It Happened

It Can't Happen Here BY Sinclair Lewis. Signet Classics. . .

The cover of It Can't Happen Here

IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE (1935) is not up there with Sinclair Lewis's masterpieces of the 1920s, but it's darn good. Like Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), and Dodsworth (1929), It Can't Happen Here reveals with rollicking wit the cruelty and cowardice—and sometimes mere cluelessness—that underwrites good old American conformity, showing how ordinary citizens could easily back a tyrant as long as he has enough pep. Predating the McCarthy era by fifteen years, and the post-9/11 surveillance state by many more, Lewis's novel persuasively suggests that a made-in-the-USA Stasi could thrive.

Imagine a huckster who electrifies the "Forgotten Men" with megalomaniacal speeches that are part rant, "part plain exhibitionistic boasting," and then, once elected, turns America into a dictatorship (with special plans for the press, Negroes, and Jews).

Peppy tyrant "Buzz" Windrip sweeps into the White House on bluster and the machinations of his propagandist-auteur, Lee Sarason. His one-party government, run by the American Corporate State and Patriotic Party ("Corpo"), sounds eerily familiar: "'No!' added the President, with something of his former good humor: 'there are two parties, the Corporate and those who don't belong to any party at all, and so, to use a common phrase, are just out of luck!'"

Once installed, the Corpo state starts using rhetoric not unlike that of the architects of the war on terror: "Habeas corpus—due processes of law—too, too bad!—all those ancient sanctities . . . been suspended—oh, but just temporarily, y'know—state of crisis—unfortunate necessity martial law."

Windrip's Minute Men—a volunteer gang in uniform—toss "traitors" into concentration camps. Refreshingly, Lewis's view of the mob goes beyond ideology: "Probably many of them cared nothing about insults to the Corpo state, but had only the unprejudiced, impersonal pleasure in violence natural to most people."

We see this prescient nightmare through the eyes of Doremus Jessup, a liberal Vermont newspaperman who is forced out of complacency when the Corpo state demands he serve as its mouthpiece or else bunk in a concentration camp. Jessup is tempted by the ease of selling out:

The worst of it was that it wasn't so very bad . . . he could slip into serving the Corpo state with, eventually, no more sense of shame than was felt by old colleagues of his who in pre-Corpo days had written advertisements for fraudulent mouth washes or tasteless cigarettes. . . . So debated Doremus, like some hundreds of thousands of other craftsmen, teachers, lawyers, what-not, in some dozens of countries under a dictatorship, who were aware enough to resent the tyranny, conscientious enough not to take its bribes cynically, yet not so abnormally courageous as to go willingly to exile or dungeon or chopping-block—particularly when they "had wives and families to support."

Lewis's satire, of course, raises a question: What would it take to move any of us to "abnormal courage" in the face of tyranny? His keen ear for humbug and sharp eye for character flag willing collaborators in every bracket: from the thugs who gleefully assault their former betters to the more genteel types, for whom criticizing the Corpo is seen as "bad form." Lewis brilliantly traces how grudges, careerism, and, sometimes, mere laziness allow the Corpos to run amok. Eager to adapt, Jessup's son, an ambitious lawyer, is capable of condoning authoritarianism and even murder: "I'm just trying to figure this situation out realistically."

Jessup eventually decides to risk his life distributing newsletters for the New Underground resistance. It's a timely plot point: The 2016 election has exposed as procrustean the narratives of today's corporate press, which has been unwilling or unable to recognize voices of dissent from our neoliberal status quo, denying the popular Sanders movement fair coverage and dismissing the idea that Trump could appeal to the "Forgotten Men" (and Women) of today. As the mainstream media struggles to understand their abysmal performance during the campaign, while continuing to freeze out challenges to their blinkered worldview, Jessup's ethical quandary as a newspaperman and his courageous stance against repression are as relevant as ever.

Rhonda Lieberman is a frequent contributor to Bookforum. Her essays will be collected in the "Pep Talk" book series in Pep Talk 7: The Rhonda Lieberman Reader this spring.