Imagine this pitch for a dystopian novel: An ambitious 48-year-old Democratic senator from Illinois runs for president. He promises to raise taxes, restrict personal incomes, and collectivize everything. “Call me a socialist!” he says. Deposing a well-known senior member of his party, he goes on to win the general election. People call him “that sky-rocket.”
Then this happens: Shortly after his inauguration, the new president suspends the Constitution, imposes martial law, and governs as a fascist dictator.
Presented with this scenario, liberals would howl in horror. They’d label the plot preposterous. They’d denounce it as a right-wing fever dream. They’d accuse its author of racism and possibly run for a safe space. Or so it might seem. Instead, they’re praising an 81-year-old novel that reads in part like a biography of Barack Obama — and calling it a prophecy of Donald Trump’s presidency.
The book is It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, a novelist whose fictional excoriations of middle-class life in the 1920s made him, in 1930, the first American to win a Nobel Prize for literature. His words “Babbitt” and “Babbittry” once were familiar putdowns that targeted provincial smugness, but today they are nearly forgotten — and Lewis, when he is remembered at all, is most remembered for this lesser work of political speculation, written and published in 1935. That’s because liberals have made a hobby of citing it whenever they want to suggest that American fascism looms. In 1992, Gore Vidal wrote about Lewis in The New York Review of Books and deployed the cliché: “People still say, in quotes as it were, ‘It can’t happen here,’ meaning fascism, which probably will.”
In the liberal imagination, fascism is always about to happen here — and usually it involves Republicans. When the late Herbert Mitgang of the New York Times examined the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra scandal, he wrote that it “brings to mind the ironic title” of Lewis’s book. At the 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans, the guerrilla artist Robbie Conal plastered the city with posters featuring a caricature of George H. W. Bush and the line “It Can’t Happen Here.” In 2007, when the younger President Bush was in office, Joe Conason adapted the title for his own tome, It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush. Perhaps the phrase was in the air, because two years earlier the New American Library, an imprint of Penguin, re-released It Can’t Happen Here, calling it “a shockingly prescient novel that’s as fresh and contemporary as today’s news.” The new edition included an introduction by Michael Meyer, an English professor at the University of Connecticut. When I e-mailed Meyer recently to ask what prompted the novel’s reappearance in 2005, he replied: “A lot of people were made nervous by [Dick] Cheney’s role in the Bush administration.”
Now we come to Trump — and a brand-new set of ponderous references and allusions. A week after the election, interest in It Can’t Happen Here grew so strong that retailers such as Amazon ran out of copies, according to Money magazine. Left-leaning pundits fueled the sales with their non-stop namedrops in everything from the Financial Times to the Washington Post. “It Happened Here,” punned a headline in The New Yorker, above a post-election report by David Remnick. Just a month earlier, a different writer for the same magazine, Alexander Nazaryan, wondered whether Lewis had foretold of a time like now, cursed by “a populace that can no longer make the kind of judgments that participatory democracy requires.” More than a year ago, when the book’s connection to Trump at least had the virtue of relative freshness, Malcolm Harris described it in Salon: “The novel feels frighteningly contemporary.” These days, however, the pundits are just piling on, as Lewis Beale did in December, when he argued in the Daily Beast that it offers “chilling comparisons” to our time.
That’s true, up to a point, as an editor at the Daily Beast — Evelyn Waugh version — might say. Readers of It Can’t Happen Here indeed will spot dozens of superficial ways in which Trump resembles Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a Huey Long figure who leads a fascist takeover of America. Both Trump and Windrip are populist firebrands who invent patriotic slogans. Windrip promises “to make America a proud, rich land again.” He may be, as Lewis puts it, “vulgar, almost illiterate,” but he also displays “something of the earthy American sense of humor of a Mark Twain.” There’s ugliness, too: Windrip is an aggressive racist and anti-Semite who jails journalists and condemns his foes to concentration camps. He creates his own version of Hitler’s Brownshirts, giving them a name that smacks of tea-party activism — the Minute Men — and declaring them “the shock troops of Freedom!” He frets over Japan the way Trump worries about China: “We probably will have to lick those Little Yellow Men some day.” Toward the end of the book, America even goes to war with Mexico.
Perhaps portions of this account feel a little Trumpy. Those who call attention to the similarities, however, tend to skip over the inconvenient bits — and not just the coincidental fact that Windrip shares Obama’s background as a rising-star Democratic senator from Illinois. Lewis portrays Windrip’s Democratic political base as “jammed with college professors, city slickers, and yachtsmen,” which is a pretty good sketch of the Obama coalition. And who are his foes? “The conservative Senators,” bellows Windrip.
