It CAN Happen Here
It IS happening here
“All men would be tyrants if they could.” — Daniel Defoe, 1712
There are moments in history when speaking up matters — when remaining silent is no longer an option.
And this is one of those times.
I appreciate your support.
I write about leadership and communication as they intersect with values and principles. And I frequently ask myself, “What kind of unprincipled leader would I be if I didn’t give voice to my conscience?”
That’s integrity, isn’t it? When you act in accordance with your values.
So today, on Election Day here in the United States, I’m drawing attention to It Can’t Happen Here, a dystopian novel by Sinclair Lewis that was published in 1935.
In it, citizens of the United States voluntarily vote their way into fascism (but they don’t call it that, of course) for economic reasons, to be protected from Communism, and for conservative religious and racial reasons.
Are you sensing a familiar strain?
Strap in. It doesn’t end there.
The Players in the Drama
Everyone who speaks, writes, or protests against the government starts to disappear, leaving the protagonist, Doremus Jessup, to decide how he and his newspaper, the Daily Informer, can contribute to the fight for democracy.
Several factors contributed to the victory, including a new communications technology: the radio — and the support that popular broadcasters like Bishop Prang gave to the candidacy of the aspiring autocrat, Senator Buzz Windrip.
And Windrip was about as pure as the driven slush:
He was never governor; he had shrewdly seen that his reputation for research among planters-punch recipes, varieties of poker, and the psychology of girl stenographers might cause his defeat by the church people
The militiamen considered him their general and their god, and when the state attorney general announced that he was going to have Windrip indicted for having grafted $200,000 of tax money, the militia rose to Buzz Windrip’s orders as though they were his private army and, occupying the legislative chambers and all the state offices, and covering the streets leading to the Capitol with machine guns, they herded Buzz's enemies out of town.
Watching this unfold, Doremus Jessup begins to warn people. But the town’s leading industrialist claims that fascism couldn’t happen in the U.S. because “We’re a country of freemen!”
There’s a good history lesson in his monologue:
“The answer to that,” suggested Doremus Jessup, “if Mr. Falck will forgive me, is ‘the hell it can’t!’ Why, there’s no country in the world that can get more hysterical—yes, or more obsequious!—than America. Look how Huey Long became absolute monarch over Louisiana, and how the Right Honorable Mr. Senator Berzelius Windrip owns his State. Listen to Bishop Prang and Father Coughlin on the radio—divine oracles, to millions. Remember how casually most Americans have accepted Tammany grafting and Chicago gangs and the crookedness of so many of President Harding’s appointees?
Could Hitler’s bunch, or Windrip’s, be worse? Remember the Kuklux Klan? Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut 'Liberty cabbage' and somebody actually proposed calling German measles 'Liberty measles'? And wartime censorship of honest papers? Bad as Russia! Remember our kissing the—well, the feet of Billy Sunday, the million-dollar evangelist, and of Aimée McPherson, who swam from the Pacific Ocean clear into the Arizona desert and got away with it? Remember Voliva and Mother Eddy?...
Remember our Red scares and our Catholic scares, when all well-informed people knew that the O.G.P.U. were hiding out in Oskaloosa, and the Republicans campaigning against Al Smith told the Carolina mountaineers that if Al won the Pope would illegitimatize their children? Remember Tom Heflin and Tom Dixon? Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution?...
Remember the Kentucky night-riders? Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings? Not happen here? Prohibition—shooting down people just because they might be transporting liquor—no, that couldn’t happen in America! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours! We’re ready to start on a Children’s Crusade—only of adults—right now, and the Right Reverend Abbots Windrip and Prang are all ready to lead it!”
Does any of this sound familiar?
The retort to Jessup’s warning is a defense of business and its utility within the administration, and a screed against those who need government assistance:
“Well, what if they are?” protested R.C. Crowley. “It might not be so bad. I don’t like all these irresponsible attacks on us bankers all the time. Of course, Senator Windrip has to pretend publicly to bawl the banks out, but once he gets into power he’ll give the banks their proper influence in the administration and take our expert financial advice. Yes. Why are you so afraid of the word 'Fascism,' Doremus? Just a word—just a word! And might not be so bad, with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours—not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini—like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good old days—and have ’em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again. ’Nother words, have a doctor who won’t take any back-chat, but really boss the patient and make him get well whether he likes it or not!”
