Tuesday, July 23, 2013

It Can't Happen Here

It Can't Happen Here
© 1935 Sinclair Lewis
400 pages


The Great Depression sent the entire western world reeling, destroying faith in the existing order and creating opportunities for charismatic, forceful leaders with vision to sweep into power and create societies anew in their image – but their new orders introduced us to the nightmare world of the totalitarian state, which arise in Germany, Japan, Italy, and in Sinclair Lewis’ cautionary tale, the United States. It Can’t Happen Here is the story of the rise of American fascism,  beating the bible and waving a cross.

The tale is told through the eyes of Doremus Jessup, a solid liberal who amuses himself by rubbing shoulders with staunch conservatives at the Rotary Club, and then scandalizing them by penning editorials sympathetic to communists. He’s manifestly horrified by the rise of one Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a folksy dope whose radical plan for transforming America manages to unite rich and poor, traditional and modern, together in a schizophrenic platform.  He was not always horrified, though – he once though Windrip a comic buffoon, who could not possibly be voted in in a respectable election

The Windrip plan includes, among other things,  strict income limits, a $3000 handout to every citizen of the land,  boosted defense spending, the forbidding of women and Negroes from ‘inappropriate’ occupations, the barring of labor unions, and whatever constitutional amendments or acts of Congress are needed to allow the President, hereafter known as The Chief,  to give the nation a strong, guiding hand without being tied down by Congress.   Such a broad and sometimes self-contradictory platform  is similar to that of the “National Socialists”, and as Windrip’s reign commences, Lewis takes inspiration from Hitler’s reorganization of Germany.  That organization is literal, for Windrip breaks down state and county boundaries and imposes his own set of numbered provinces and distracts, each headed by a loyal minion. Instead of the SS,  Windrip has his ‘MM’s: the Minutemen, whose garb  hearkens to western pioneers.  As much as Windrip’s reign reminds students of European history of the Nazification of Germany,  it is a distinctly American kind of fascism, hearkening to the American mythology of the Founding Fathers, but still reactionary and anti-modern, even in its embrace of modern tools and the modern state. The idea is the same: America has gotten soft, decadent, and corrupt. It needs a kick in the seat of the pants, and Windrip is the main to give it: he'll make America mighty again, he'll take on the rich Jews and put the economy to work for Americans, not a few bankers; he'll revitalize the Old Time Religion and maybe spread it to a few heathen Catholics down in Mexico.

The account follows the relatively quick corruption of the American republic into the empire, and though bleak at times, it is satire, and ends on a relatively happy note.  Although such overt, drastic actions seem unlikely today, and are jarringly unexpected turns of event even in the book, the context of the thirties makes the rise of Windrip more plausible, especially given the success of Huey Long, who was a political boss with a kindred platform until his assassination.  Although the spectre of totalitarianism is alive and well,  it is far more subtle: no marching boots, thank you, just constant surveillance and algorithmized scrutiny. Readers of alt-history and those with an interest in politics will doubtless find this fascinating, if not as potent a warning as it once was.

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