Yet the most striking feature of the novel involves Windrip’s ideas — and how much his rhetoric and vision overlap with the progressive platform of 21st-century Democrats. The Constitution is out of date, says Windrip, and he pledges “to bring it up from the horseback-and-corduroy-road epoch to the automobile-and-cement period of today.” The president needs more administrative authority: “The Executive has got to have a freer hand . . . and not be tied down by a lot of dumb shyster-lawyer congressmen taking months to shoot off their mouths in debates.” The urgent problem of economic inequality requires bold action: “All swollen incomes [must] be severely limited and inheritances cut to such small sums as may support the heirs only in youth and in old age.” There’s plenty more, too, such as a 15-point plan whose elements include the nationalization of banks, mines, oilfields, water power, public utilities, transportation, and communication.
Lewis knew something that today’s liberals either fail to recognize or refuse to acknowledge: Fascism seeks to deny not just political freedom, but also economic freedom. And although the people who celebrate It Can’t Happen Here often dwell on Windrip’s poor treatment of black and Jews, they rarely mention that he’s also an anti-Catholic bigot. When Lewis describes the arrest of “a group of Catholic nuns who were accused of having taught treasonably,” it’s hard not to think of the Little Sisters of the Poor and their defiance of federal health-care mandates. Finally, there’s Lee Sarason, who is roughly to Windrip what Steve Bannon is to Trump. Lewis lampoons this character in an episode of gay-baiting that ought to make today’s liberals squirm, if they cared about more than using the book as a bludgeon for bashing Republicans.
Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here in just a few weeks of intense work. His biographer Mark Schorer has claimed that the novel owes an important debt to Lewis’s wife Dorothy Thompson, a journalist who sounded early warnings in the 1930s about the menace of Hitler. “It is [Lewis’s] cleverness and literary imagination one reads, but it is Dorothy’s voice that one hears,” adds Thompson biographer Susan Hertog. Whatever its inspiration, the manuscript was rushed into print by a publisher who hoped to capitalize on the tumult in Europe and the upcoming 1936 election in the United States. Arriving in bookstores only six months after Lewis had started to compose it, the novel became an instant sensation, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Embraced by the Federal Theatre Project — a New Deal make-work program for stage actors and crews — it also became a hit play.
Communists loved it. The Marxist critic Granville Hicks praised It Can’t Happen Here in The New Masses. “Sinclair Lewis has written a courageous and tremendously useful book,” he wrote. “The Communists will welcome him — do, in fact, welcome him right now for the fight against fascism.” Over time, as its immediacy wore off, scholars have knocked its artistry and questioned its depth. In On Native Grounds (1942), Alfred Kazin offered a typical assessment, calling the novel “not a really ambitious book and certainly not a careful and deeply imagined one.”
The main problem may be that despite his wife’s influence, Lewis lacked a systematic understanding of totalitarianism or even demagoguery. Among his contemporaries, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell wrote the definitive treatments of the former with Brave New World and 1984, while John Dos Passos and Robert Penn Warren took up the latter with Number One and All the King’s Men. Lewis’s own politics were a hodgepodge. He was sympathetic to socialism and supported the Progressive Robert La Follette as well as the Democrat Franklin Roosevelt. By the 1940s, however, he apparently regarded Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a Michigan Republican, as excellent presidential material. Lewis “was basically apolitical,” wrote Thompson, “but insofar as his social ideas were articulate and consistent, he was an old-fashioned populist radical.”
Amid these shifting loyalties, Lewis refused to become anyone’s political tool. The scholar Stephen L. Tanner points to a passage in a memoir by Malcolm Cowley, a 1930s leftist who tried with his comrades to recruit Lewis to their cause. They invited the novelist to a dinner and heaped praise on It Can’t Happen Here. When Lewis discovered their agenda, he objected: “Let me tell you, it isn’t a very good book — I’ve done better books — and furthermore I don’t believe any of you have read the book; if you had, you would have seen I was telling you all to go to hell.” Then, in a brilliant feat of mockery, he compelled his flatterers to rise and sing a Christian hymn.
The humorous incident also contains a piece of wisdom: Before trying to bend a book to fit a partisan purpose, it might make sense to read it with care. Those who turn the pages of It Can’t Happen Here will find a line in the first chapter that satirizes those who won’t be bothered with the effort: “We don’t want all this highbrow intellectuality, all this book-learning.”