Penguin Classics marked Inauguration Day, 2017, by reissuing Sinclair Lewis’s dystopian novel, It Can’t Happen Here. When the novel first debuted in 1935, Time called its spin on homespun fascism ‘too weird to be convincing and alarming,’ but over the past four years, many contemporary readers and reviewers found it prescient. Like Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, it keyed into ambient fears about the strength of our democratic institutions. Penguin promoted It Can’t Happen Here as the ‘chillingly realistic’ tale of Senator ‘Buzz’ Windrip, a conman who stages a coup against Congress and ‘becomes a dictator to save the nation from welfare cheats, sex, crime, and a liberal press.’ On the eve of another Inauguration, though, the fresh journalistic relevance of words like ‘insurrection’ and ‘sedition’ invites us to revisit Lewis’s cautionary tale again. The novel’s action, to include Windrip’s coup, really hinges on its self-described ‘Forgotten Men,’ otherwise-respectable and zealously middle-class ‘Minute Men’ whose desires drive the authoritarian strain in Lewis’s dystopian populism.
Over the past few years, the claim that ‘when fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross’ has been routinely misattributed to Lewis. While it’s easy for It Can’t Happen Here’s readers to see why, the closest he actually came to this was in the novel, Gideon Planish. ‘I just wish people wouldn’t quote Lincoln or the Bible,’ Lewis wrote, ‘or hang out the flag or cross, to cover up something that belongs more to the bank book and the three golden balls.’ His ‘big-canvas American’ novels all address this double-helix of ‘Babbitry.’ In It Can’t Happen Here, Lewis identifies it as the ‘congested idealism of the generally discontent’ who ‘saw in Windrip, for all his clownish swindlerism, a free vigor which promised a rejuvenation’ of their own middle-class values and aspirations.
It’s worth noting in this regard that It Can’t Happen Here’s Windrip’s militant ‘patriots’ — the ‘Minute Men’ — aren’t broad-brush Hillbilly Elegy specters. Although Lewis describes the ‘rank and file’ as factory workers, ‘ex-bootleggers, ex-burglars,’ and ‘young farmers delighted by the chance to go to town,’ it’s the respectable ‘Babbitts’ who really thrive as ‘Minute Men.’ The ‘collegians,’ Lewis writes, ‘were to be schooled as officers,’ with ‘drill counting as credit toward graduation.’ Others were ‘recruited from gymnasiums and the classes in Business Administration of the Y.M.C.A.’ At turns, even Lewis’s protagonist reporter, a ‘mild, indolent, and somewhat sentimental Liberal’ named Doremus Jessup, feels the pull of Windrip’s rhetoric. Apart from all the ‘demagogic pap’ and the ‘pretty nasty’ outbreaks of violence, Jessup concedes, most of the ‘Minute Men’ seem like ‘mighty nice, clean-cut young fellows.’
He’s largely right – and that ought to be more disconcerting than the folksy huckster, Windrip. In fact, Lewis never really identifies working-class populism, reckless as it is in the novel, as a real authoritarian driver in American politics. ‘The actual management of the poor,’ Lewis writes, ‘particularly of the more surly and dissatisfied poor, was undertaken by the Minute Men.’ That ‘management’ is predictably brutal, particularly because it’s enforced by the semi-professionalized ‘Minute Man’ who ‘had ever so much more pride in being called an inspector, an awing designation … than in being a private.’
Lewis makes a curious point in this regard. One of Windrip’s advisors shows him statistics that college education made ‘mighty nice’ kids ‘more patriotic, flag-waving, and skillful in the direction of slaughter than the average youth.’ In short, they’re not hypocrites like Windrip, but nor are they the ‘very poor, the common workmen, the skilled workmen’ who numbered among ‘the dispossessed, the frustrated, and the angry.’ They’re closer in their aspirations to Jessup, who distinguishes his own middle-class interest from that of ‘the proletarians’ by noting that the poor ‘want bread’ and ‘we want — well, all right, say it, we want cake!’ Prior to the coup in which ‘more than a hundred Congressmen [are] arrested’ on Windrip’s orders, ‘all over the country, bands of M.M.’s had been sitting gloating over pistols and guns, twitching with desire to seize them.’ In a sense, they’re just pursuing familiar Main Street ‘boosterism’ and ‘Babbittry’ at a more accelerated rate, and on a more aspirational scale. ‘Twitching’ for blood, but also for cake.
