"No people ever recognize their dictator in advance. He never stands for election on the platform of dictatorship. He always represents himself as the instrument [of] the Incorporated National Will. ... When our dictator turns up you can depend on it that he will be one of the boys, and he will stand for everything traditionally American. And nobody will ever say 'Heil' to him, nor will they call him 'Führer' or 'Duce.' But they will greet him with one great big, universal, democratic, sheeplike bleat of 'O.K., Chief! Fix it like you wanna, Chief! Oh Kaaaay!'" (1935)
Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel 'It Can't Happen Here' envisioned an America in thrall to a homespun facist dictator. Newly reissued, it's as unsettling a read as ever.
PICTURE THIS: A folksy, self-consciously plainspoken Southern politician rises to power during a period of profound unrest in America. The nation is facing one of the half-dozen or so of its worst existential crises to date, and the people, once sunny, confident, and striving, are now scared, angry, and disillusioned.
This politician, a ''Professional Common Man,'' executes his rise by relentlessly attacking the liberal media, fancy-talking intellectuals, shiftless progressives, pinkos, promiscuity, and welfare hangers-on, all the while clamoring for a return to traditional values, to love of country, to the pie-scented days of old when things made sense and Americans were indisputably American. He speaks almost entirely in ''noble but slippery abstractions''-Liberty, Freedom, Equality-and people love him, even if they can't fully articulate why without resorting to abstractions themselves.
Through a combination of factors-his easy bearing chief among them (along with massive cash donations from Big Business; disorganization in the liberal opposition; a stuffy, aloof opponent; and support from religious fanatics who feel they've been unfairly marginalized)-he wins the presidential election.
Once in, he appoints his friends and political advisers to high-level positions, stocks the Supreme Court with ''surprisingly unknown lawyers who called [him] by his first name,'' declaws Congress, allows Big Business to dictate policy, consolidates the media, and fills newspapers with ''syndicated gossip from Hollywood.'' Carping newspapermen worry that America is moving backward to a time when anti-German politicians renamed sauerkraut ''Liberty Cabbage'' and ''hick legislators...set up shop as scientific experts and made the world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution,'' but newspaper readers, wary of excessive negativity, pay no mind.
Given the nature of ''powerful and secret enemies'' of America-who are ''planning their last charge'' to take away our freedom-an indefinite state of crisis is declared, and that freedom is stowed away for safekeeping. When the threat passes, we can have it back, but in the meantime, citizens are asked to ''bear with'' the president.
Sure, some say these methods are extreme, but the plain folks are tired of wishy-washy leaders, and feel the president's decisiveness is its own excuse. Besides, as one man says, a fascist dictatorship ''couldn't happen here in America...we're a country of freemen!''
. . .
While more paranoid readers might be tempted to draw parallels between this scenario and sundry predicaments we may or may not be in right now, the story line is actually that of Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel ''It Can't Happen Here,'' a hastily written cautionary note about America's potential descent into fascism, recently reissued by New American Library in a handsome trade edition with a blood-spattered cover design.
The book, though regarded as a departure for Lewis, bears all the trappings of the writer in his prime. Lewis made his name, and his fortune, writing scathing indictments of an America enamored of materialism and mediocrity in the prosperous '20s; he won America's first Nobel Prize for Literature for it. From ''Main Street'' to ''Babbitt,'' ''Arrowsmith'' to ''Elmer Gantry,'' there was no instance of egregious Rotarianism or middle-class hypocrisy he wouldn't gleefully assail. Lewis was so successful in these forays that the eponymous protagonist of ''Babbitt,'' whom Lewis held up as the embodiment of all that was wrong with middle-class America in the '20s, saw his name transformed into a widely used pejorative.
At its center, ''It Can't Happen Here'' is no different from these prior efforts. It's just carried out on a bigger, more hyperbolic scale: Lewis takes that Babbitt mentality-the entrenched incuriosity, the smug certitude, the conformity, the complacency-and combines it with the growing desperation of the times to envision an end of America as we know it.
