We carry on with political literature centering on authoritarian regimes with Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, coming straight off of George Orwell’s 1984. Though the two novels differ of course, seeing that although Orwell majestically condemns all forms of authoritarianism- his main concerns were with the Soviet Union and what Communism would bring about.
Sinclair Lewis wasn’t a fan of Communism either, but that’s not what this book is about. No, this book is about Fascism. Written in a hurry in the summer of 1935, all the while Hitler and Mussolini were on the rise in their respective nations. Sinclair didn’t necessarily fear that Fascism would come from an invading army, but a domestic one.
As a journalist he was given a glance at the dark side of America, his experience led him to imagine what an American Dictatorship would like. In his own words he said; “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”
So while we currently have a Fascist in the White House and various other Right Wing Populists popping up in Europe like Racist Gofers, I think it’s an excellent time to talk about this book. Especially on the twelfth of July, where locally the Fascists (well I wouldn’t call all of them that, neither would they- namely because they can’t spell it) in my neck of the woods are setting up bonfires.
But fortunately they’re not burning books. Just flags, posters from political rivals and effigies depicting their deep rooted fury and all kinds of hatred- sectarianism, xenophobia and a dash of racism just for good measure. It’s a sad day to be an Irishman, as it is every year.
So the novel itself starts off in 1936, a year after it was published. It follows the story of Doremus Jessup (Door-a-mus or Door-mus? I’ve no clue) the editor at large for a small town in Vermont. Over the course of the novel a Senator named Buzz Windrip; a vain, outlandish, anti-immigrant, anti-free press, fear mongering demagogue runs for president.
He wins the vote, with the help of a very popular Evangelical Preacher, his own private militia and an army of angry poor people who he’s promised to give $5000 dollars each. Obviously the latter doesn’t happen and the entire state of America is fundamentally changed into a Fascist Regime.
Now although Doremus is appalled at what has transpired, he’s not at all surprised. That is one of the major issues I had with the novel; Doremus’ character arc. Now if this story was a cautionary tale about both liberal complacency and arrogance, then there’d be no problem here. If at first Doremus knew for a fact that Buzz wasn’t going to be president, because he didn’t take him seriously- then that would be a great cautionary tale and would make for a better character arc.
But the fact that not only did Doremus took Buzz seriously, but that he knew for a fact that he was going to win- that’s the problem here. Doremus identifies himself as a bourgeois small town liberal intellectual, he’s a pretty well rounded guy with a very diverse friend group featuring Capitalists, Communists, Socialists, Democrats, Republicans and even a few Fascists.
If the story were about a polite yet snobby suburban newspaper editor who at first laughed off at the idea of a Fascist running for President, then growing confused at his popularity and gradual success- all along discovering the ugly side of the country that he thought he knew. That would have made an interesting arc.
But what actually happens is that Doremus is aware enough to realise that Buzz has a chance of winning, so he spends the first ten or fifteen chapters of the books just rolling his eyes at people who say “Oh, but it can’t happen here” and then watches on in horror as he’s proved right.
Despite this misstep, Doremus is a fairly likeable character. Most of the characters are likeable and three dimensional, very believable- even the more pathetic characters such as Shad, the one time workman turned into a Fascist Commander. One of the things I think the book really does well is highlight the kind of men these Fascists are.
They aren’t just monsters, they’re losers. Shad was an angry workman too dumb to make a better life for himself so he blamed others and even resented his employers. Judge Swan was a shitty soldier and an even worse lawyer, even Buzz himself was a failure- he was a shitty businessman who turned to politics when everyone realised he was a fraud.
Fascists don’t just pop up out of the blue, they’re incredibly damaged and sad people who for some reason or another are inept at seeing the flaws in themselves that are holding them back and thus project their insecurities onto others. Relying on scapegoats to avoid the inevitable conclusion that hey aren’t considered losers because someone is holding them back, but because they are ass-holes. In capable of the self awareness to realise that they are the problem and not everyone else.
