It Can’t Happen Here: A Novel for Our Times (and All Time)

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by Bob Freville

 

“And I’ve got good news for you! This gospel of clean and aggressive strength is spreading everywhere in this country among the finest type of youth. Why today, in 1936, there’s less than 7 percent of collegiate institutions that do not have military-training units under discipline as rigorous as the Nazis, and where once it was forced upon them by the authorities, now it is the strong young men and women who themselves demand the right to be trained in warlike virtues and skill—for, mark you, the girls, with their instruction in nursing and the manufacture of gas masks and the like, are becoming every whit as zealous as their brothers. And all the really thinking type of professors are right with ’em!”

 

This is one of the hallmark passages from the first chapter of Sinclair Lewis’s classic work of speculative fiction, It Can’t Happen Here. The dense political satire was first published in 1935, but those words might as well be about the panic that attends our nation after every school shooting or public upset.

The reactionary thinking that is discussed above could just as easily be read as a premonition of the move toward an armed high school faculty or the Alt-Right movement on college campuses across America.

When we talk about the great satirists of yesteryear, the word “prescient” gets thrown around ad nauseam. We’ve rightly applied it to figures as diverse as Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and even Ray Bradbury. Unfortunately, it is an appropriate word to describe Lewis’s novel as well.

For the sake of this post, let’s substitute the word “visionary” since that is just as suitable. It Can’t Happen Here is a sort of bitter visionary comedy of errors, one in which the mania of the nation leads to the appointment of a shifty state senator as Commander-in-Chief.

Buzz Windrip is the buffoon that is elected president and his election results in America becoming a fascist dictatorship. If this sounds at all familiar, you can be excused for thinking so. Just as Robert Anton Wilson’s Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy masterfully foresaw the reign of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney nearly thirty years before said reign came to pass, It Can’t Happen Here seems like one man’s panicked prediction of the Trump administration.

The book reads like a survivor’s account of where the world will end up both today and tomorrow. What is truly terrifying is the way in which it seems to chronicle the last several years. Windrip as a villain is equal parts Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

The character starts out as an idealistic liberal, not unlike Barack during his first term, but he quickly morphs into something else under the counsel of those who have his ear. This is one of the most perturbing elements of the novel’s plot—the very obvious notion that a Democratic leader with essentially good intentions or ideas can become a fascist if powerful people persuade or otherwise put the screws to him. This recalls the same seemingly benign totalitarianism we saw from New York Democratic Mayor Di Blasio who wanted to tell residents of the Big Apple what size soft drinks they were allowed to drink.

It also recalls Obama’s renewal of the abominable National Defense Authorization Act which has been used to silence naysayers in the press as much as it has to imprison and torture terror suspects. As much as President Windrip comes to resemble the Orange One later in the book, it is notable that he seems so erudite at the book’s start.

After all, it’s unlikely that you’ll find Trump spewing anything nearly as articulate as “I feel constrained to say here that the most elementary perusal of the Economy of Abundance would convince any intelligent student the the Cassandras who miscall the much-needed increase in the fluidity of our currential circulation ‘Inflation’…” Obama was another story, a smooth talker who ran on a platform of change one could believe in.

But it is Trump’s America that seems most clearly represented in the pages of this landmark novel. Early on, he denounces 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.”

If this doesn’t seem reminiscent of the way that Trump mobilized young Conservatives to vote out of fear of Bernie Sanders’ brand of Socialism and managed to sway Democrats who were afraid of another Bush regime, I don’t know what does.

The heartbeat of the book is Doremus Jessup, a newspaperman who represents the Free Press. A libertarian-leaning Lefty, Jessup favors a good-natured isolationism over the police state thinking of the political opposition. When he writes a scathing editorial about the Windrip administration at the urging of his activist mistress, this “tentative liberal” is thrown in jail.

If this, too, sounds familiar it’s because it’s commensurate to how our current president has repeatedly violated free speech by blocking critics on social media, threatening to eliminate press briefings, and openly  demeaning journalists.

