Sinclair Lewis, Donald Trump: Yes, It Can Happen Here
The name Sinclair Lewis is not bandied about much these days. Some of the Nobel-winning author’s novels from the 1920s — Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry — were household names in their day, but they’re largely ignored now. These days you’re more likely to discover Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs or Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep on a reading list for an American Lit college survey course than Main Street. HBO turned James M. Cain’s mid-20th-century novel Mildred Pierce into a miniseries in 2011. But no such attention has been lavished lately on a Lewis novel, at least not in America. (A miniseries based on Arrowsmith did turn up in the Czech Republic in 1997.) Mention the author’s name and there’s a good chance you’ll be met with a shrug and a “Sinclair who?” Or maybe “Oh, sure. He wrote The Jungle, right? Or was that Upton Sinclair?” (It was.)
On the other hand, during this unprecedentedly dizzying 2016 presidential election cycle and the rise of Donald Trump, references to It Can’t Happen Here, Lewis’s best-selling 1935 novel, have been popping up everywhere. The book — which Lewis set in the immediate future of 1936 — describes the election of a populist presidential candidate who quickly turns America into a fascist state, complete with concentration camps and a paramilitary force, patriotically if ironically dubbed “The Minute Men.”
An article by Andrew Sullivan in the May 2 issue of New York contains one of the more recent invocations of the Lewis novel. Sullivan cited the book as part of his blistering analysis of the factors that have made a Trump presidency a possibility. But Sullivan is far from the first alarmed and/or bemused commentator to turn to Lewis in the past year. Last September, Salon published an article by Malcolm Harris enumerating the ways in which the events of the book foreshadow the real-life Trump campaign eight decades later. Harris noted that Trump’s “careful mix of plainspoken honesty and reactionary delusion” parallels the tack used by Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, Lewis’s fictional victor in the 1936 presidential sweepstakes.
In a Dec. 3 New York Times opinion piece, “Is Donald Trump a Fascist?,” Ross Douthat asked:
[I]s it time for Trump watchers to dust off their copies of It Can’t Happen Here and The Plot Against America [Philip Roth’s 2004 novel imagining a 1940 election of Charles Lindbergh to the presidency]?
Douthat conceded that Trump looked and quacked like a fascist but concluded that to label him as such would do no one much good. Such labeling, he wrote, would only be a way for the political class to ignore the bona fide reasons for the billionaire’s popularity, including “the accurate sense that the American elite has misgoverned the country at home and abroad.” Douthat intimated that the Lewis and Roth books might best, in fact, remain smothered in dust.
This past spring, Adi Robertson at The Verge presented a thoughtful article that dealt with the Lewis and Roth novels along with other examples of dystopian political fiction, such as Jack London’s 1908 The Iron Heel. He argued that It Can’t Happen Here is a “perpetually relevant” examination of “creeping fascism” in American culture, and he identified some striking resemblances between Windrip and Trump, including their tendency to encourage voters to blame their unfortunate circumstances on the presence of minorities. He also located several ways in which the fiction of Lewis and the fact of Trump part company.
Over the years, I’d read most of Lewis’s major works, but not It Can’t Happen Here. I decided it was time to have a look. Later I learned that a public reading of the 1936 theatrical version of the novel (co-written by Lewis and J.C. Moffitt) would be staged by New York’s Peccadillo Theater Company at the National Arts Club. I attended the March 21 reading, directed by its artistic director, Dan Wackerman. The house was packed, and there were plenty of knowing, gallows-humor chortles whenever anything markedly Trumpian — say, references to building walls — was spoken.
Since the Peccadillo reading, I’ve learned of two more theatrical versions of It Can’t Happen Here in the offing. New York City’s ReGroup Theatre will stage the Lewis/Moffitt version this fall. And the 2016-17 season opener at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California will be a brand-new dramatic adaptation penned by artistic director Tony Taccone and screenwriter Bennett Cohen.
People are clearly looking to Lewis’ story as a contemporary cautionary tale. But does doing so make sense? Before reaching any conclusions, let’s take a deeper look at the history and content of It Can’t Happen Here.
Satire and Speculation
Lewis was sparked to write the novel by his then-wife, journalist Dorothy Thompson, who had interviewed Adolf Hitler in 1931 and written a book about it — the rather unimaginatively titled I Saw Hitler! Thompson had also interviewed ambitious Louisiana senator Huey Long, who became the chief inspiration for her husband’s fictional demagogue, Buzz Windrip. Long would be assassinated in September 1935, about a month before the publication of It Can’t Happen Here, and more than a year before the presidential election of 1936 would be won by incumbent Franklin Delano Roosevelt in real life and Buzz Windrip in Lewis’ parallel universe.