The immigrants aren’t taking all the jobs, you’re just lazy. The Jews aren’t handling all your money, you’re just too dumb to understand your own finances. Feminism isn’t turning women away from you, you’re just a repulsive person.
All of these insecurities left unaddressed and bottled up will gradually rot the soul and turn decent men hateful. That hate needs an outlet in the form of a dogmatic worldview, a sense of control over your own life and everyone else. The Fascist frees themselves but imprisons everyone else.
The novel starts out pretty slow. The first chapter is remarkably dull as it depicts this charity/political dinner at some country club in Vermont featuring characters who-for the most part- never show up again. The dinner features the guest speaker of some Colonel from the first World War who’s very right wing, very anti but also pro war and is very adamant about getting the Vets paid properly-especially those that were injured.
You’ll see that a lot in the book, these poor people that put their faith into crooks only to get their hearts broken later on. The other speaker is this hyper religious woman who goes on a racist rant- we never really see her again, only hear that she moved to LA to make a movie and then went to China for some god known reason.
There’s a woman in the audience named Linda, an ardent Feminist who takes issue with the speakers but she’s immediately silenced. All the while Doremus watches on with his friends. You could say that this first chapter is a representation of such Liberal Complacency that Lewis is trying to critique, but interrupting a speech does nothing other than giving your opponent the opportunity to play the victim.
You’ll see that latter technique is often played by Right Wingers. Whether it be some dumb fuck students protesting their speech or the police arresting them for violating your Court Restriction, they’ll always try and spin it in a way that makes it seem that they’re the victim. Because nothing makes their cause look more righteous than the fact that others are trying to stop them.
The first few chapters detail Doremus life, family and friends. There’s a lot of names so it can be a little overwhelming trying to place a face and voice for all of them. I believe that the modern audience may have a little difficulty understanding the references and politics that Lewis denotes- namely all the namedropping. I have a basic understanding of American and World history so I was able to get the jist of some of it, but it can be really hard to trudge through.
You don’t want to stop reading just so you can google who William Randolph Hurst was. I knew him from my knowledge of Orson Welles. Hurst was essentially the Rupert Murdoch of his era and the Hurst Newspaper empire was basically their equivalent to Fox News. In the novel Hurst supports Buzz, which is quite accurate since in the fifties Hurst supported Joe McCarthy during the Red Scare.
Despite the slow and dull beginning, the book really picks up early on near a third of the way in where Doremus heads onto New York to see a rally for Buzz Windrip. At this point Buzz had created his own little militia, these rag tag losers dressed up as soldiers who beat the shit out of anyone who snickers at them or believe to be a Communist.
Despite being a vulgar idiot, Buzz knows how to intice a crowd and even Doremus- who’s fully aware that he’s full of shit- is half convinced at the end of it that the presidency will be good. Of course he quickly snaps out of that when he gets home and resumes his liberal pessimism, all the while campaigning for the rival candidate.
One of the strange things about this book is that despite it’s morbid subject matter, it’s a little bit satirical. A little bit witty- but the wit is reserved to that period of time so it just feels weird. It’s basically Doremus saying something witty and then sighing. A lot of these paragraphs end with Doremus sighing, like he feels that the rest of the country is too stupid to realise they’re driving towards a cliff edge.
One of the funniest moments in my opinions comes in the chapter where it’s revealed that Doremus is having an affair with his wife’s friend Linda (the feminist introduced in the first chapter) and when they’re consoling their feelings and when Doremus comments upon how he feels they’re being watched by Shad (because they are, he’s following him) all of a sudden Doremus’ youngest daughter (an 18 year old referred to as “Sissy“) bursts through the door, drunk and demands to be taken home.
So Doremus puts her in the car and then calls out Shad for following him, later on firing him for good- but that makes things worse since he’s a Fascist insider now. On the ride home Sissy is speaking vulgarly about how much of a Misogynist Buzz is (since declaring that women ought to stay at home and thus out of education/employment) and she talks a bot about sex which makes Doremus super uncomfortable.