I first read It Can’t Happen Here during then-President George W. Bush’s second term in the White House. At the time, I could draw certain parallels between the commander-in-chief IRL and the fictional Windrip, but they were far less striking than they are this time around.

For starters, Dubya didn’t seem to speak for the filthy rich in quite the same way as Buzz does in the book. While it was a matter of public record that Dubya had enjoyed an Ivy League education where he belonged to the same fraternal order as his father before him, we knew that he resided on an austere ranch when he wasn’t occupying the Oval.

In short, Junior didn’t strike the same kind of nefarious billionaire image that Trump did/does, rather he was our cowboy president who looked and sounded like the working class. This was the leader of the free world in a pair of Levis and some Stetsons.

Windrip fits the Trump mould more acutely than any other US president, promising not just prosperity but obscene wealth to all of his constituents. This is classic Trumpspeak, the kind of stumping where the candidate in question swears that the people will have great jobs and better pay then takes credit for other people’s generosity and job creation once he’s sworn in.

Like Trump, Windrip is described as a teetotaler who doesn’t sleep much. The parallels don’t end there either. As the story progresses, we meet the shadowy cabal of handlers surrounding Windrip, figures like the manipulative Colonel Haik who campaigns for Windrip in odd places like coal mines and fishing fleets, ensuring that the little people get behind his man.

Speaking at “lunatic asylums,” prisons and crossroad churches, Haik rhapsodizes about Windrip’s “gallant but ludicrous efforts to learn to fly.” It’s the kind of aggrandizement typical of the Trump campaign and, indeed, Trump himself.

In the last three years, we have bore witness to the president’s innumerable moments of verbal masturbation, cringing, crying and sometimes laughing in sheer exasperation at the amount of times that one man can tell you how incredible he thinks he is. Trump wouldn’t know a humble brag if it leaped up and fucked his face.

Windrip is equally loquacious; each chapter of the book starts off with an excerpt from one of his speeches. His reasoning in some of these matters is uncannily that of The Donald. For example, he manages to pat himself on the back for being an imbecile thanks to some rather shrewd rationalization.

“When I was a kid,” Windrip says.  “one time I had an old-maid teacher that used to tell me, ‘Buzz, you’re the thickest-headed dunce in school.’ But I noticed that she told me this a whole lot oftener than she used to tell the other kids how smart they were, and I came to be the most talked-about scholar in the whole township. The United States Senate isn’t so different, and I want to thank a lot of stuffed shirts for their remarks about Yours Truly.”

It is interesting to note that Trump was registered as a Democrat for many years and fed the coffers of candidates like the Clintons before turning on them like a feral bitch when running in 2016. In the book, Buzz Windrip runs on the Democratic ticket and he runs against none other than Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

A defiant Roosevelt says something that couldn’t be more true of Trump’s nomination. He asserts that Windrip has been chosen “not by the brains or hearts of genuine Democrats but by their temporarily crazed emotions.”

It’s a sentiment that is echoed elsewhere in Lewis’s novel when newspaper editor Doremus Jessup speaks of the hysteria that leads to fascism. It’s the kind of hysteria we saw back in ‘16 when a relative mob of Bernie supporters were left devastated by his resignation from the race.

It was clear from his post-resignation remarks that Ole Bern had been bought out by Hillary Rodham Clinton who then took her place as the Democratic front-runner. It’s no surprise that a younger generation weaned on internet conspiracy theories and memes were none too pleased to find that their only choice was, as the South Park boys would end up putting it, a Giant Douche and a Turd Sandwich.

Bernie had managed to mobilize millennials who eagerly espoused the idea of a more radical president who would pay for their higher education and get them fair wages at their McJobs. So, what to do in their state of panic? Turn to the only radical candidate left, a man who also promises to raise the minimum wage and swears that he’ll “make America great again.”

