|Image borrowed from Amazon|
Bring out the old-time musket,
Rouse up the old-time fire!
See, all the world is crumbling,
Dreadful and dark and dire.
America! Rise and conquer
The world to our heart’s desire! (p.60)1
This final chorus of the campaign song for the 1930s nomination of Buzz Windrip as president of the United States of America pretty much sums up the mood of the supporters who put him into office, defeating F.D. Roosevelt. Buzz Windrip is the creation of Sinclair Lewis in his 1936 novel, It Can’t Happen Here, a sometimes-satirical, always-witty romp through the possibility of America blissfully, blindly wandering down the paths of fascism in Europe. What would it be like if enough Americans should embrace the option of fascism, of the clamp-down on the free press, of the legitimizing of personal armies, of the brutal suppression of opposition, of the seduction of the public with unfulfillable promises and, yes, of the substitution with “alternative facts” for actual facts?
A campaigning Buzz Windrip clarifies his platform in a letter to be read publicly by his deputy: “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.” (p.62)
Turns out—according to It Can’t Happen Here—that it would rapidly turn into a blood bath; into the imprisonment, torture and execution of journalists, suspected communists or socialists, and finally, into internal party violence as members of Windrip’s cohort seek to satisfy their whetted hunger for power by eliminating one another.
Naturally, a resistance would grow among intellectuals, journalists, some Christians and minorities as it became clear that in order to be a secure ruler over people, the opposition--plus those who could potentially become opposers--must be eliminated. Before Hitler actually began with a full-scale resorting to concentration camps in Europe, Lewis visualized their emergence in America as the means to “concentrate” potential push back by the confining of doubtful citizens, shooting them as necessary as an example to the whole country.
Tacit permission is given to the “Minute Men,” the private, rabble militia of the president, to be ruthless in their arrests, searches, interrogations; Jews, authors, journalists, immigrants, pacifists, African Americans are high on the undesirable list. Book burning, of course, is a favourite means by which tyrants seek to suppress ideas and the search for seditious literature, the setting of huge bonfires becomes recreation for the M.M.
Doremus Jessup is the soft-spoken, well-read family man and editor of his own local Vermont newspaper, the Informer. “He was an equable and sympathetic boss; an imaginative news detective; he was, even in this ironbound Republican state, independent in politics and in his editorials against graft and injustice, though they were not fanatically chronic, he could slash like a dog whip. (p.23) Lewis's plot follows him through his removal from his own paper to his eventual role in the underground resistance, his arrest and imprisonment on charges of opposing the government and his escape to Canada where he feeds the resistance from a distance.
Interestingly, the vitreol against Mexico foreshadows (along with many other foibles of the tyrant, Buzz Windrip) Donald Trump, similarities that haven’t been missed by the literati in the USA. Lewis wrote a play based on his book which, although panned for it’s quality by some, toured the USA. It was a time when play goers would probably have seen in it the tyrants of Europe and missed the satire about American politics, would have believed in the literal import of the title: It Can’t Happen Here.
After Trump’s nomination, the play was rewritten and has visited theatres in US recently, the issues updated to more current trends in US politics. I’d encourage readers of this to visit the New Yorkers article on the revival of It Can’t Happen Here. 2
Could it happen here? I’m led to ponder. Surely in an enlightened democracy the practical bounds of political deviation are known, the warning signs of left or right wing demagoguery familiar. But one has to wonder if, in fact, there doesn’t come a time when enough of the population of a country becomes angry enough to welcome tyranny and brutality. The kick-ass mood.
George Orwell in Animal Farm and 1984 did what he could to warn the world that IT CAN HAPPEN HERE. Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here fits in that tradition; we do well to attend to the prophetic voices of our poets and artists.
P.S. An interesting side-note: Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway used the expression “alternative facts” to dispute public reports of the attendance at the Trump inauguration. According to one website,3 Amazon’s sales of Orwell’s 1984 have soared ever since. I leave it to those who’ve read Orwell to ponder the reason: “Newspeak” is a clue.
1 Page 60. All references are to the Feedbooks digital edition. (www.feedbooks.com)