Then, out of nowhere, she tells him that he and Linda ought to go out. Doremus is sitting they’re like; “What? Nooo…that’s…that’s a bad idea. I would never do that! …never” but he questions her and she’s oblivious to the affair. It’s impressive, when you think about it. Doremus is a sixty one year old grandfather and he’s able to pull a forty three year old- that’s a solid generational gap between them.
So it’s bad that he’s an adulterer, but at the same time it’s impressive that he can adulterate at the age of sixty-one. Now I don’t know if you know this, but the male body has a “best before date” after which everything breaks down. In your thirties you start growing weird ear and nose hair and by forty your dick stops working. Can you imagine your dick not working? Like you’re turning the keys and the engine won’t start? I’d fucking kill myself before that happens.
By fifty your joints are fucked, you’re tired all the time. By sixty you can barely read and by seventy no one wants to hang around you cause you’re so old and dull/racist. So for a sixty one year old man to not only be able to fuck, but able to fuck a woman only a few years older than his eldest daughter, that is impressive.
But again, adultery is bad- no matter the excuses. The reason people cheat is because they’re dissatisfied by their partner. Everyone has needs and most people get into a relationship to satisfy, to some degree or another, those needs. Now these needs can be financial, emotional, intellectual or physical. You’ll often see people get into relationship’s with people because of their money, but often times they cheat because they can’t satisfy their other needs- and once that money dries up they’re gone.
A lot of people get into relationships for the emotional needs. The needs to be loved, to have someone care and pay attention to you- hugs and kisses, the whole shabab. Where this may get difficult is that you may expect too much from a partner. If you have metal health issues such as depression, a relationship isn’t guaranteed to fix that. Sometimes you’ll have issues with communicating or understanding each others emotions and that can cause a lot of hassle. Sometimes you’ll feel that you don’t want to burden the other person with your emotional baggage. Or sometimes you’ll grow apart, that emotional niche is unsatisfied and so you will intentionally or unintentionally seek someone to satisfy it.
The physical aspect is probably the most common, cause at the end of the day we’re just animals. We’re hardwired to fuck and then move on, but with the development of social hierarchies came monogamy. Marriage itself was mainly used as a business negotiation, kept the peace between both farmers, businessmen and rival nations. For the longest time Love and Marriage didn’t interlude.
Only recently has the idea that you ought to marry someone because you love them, and with this idea came an even more toxic idea that somewhere out there you have a soul mate. Often referred to as “the one” it’s a really stupid idea that’s embedded in our culture and inadvertently ruins perfectly good relationships. Because you can love someone, but you may not consider them; “the One“.
You build up this notion of what “the One” is supposed to be and when you do meet and fall in love with someone, they’ll always fall short of that picturesque partner you imagined. Human beings are messy, they drift apart. You can deeply love someone for decades, but find yourself drifting apart- and that’s ok. People change over time and it’s fine to call it quits whenever. Because there is no “the One” there is only “the One right now.”
I talk about this delusional fantasy because it reflects the belief that someone out there will be capable of of satisfying all your needs- financial, emotional, intellectual and physical. That latter part is a big issue. Now sex isn’t everything, but it’s a lot. A lot of otherwise good relationships are ruined because the couple can’t fuck- either because they’re incapable of either doing it, enjoying it or even wanting it.
If you’re in a relationship and you can’t fuck right, even after a lot of tries- it’s time to call it quits. Find someone else. If you can’t fuck, see a doctor and if you don’t want to fuck? Well, that’s one of the major issues.
Now there’s a lot of factors to consider when people lose the will to fuck, but the main issue- particularly in the West- is obesity. So you’re in a relationship and you decide to let yourself go, initially it’s just because you don’t see any point on going to the gym and you start binge watching with your partner. Then you stop eating healthy or start eating way too much. Soon enough you find that your belly is so wide you can’t see your genitals and you’re eating a sandwich while you’re climbing into bed.