It Can’t Happen Here contains satirical, up-close-and-personal scenes featuring the national political figures Windrip and his advisor, Lee Sarason. The latter is a decadent and sinister homosexual character who is given a roundly homophobic treatment by the author. (Lewis’ antipathy toward gay men comes off as notably vehement, perhaps even by 1935 standards). Much of the novel, however, centers not on Washington insiders but ordinary Americans living in Fort Beulah, a small town in Vermont. Lewis’ protagonist is the local newspaper editor, 60-year-old Doremus Jessup. Ostensibly he’s a folksy, amiable family man. But he has also been carrying on a long-term affair with Lorinda Pike, an ardent left-wing activist. Making Jessup an adulterer, though potentially alienating some 1930s readers, keeps the character from becoming a bland, Norman Rockwell-ish figure. It also gives him an Achilles heel that proves useful to the plot.
From the start of the book, Jessup is highly skeptical of Windrip’s candidacy; he grows increasingly worried after Windrip snatches the Democratic nomination away from Roosevelt. Windrip appeals to voters, in part, because he promises — deep in the Great Depression — a guaranteed family income of $5,000 a year. But, as demonstrated by a passage from the novel (one excerpted in Andrew Sullivan’s essay), Windrip is also popular because of his brash showmanship, something that Lewis’ protagonist finds bewildering:
Doremus Jessup could not explain [Windrip’s] power of bewitching large audiences. The senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ideas almost idiotic…. There was no more overwhelming actor on the stage, in the motion pictures nor even in the pulpit. He would whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a gaping mouth; but he would also coo like a nursing mother, beseech like an aching lover, and in between tricks would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts — figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.
Windrip’s campaign platform comprises “Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Men.” Among the planks are:
- All of the nation’s finances to be controlled by a government-owned Federal Central Bank;
- Labor unions will likewise become “Bureaus of the Government”;
- Freedom of religion will be guaranteed, but not to atheists, agnostics, Black Magic practitioners, any Jews who won’t “swear allegiance to the New Testament,” or people whose faiths forbid them from pledging allegiance to the American flag;
- African-Americans are to be barred from many professions, and women forbidden from working outside the home at all, except in such fields as nursing and cosmetology.
Point 15 makes Congress solely an advisory body to the president, and it bars the U.S. Supreme Court from overturning the president’s acts. An addendum provides for amendment to these points — except for Point 15, which is not to be modified.
In November 1936, Windrip wins at the polls, and within 24 hours of his inauguration, Point 15 of the platform goes into effect. Congress votes to disapprove, prompting Windrip to declare martial law.
In the chapters that follow, Jessup, his family and his friends trudge through an extended, sometimes surrealistic nightmare. His son-in-law is summarily executed after challenging Windrip’s goon squad. His newspaper is taken over by the government. His family fails to escape to Canada. Eventually, he is sent to a concentration camp.
“A Communal Experience”
Lewis wrote his admittedly propagandist novel at breakneck pace. Its great popularity led to plans for a screen version starring Lionel Barrymore, but that fell through — at least in part — because the studio feared Germany and Italy would boycott the film. However, when Lewis was contacted by Hallie Flanagan, national director of the Federal Theatre Project, he agreed to proceed with a stage version, which he and Moffitt penned in mid-1936, again at top speed. The play was eventually produced, simultaneously, at 21 FTP theaters nationwide.
There are significant differences between the novel and the play. Some of the book’s characters — including Jessup’s cheeky younger daughter, Sissy — were eliminated. Jessup himself was changed from married man to widower, thereby eliminating the adultery angle. (His romantic relationship with Lorinda Pike, however, was retained). Of greater significance, the book’s national political figures became offstage characters — though Windrip’s voice is heard over the radio. The play’s focus is exclusively on Jessup and his Fort Beulah neighbors.
Like the novel, the stage version was highly popular. As Richard Lingeman wrote in his 2002 biography, Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street:
The production of It Can’t Happen Here was a communal experience that united a large ethnically and socially diverse audience…. It was seen by hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom had never been to the theater in their lives.
It’s impossible to know whether or not the play, which began its run in late October 1936, influenced the November presidential election. FDR won reelection by a landslide against the Republican, Alf Landon. Huey Long — the original target of the book — was long out of the picture by then. And by 1951, after Lewis died, his books gradually faded from the American consciousness as well, despite a flurry of attention in 1960 when a film adaptation based on his 1927 Elmer Gantry won three Oscars.
America, nevertheless, has remained tangentially aware of It Can’t Happen Here, if only because its title is now an enduring catchphrase. In 2011, the play version received readings in 20 cities to commemorate its 75th anniversary. While finding a copy of a Lewis novel such as Dodsworth on Amazon.com is a challenge, Signet Classics, in 2014, reprinted It Can’t Happen Here, featuring a new afterword by Gary Scharnhorst, who called it “as relevant and timely as ever.”
