By Steven Michels, Guest Blogger
Sinclair Lewis is experiencing a bit of a revival of late, as the one who, in his 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here, predicted the rise of an authoritative figure like Donald Trump in the United States. Let’s suppose Sinclair was right and we are seeing the pages of his title come to life. It’s true the Pollsters and pundits vastly underestimated Trump's chances; perhaps they were looking too closely at polls and not enough at literary fiction.
The prevailing sentiment of how a modern democracy could slide to tyranny comes from Alexis de Tocqueville and his warning about a paternalistic state, caused by an unengaged and inward-looking citizenry. He calls it “soft despotism.” Lewis’s version, more conventional and European, had been dismissed as either politically impossible or simply uncreative, but it has now taken on a more prescient quality.
As a product of the Midwest, Lewis was highly attuned to the latent and not-so latent racism and nationalism that lies beneath the nation's heartland. He would not have been surprised at Hillary Clinton’s inability to hold her “blue wall” against Trump’s white demagoguery. Tocqueville saw in America a people who were fundamentally one of the same kind. But with routine scares over communists and Catholics and immigrants of all stripes, Lewis saw a people willing to exaggerate difference whenever it serves their interests. “Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours!” he asserts.
The cast of characters is similar, even if the labels are flipped. “Buzz” Windrip, Lewis’s tyrant, is a western lawyer and Senate Democrat. Lewis was too familiar with Hoover and the Republican penchant for small or even non-responsive government to think it could be the source of tyranny. Windrip is a common man with great oratory skills. Trump has more charisma than vocabulary and is able to project authenticity despite his wealth and status. He, like Windrip, is able to appeal to commoners by adopting their prejudices, as he singles out minorities and women for marginalization and mistreatment. “Every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on,” Lewis observes. Windrip is favored not despite his combination of fearful prejudice, self-interest, and reflexive partisanship, but because of it.
Walt Trowbridge, a Republican and Lewis’s Clinton, is a steady but uninspiring incrementalist who provides little in the way of opposition. Lewis shows a Republican Party that is desperate for a win and a Democratic Party that is dominated by elites. Lewis also has the incumbent, FDR, form “the new Jeffersonian Party” for his reelection, after he loses the nomination to Windrip. Like the voters who cast their ballots for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, Roosevelt’s run only tips the balance toward tyranny.
Another notable parallel concerns the religious support Windrip and Trump received. Eighty-one percent of white Evangelicals voted for Trump. The same is true of Windrip, who obtains the endorsement of the country’s leading religious figure to seal his victory.
Windrip’s platform, much like Trump’s, is vague and inconsistent. Windrip is a protectionist and holds self-sufficiency as his aim, and he uses fears of fascism and communism like Trump uses terror and lawlessness to blame the establishment of both parties for America’s real or invented woes. Windrip appeals not only to the needy and the greedy, but also to “Intellectuals and Reformers and even Rugged Individualists, who saw in [him], for all his clownish swindlerism, a free vigor which promised a rejuvenation of the tripped and senile capitalistic system.” The only clear and constant element is his call for absolute power. Windrip campaigns as a would-be tyrant and is elected to be one.
It’s quite possible that president Trump will be constrained by the Constitution and liberal and democratic political norms, but if Lewis is correct, we are in for a massive amount of militarization. Windrip instituted “marching clubs,” which grew to several hundred thousand members and soon supplanted the police and military as his favored means of enforcement. Trump, like Windrip, is also very likely to continue his scapegoating of vulnerable groups. The “American Corporate State” eventually provokes a “handy” war with Mexico, to provide a common enemy and distract everyone from the sad state of the American economy.
Once elected, Windrip reduces educational institutions to country clubs and continues his attacks on the press when it does not support him, using libel laws and violence as necessary. The press is enfeebled by its respect for truth, which the Windrip regime is more casual with. Doremus Jessup, a journalist and Lewis’s protagonist, attempts an escape to Canada but is thwarted and then jailed for his unwillingness to propagandize. In Windrip’s America, walls are for keeping Americans in, not for keeping immigrants out.
Windrip’s ambition is eventually met by the ambition of others, and he is ousted as president by his chief strategist. He winds up in exile, living off of the millions of dollars he had embezzled. The country eventually comes to long for the days of its unseated despot, which sounds quite plausible if you could imagine Steve Bannon as president.
Even after people lose their spirit, the system of education, which had taught little more than American exceptionalism, leaves citizens with no knowledge of what to do or even what to want. Even so, the book ends on a hopeful note: Trowbridge is installed as president after a military coup, and the country moves from a vicious tyranny to a smoldering civil war.
Of all of the things Trump has said, Lewis would have been most bothered by Trump’s comments on the theater as a “Safe and special place,”—that is, where the vice president-elect should be able to go without the threat of being rudely harassed. For Lewis, the theater is important precisely because of its ability to be uncompromising and unapologetic in speaking truth to power.
The theater might even be the place where the resistance begins.
Steven Michels is a professor of political science at Sacred Heart University and the author of Sinclair Lewis and American Democracy.