Reading Sinclair Lewis, Dreaming Lincoln
By Stuart Mitchner
When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.
—Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951)
When I skimmed It Can’t Happen Here (1935) at the time of the 2016 election, I thought it might make an interesting column. But since the dystopian fantasy by Sinclair Lewis, who died 70 years ago this week, had already been reprinted to high sales and serious notice with Trump’s ascension to the nation’s highest office, I put the piece on hold.
The problem now is not just that I’m distracted by last week’s real-life invasion of the Capitol, but that I’m finding it hard to believe in a despotic president and former U.S. senator from Vermont named Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, who, the day after being inaugurated, demands the instant passage of a bill giving him complete control of “legislation and execution.” When Congress rejects the bill a day later, he declares martial law and orders the arrest of over a hundred “irresponsible and seditious” congressmen for “inciting to riot.” During the ensuing nationwide riots that the president has, in effect, incited himself, protestors are attacked by the bayonet-wielding troops of his vast private army, the Minute Men (a term with a certain ring in the era of the Tea Party).
Lewis portrays Windrip as grotesque, “almost a dwarf, yet with an enormous head, a bloodhound head, of huge ears, pendulous cheeks, mournful eyes,” and “a luminous, ungrudging smile” that “he turned on and off deliberately, like an electric light, but which could make his ugliness more attractive than the simpers of any pretty man.” His hair was “so coarse and black and straight, and worn so long in the back, that it hinted of Indian blood.” During his years in the Senate, Windrip “preferred clothes that suggested the competent insurance salesman, but when farmer constituents were in Washington,” he “appeared in a ten-gallon hat.” Comparing him to “a sawed-off museum model of a medicine-show ‘doctor,’” who had “played the banjo and done card tricks and handed down medicine bottles and managed the shell game,” Lewis details the offerings of “Old Dr. Alagash’s Traveling Laboratory, which specialized in the Choctaw Cancer Cure, the Chinook Consumption Soother, and the Oriental Remedy for Piles and Rheumatism Prepared from a … Secret Formula by the Gipsy Princess, Queen Peshawara.” Windrip had eventually ascended “from the vulgar fraud of selling bogus medicine, standing in front of a megaphone, to the dignity of selling bogus economics, standing on an indoor platform under mercury-vapor lights in front of a microphone.”
If you find it hard to take such a character seriously, you’re in agreement with the novel’s hero, a small-town newspaper editor named Doremus Jessup, who at first considers Windrip little more than a bad joke and plays down criticism of the government in his paper, the Informer. “The hysteria can’t last; be patient, and wait and see,” he tells his readers, so hard is it for him to believe “that this comic tyranny could endure.” What most perplexes him is “that there could be a dictator seemingly so different from the fervent Hitlers and gesticulating Fascists …. a dictator with something of the earthy American sense of humor of a Mark Twain, a George Ade, a Will Rogers, an Artemus Ward.” Did that, Doremus wonders, “make him less or more dangerous?”
As someone who, among many others, failed to take the current president seriously when he announced his candidacy, I should mention, as I did at the time, the front page of the June 17, 2015 New York Daily News (“CLOWN RUNS FOR PREZ”) showing the candidate with a red clown nose and mouth under the line: “Trump throws rubber nose in GOP ring.” While the star of The Apprentice has nothing in common with the likes of Twain and Ade (not to mention Will Rogers), it’s fair to say that he’s shared the metaphorical stage with a road show con man of vulgar frauds, shell games, and bogus medicine.
One of It Can’t Happen Here’s most striking moments comes when Windrip’s fanatical supporters, not unlike the fanatics trashing congressional offices last Wednesday, invade the headquarters of the opposition, including the newspaper office and domestic sanctuary of Doremus Jessup, whose books are tossed into a massive bonfire on the village green: “Doremus saw his Martin Chuzzlewit fly into air and land on the burning lid of an ancient commode. It lay there open to a Phiz drawing of Sairey Gamp, which withered instantly. As a small boy he had always laughed over that drawing.” Doremus also saw “Alice in Wonderland and Omar Khayyám and Shelley and The Man Who Was Thursday and A Farewell to Arms all burning together, to the greater glory of the Dictator and the greater enlightenment of his people.”
