Following the 2016 election, George Orwell’s 1984 was sold out online and rushed into another print edition. Last year’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was a monster hit, and expectations are high for HBO’s stab at Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
If nothing else, the election has made dystopian fiction great again.
There is another classic that should be required reading for our times: Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here.
What sets this 1935 novel apart from the others is that there is no great cataclysm throwing the country into turmoil, and we are not dropped into a future dystopia with little understanding of how we got there. It Can’t Happen Here disturbs by how blasé the descent into fascism can be.
Before delving into the narrative, it’s important to distinguish between political philosophy and the rhetoric of politicians. Having particular opinions about fiscal policy, foreign diplomacy, and tax rates doesn’t make someone evil or racist or fascist.
Political philosophy is something that decent, intelligent people can debate with merit. They can share a common goal, but disagree on how to achieve it.
The rhetoric of politicians, however, is another matter, and this is what is most startling and prescient about It Can’t Happen Here. The novel begins at a Rotary meeting, with a populist speech by anti-suffragette Adelaide Tarr Gimmitch, calling for a return to traditional values.
“We don’t want all this high-brow intellectuality, all this book-learning,” she says.
Seated in the crowd is the hero, Doremus Jessup, local newspaperman. He warns the crowd of the dangers of fascism disguised as nationalism, the likes of which was rising in Germany and Italy at the time. When members of the audience dismiss his warnings with the refrain that it can’t happen here, Doremus prophetically retorts, “The hell it can’t.”
It’s been more than 80 years since the book was published, but the populist rhetoric is eerily familiar. The outside challenger to FDR is Buzz Windrip, who, parroting the words of his chief strategist, appeals to the “Forgotten Men” who don’t feel appreciated now that women have the right to vote. Windrip goes after other populist bogeymen: labor unions, minorities, Commies, and the press.
While that is the rhetoric of modern Republicans, it is not proprietary to any party. Windrip runs on a socialist platform in the novel, and for a real-world example, read Democrat George Wallace’s disgusting 1963 inauguration address (“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”).
As Lewis writes, “nothing so elevates a dispossessed farmer or a factory worker on relief as to have some race, any race, on which he can look down.”
During the campaign, Jessup muses that President Roosevelt and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins (the first woman appointed to a U.S. cabinet position) “were far too lacking in circus tinsel and general clownishness to succeed at this critical hour of the nation’s hysteria, when the electorate wanted a ringmaster-revolutionist like Senator Windrip.”
Jessup can’t understand Windrip’s appeal and how he can draw such large audiences. “The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.”
In one speech, Windrip vows “to make America a proud, rich land again.”
Cue the dystopia. Once empowered, Windrip erodes civil liberties and Jessup is torn between fighting as part of the resistance or fleeing to Canada. Resistance fighters (or those simply accused of this) are herded into camps.
Remember, this novel was published in 1935: before Pearl Harbor, before we learned of the concentration camps.
While Lewis can’t match Orwell, Atwood, and Bradbury for creative totalitarian societies, he bests them in verisimilitude—what Hannah Arendt would later call the “banality of evil.” There are no two-way TV monitors or book-burning firemen, but there are heavily armed militias editing all newspaper articles and “encouraging” loyalty from businesses and citizens.
Inevitably, there are camps, and there is a resistance force… but it is clear to Jessup that the resistance has come too late. What good could pamphlets do against propaganda? Not surprisingly, fatigue and hopelessness set in: “What conceivable reason could one have for seeking after righteousness in a world which so hated righteousness?”
Fast-forward 80-plus years, where daily scandals, transgressions, incoherent Tweets, and deceptions have become mundane. The inundation has numbed us to the absurdity. Whether it’s noble or naive, Lewis, through Jessup, encourages us to soldier on, even if the cause is lost.
Jessup answers his own query about why one should seek “after righteousness”: “He never did find any particularly good reason. He simply went on.”