Sunday, January 8, 2017

It Can't Happen Here: The Merging Of Fact And Fiction

It Can't Happen Here is a semi-satirical 1935 political novel by American author Sinclair Lewis (1885 - 1951), and a 1936 play adapted from the novel by Lewis and John C. Moffitt (1901 - 1959). Published during the rise of fascism in Europe, the novel describes the rise of Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, a Democrat and United States Senator who is elected to the presidency after fomenting fear and promising drastic economic and social reforms while promoting a return to patriotism and "traditional" values. After his election, Windrip takes complete control of the government and imposes a plutocratic/totalitarian rule with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force, in the manner of Adolf Hitler and the SS. The novel's plot centers on journalist Doremus Jessup's opposition to the new regime and his subsequent struggle against it as part of a liberal rebellion. Reviewers at the time, and literary critics ever since, have emphasized the connection with Louisiana politician Huey Long (1893 - 1935), who was preparing to run for president in the 1936 election when he was assassinated in 1935 just prior to the novel's publication.

Sinclair Lewis 

John C, Moffett

Huey Long

Buzz Windrip and Donald Trump

A number of writers have compared the demagogue Buzz Windrip to Donald Trump. Michael Paulson wrote in The New York Times that the Berkeley Rep version aimed to provoke discussion about Trump's presidential candidacy. Jules Stewart discussed the similarities between Trump's America with the country as depicted in the book in an article in The Guardian. Malcolm Harris, in Salon stated that "Like Trump, Windrip uses a lack of tact as a way to distinguish himself" and that "The social forces that Windrip and Trump invoke aren’t funny, they’re murderous." In the Washington  Post, Carlos Lozada also compared Trump to Windrip, opining that "it is impossible to miss the similarities between Trump and totalitarian figures in American literature." Jacob Weisberg in Slate stated that "You can’t read Lewis’ novel today without flashes of Trumpian recognition."




Plot Summary

In 1936 Senator Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, a charismatic and power-hungry politician, wins the election as President of the United States on a populist platform, promising to restore the country to prosperity and greatness, and promising each citizen $5,000 a year. Portraying himself as a champion of traditional American values, Windrip easily defeats his opponents, Senator Walt Trowbridge and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Though having previously foreshadowed some authoritarian measures in order to reorganize the United States government, Windrip rapidly outlaws dissent, incarcerates political enemies in concentration camps, and trains and arms a paramilitary force called the Minute Men, who terrorize citizens and enforce the policies of Windrip and his "corporatist" regime. One of his first acts as president is to eliminate the influence of the United States Congress, which draws the ire of many citizens as well as the legislators themselves. The Minute Men respond to protests against Windrip's decisions harshly, attacking demonstrators with bayonets. In addition to these actions, Windrip's administration, known as the "Corpo" government, curtails women's and minority rights, and eliminates individual states by subdividing the country into administrative sectors. The government of these sectors is managed by "Corpo" authorities, usually prominent businessmen or Minute Men officers. Those accused of crimes against the government appear before kangaroo courts presided over by "military judges". Despite these dictatorial (and "quasi-draconian") measures, a majority of Americans approve of them, seeing them as necessary but painful steps to restore American power. Others, those less enthusiastic about the prospect of corporatism, reassure themselves that fascism cannot "happen here", hence the novel's title.

Open opponents of Windrip, led by Senator Trowbridge, form an organization called the New Underground, helping dissidents escape to Canada in manners reminiscent of the Underground Railroad and distributing anti-Windrip propaganda. One recruit to the New Underground is Doremus Jessup, the novel's protagonist, a traditional liberal and an opponent of both Corpoism and communist theories, which Windrip's administration suppresses. Jessup's participation in the organization results in the publication of a periodical called The Vermont Vigilance, in which he writes editorials decrying Windrip's abuses of power. Shad Ledue, the local district commissioner and Jessup's former hired man, resents his old employer and eventually discovers his actions and has Jessup sent to a concentration camp. Ledue subsequently terrorizes Jessup's family and particularly his daughter Sissy, whom he unsuccessfully attempts to seduce. Sissy does, however, discover evidence of corrupt dealings on the part of Ledue, which she exposes to Francis Tasbrough, a one-time friend of Jessup and Ledue's superior in the administrative hierarchy. Tasbrough has Ledue imprisoned in the same camp as Jessup, where inmates he had sent there organize his murder. Jessup escapes, after a relatively brief incarceration, when his friends bribe one of the camp guards. He flees to Canada, where he rejoins the New Underground. He later serves the organization as a spy in the Northeastern United States, passing along information and urging locals to resist Windrip.

In time, Windrip's hold on power weakens as the economic prosperity he promised does not materialize and increased numbers of disillusioned Americans, including Vice President Perley Beecroft, flee to both Canada and Mexico. He also angers his Secretary of State, Lee Sarason, who had served earlier as his chief political operative and adviser. Sarason and Windrip's other lieutenants, including General Dewey Haik, seize power and exile the president to France. Sarason succeeds Windrip, but his extravagant and relatively weak rule creates a power vacuum in which Haik and others vie for power. In a bloody putsch, Haik leads a party of military supporters into the White House, kills Sarason and his associates, and proclaims himself president. The two coups cause a slow erosion of Corpo power, and Haik's government desperately tries to arouse patriotism by launching an unjustified invasion of Mexico. After slandering Mexico in state-run newspapers, Haik orders a mass conscription of young American men for the invasion of that country, infuriating many who had until then been staunch Corpo loyalists. Riots and rebellions break out across the country, with many realizing that the Corpos have misled them.

General Emmanuel Coon, among Haik's senior officers, defects to the opposition with a large portion of his army, giving strength to the resistance movement. Though Haik remains in control of much of the country, civil war soon breaks out as the resistance tries to consolidate its grasp on the Midwest. The novel ends after the beginning of the conflict, with Jessup working as an agent for the New Underground in Corpo-occupied portions of southern Minnesota.

Reception

Poster for the stage adaptation of  It Can't Happen Here, October 27, 
1936 at the Lafayette Theater as part of the Detroit Federal Theater


Reviewers at the time of the book's publication, and literary critics ever since, have emphasized the connection with Louisiana politician Huey Long, who was preparing to run for president in1936. According to Boulard (1998), "the most chilling and uncanny treatment of Huey by a writer came with Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here." Lewis portrayed a genuine American dictator on the Hitler model. Starting in 1936 the WPA, a New Deal agency,  performed the theatre version across the country. Lewis had the goal of hurting Long's chances in the 1936 election. Keith Perry argues that the key weakness of the novel is not that he decks out American politicians with sinister European touches, but that he finally conceives of fascism and totalitarianism in terms of traditional American political models rather than seeing them as introducing a new kind of society and a new kind of regime. Windrip is less a Nazi than a con-man-plus-Rotarian, a manipulator who knows how to appeal to people's desperation, but neither he nor his followers are in the grip of the kind of world-transforming ideology like Hitler's National Socialism.

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