It's an unsettling read, especially in a day and age where wags and politicos on both sides compulsively accuse one another of plotting to destroy America. Other such books, most recently Philip Roth's ''The Plot Against America,'' ask whether a fascist dictatorship can happen here. But whereas Roth manipulates history in order to show what could have happened, imagining an America so blinded by celebrity adulation that it elects an isolationist, anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh president, Lewis suggests that it already has happened, in little pockets all over America: in bridge club meetings, Rotary luncheons. No invading army will be needed to turn America fascist. Instead, the catalyst will come from within, and when it does it will speak colloquial American, and it will come waving the Stars and Stripes.
. . .
However broad its themes, ''It Can't Happen Here'' echoes its time, sometimes literally. The Depression was dragging on, the New Deal was on the rocks, FDR was vulnerable, and the GOP had foundered. People were desperate for strong leadership, and as a result there was a real threat coming from numerous quasi-populist movements led by fire-breathing demagogues promising deliverance.
Among these groups was the Share Our Wealth movement, spearheaded by Senator Huey Long, a former Louisiana governor best known as the inspiration for Willie Stark in Robert Penn Warren's ''All the King's Men.''
Long sought to radically redistribute the nation's wealth and impose an income gap, which, while socialist on its face, was more a cynical ploy for votes than a fast-held ideology. Equally prominent was sulfurous radio personality Father Charles Coughlin's Union of Social Justice, a nativist movement that proposed abolishing the Federal Reserve to reverse the Depression. Both groups were as corrupt as they were illogical, and FDR feared they would combine, unseat him, and replace American democracy with a strain of Hitlerism suited to America's unique temperament.
Driven by his support of Roosevelt and informed by the insights of his second wife, Dorothy Thompson, a pioneering journalist who more than anyone helped bring home the full horrors of Hitler's rise, Lewis cranked out the book in two months in 1935, in the hope that it would help avert what he felt was a looming catastrophe. In order to do so effectively, though, he would have to mine the collective prejudices and disenchantments inherent in the American character.
Enter Berzelius ''Buzz'' Windrip, Lewis's tyrant. He's a regular guy, personable, plainspoken, ''with something of the earthy American sense of humor of a Mark Twain...a Will Rogers.'' Guided by his secretary Lee Sarason, he cozies up to the electorate by stoking their disdain for fancy ideas and encouraging them to follow their hearts, not their minds.
Windrip's economic policies are disastrous, his figures often incorrect, and his platform seems to change depending on who he's talking to, but none of that matters as long as he keeps expressing himself decisively. ''I want to stand up on my hind legs,'' he writes in ''Zero Hour,'' his widely read pre-campaign book, ''and not just admit but frankly holler right out that...we've got to change our system a lot, maybe even change the whole Constitution (but change it legally, not by violence)....The Executive has got to have a freer hand and be able to move quick in an emergency, and not be tied down by dumb shyster lawyer congressmen taking months to shoot off their mouths in debates.''
When Windrip is elected, all hell breaks loose. Dissent is crushed, the Bill of Rights is gutted, war is declared (on Mexico), and labor camps are established to help shore up Windrip's vaunted ''New Freedom,'' which is more like a freedom from freedom. All that's really left of the old America are the flags and patriotic ditties, which for many is more than enough. But to Lewis it's not entirely the fault of those who will gladly abide America's principles being gutted. The blame also falls on the ''it can't happen here'' crowd, those yet to realize that being American doesn't change your human nature; whatever it is that attracts people to tyranny is in Americans like it's in anyone else.
When Lewis embarked on ''It Can't Happen Here,'' his wife wondered if a dictatorship could happen in this country, whether complacent Babbitt, as she put it, could be taught to march ''quickly enough.'' It was a question that Lewis had already answered. There's a scene in ''Babbitt'' where the title character blows up at his wife and admits for the first time in years that he's not as thrilled with his lot as he lets on. His wife soothes him and sends him off to bed, where, ''For many minutes, for many hours, for a bleak eternity, he lay awake, shivering, reduced to primitive terror, comprehending that he had won freedom, and wondering what he could do with anything so unknown and so embarrassing as freedom.''
In other words, the marching is just pageantry. Windrip's most formidable task, convincing Americans to renounce bedrock democratic principles, was already accomplished well before he took power. It was just waiting for its moment.
It Can't Happen Here is a semi-satirical political novel by Sinclair Lewis published in 1935. It features newspaperman Doremus Jessup struggling against the fascist regime of President Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, who resembles Gerald B. Winrod, the Kansas evangelist whose far-right views earned him the nickname "The Jayhawk Nazi". It serves as a warning that political movements akin to Nazism can come to power in countries such as the United States when people blindly support their leaders.