Now I know obesity is a sensitive issue with a lot of people and believe me, I know the struggle. You have to find a middle ground between losing weight and dealing with body image issues all the while battling the potential for developing eating disorders. But there has to be a degree of tough love, and the fact is this; No One Wants to Fuck a Walrus.
I’m sorry, but this is just the case. The main reason why after a while your partner is disinterested in sex is because they find your naked body physically repulsive. You need to fix this; cut down your portions, cut out your carbs and dairy, eat more greens and do more deadlifts. Otherwise your partner is going to be physically dissatisfied, and the sad fact of life is that most cheaters just want to fuck someone who they want to fuck.
When you’re older this becomes both more and less of a hassle. How many older couples sleep in separate beds? A good portion, I reckon. The bead news is that they don’t want to fuck but the good news is that they most likely can’t fuck anymore and thus don’t want to fuck- one hopes, at least.
In Doremus’ case, he’s intellectually dissatisfied. He loves his wife Emma dearly, but she doesn’t really share his concerns with the rise of Fascism. Not like Linda. They don’t read the same books or like the same things, so in seeking out some intellectual satisfaction he ends up committing adultery. It’s very shitty, but that’s just the way it goes.
Anyway, let’s get back to the novel and away from the advice by a severely under-qualified man.
So a third of the way into the book Buzz Windrip is elected and Fascism takes over at break neck speed. In just the first week Buzz was able to get his militia (the Minute Men) to be recognised as members of the Armed Forces, the Liberal and Moderate Senators and Congress men were forced into resignation, aptly pushed out and/or arrested or killed.
The supreme court was suspended, the entire political landscape was readjusted- States were merged together to form large districts, the constitution was practically annulled and the president possessed unchecked power and full authority over the land.
The second third of the book is really where Lewis shines. He depicts the gradual rise of Fascism and the normalisation of such horrors. At first it was legitimising the President’s militia, then it was an attack on the free press (Doremus himself was sent a letter warning him to quit his criticism) followed by the fact that the voters were being ripped off, everyone unemployed and on welfare was sent to a Labour camp, minorities such as Blacks and Jews were persecuted (although those who had money were saved from persecution), labour unions were banned and labour strikes were made illegal.
It became a state of Corporatism, hence why Buzz’s supporters were referred to as Corpos. Soon enough Concentration camps were set up and anyone too “radical” was sent there. The radicals were considered anyone who couldn’t pay the excessive taxes brought on by the protectionist policies that ruined the economy, these radicals were referred to as Communists- all dissenters were.
All that Doremus could do was watch as the horrors past by. That is until he said enough and published a feisty editorial that got him arrested, sent to a a Private trial which was going poorly. Then his son in law entered the room, demanding they release him. He was aptly executed and Doremus was forced to work at the newspaper while publishing state propaganda.
Eventually he’s able to retire and he’s sought out by the rebel forces, aptly titled “The New Underground” in reference to the Underground Railroad. He and most of his friends and family are able to print out propaganda and spread it around, even help a few people cross the border to Canada.
But of course despite their best efforts, Doremus and his conspirators are arrested, tortured and sent to a Concentration camp. Most of the latter third part of the books spends most of it’s time in the Concentration camp. At this point all the friends and family have either died, escaped capture and continue to rebel, live in misery or have become Fascists.
Shad has been making moves on his daughter, Sissy and everyone’s afraid that some day he’ll get fed up and rape her. Sissy knows this is a possibility but she hangs around with Shad in the hopes she can retract information form him, which she does. There’s this really dodgy sentence in the book where Sissy tells her boyfriend who’s worried about what Shad will do and Sissy get’s real and says “The worst thing that could happen to me is I get raped”
Which is a fucked up thing to say and realise, but then it’s followed by this; “I have no intention in getting raped. Outside of a mild curiosity of the experience” …that, my friends, is a sentence only a man could write.
Dormeus is locked up with one of his friends who’s a Communist, he’d been in a prison before due to inciting a Union riot. His friend is a Socialist who was a bootlgger during Prohibition and the two always argued. They’re reunited in the Concentration Camp and start squabbling immediately, like an old married marxist couple. It provides a brief bit of humour in a grim portion of the book.