Equivalencies: True and False
As for the book’s particular relevance to the current election cycle, there are certainly intriguing parallels between Windrip and Trump. And significant differences.
As Malcolm Harris suggested last September, Trump, like Windrip, depends on a “core consistency of unprosperous and resentful white men.” Harris also found a likeness to Windrip in the way Trump uses “a lack of tact as a way to distinguish himself.” That’s putting the matter mildly in Trump’s case: Has any presidential candidate made cardinal virtues of plainspokenness and disdain for political correctness with quite the same success? Harry Truman could give ‘em hell, but even he curbed his tongue at times.
Harris pointed out that the relatively timid protagonist Jessup bears a striking resemblance to Trump opponents who failed to fight back quickly enough against the candidate because they believed his popularity would fizzle. Lewis wrote of the character: “He simply did not believe that this comic tyranny could endure.” (Harris also observed that Jessup grew out of the same “democratic socialist” tradition from which Bernie Sanders would emerge decades later.)
While the likeness of Trump to Windrip is in some ways uncanny, the disparate worlds of 1936 and 2016 render such parallels partly void. Take the matter of communications technology. Windrip uses the relatively new medium of radio to appeal to the masses, but he cannot launch pre-dawn Twitter binges. More significant, while Trump’s cry to “Make America Great Again” may resound with voters still feeling the fallout from the 2008 economic meltdown, the struggles of Trump’s supporters are not equivalent to what America faced during the Great Depression. As historian Robert Paxton told Isaac Chotiner for a February 10 Slate article:
[T]his country has the strongest economy in the world and is still the strongest military power in the world without any close rival. The trends are not downward unless you were offended by the presence of a black man in the White House.
While the personal appeal of Trump is in some ways akin to Windrip’s, there are points of departure here as well. Adi Robertson noted that the urban billionaire doesn’t have the same brand of “folksiness” that characterizes Windrip. Further, Robertson observed, Windrip is revealed to be a mere “figurehead” candidate operating under the thumb of Sarason, his “calculating and manipulative advisor” (who, late in the novel, unseats Windrip and seizes power for himself). Is there any pundit pontificating today who imagines Trump as another man’s puppet?
Robertson also points to the relatively secular nature of Trump’s candidacy, which differs markedly from Windrip’s strong appeal to the Christian right. Trump, of course, is nominally “Christian” but is not, like Windrip, given to “vomiting Biblical wrath” in stump speeches. Yet he still manages to attract supporters from the religious right, which I find greatly counterintuitive. Just how, during the primaries, did erstwhile playboy Trump capture the loyalty of certain right-leaning Christians, including someone as famously averse to sexual freedom as Phyllis Schlafly? Wouldn’t their natural affinity be with Ted Cruz?
Finally, it seems unlikely that any Republican candidate, including Trump, would endorse some of the “big government” planks in Democrat Windrip’s platform, such as putting banks under federal control. True, there have been suggestions that, before the general election, Trump would pivot left on economic issues. But when pressed some weeks ago, he “clarified” a suggestion that he would raise taxes on the rich, insisting that his words were misconstrued. He similarly walked back comments hinting that he favored raising the minimum wage.
Continuity with the Past
I contacted Wackerman, who staged the Peccadillo reading, to get his thoughts on Lewis and Trump. In an email, he wrote:
Unlike conservative Republicans who want to shrink the size of the Federal government in order to release the energies of the free market, both Berzelius Windrip and Donald Trump are populist demagogues whose ultimate objective is personal power.
Does Wackerman feel that new productions of It Can’t Happen Here could sway the outcome of the general election? His feelings are mixed:
It Can’t Happen Here was a sensation in 1936 and really ‘worked’ as a piece of political theater, i.e., alerting audiences to…a certain kind of home-grown fascism. Could [the play] have a similar effect in our media-saturated culture? I really don’t know. Probably not. There’s already been so much chatter about the Trump phenomenon online, in the press and on TV. On the other hand, what a production…could do is reveal the continuity between then and now, reminding audiences that our democratic institutions are fragile, that we must always be on guard against the cynical manipulations of authoritarian rabble-rousers.
However analogous to current events Lewis’ novel may be, it seems inevitable that we’ll hear more of Windrip, Jessup and the citizens of Fort Beulah in the weeks ahead. Pundits continue to call Trump out as a demagogue. Following Trump’s response to the June 12 mass slaying in an Orlando gay nightclub, Patrick Healy and Thomas Kaplan wrote this in The New York Times:
Mr. Trump appears wholly focused on the idea that America has reached an existential moment and that only he can save the country, a classic tactic of demagogy.
So it’s no longer a question of Trump “happening here” or “not happening here.” Unless Republicans opposing him can somehow derail his nomination at the convention in Cleveland, or Hillary Clinton can block him in November, the deal will soon be sealed, and with it the fate of America.