As Doremus realizes in the novel, the dismaying preference for the theoretically Democratic Buzz Windrip “wasn’t even a pathetic trust in Windrip’s promises of Utopian bliss for everyone in general. It was a trust in increased cash for the voter himself, and for his family, very much in particular.”

In the book, Doremus excoriates Windrip for his “Minute Men,” a coterie of armed young boys not unlike many of the White Separatists we see showing up at Trump rallies. Doremus is both thrilled and dismayed when he sees these Minute Men in person or, as he puts it, “the printed words made brutal flesh.”

It’s a sentiment that we can all share when we start to feel a little too fanatical about our own opposition. It’s one thing to believe that a leader is a bigoted, misogynistic and deceitful criminal who is backed by other lying bigoted misogynists from fly over states. It’s another to actually seem them turn up in public to confirm for the rest of us their own ignorance and insanity.

Windrip is later revealed to be a racist who’s no fan of the “Jews” and comes out hard against “niggers.” Far from losing points in the polls, this only wins him more proponents. And as if the racist lyrics of “Yankee Doodle” weren’t damning enough already, here it is turned into a campaign song with a young lady singing, “Buzz and Buzz and keep it up/To victory he’s floated/You were a most ungrateful pup/Unless for Buzz you voted.”

Later on, Windrip talks about “speechifying” which further recalls the mangled lexicon of 45, but it’s allusions to the press as being bogus that most readily legitimizes Lewis’s novel as one of timeless satirical appeal. Somehow, perhaps without even trying, its author has prophesied the term “fake news”.

There’s even a nod here to folks like Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Huckabee-Sanders who serve as President Trump’s information machine. In Windrip’s words, “An honest propagandist for any Cause, that is, one who honestly studies and figures out the most effective way of putting over his message, will learn fairly early that it is not fair to ordinary folks—it just confuses them—to try to make them swallow all the true facts that would be suitable to a higher class of people. And one seemingly small but almighty important point he learns, if he does much speechifying, is that you can win over folks to your point of view much better in the evening, when they are tired out from work and not so likely to resist you.”

This goes far towards explaining the popularity of evening Fox News programs and the late night Tweetathons of Herr Drumpf.

There are a lot more comments and sequences in It Can’t Happen Here that seem to mirror the Trump White House, such as a description of Windrip’s second-in-command that evokes an image of Mike Pence at his most pallid and sinister (“deep-buried eyes”) and Windrip insisting that they will take Mexico some day, but what is most alarming is the sense of impending doom.

It is best (or worst) embodied by a demand that “in order to bring and hold the elements in the country together” one must rely on  “that useful Patriotism which always appears upon the threat of an outside attack.” Tea time with North Korea, anyone?

There is much problematic about Lewis’s political nightmare, perhaps especially the way that Windrip’s form of bonkers fascism reaches its inevitable conclusion in an even more humorless form of Draconian law.

In the end, Windrip is replaced by a staunch Atheist who tells the people that they will not be making a fair wage, rather they will “reap the profits of Discipline and of the Scientific Totalitarian State not in mere paper figures but vast dividends of Pride, Patriotism and Power.”

As the chapter clearly states, Windrip and his Vice President didn’t mind mirth or dancing in the street “so long as they could be suitably taxed,” but Windrip’s successor “disliked such things on principle.”

The notion of Trump running for another term and winning is a scary enough thought, but the suggestion that he might be replaced by a leader who will treat the entire nation “like a well-run plantation” is an even more daunting one.

Or, perhaps, we’re already there and the titular “it” has already happened here. The ban on information late in the novel reminds one of Trump’s repeal of the FCC’s Internet privacy rule as well as his clear desire to silence the media.

Obfuscation, misinformation and suppression of facts have become mainstays in our nation’s capital. Hopefully, with any luck, we can endure these things and, eventually, outlive them like Doremus Jessup… because, as the novel says, “a Jessup can never die.”

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