copyright the Chronicle March 23, 2016
by Chris Braithwaite
If you’ve been as gob smacked as I have by The Donald phenomenon, I have a recommendation: Find a copy of It Can’t Happen Here and give it a read.
It’s the most relevant commentary I’ve encountered on this crazy election year. Surprisingly, it is set in Vermont. More surprisingly, the novel will celebrate its eighty-first birthday in October.
Sinclair Lewis holed up in his second home in Barnard, Vermont, in May of 1935 and in four months wrote and revised his cautionary tale about the coming of fascism to America.
The book is set in 1936 when, in reality, the incumbent president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, would claim the Democratic nomination and go on to win his second of four terms. But that’s not how things work out in Lewis’ version.
In both worlds, the country is still deep in the great Depression and FDR’s controversial new policies have yet to make much of a dent. There are other political models to choose from, and a substantial number of Americans see some promise in Germany and Italy, where Hitler and Mussolini have replaced the uncertainties of democracy with something more robust.
Thus, in the novel’s opening scene, retired General Herbert Y. Edgeways tells his audience on Ladies’ Night at the Fort Beulah Rotary Club that “I don’t altogether admire everything Germany and Italy have done, but you’ve got to hand it to ’em, they’ve been honest enough and realistic enough to say to the other nations, ‘Just tend to your own business, will you? We’ve got strength and will, and for whomever has those divine qualities it’s not only a right, it’s a duty, to use ’em!’”
(There’s a bit of irony in the setting. In 1929 Lewis introduced himself to the Rutland Rotary Club as “a native Vermonter of about 12 months’ standing.”)
In Lewis’ version of events, FDR is challenged for the Democratic Party’s nomination by Senator Berzelius (Buzz) Windrip.
He is “a tireless traveler, a boisterous and humorous speaker, an inspired guesser at what political doctrines the people would like, a warm handshaker, and willing to lend money.”
At the Democratic Convention, after endless balloting to break a deadlock, Windrip heads for his hotel room, leaving behind a letter for the delegates:
Summarized, the letter explained that he was all against the banks but all for the bankers — except the Jewish bankers, who were to be driven out of finance entirely; that he had thoroughly tested (but unspecified) plans to make all wages very high and the prices of everything produced by these same highly paid workers very low; that he was 100 per cent for labor but 100 per cent against all strikes; and that he was in favor of the United States so arming itself, so preparing to produce its own coffee, sugar, perfumes, tweeds, and nickel instead of importing them, that it could defy the World…and maybe, if that World was so impertinent as to defy America in turn, Buzz hinted, he might have to take it over and run it properly.
The letter does the trick, and Windrip wins the nomination.
The novel’s hero, Doremus Jessup, is puzzled by Buzz Windrip’s obvious appeal to the voters — and a little frightened.
“Wait till Buzz takes charge of us,” he warns when the men gather over drinks after the Rotary meeting. “A real Fascist dictatorship!”
“Nonsense!” says the town’s leading businessman. “That couldn’t happen here in America, not possibly! We’re a country of freemen.”
“The hell it can’t!” Doremus replies. “Why, there’s no country in the world that can get more hysterical — yes, or more obsequious — than America…. Remember the Ku Klux Klan? Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut ‘Liberty cabbage’ and somebody actually proposed calling the German measles ‘Liberty measles’? And wartime censorship of honest papers? Bad as Russia!…. Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution?…. Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours!”
My own fondness for It Can’t Happen Here may have something to do with the fact that its hero, known only to his wife as “Doormouse,” is a newspaper publisher.
To his readers, he is known as “a pretty smart fella but kind of a cynic.”
Doremus Jessup sees himself as a pretty ordinary American:
…far from being a left-wing radical, he was at most a mild, rather indolent and somewhat sentimental Liberal, who disliked pomposity, the heavy humor of public men, and the itch for notoriety which made popular preachers and eloquent educators and amateur play-producers and rich lady reformers and rich lady sportswomen and almost every brand of rich lady come preeningly in to see newspaper editors, with photographs under their arms, and on their faces the simper of fake humility.
Buzz Windrip has a knack for steering clear of the platitudes of most politicians. In his own words, “I try to make my speech as simple and direct as those of the Child Jesus talking to the Doctors at the temple.”
Still, Doremus “could not explain his power of bewitching large audiences. 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.”
Windrip openly despised the press, “plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pocketbooks….”
The press returned the sentiment, but could do Windrip no real harm: “Even they, by the unusual spiritedness and color of their attacks upon him, kept his name alive in every column.”
The men who held sway in the Democratic Party, unwilling to see it taken over by this buffoon, created the Jeffersonian Party and rallied behind Roosevelt as a third-party candidate.
Unhappily, “the conspicuous fault of the Jeffersonian Party…was that it represented integrity and reason, in a year when the electorate hungered for frisky emotions.”
Buzz Windrip organizes a rag-tag collection of unemployed men into a uniformed corps of supporters called the Minute Men. He dresses his MM in white shirts to steer clear of any comparison with Hitler’s feared SA, the Brown Shirts.
As the General Election approaches, Doremus travels to New York City to report on a Buzz Windrip rally at Madison Square Gardens. The tickets have all been sold, and sold again by scalpers. The crowd outside the Gardens is huge and uneasy.
“An old man, shabbily neat, stood blocking them and yelled, ‘To hell with Buzz! Three cheers for F.D.R.! The M.M.s burst into hoodlum wrath. The cornet in command, a bruiser uglier even than Shad Ledue, hit the old man on the jaw, and he sloped down, sickeningly.”
Shad Ledue is the handyman Doremus hires to help out around the house in Fort Beulah, “large and red-faced, a sulky and surly Irish-Canuck peasant…. He was entirely incompetent and vicious.”
Shad is also dangerous. He represents that group of angry, frustrated men, starving for a measure of respect and power, who lie in wait for someone like Buzz Windrip to come along. In his regime they will rise to the top, like the fat from a carcass in a boiling pot.
Buzz Windrip wins the election and with the help of his Minute Men brings American Democracy to a swift and bloody end.
But he’s only a fiction, after all, and it would be unfair to Mr. Trump to carry this analogy any further than that imaginary day in early November, eight decades ago, when the voters of America made a terrible mistake.
The subsequent struggles of Doremus, his family and a few of his friends make for pretty exciting reading. It Can’t Happen Here was a great success, selling 320,000 copies. But the critics complained that, as a work of literature, it had flaws that reflect the speed with which Sinclair Lewis threw it together.
As for the author, he cheerfully conceded that his novel was a work of propaganda. But, he added, “It is propaganda for only one thing: American democracy.”
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