The online onslaught of increasingly harrowing, hard-to-watch images of Trump-propelled mobs pushing, smashing, battering, and shouting their way into the marble halls of the Capitol has awakened my inner patriot: the adolescent who found poetry in the names of American towns and cities and states and swooned to the sound of trains in the night. At the same time, all the talk of insurrection and sedition, not to mention that makeshift gallows on the steps of the Capitol, reminds me of visiting the Ford’s Theatre Museum with my father and of how awed I was by everything to do with Lincoln and the fate of the plotters of his assassination, in particular the photograph of the gallows where the conspirators were put to death.
The dream I had the night after last Wednesday’s insurrection was a long time coming. The dream makers of my brain were starving for action; they wanted a breakthrough. For four years it’s as if a massive impediment has been blocking the way. You wait for the thing to dissolve, melt, fall, or be toppled by the seismic forces rumbling at the base. And all your dream self can do is putter uselessly around in the thing’s monstrous shadow, forced to do menial chores, exercises in frustration, cleaning up messes, laboring at pointless tasks, all of them related to the removal of the impediment, the immobile enormity of which is stifling light and truth and reason and imagination.
No surprise, the towering hero of the dream was Abe Lincoln, and “towering” is the only word for the giant of the rotunda, with Proud Boys and QAnon crazies the size of toy soldiers clawing at his pant cuffs 250 feet below, while stunned selfie-taking multitudes stare like amazed tourists up, up, up the height of his skyscraper legs to the black stovepipe hat scraping the interior of the great dome. Every now and then the giant’s arm would reach down and gather a cluster of the tiny clownish squirming figures in his massive hand, bringing them screaming and squealing way way up to his face, yes, their eyes widening in wonder — it was Honest Abe the face of the Five Dollar bill, and he was smiling, not grim and stern, looking to reprimand them or worse; no, he was beaming sadly, fondly, down at the tiny beings hopping like fleas in his huge hairy hand. What next?
At the crossroads of the dream, when it could have gone very very badly, there was a hint of censure in that fond gaze, as if to warn them and the multitudes teeming far below, some frozen in amazement, many in flight — all bets are off, hang on, fasten your safety belts, American history has you in the palm of its hand and may just swallow you whole if you don’t watch out. But what’s this? The antic spirit of Dr. Seuss? Could it be? Yes, it’s Abe as the Cat in the Stovepipe Hat striding across the Rotunda among the fleeing mix of gawkers with their Trump 2020 flags, Confederate banners, and MAGA caps, among them the would-be hangmen and executioners howling for the vice president’s head. “Have no fear!” croons Abe the Cat to the little ones fussing in his hand (“Put me down, put me down, I don’t wish to fall, this is no fun at all!”): “My tricks are not bad. We can have lots of good fun that is funny.” His expression the essence of all-knowing Seuss-manic delight, he speaks the magic word: “Say it after me: Unity” And the little ones are crying “Unity! Unity!” as he gently returns them to solid ground.
Clearly by now I’m playing fast and loose with the original components of the dream. Anything can happen when the gatekeeper’s gone. Like setting loose the Things One, Two, and Three of American literature, Whitman gathering the Freedom Caucus in his vast embrace as Melville harpoons the hapless Josh Hawley and Poe pursues Ted Cruz, a raven on his shoulder croaking “Nevermore!” Better let it go. I’m forgetting how ugly it was, back in the in-the-moment reality of fanatics battering the doors of the Capitol, a primal assault you feel in your gut, as if you and the building are one and the same.
Force and Persuasion
Where did it come from, this dream? Three nights in a row absorbing the unbound, protean energies of Season 3 of Sherlock? — yes, that and listening to the extended mantra of “Deep Deep Feeling” on McCartney III, yes, but more than anything else it began with “The Violent Style,” a November 16 New Yorker essay by Evan Osnos about the “deep American conflict between persuasion and force.” Describing the bare-knuckled prize-fight intensity of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Osnos refers to a moment when “the discourse onstage neared combustion.” Falsely accused of “a conspiracy to abolish slavery, Lincoln leaped from his seat and advanced on his opponent until a colleague pulled him back.” It’s worth nothing that what enraged Lincoln was not a personal affront or insult or cry from the crowd (“Hit him!”). It was a lie linking Lincoln to a conspiracy to abolish slavery. A lie.