“Yes!” said Emil Staubmeyer. “Didn’t Hitler save Germany from the Red Plague of Marxism? I got cousins there. I know!”
“Hm,” said Doremus, as often Doremus did say it. “Cure the evils of Democracy by the evils of Fascism! Funny therapeutics. I’ve heard of their curing syphilis by giving the patient malaria, but I’ve never heard of their curing malaria by giving the patient syphilis!”
Now, as a historical aside, there was an actual radio broadcaster in the 1930s by the name of Father Coughlin. He was a Catholic priest and populist leader who promoted antisemitic and pro-fascist views to the 10 million listeners of his radio program.
In fact, the podcast Ultra covers in fascinating detail what was happening then.
Prang’s millions of followers — economically distressed white people who call themselves the “League of Forgotten Men” — are a powerful voting bloc.
In Chapter 5, the nation’s leading Christian demagogue, Bishop Prang, announces that his “League of Forgotten Men” — economically distressed white people — will put its weight behind Windrip, the populist/fascist candidate who promises action to bring “globalist” corporations to heel while fending off the Communists.
“There is no Peace! For more than a year now, the League of Forgotten Men has warned the politicians, the whole government, that we are sick unto death of being the Dispossessed—and that, at last, we are more than fifty million strong; no whimpering horde, but with the will, the voices, the votes to enforce our sovereignty! We have in no uncertain way informed every politician that we demand—that we demand—certain measures, and that we will brook no delay.
Again and again we have demanded that both the control of credit and the power to issue money be unqualifiedly taken away from the private banks; that the soldiers not only receive the bonus they with their blood and anguish so richly earned in ’17 and ’18, but that the amount agreed upon be now doubled; that all swollen incomes be severely limited and inheritances cut to such small sums as may support the heirs only in youth and in old age; that labor and farmers’ unions be not merely recognized as instruments for joint bargaining but be made, like the syndicates in Italy, official parts of the government, representing the toilers; and that International Jewish Finance and, equally, International Jewish Communism and Anarchism and Atheism be, with all the stern solemnity and rigid inflexibility this great nation can show, barred from all activity.
Those of you who have listened to me before will understand that I—or rather that the League of Forgotten Men—has no quarrel with individual Jews; that we are proud to have Rabbis among our directors; but those subversive international organizations which, unfortunately, are so largely Jewish, must be driven with whips and scorpions from off the face of the earth.
With the recent rise in anti-Semitism in this country, we’re seeing a frightening parallel.
On the Press
A “quote” regarding “the lying press” from Windrips autobiography (which the fascist/populist politician had ghostwritten for him by his nihilistic, sadistic, and voluble advisor Lee Sarason), we get his view on the free press:
I KNOW the Press only too well. Almost all editors hide away in spider-dens, men without thought of Family or Public Interest or the humble delights of jaunts out-of-doors, plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pocketbooks by calumniating Statesmen who have given their all for the common good and who are vulnerable because they stand out in the fierce Light that beats around the Throne. —Zero Hour, Berzelius Windrip
On Ignorance and the Elite
This is how Lewis describes the fascist President-to-be:
The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.
The fascist President of the United States describes his realization, early in life, that being an obnoxious dunce gets you far more attention than being a smart and decent person.
When I was a kid, one time I had an old-maid teacher that used to tell me, “Buzz, you’re the thickest-headed dunce in school.” But I noticed that she told me this a whole lot oftener than she used to tell the other kids how smart they were, and I came to be the most talked-about scholar in the whole township. The United States Senate isn’t so different, and I want to thank a lot of stuffed shirts for their remarks about Yours Truly. —Zero Hour, Berzelius Windrip
He had the power of oratory:
He was an actor of genius. 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.
The night Buzz wins the election, Doremus Jessup finds an anonymous note threatening violence if he refused to “crawl” before the newly empowered League of Forgotten Men and MM (the Minute Men — Lewis’ version of the Proud Boys).
