In 1930, Sinclair Lewis became the first writer from the United States to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, garnering the award in recognition of a series of five novels published in the 1920s. But by the spring of 1935, despite his personal fame and fortune, Lewis despaired at the state of American and European politics. Fascist regimes led by totalitarian strongmen had come to power across the Atlantic in Italy and Germany, and at home the administration and policies of Franklin Roosevelt were under attack from demagogues of varying stripes who capitalized on the fear and anxiety of Americans suffering through the Great Depression. So Lewis did what he did best. He sat down at his desk and began to write.
The result was a novel entitled It Can’t Happen Here, published eighty years ago in the fall of 1935. In it, Lewis scoffs at what he considered the naïve notion that American democracy was too strong and American citizens too independent-minded to be duped by the cheap promises of politicians who ultimately were interested only in their authority to rule. To demonstrate the folly of such overconfidence, Lewis crafted a future in which a charismatic senator named Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip wins the presidential election of 1936 and oversees the transformation of the United States into a police state.
In the novel, Windrip’s growing and persistent popularity among economically struggling white native-born Americans in the months leading up to the presidential election is something of a mystery to people like Lewis’s protagonist Doremus Jessup. A conventionally liberal editor of a small Vermont newspaper, Jessup believes that the vogue for Windrip will not last. He feels sure that in time people would see through Windrip’s platitudes about liberty and justice and patriotism, his bluster promising to return a weak and vulnerable nation to strength and prosperity, and his empty populist promises about nationalizing banks and redistributing wealth while nevertheless keeping a capitalist system wholly intact. Jessup understands the anger and frustration of American voters, but he is certain that at the very least those voters would recoil from Windrip’s nativism and white supremacy, his blasting of critics and their criticisms as “un-American,” and his suggestion that the federal government needed a chief executive who would run things with less interference from “dumb shyster-lawyer congressmen.”
Jessup is wrong. Windrip defeats two opponents and sweeps into power as the leader of what he calls the Corporate State and of millions of followers who call themselves Corporatists, or “Corpos” for short. It does not take long before Windrip’s authoritarian tendencies take on a broad scope. He cracks down on the rights of women and of religious and racial minorities. He effectively neuters the influence of Congress on making policy and eliminates the power of individual states by dividing the country into a series of administrative sectors ruled by businessmen and flunkies instead. He stifles dissent of every kind, eliminates freedom of speech and the press, and musters a domestic paramilitary force known as the Minute Men to put down public demonstrations with violence, round up dissenters, and throw them into prison camps.
Opposition to Windrip emerges in the form of the New Underground, an organization that Jessup joins and which tries to spread the truth about the brutality of the Windrip regime while smuggling dissidents out of the country into Canada. It is not this clandestine resistance movement that ultimately brings down Windrip, however, so much as it is his own failure to produce the widespread prosperity he promised. Brilliant at rabble-rousing but not at much else, Windrip is soon deposed in a coup led by his own advisors in collusion with the leadership of the military. In short order, the military simply executes those former Windrip loyalists, and the generals who lead the nation in their place decide to invade Mexico, manufacturing a crisis that they hope will reinvigorate the fanatical nationalism that helped bring Windrip to power in the first place. But by this point, disillusionment has become widespread among the citizenry of the former United States. It Can’t Happen Here ends with a chaotic devolution into a nearly anarchic landscape of riots and battles between factions of the military.
A number of the central characters of It Can’t Happen Here were plainly based on real people whose influence and following Lewis found profoundly disturbing. Lewis’s Reverend Paul Peter Prang, for example, who helps get Windrip elected through his weekly radio address and his leadership of an organization of nearly thirty million people known as the League of Forgotten Men, is an obvious stand-in for Catholic priest Charles Coughlin, who reached millions of Americans over the radio in the 1930s by inveighing against Wall Street, Jewish bankers, and communism. Windrip himself, meanwhile, is a barely fictionalized Louisiana Senator Huey Long. Originally a supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, Long broke with the president in 1933 and began loudly calling for an isolationist foreign policy, massive wealth redistribution, and a guaranteed income for every American family. A magnetic speaker with a megalomaniacal streak who had built a durable political machine in his home state, Long’s ambitions were as sizeable as his ego. By 1935, his national political organization, known as the Share Our Wealth Society, had nearly eight million members, and Long had his own radio broadcast that reached twenty million listeners. Arguably, it was Long’s assertions that he might well run for president in 1936 that sent Lewis to his typewriter.
Huey Long was shot and killed in September 1935, a month after announcing that he would indeed run for president and a month before the publication of It Can’t Happen Here. But the concerns that moved Sinclair Lewis to write the novel went well beyond a potential Huey Long candidacy. Lewis’s work is less prophecy than it is a cautionary tale about the seductiveness of easy answers, the dangers of cults of personality, and the destructive impulses of the soul that get unleashed when channeled into a mob. An underread novel by an underrated writer, It Can’t Happen Here is a reminder that the United States can never be insulated from politicians and political movements that thrive on populist rage in pursuit of power. Our flirtations with fascism are not new. They are generational. It can very much happen here, and we pretend otherwise at our peril.