Can It Happen Here?

Alan Zendell, February 26, 2018

One of the nearly continuous lessons I learned growing up in post-World War Two New York, was that America was the strongest and most virtuous country on Earth. The idea that America was where the Good Guys lived was a given, something I never thought to challenge until I was an undergraduate at Columbia, when anti-ROTC demonstrations and panty raids of the Barnard dorms were the height of radicalism. In the 1960s, the horrors of Nazism and Fascism were all thought of in the past tense, the nightmares they once produced replaced by fears of Communism and the Russian H-bomb.

Evil dictatorships, be they Fascist or Communist, our smug young minds assured us, could never happen here in America. It wasn’t until years later that I became aware of just how strong the Nazi movement in the United States had grown prior to World War Two. On February 20, 1939, less than a month before German troops occupied Czechoslovakia, 20,000 American Nazis held a rally at Madison Square Garden in New York. I was reminded of all that recently, when I stumbled across Sinclair Lewis’ dystopian fantasy novel, It Can’t Happen Here.

Lewis published it in 1935, five years after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. The novel tells the story of a nationalist/populist candidate who challenges Franklin Roosevelt’s bid for re-election in 1936 and defeats both him and his Republican opponent. The new president immediately creates a para-military force of Minute Men who supersede local law enforcement and rapidly construct a fascist state modeled after 1930s Germany and Italy.

The story is dated and exaggerated, especially in its portrayal of an American population so steeped in Depression and poverty that they buy into the Fascist promises of prosperity for all working people. It quickly becomes clear, however, that “working people” excludes women, Negroes, Jews, intellectuals, and wealthy bankers and industrialists. Within two years, women cannot work, blacks are disenfranchised, all those other undesirables are confined in concentration camps, and the United States has initiated a war of conquest with Mexico.

Eighty years after it was published, It Can’t Happen Here experienced a stunning comeback with the election of Donald Trump. A New York Times book review published three days before Trump’s inauguration viewed the novel as an eerily prescient prediction of the conditions that resulted in Trump’s victory, and claimed that “Within a week of the 2016 election, the book was reportedly sold out on Amazon.com.” Lewis’ satirical message, of course, was that it can happen here, and it might if Americans don’t wake up from their complacent somnolence.

I found reading the book profoundly depressing. Lewis’ Fascist American president comes to power legally, via the ballot box. But once in office he systematically begins to disassemble the institutions that are the basis of American society, specifically the press and the courts, using his Minute Men to intimidate and arrest anyone who opposes him, including a good portion of Congress. Much of the story was modeled on the way Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, but the real horror of reading it today was the feeling among the majority of Americans that Donald Trump aspires to the same kind of autocratic rule.

Do I think it’s possible that an updated version of Lewis’ vision could materialize in today’s America? I want to emphatically say, “NO,” but I and so many others were wrong in 2016. We foolishly believed that America had turned a critical corner since the turn of this century. We thought the election of Barrack Obama proved America had finally outgrown the worst of its bigotries and prejudices. We’re a lot more knowledgeable and better educated than Americans were in the 1930s, but apparently no less prone to believing in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

If you don’t think our freedom and institutions are fragile, think again. Another work of fiction brings this point home even more strongly. Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle, serialized on the screen by Amazon Studios, is an alternate history in which Germany and Japan won World War Two and occupy a divided United States. Many versions of this story have been written before, but the power of this one is how convincingly Americans are shown to be turned by Nazi ideology when their individual self-interest and survival are at stake.

I might not have taken either work seriously, if I hadn’t seen Donald Trump relentlessly use the very same tactics as the autocrats of the last century. His attacks on truth, his reliance on the politics of fear and division, and his relentless attempts to silence the media and thwart the will of the courts make Lewis’ and Dick’s warnings a lot more credible than they would have been just four years ago.

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