The last third of the book has a lot of faults. Through out the novel it seems that Doremus is the protagonist and thus we’re seeing everything from his perspective. The very intricate news summaries in a few chapters, one can assume, is Dormeus recounting all the stories he’s heard over the regime.
But in the latter part of the novel, perspectives begin to change. Sissy get’s her own chapter as does his other daughter who’s stricken with grief, leaves home, joins the airforce and straight up pulls a kamikaze on the plane containing the man who killed her husband.
Even Shad get’s a paragraph at the end of one chapter recounting how lonely he feels now as a Fascist. Then the President, who is mostly absent from the book and is largely seen as a Shadow looming over everyone- like Goldstein in 1984. He get’s a chapter which feature’s not one but two coups.
Then they have this weird non-linear narrative mix up in which something will happen and then they go back a week and see the events occur from another characters perspective- such as what happened with Sissy’s boyfriend and the fate of Shad.
Eventually we’re fixed back onto Dormeus and at this time he’s managed to organise a breakout and he escapes. He’s reunited with a portion of his family briefly and then he’s sent on to Canada as a refugee. He hangs around with all the other refugees/rebels, feeling quite lonely.
Eventually he’s sent back to America along the West Coast, the book ends with him working as a spy. The Fascist regime has yet to be toppled, the tale is cut halfway through deliberately. Because keep in mind, this was written during the rise of Fascism in Europe and Sinclair Lewis genuinely didn’t know if they would win. He didn’t know how to topple Fascism or if he could topple Fascism. Even if you could mow down a Hitler or a Mussolini, could you beat a Buzz? Or a Trump?
We don’t know. That’s the terrifying part about both the ending and the novel as a whole, history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself but it does rhyme and the future is never set. The arrogance of perceive knowledge of such a future may doom us all.
But despite the flaws in the novel, it is a great work and probably one of the most important books of that era. Hell, any era. It should be taught in schools alongside 1984, Huckleberry Finn and the other classics. I highly recommend you pick it up.
As to the similarities to Buzz and Trump, there are a good few. As Dormeus described; “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.
Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.”
Sound like anyone you know?
Despite the similarities, the actions don’t match. Trump has yet to form his own Militia recognised by the State (Unless that Space Force turns into a Space Gestapo), the checks and balances of both the senate and the supreme court have ensured that he can’t do too much damage to both the Country and the World. But he has done damage.
The tragedy of Trump is that the vast majority of the decisions he’s made are the exact same decisions someone like Mitt Romney or Ted Cruz would have made. If only he could pass the tax cuts without the demeanour of a serial rapist.
I say Trump is a Fascist because like most Fascist regimes, their ideology and promises are inconsistent. Hitler and Mussolini promised to bring jobs and prosperity but when such prosperity didn’t come about due to their detestable policies, they popped up concentration camps and created new scapegoats. Mussolini didn’t even discriminate against Jews until his alliance with Hitler, most of his comrades were Jews.
In the same way Trump is equally inconsistent. Both pro and against war, both pro and anti bank, both pro and anti immigrant and celebrity and whatever he doesn’t like. Whatever he says means nothing because he will say whatever to get people to like and accept him. He’s a Octopus fitting through a key hole, finding whatever shape he makes will slide him right on through.
All so he can hold power, because that power is the consolation prize for the love he sorely wants and doesn’t deserve. Those who pursue power, for whatever reason, will change rapidly upon receiving it. Those who obtain power will mostly be concerned with keeping it. Those who enslave and imprison others will become slaves and prisoners themselves.
And although the Fascist may free themselves, they will never appreciate such freedom. They will abuse their power- lashing out at a world they seek to destroy and remake in their own image. That’s why most Fascist regimes believe in holding the state to such a standard above all others, in a hopes to rejuvenate it- to make it reborn. In other words, Make America Great Again.