Sinclair Lewis: IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE (1935)
It can’t happen here
Sinclair Lewis’s book from 1935 presents a US president, Berzelius Windrip, who comes to power through a populist electoral campaign. After taking office he transforms the United States of America within a short time into a fascist state. Behind him stands an ideological radical adviser, „the satanic Lee Sarason“, who controls the security community and exerts real power through violent storm troopers, called Minutemen, and through a single party, forbidding all other parties.
„The New Yorker“, „The New York Times“ and the British „The Guardian“ published articles that drew parallels between the novel and the rising of Donald Trump and his adviser Stephen Bannon.
A German translation was published in the former GDR in 1984. I bought the translation many years ago and read it again recently. You find a link to the English text at the end of this article.
The first part of the book is really a striking description of the rise of Donald Trump. Many chapters start with citations from the book „Zero Hour“ from Berzelius Windrip. Take this example:
I know the Press only too well. Almost all editors hide away in spider-dens, men without thought of Family or Public Interest or the humble delights of jaunts out-of-doors, plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pocketbooks by calumniating Statesmen who have given their all for the common good and who are vulnerable because they stand out in the fierce Light that beats around the Throne.
You recognize the toolbox of populism, as it was used in Donald Trump’s campaign: Facts were ignored or replaced by alternative facts, the campaign addressed especiallly the losers of the economic crisis, who were attracted by grand promises, and also playing with their prejudices. Mexico was declared an enemy country, and the critical press was threatened. After the elections the policy of the president in Sinclair Lewis’s novel does not serve the masses who elected him, but his super rich buddies. Similarities could certainly be explained by coincidence of unrelated facts.
For his book Sinclair Lewis had informed himself through eyewitnesses about the situation in fascist Italy and Nazi-Germany, which was then just three years under Hitler’s regime. His description of violence by the Minutemen storm troopers is based on reports about the Nazi storm troopers called SA. Inhuman treatment and torture in the American concentration camps, erected on order of the new President Berzelius Windrip are descripted by Sinclair Lewis in accordance with the experience victims from Italy and Germany had reported.
It is very interesting to read, how Sinclair Lewis describes the reaction abroad. It is something between incredulity and appeasement: it is all not as bad as people think, the new president is building motorways, it is necessary to cooperate with the new regime. The propagandists of the new president are given all the room to spread their views and they are successful, they find enough people who believe them.
Naturally in the book from 1935 we can only expect an outlook to the future based on the world of 1935. The comparison of the president in the novel with president Trump is striking insofar as the thinking and the methods of populism are described. Sinclair Lewis wants to warn those who think that a transformation of populism into outright fascism couldn’t happen here. The slandering of judges, the direct apppeal to the people, and permanent movement with plebiscite character, and the treatment of the political adversary as an enemy, all this are alarming signals.
The further development in the novel was a negative utopian narration. Sinclair Lewis could not know at that time that he rather underestimated the murderous nature of fascism and nazism.The second part of the book is quite speculative, in no way comparable with modern populism based on new media. There are no violent paramilitary units, and the checks and balances of the American constitution seem to function. However Donald Trump should read Sinclair Lewis’s novel. At the end President Windrip is ousted by his chief adviser Lee Sarason and sent into exile to Paris. It reminds us that Breitbart-Bannon’s ideas are not that far from fascist thinking.
The fact that the German translation was edited in the former GDR was not self-understanding. Certainly the book could be used for anti-American propaganda. However in his novel Sinclair Lewis is very critical with the role of communist, who, while themselves suffering under the regime, are debilitating all resistance with their stubborn dogmatism.
The book is definitely not a prediction of president Trump. Here „The Guardian“ and the „New York Times“ exaggerate. However the warning that plebiscitary right-wing populism can easily be transformed into fascism should not be underestimated. It is this warning which makes the novel of Sinclair Lewis look so topical today.
The English text of the novel is here: