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It Can’t Happen Here

Sinclair Lewis classic predicts life under Trump

January 19, 2017, 3:05 pm

Donald Trump’s ascendency to the American Presidency is strikingly similar to the rise of Buzz Windrip, a fictional politician in Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here (1935). The first half of Lewis’ story describes the social conditions that contributed to Buzz Windrip’s improbable rise, while the second half of the book outlines the devastating impacts of his revolutionary leadership.

Sinclair Lewis, the first American novelist to win the Nobel Prize, wrote It Can’t Happen Here during the early 1930’s, at the heart of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe. The main character of this story, Buzz Windrip, is an unconventional politician who upsets FDR and the Democratic Party establishment. He wins the presidential primary by tapping economic and social fears of common citizens. 

Buzz Windrip gains great popularity with a revolutionary yet vague platform of ideas. Buzz is against big banks, but for all the bankers (except the Jews who need to be driven out). He has unspecified plans to make all wages high while keeping prices for products low. Windrip is 100 percent for labor, but against labor unions and strikes. He wants America to produce its own products instead of importing them and correct a trade imbalance, and if any country disagrees, “he might have to take it over and run it properly.” 

Buzz Windrip urges America to arm itself, both locally and nationally, pointing to the words of his advisor, General Edgeways: “A great nation must go on arming itself more and more, not for conquest, not for war—but for peace.” At campaign rallies, local “Minute Men” (MMs) are inspired by General Edgeways and throw punches at those who disagree politically. These MMs band into informal militias.

As for social issues, Buzz Windrip strongly condemns the “un-Christian” attitude of progressives. He condones policies that limit African Americans’ access to education, non-menial employment and voting. Any person actively advocating communism or socialism, especially those in the “wishy-washy liberal media” and academia, should be put to trial and punished for high treason. 

According to Windrip, “The way to stop crime is to stop it!” In sum, he notes that “love and patriotism have been my sole guiding principles in Politics. My one ambition is to get all Americans to realize that they are, and must continue to be, the greatest Race on the face of this old Earth.”

In addition to patriotism, Buzz Windrip has other similarities with Donald Trump. Buzz looked like a “museum model of a medicine-show ‘doctor.’” In fact, Windrip had worked as a traveling snake oil salesman in the past. Buzz was “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic.” Sinclair Lewis describes Windrip as “a professional common man” who considered all foreigners as degenerate (except the British). Commoners could understand him and his every purpose—and raised their hands to him in worship. 

Buzz Windrip wins the presidential election and assumes power. If life imitates art, It Can’t Happen Here gives contemporary America a preview of what could happen under Trump’s leadership. First, Buzz Windrip fills his cabinet with loyalists, propagandists, and banking elites (some of questionable character).

At the presidential inauguration, military police and MMs are more visible. They escort and protect Buzz Windrip as riots break out all over Washington and America on Inauguration Day. Protest is gradually quelled by formal and informal armed forces.

As months pass, members of the press and academia who criticize are rebuked and then removed from their jobs. Dissent evolves from “unpatriotic” to “criminal.” A “tattle tale” culture grows and some dissenters are killed without objection. More citizens, including non-enthusiasts, are sent to jails and concentration camps. Riots continue. Portions of the country cede from the America’s “perfect union,” mostly states in the North and West.

Meanwhile, Buzz Windrip’s economic policies destabilize the American economy while his personal fortune silently explodes via “personal gifts” and favors. Inflation rises with every new tariff and trade war, while job prospects get much worse. “Minute Men” are rolled into the established military and many unemployed become MM, a job with free guns.

As discontent grows, war plans are developed for invasions of Mexico, Canada, and China. “We got to expand!” Buzz explains. Top intellectual and political leaders quietly defect to other countries, while a New Underground Railroad funnels citizens to Canada as borders are closed down. 

At the climax of the story, Buzz Windrip is overthrown by an internal coup: His secretary of state seizes power amidst growing chaos. But all if this is simply American fiction, the product of Sinclair Lewis’ powerful imagination. Just a tale from the 1930’s. Fantasy. It can’t happen here.

Lee Miller graduated from Cornell University and has taught writing for over thirteen years at the secondary and post-secondary levels.  This column examines current events through the lens of quality literature.

 

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