In 1936, Lewis and John C. Moffitt wrote a play version, also titled It Can't Happen Here, which is still produced. The stage version premiered on October 27, 1936 in several U.S. cities simultaneously, in productions sponsored by the Federal Theater Project.
A 1968 television movie, Shadow on the Land (alternate title: United States: It Can't Happen Here) was produced by Screen Gems as a pilot for a series loosely based on this book. At the time it was decried by critics (such as TV Guide's Cleveland Amory) as preposterous, since Americans would never allow the events and situations in the film to occur.
Sinclair Lewis (February 7 1885 – January 10 1951) was an American novelist, short-story writer, and playwright. In 1930, he became the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, "for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of characters." His works are known for their insightful and critical views of American society and capitalist values, as well as their strong characterizations of modern working women.
Lewis's first published book was Hike and the Aeroplane, a Tom Swift-style potboiler that appeared in 1912 under the pseudonym Tom Graham. In 1914 he married Grace Livingston Hegger, who was an editor at Vogue magazine. His first serious novel, Our Mr. Wrenn: The Romantic Adventures of a Gentle Man, appeared in 1914, followed by The Trail of the Hawk: A Comedy of the Seriousness of Life (1915) and The Job (1917). That same year also saw the publication of another potboiler, The Innocents: A Story for Lovers, an expanded version of a serial story that had originally appeared in Woman's Home Companion. Free Air, another refurbished serial story, was published in 1919.
Upon moving to Washington, D.C., Lewis devoted himself to his writing. As early as 1916, Lewis began taking notes for a realistic novel about small-town life. Work on that novel continued through mid-1920, when he completed Main Street which was published on October 23, 1920. As his biographer Mark Schorer wrote, the phenomenal success of Main Street "was the most sensational event in twentieth-century American publishing history." Based on sales of his prior books, Lewis's most optimistic projection was a sale of 25,000 copies. In the first six months of 1921 alone, Main Street sold 180,000 copies, and within a few years sales were estimated at two million. According to Richard Lingeman "Main Street earned Sinclair Lewis about three million current  dollars".
He followed up this first great success with Babbitt (1922), a novel that satirized the American commercial culture and boosterism. The story was set in the fictional Zenith, Winnemac, a setting Lewis would return to in future novels, including Gideon Planish and Dodsworth.
Lewis' success in the 1920s continued with Arrowsmith (1925), a novel about an idealistic doctor, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (which he refused). Elmer Gantry (1927), which depicted evangelicalism as hypocritical, was denounced by religious leaders and was banned in some U.S. cities. He divorced his first wife, Grace Hegger Lewis, in 1925, and married Dorothy Thompson, a political newspaper columnist, on May 14, 1928. Together they had a son in 1930, actor Michael Lewis, but they divorced in 1942. Lewis closed out the decade with Dodsworth (1929), a novel about the most affluent and successful members of American society leading essentially pointless lives in spite of their great wealth and advantages.
Lewis also spent much of the late 1920s and 1930s writing short stories for various magazines and publications. One of his short stories published in Cosmopolitan magazine was "Little Bear Bongo" (1936), a tale about a bear cub who wanted to escape the circus in search of a better life in the real world. The story was acquired by Walt Disney Pictures in 1940 for a possible feature film. World War II sidetracked those plans until 1947, when the story (now titled "Bongo") was placed on a shorter length as a part of the Disney feature Fun and Fancy Free.
In 1930, Lewis won the Nobel Prize in Literature in his first year of nomination. In the Swedish Academy's presentation speech, special attention was paid to Babbitt. In his Nobel Lecture, he praised Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, and other contemporaries, but also lamented that "in America most of us — not readers alone, but even writers — are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues," and that America is "the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring, of any land in the world today."
After winning the Nobel Prize, Lewis published nine more novels in his lifetime, the best remembered being It Can't Happen Here, a novel about the election of a fascist U.S. President. He was married to Dorothy Thompson until 1942, but the marriage effectively ended in 1937. Lewis died in Rome on January 10, 1951, aged 65, from advanced alcoholism and his cremated remains were buried in Sauk Centre. A final novel, World So Wide, was published posthumously.