Not terribly different than the anonymous emails, direct messages, and outright threads so many journalists, politicians, and judges get from far-right supporters these days — misspellings and all — is it?
The new fascist President declares martial law on inauguration day. There are massive protests and the Minute Men start to retreat. He rallies them to violent action with the call “to make America a proud, rich land again.”
The Minute Men—why, they said to themselves, they’d never meant to be soldiers anyway—just wanted to have some fun marching! They began to sneak into the edges of the mob, hiding their uniform caps. That instant, from a powerful loudspeaker in a lower window of the jail brayed the voice of President Berzelius Windrip:
“I am addressing my own boys, the Minute Men, everywhere in America! To you and you only I look for help to make America a proud, rich land again. You have been scorned. They thought you were the 'lower classes.' They wouldn't give you jobs. They told you to sneak off like bums and get relief. They ordered you into lousy C.C.C. camps. They said you were no good, because you were poor. I tell you that you are, ever since yesterday noon, the highest lords of the land—the aristocracy—the makers of the new America of freedom and justice. Boys! I need you! Help me—help me to help you! Stand fast! Anybody tries to block you—give the swine the point of your bayonet!”
I Love the Poorly Educated
The new fascist government (the Corpo state) reorganizes higher education in order to remove any hint of intellectualism:
All Corpo universities were to have the same curriculum, entirely practical and modern, free of all snobbish tradition.
Entirely omitted were Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Biblical study, archaeology, philology; all history before 1500—except for one course which showed that, through the centuries, the key to civilization had been the defense of Anglo-Saxon purity against barbarians. Philosophy and its history, psychology, economics, anthropology were retained, but, to avoid the superstitious errors in ordinary textbooks, they were to be conned only in new books prepared by able young scholars under the direction of Dr. Macgoblin.
Students were encouraged to read, speak, and try to write modern languages, but they were not to waste their time on the so-called "literature"; reprints from recent newspapers were used instead of antiquated fiction and sentimental poetry.
Again, we’re seeing the present in the past.
Once the dictatorship has been established, there are millions of people like Jessup’s wife Emma who don’t support the leader, but who at least give him credit for so strongly encouraging “church attendance, low taxation, and the American flag.”
Things that evidently mean more to people than democracy.
A complete echo of what we’re hearing today.
Why is this happening?
Ezra Klein had a conversation with Pippa Norris, a political scientist at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, about the rise of the far right across the globe.
One thing she said about the motivating factor for people stood out to me:
“The new literature really says maybe there’s genuine support for authoritarian strongman leaders who promise security and order. And that many people may feel that that’s a priority — not freedom and not the chaos that can be attributed to democracy.”
We shrink from uncertainty — and let’s face it: there’s plenty of uncertainty in the world today. But we also embrace the power that comes from control.
People love the feeling of power more than the feeling of democracy.
It’s immediate. It’s visceral. It makes us feel superior.
These are competing human instincts that are at play: one is personal survival at all costs; the other is a sense of communal benefit where we look out for each other.
One leads to a willingness to inflict pain and rule with vengeance, while the other looks to lift people up and lead with empathy.
And during the pandemic, we saw how people took sides on this divide, based on what they were willing to do to get through it — selfish actions or community actions.
“Autocracy is the opposite of democracy. It means the rule of one, one person, one interest, one ideology, one party. To state the obvious, the lives of billions of people, from antiquity till now, have been shaped by the battle between these competing forces, between the aspirations of the many and the greed and power of the few, between the people’s right for self-determination, and the self-seeking autocrat, between the dreams of a democracy and the appetites of an autocracy.” — President Joseph Biden, Nov. 1, 2022
Are You Feeling It?
But one quote has always stood out to me that was reminiscent of Sinclair Lewis. A quote from 2019, when Florida was experiencing a shutdown. A voter was asked about the president and she said:
“I voted for him, and he’s the one who’s doing this. I thought he was going to do good things. He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.”
When you feel you need to hurt someone, there’s something inside of you that no strong man, autocrat, or vengeance-seeking individual can cure.
There’s no telling who’ll get hurt in the process, because it can happen here.
There’s so much to learn,
Timeless & Timely is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.