the surprise comes when the term “concentration camps” appears, as the camps themselves had not started to be built in Germany, the nation associated with that blankly odious term.
Lewis, social satirist of the small American city, captures exactly what can go wrong in a tyranny in which certain parties are favored and others are to be betrayed in order to curry favor: one’s neighbors will position themselves as secret police, and one protects oneself by doing the same back.
Most of the country’s citizenry—the white portion, the already wealthy, those who would benefit from Windrip’s promises to take from the scroungers and reward the earners—most of them do not notice the nation’s turn to fascism. Jessup’s son becomes a judge in the new system: “They’ve revitalized the whole country! Before Windrip, we’d been lying down in America, while Europe was throwing off all her bonds.” (I thought of the recent “Brexit” vote in the United Kingdom.) He goes on, “Threw off all her bonds—both monarchy and this antiquated parliamentary-democratic-liberal system that really means rule by professional politicians and by egotistic ‘intellectuals.'”
That last sentence could have been spoken this year by one of the two major party candidates for U.S. President, Donald Trump, or his followers, many of whom are my neighbors, so I have been hearing these arguments daily for the last year. We must shake the system up, I am told by friends on my right and on my left.
Sinclair Lewis depicts the left’s attitude about Donald J. Trump/Buzz Windrip. A Communist of his acquaintance tells him: “Plenty of things like this happened before Buzz Windrip ever came in, Doremus. You never thought about them, because they was just routine news, to stick in your paper. Things like the sharecroppers and the Sctsboro boys and the plots of the California wholesalers against the agricultural union and dictatorship in Cuba and the way phone deputies in Kentucky shot striking miners. And believe me, the same reactionary crowd that put over these crimes are just the big boys that are chummy with Windrip. And what scares me is that if [the leader of the resistance against Windrip] ever does raise a kinda uprising and kick Buzz out, the same vultures will get awful patriotic and democratic and parliamentarian along with us and sit on the spoils just the same.”
My friends on the left tell me there is no difference between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump. President Obama is a war criminal as surely as President Bush was before him, I am told. The prospect of Mrs. Clinton continuing Obama’s foreign policies is the prospect of evil simply following evil.
One candidate, Mr. Trump, has campaigned in favor of committing war crimes. Am I to honor his brutal honesty with my vote? Am I to consider Mrs. Clinton’s rhetoric against war crimes to be insufficient and mealy-mouthed and thus vote against her?
Others far smarter than I am have noted the similarities between Sinclair Lewis’s novel, his character’s fictional fascist campaign, and this year’s Republican nominee and this year’s campaign. A California theater group mounted a production of a play based on Lewis’s book and made plain in the staging that the reason for the production is this year’s campaign.
I wanted to vote this morning with my intentions purely for, in favor of, the individual for whom I wanted to vote. I did not want to vote against. I do not like voting against. I was proud to stand with my girlfriend as she cast her first vote for a woman for President of the U.S.; my mother and sister get to do so today, too. Both of my grandmothers were born in a pre-Nineteenth Amendment America, a world in which they would not have been able to vote simply because they were women.
My girlfriend left the polling place “exhilarated.” That was her word.
One candidate has espoused fascist ambitions and, whether or not he personally is racist or hates women or is an anti-Semite, has used racist, anti-women, and antisemitic tropes from the day he started to campaign for president till today. If one is willing to use the rhetoric, perhaps one is willing to put muscle behind it. To draw that logic out to another conclusion, if Mrs. Clinton is willing to use anti-war-crimes rhetoric, mealy-mouthed or otherwise, perhaps she will put some muscle behind it. I would rather gamble on that prospect for the next four years than not.
The great stand-up comedian Barry Crimmins wrote a long, important post on Facebook yesterday. From the start, he points out (with a lot of swearing) that he is against Mr. Trump: “I despise the man for all the same reasons so many others do. He is a rage-filled, hate and fear monger. He’s a buffoon and a blowhard. He is flat-out dangerous. Trump’s easily the most corrupt person in this campaign. He is a liar and a coward and he has played to our national self-loathing. People who despise themselves love this piece of shit.”
Those last two sentences describe the world of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here bluntly enough for me. Crimmins points out that he was a supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders and had not, was not, endorsing Hillary Clinton. He refers to her at one point as the “corporately compromised Clinton.”
Crimmins is a survivor of child sex abuse, child rape to put it plainly. Trump’s actions and rhetoric over the last two months finally pushed Crimmins to write. Trump “denigrated women and then implied every man who has ever played sports speaks of them in the same grotesque terms he does. This insulted men and really insulted women. And I was pissed.” Crimmins continues:
Then my phone started to ring. My email box started filling, my texts and other forms of messaging started beeping like crazy because I started hearing from abuse and rape survivors who had ancient and awful software rebooted in them each time some asshole put Trump’s victims on trial. The first and biggest asshole was Trump, who claimed to have never done what he said he did—on hot microphones—on several occasions.
They were upset to hear even those supposedly on their side say we needed to get back to more important issues than this unsavory stuff Trump’s sexual criminality had raised. Well what the fuck is more important than the safety of women, children, and yes, men, from sexual assault and harassment? Who can legitimately claim they care about homeland security when they want to change the subject from a presidential candidate whose illiterate and insulting defense against charges he brought upon himself, openly belittled and mocked his victims? What is more important than that?
Barry Crimmins’s words helped me get to a place in which I voted for Mrs. Clinton this morning.
I understand that my country has bloody hands because we are inside conflicts that we ought not be involved in and some we helped spark. I understand all that. She is not the candidate of changing these things. I wish she was.
Her opponent is a candidate of change: his is the campaign in support of bullies. Pro-tyranny. He is openly campaigning for more bloodshed around the world and less respect for: black people, brown people, women, non Christians, disabled people, even writers and journalists.
As Sinclair Lewis’s novel draws to a conclusion, Doremus Jessup joins the underground. He is imprisoned, beaten, whipped like Raif Badawi, escapes to Canada. (Along with Herbert Hoover and other notables.) A revolution erupts in America. He returns home to fight on. The novel ends with one of his co-revolutionaries warning him that the fascists have spotted him and he has to move on.
Lewis ends the novel:
So Doremus rode out, saluted by the meadow larks, and onward all day, to a hidden cabin in the Northern Woods where quiet men awaited news of freedom.
And still Doremus goes on in the red sunrise, for a Doremus Jessup can never die.
And still Barry Crimmins goes on in the red sunrise, for a Barry Crimmins can never die.
I aspire to be a Doremus Jessup, a Raif Badawi. I hope that my vote today was joined by millions of others who agree that it may not be necessary for me to look for the front lines just yet. I am grateful to Barry Crimmins for his clarifying words yesterday, and I am also grateful to Donald Trump for his ugly yet clarifying campaign this year: it awakened a useful rage in me, a rage against the bullies who try to sell us our own fears, try to convince us to be their henchmen, try to convince us that we need to bully others so the bullies can have what they want, and try to make us think that it is what we want, what we always needed.
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