It really can happen here: The novel that foreshadowed Donald Trump’s authoritarian appeal.
Amid the 80th anniversary of Sinclair Lewis’s anti-fascist tome, Trump’s campaign makes Lewis look prophetic. SEPTEMBER 29, 2015 (UTC)
Candidate Donald Trump has turned into a much better joke than most people expected. What first appeared like a Simpsons gag, a media stunt, is now leading the Republican field. Trump’s pseudo-populist businessman’s appeal is so surprisingly forthright that, in addition to being the butt of the nation’s laughter, he’s turning the whole political system into a punchline too.
With his careful mix of plainspoken honesty and reactionary delusion, Trump is following an old rhetorical playbook, one defined and employed successfully in the 1936 presidential campaign of Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip. In his campaign’s promotional book “Zero Hour,” Windrip laid out the classic nativist call to action that Trump would pick up nearly word-for-word:
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, and second, to realize that whatever apparent differences there may be among us, in wealth, knowledge, skill, ancestry or strength–though, of course, all this does not apply to people who are racially different from us–we are all brothers, bound together in the great and wonderful bond of National Unity, for which we should all be very glad.
After Windrip’s coup at the Democratic convention, he won a three-way race when the other two candidates split the reasonable vote. Once elected, President Windrip appealed directly to his core constituency of unprosperous and resentful white men to help him repress dissent and bring fascism to America. It’s a chilling historical lesson, even though it didn’t actually happen.
Windrip’s election is the beginning of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel “It Can’t Happen Here,” rather than actual American history. A wonderful example of prophylactic fiction, Lewis used his position as one of the nation’s top novelists to show his countrymen exactly how authoritarianism could rear its head in the land of liberty. The assassination of Louisiana Governor Huey Long (better remembered in literary history for inspiring Robert Penn Warren’s “All The King’s Men”) and the reelection of Franklin Roosevelt rendered Lewis’s warning moot for a time, but 80 years later the novel feels frighteningly contemporary.
Like Trump, Windrip uses a lack of tact as a way to distinguish himself. Americans know on some level that the country’s governing system has never conformed to its official values. There are basic contradictions between what politicians and policymakers say and what they do, but also at the core of the national identity. We are, in our own mind, a scrappy underdog and the world’s only superpower at the same time. Right-wing populists don’t shy away from either side of the dichotomy; instead they gain credibility by openly embracing the contradictions. They tell the truth about why they’re lying and declare their ulterior motives.
When it comes to making America great again, Trump promises to wheel-and-deal like the savvy businessman he keeps telling us he is. Instead of just implying their cynicism through participation in the electoral process like a normal politician, Buzz and Trump put it in their “pro” column. “We probably will have to lick those Little Yellow Men some day, to keep them from pinching our vested and rightful interests in China,” Windrip writes of Japan in “Zero Hour,” “but don’t let that keep us from grabbing off any smart ideas that those cute little beggars have worked out!” Any American president will be a thieving imperialist bastard, but these guys promise voters they will be the best thieving imperialist bastards.
The devil in a devil costume, however, is no less sinister than the besuited version. The social forces that Windrip and Trump invoke aren’t funny, they’re murderous. Our conventional narrative is that the Klu Klux Klan was mocked into nonexistence, but recent demonstrations prove some people still haven’t given up the Lost Cause. That American fascism has always had a goofy Halloweenish quality makes it easier to laugh, but doesn’t protect their targets.