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. more