Sinclair Lewis' 1935 about the rise of fascism holds a warning that remains valid today
Is Donald Trump a Modern-day Buzz Windrip?
BY DEDE FELDMAN
Sinclair Lewis’s classic American satire “It Can’t Happen Here” was first published in 1935 in an era of economic depression and growing fascism at home and abroad. The dystopia was an immediate bestseller, spurring an unabridged series in the New York Post and countless theater productions.
Yet today’s citizens know little about it. They should pay more attention.
Consider the main character, Buzz Windrip, a presidential candidate who is a professional common man. His folksy, down-to-earth speeches use simple words to extol the greatest nation on earth and to bash the big banks, the political elites and the press.
He suggests that Negroes and Jews be barred from civic activity (even though he allows that many Jews are part of his movement) and that women stay at home.
For safety’s sake, foreigners present too great a risk to America’s way of life to permit their presence.
Windrip’s 15-point plan enlarges the military, increases veteran’s benefits and expands the definition of treason to include, among other things, advocating foreign alliances.
Sound familiar? Just replace the word Mexican or Muslims for Jews and Negroes, and it’s hard not to
think of Donald Trump. In the novel, the rise of the Chief, as he is later called, is preceded by an era of radio demagoguery voiced by a Father Charles Coughlin figure who bears a striking similarity to Rush Limbaugh. A powerful follower’s “League of Forgotten Men” is 27 million strong and forms the base of Windrip’s growing support. It is composed of formerly middle-class men dispossessed by the big banks. It is strongly reminiscent of the Tea Party.
In an era of economic insecurity and a fear of foreign forces, Buzz Windrip is elected legally. Opposition does not mobilize quickly, and he carries out his promises, which most had not taken seriously. He declares martial law. The Supreme Court is abolished. Congress becomes an advisory
body. A private marching club called the “MM” is re-tasked with beating up opponents who dare to appear at Windrip’s campaign rallies. The MM becomes a national police force, staffing checkpoints and concentration camps to which dissenters are sentenced — when they are not summarily shot. Ironically, the wall Lewis’ Windrip said he’d build to keep foreigners out is ultimately used to keep Americans from escaping to Canada.
“It Can’t Happen Here” is not regarded as one of Sinclair Lewis’s best books. He won the Nobel Prize for his others: “Main Street,” “Arrowsmith” and “Babbitt,” mainstays of high school English classes. But this is his strongest protest against middleclass complacency and the tendency of most Americans to opt for security — tendencies that have lingered into our era and now loom over the 2016 presidential race.
Where are the heroes, the protestors, and the resistance to Lewis’ creeping fascism? The protagonist of “It Can’t Happen Here” is a small-town newspaper editor, a reluctant liberal, who values his individualism and intellect too much to take action in time. Finally, he joins the resistance just as
the totalitarian regime declares war on (where else?) Mexico. At the end of the novel, his success is uncertain.
In 2016, my friends assure me that Donald Trump will never be elected. Too many constitutional protections, too much media scrutiny. But in the wake of terrorist attacks, the shrinking middle class, and the waning hopes of our youth, I can’t help but worry. Anything can happen when fear takes
over. Especially, as Lewis demonstrates, when the groundwork for fascism has already been laid.
Dede Feldman is a former state senator and author of the book, “Inside the New Mexico Senate: Boots, Suits and Citizens.”
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