By the start of the 1930’s, the United States of America, as well as the rest of the world, was becoming a much different place. In the aftermath of World War I, economic sanctions to pay for it’s destruction had put Europe in turmoil. On the other side of the Atlantic, a steep drop in stock market prices lead to a Wall Street panic in New York causing the Great Depression. These burgeoning economic crises worldwide would give a rallying cry to enterprising politicians, building newer coalitions with the poor and working class, to use the promise of national reemergence to their advantage. Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany and abolished the role of President, becoming the nation’s Head of State. In the United States, Franklin Roosevelt was elected to the first of his four terms as president and also began to address fears of the working class instituting a variety of programs, collectively known as the New Deal, which increased the size and scope of the federal government. Roosevelt was not alone. In Louisiana, political boss and bombastic populist, Huey P. Long campaigned on a promise of wealth distribution and banking retribution. He was poised to challenge Roosevelt for the White House in 1936 when he was assassinated a year earlier.
It was under these conditions that America’s first Nobel Prize winning author, Sinclair Lewis, wrote the satirical political thriller, It Can’t Happen Here. In it, Lewis describes the ascension of an American politician, ostensibly based on Huey Long, named Berzelius Windrip and his path to the presidency. During his campaign, “Buzz” Windrip uses the stagnation of the economy to stoke fears with working class Americans. He promises sweeping economic and social reforms, restoring “traditional” American values in a campaign using the force of his personality to get elected. Once in power, a President Windrip uses his “Corporatist” regime to dissolve the United States Congress and target political enemies in government and the press. All the while, Americans willfully ignore or tolerate these actions, expecting them to result in the restoration of American greatness, but in denial of any long-term authoritarian actions with a faith in our democracy, reassuring themselves by saying “it can’t happen here.”
When Sinclair Lewis wrote this book, the idea of an authoritarian did not have the same connotation it does today. The Third Reich had only begun. The atrocities of the Nazi regime were largely unknown or still years in the future. Even in an historical context, Imperialism seemed attractive because it the showed overall strength of a nation on the world stage, so long as there remained the idea of individual liberty and national prosperity. But after other dictatorships began to restrict rights and eliminate political opposition, the “Corporatist” government described in It Can’t Happen Here, may have seemed somewhat familiar to audiences who read about it in 1935. However, after the rise and fall of the Third Reich and other powerful strong men in the last 70 years like Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, and Saddam Hussein, the path from nationalism to authoritarianism is a scene familiar to many Americans in 2016.
And in 2016, beyond most rational expectations, business tycoon Donald Trump was just elected President of the United States. This was the culmination of a campaign that began by slandering Mexican immigrants as rapist and murderers. It wasn’t before long that he turned his attention to Muslim refugees seeking asylum in America and proposing a ban of Muslims entering and a registry of Muslims currently within our borders. He continued to taunt the media, court racial nationalists, all the while praying on fear and ignorance using egregious lies and blatant deception against his opponents. This included the mother and father of slain soldier, a beauty pageant contestant and a U.S. district court judge. And despite disgusting and garish comments that we would never tolerate from our children let alone our elected leadership, he was STILL elected.
And through it all, it did not take long for many to begin to compare Donald Trump and his campaign to the likes of a Buzz Windrip and the plutocratic reign in Lewis’ novel. However, as ostentatious as he has been and signs pointing in the post-election to fulfill the radical agenda he spoke of, many Americans are still willing to give Donald Trump the benefit of doubt. We collectively look at history’s examples of extremism and dismiss such brazen instances as judging too harshly. Since his election, most political and historical commentators believe that comparing Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler is a comparison that goes too far. We are, after all, still a republic where power is separated and shared. But with that said, In 2016 America, like Lewis’ 1930’s America and 1920’s Germany before that, we too assume what they assumed, that what happened then and there can’t happen here…
But it did.
In the book, Lewis describes Buzz Windrip saying, “the senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar, easily detected, and his “ideas” almost idiotic.” With the way Donald Trump has talked about women and the often inarticulate vocabulary he uses, while spreading proven falsehoods and questionable policies, you would think Lewis was describing the President-Elect instead of his fictional character. Lewis also used his novel as a way to talk about the politics of the day. From a character’s perspective he spoke about Fascism saying, “with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours—not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini—like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good old days—and have ‘em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again.” Similar statements have been made by Donald Trump supporters over the course of the 2016 election, particularly with the ending predicate vividly saying, in alternate wording, “Make America Great Again.” And if that doesn’t sound frighteningly familiar, listen to what Lewis wrote about Windrip’s opponent and his party. He said, “it represented integrity and reason, in a year when the electorate hungered for frisky emotions, for the peppery sensations associated, usually, not with monetary systems and taxation rates but with […] the primitive sensations which they thought they found in the screaming of Buzz Windrip.” And like then, our 2016 electorate ignored the integrity and reason that Donald Trump lacked to seek solace in an emotional connections in his many baseless claims.
Our 2016 Presidential Election continued to compare with what Lewis wrote eighty years before. Buzz Windrip won the presidency not in a simple head to head, just as Donald Trump won the presidency despite losing the popular vote. Additionally, believe it or not, later in the book, the fictional Corporatist government tried to garner support by spreading slanderous lies against the Mexican government, again something Donald Trump used to his advantage. And the cherry on top for the Bernie or Bust crowd, the protagonist of the novel actually was a social democrat from Vermont.
What readers saw in the 1935 novel, history has seen many times before. Like what we see today, a rational and clear thinking electorate was able to tolerate or ignore the Nazi Party’s blatant anti-Semitism with the hopes that they would be able to follow through on their economic agenda to bring back jobs and opportunity. That was also the aim of the fictional electorate in the book. Other hallmarks of despotism and totalitarianism that have signaled what was read in the novel were also present in this election. The targeting of minority groups or cultures. Harnessing nationalism and painting an outside threat as reason to be given power to protect a vulnerable society. Using anger and ignorance to incite fear and the acceptance of unconventional actions and beliefs. The saying “those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it” should be a reminder that our past can very well be our prologue.
When Sinclair Lewis wrote the words “it can’t happen here”, Americans could easily identify the rise of Nazism and emphatically reject it. Just as today, we can look at the abomination of the Third Reich and safely assume, no matter how bad Donald Trump is that, likewise, it can’t happen here. But German citizens of the 1920’s also said the same thing. Donald Trump may not be another Hitler. But Hitler wasn’t the first or the last. And no matter how great we think our republic is, like all functioning world powers before us, we can fall. Remember, with his rhetoric, antics and behavior, he was unlikely to win the Republican Nomination to begin with. And winning the Presidency, in an environment where his intemperance increased even with the moderation of the electorate, was thought to be even less likelier. However, with the unlikelihood of Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency, we simply cannot dismiss the unlikelihood that his presidency can become something we don’t recognize in America. Because, yes, it can happen here.