It’s no surprise, then, that the novel begins at the Annual Ladies Dinner of the Fort Beulah Rotary Club, where the tables are set with Mickey Mouse figurines and ‘small American flags stuck in gilded, hard-boiled eggs.’ Under a wall-banner asserting ‘Service Before Self,’ the ‘social-minded patriot[s]’ and ‘sacrosanct’ D.A.R. expound on the ‘purity of the American Home’ and listen to retired military officers outline Windrip’s authoritarian program unawares. Of course, Lewis’s Rotarians – at least at the novel’s outset – wouldn’t want anything to do with ‘factory workers’ and ‘ex-bootleggers.’ Nor, for that matter, would they brook the theatrical violence staged at our real Capitol by face-painted conspiracy-theorists costumed for Wagner’s Ring. Lewis’s novel does not imagine an analogue for that. It does, however, ask us to pivot toward the harder question of what makes ‘Babbitts’ and ‘mighty nice’ people ‘Minute Men’ devotees. ‘Respectable people,’ Adam Serwer notes in The Atlantic, ‘can be very dangerous.’ If Lewis were alive, he might note of the number of florists, real estate agents, civil litigators, carwash owners, pensioned retirees, aspiring actors, small-town politicos, and doctors’ husbands who find themselves at the center of federal investigations after the violent insurrection at the Capitol.
Rereading It Can’t Happen Here this week, I found myself focusing less on ‘Buzz’ Windrop’s attempt to form a ‘régime that’ll remind you of Henry Morgan the pirate capturing a merchant ship’ than on the faces in the crowd. In one scene, they’re book-burning, full of ‘congested idealism’ and Gleichschaltung, and a title caught my eye – G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. It’s a surreal detective novel about undercover policemen who mistake each other for anarchists, an Edwardian ‘Q Anon’ nightmare that exposes itself as metaphysical farce.
Thursday’s claim that ‘if you don’t seem to be hiding nobody hunted you out’ inspired the Irish Republican, Michael Collins, and rightly so. Some years ago, I worked as a private investigator and I thought of that same line whenever I would have to attend a stranger’s wedding or pass myself off as a member of a private club. ‘Nothing to it,’ my boss assured me. ‘You get yourself black shoes, black pants, black tie, white shirt and walk in.’ He was right. The guests imagine you’re waitstaff and the staff thinks you’re a guest because a grift is only as good as what its audience already wants to see.
It Can’t Happen Here’s evocation of dystopia depends on Chesterton’s point. The craftiest thing,’ Lewis writes, ‘about the M.M.’s was that they wore no colored shirts, but only plain white when on parade.’ This distinguished them from ‘all these degenerate European uniforms of tyranny.’ It meant, Windrip assures his rallies, that the ‘Minute Men’ weren’t ‘Fascist or Communist or anything at all but plain Democratic – the knight-champions of the Forgotten Men – the shock troops of Freedom!’ – if you want it to.
In the novel’s next scene, Jessup’s at a Windrip rally at Madison Square Garden, where four years after It Can’t Happen Here’s initial publication, the German American Bund held its ‘Pro-American Rally’ for 20,000 otherwise-ordinary New Yorkers. In It Can’t Happen Here, Jessup’s ‘aware of the murderous temper of the crowd’ at the Garden, but the Minute Men also remind him of ‘a slightly drunken knot of students from an inferior college after a football victory.’ What, after all, is a more quintessential ‘Babbittry’ than Lewis’s ‘large proportion of people who feel poor no matter how much they have, and envy their neighbors who wear cheap clothes showily?’
Even after the scene’s predictable violence, lads in white shirtsleeves blend back. ‘The Minute Men,’ Lewis writes after a similar incident, ‘why, they said to themselves, they’d never meant to be soldiers anyway — just wanted to have some fun marching!’ They ‘sneak into the edges of the mob, hiding their uniform caps,’ and the ‘social-minded patriots’ at the Annual Dinner of the Fort Beulah Rotary, one might imagine, agree that it sounds like there were ‘mighty nice, clean-cut young fellows’ on their side.