The basic plot of this book reads as if it were taken straight from today's headlines. A pompous, blustering, populist politician gets himself elected president running on a platform that is anti-woman, anti-Jew, and anti-black, by making promises he can never deliver on, by accusing the news media of spreading lies, and by proclaiming only he can cure the country's ills and make it great again. Once he takes office, he begins issuing orders that by-pass the law-making powers of Congress and the legal review of the judiciary, and strips the rights of millions of people.
As timely as it sounds, author Sinclair Lewis actually penned It Can't Happen Here more than 80 years before the election of Donald Trump to the White House.
Sinclair's bitingly witty story of how fascism could come to the United States holds so many parallels to the results of the 2016 election as to be unnerving. Written at a time when fascist governments were popping up throughout Europe, the book was inspired by the naïve belief of Americans at the time that what was happening across the Atlantic "can't happen here."
Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip is a populist U.S. senator loosely based on the bombastic Southern Senator Huey Long, whose quest for the presidency was ended by an assassin's bullet in 1935. Windrip curries the favor of Americans disgruntled over the economic blight of the Great Depression by claiming he would end unemployment, much as Trump promised to "bring jobs back" to America.
A man of little intellectual curiosity, Windrip maintains his autobiography is the world's greatest book next to the Bible, the same claim made by an equally incurious Trump about his ghostwritten autobiography The Art of the Deal. Windrips' political base is a rag-tag group of agitators called The Minute Men, or MMs for short. Think of the MMs as a combination of the Tea Party radicals and Alt-Right white supremacists who helped put Trump into office.
Windrip runs for office as a progressive populist, much as Trump did, with promises of taking power in Washington away from industrialists and bankers and giving it back to the little man. Once in power, however, Windrip begins appointing incompetent cronies to key government leadership roles. Trump, who promised to "drain the swamp" in Washington, has filled his Cabinet with controversial D.C. insiders, wealthy financiers and corporate CEOs, and lobbyists.
Almost immediately, Windrip by-passes Congress and begins issuing orders ending President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal social programs, stripping women of the right to vote, and Jews and blacks of their civil rights. He replaces key military leaders with buffoons from the Minutemen, and abolishes all regulations on businesses.
In the first few days of his administration, Trump stripped regulations on banks, industry, and polluters; demanded the repeal of President Obama's Affordable Care Act; ordered the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants (at least those who are non-Anglo); and removed the nation's top military and national security leaders from the National Security Council, replacing them with his Alt-Right strategist, Steve Bannon.
To consolidate power, Windrip sends handpicked "commissioners" to assume the leadership of local governments. The move is very similar to the Nazis use of gauleiters to take control of areas of Germany. Trump hasn't done that—yet—but several Republican governors have dispatched "emergency managers" to take over local government bodies in their states. (Two such emergency managers have been charged with felonies for their roles in the Flint, Michigan drinking water fiasco.)
Windrip fails to make good on any of his campaign promises save one; he ends unemployment by sending the unemployed to labor camps. Workers from labor camps are provided to companies for a fee. This, of course, means those companies lay off paid workers who, now unemployed, are sent to labor camps.
As one of his first acts, Trump rescinded President Obama's executive order to withdraw federal prisoners from privately operated prisons, which have been criticized for bolstering their profits by outsourcing inmates as prison laborers.
Windrip fulfills one of Trump's campaign promises when he strengthens border security to prevent illegal immigration—out of the United States into Canada and Mexico. Walls, after all, keep people in as well as out.
Eventually, as Windrip consolidates his power, he does away all political parties except the new Corporatist Party, whose members are called Corpos. The country is now ruled by and for corporations and wealthy oligarchs, the very definition of fascism as defined by the father of fascism, Italy's Il Duce, Benito Mussolini.
The story is told through the disbelieving eyes of Doremus Jessup, a middle-aged newspaperman, who cannot believe his fellow citizens don't see the slow creep of growing totalitarianism in the country. When MMs begin to terrorize the citizenry, people assume they are just a small minority of rabble-rousers. Even when Windrip establishes concentration camps to house his enemies, many in the country simply cannot believe the United States is falling victim to corporate fascism. They continue to believe "It can't happen here." By the time they realize it has happened here, it is too late.
Lewis's inspiration for this book was simply the time in which it was written. In the 1930s, the United States was still recovering from the Great Depression. Ninety percent of the country's wealth was owned by only three 3 percent of the population. (Today, after 30 years of Reaganomics, only 1 percent of Americans own the bulk of the nation's wealth).
Dissatisfaction over the slow economic recovery spawned several populist movements, many of them pro-fascist. Brown-shirted and jackbooted members of the German American Bund—the Nazi Part affiliate in the U.S.—were goose-stepping down Main Street. Father Coughlin, a Catholic priest, was spewing anti-Semitic rhetoric over the airways. The leader of the fascist Silver Legion of America, also known as the Silver Shirts due to their uniforms' silver camp shirts, even made a bid for the White House.
In 1932, a group of wealthy conservatives attempted a coup to overthrow the government and establish a fascist government. What became known as the American Putsch was thwarted by the man they approached to head the coup, Smedley Butler, a retired Marine Corps major general and two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor, who turned the conspirators over to the FBI.
Still, Lewis's writing doesn't spare any political movement. He believes any strongly held belief system, political or religious, can produce authoritarianism. All it takes is a populace too wrapped up in their own lives to not recognize what's happening about them, or not caring what's happening as long as it doesn't happen to them.
There is no happy ending to this book. There is no great uprising of patriots; many of those who most loudly proclaim their patriotism in the beginning of the book end up in the MMs or working for Windrip. The rest of the country simply endures. Far more than Orwell's 1984 or Huxley's Brave New World, It Can't Happen Here is a cautionary tale that all Americans should be reading—and heeding—today.