A Man Ahead of His Time
“Those who fail to learn from history are destined…”
“I want to stand up on my hind legs and not just admit but frankly holler right out that we’ve got to change out system a lot, maybe even change the whole Constitution (but change it legally, and not by violence) to bring it up from the horseback-and-corduroy road epoch to the automobile-and-cement-highway period of today. The Executive has got to have a freer hand and be able to move quick in an emergency, and not be tied down by a lot of dumb shyster-lawyer congressmen taking months to shoot off their mouths in debates. BUT – and it’s a But as big as Deacon Checkerboard’s hay-barn back home – these new economic changes are only a means to an End, and that End is and must be, fundamentally, the same principles of Liberty, Equality, and Justice that were advocated by the Founding Fathers of this great land back in 1776!”
Quick, who said that? And when? No it wasn’t George W. Bush announcing how tapping our phones and emails will make us safe from terrorists. It was fictional Presidential candidate Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip in It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, author of such American classics as Main Street, Babbit and Elmer Gantry. And it was written in 1935.
Nothing really ever changes. In the First World War, they called Sauerkraut Liberty Kraut and for a while, so goes the tale, even entertained the notion of renaming German Measles Liberty measles
So in 1935, with the rise of Hitler and Mussolini in Europe, Sinclair Lewis penned a cautionary tale of what could happen in our own country to a populace easily persuaded by a silver tongued orator disguised in humble garb, spouting rhetoric of what was in its own interest.
Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip is a blowhard Senator, anti-Semetic, anti- Negro, anti-woman rights, who wraps his lust for power in charming appeals to the working classes’ desire for a better life. He promises to rid the country of the yoke of (Jewish) bankers’ tyranny as well as the corruption of those presently in government. He’s the anti-government candidate for President, thinly based on real life Huey Long, whose Share the Wealth movement parallels Windrip’s League of Forgotten Men, both cynical ploys for votes calculated to thrust them into power.
Once elected, Windrip and his advisers, a Karl Rove double called Lee Sarasson, who seems to be the brains behind the maneuvering, and charismatic radio preacher Peter Paul Prang (based on Charles Coughlin, a fire-and-brimstone right wing evangalist, whose base included Pat Buchanan’s father), ditched the League of Forgotten Men for the American Corporate State and Patriotic Party and its henchmen, an untrained unpaid band of vigilantes known as the Minute Men. In a prescient moment, Lewis puts these words in Windrip’s mouth: “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!”
The Windrip Corporate platform besides being anti-Semitic, was boldly racist and anti-woman. As for men, those unlucky enough to be out of work were sent to labor farms, where for a dollar a day they could hire out to the corporate bosses, who were only too happy for the chance to ditch their Union member workers for these low paid laborers, thus swelling the ranks of the unemployed even further.
Sold as an answer to the ravages of Depression, the new Corporate State led to rampant inflation and wholesale migrations to Canada until the Minute Men closed the border. Dismantling Democracy in the name of saving it came easy. Those in the other branches of government who disagreed either left their posts (several Supreme Court justices were quickly replaced with “surprisingly unknown lawyers who called [Windrip] by his first name’),’ or were put into protective custody (opposition members of Congress). One of the first bulwarks of Democracy to go was the press. Our hero, Doremus Jessup, an Everyman Vermont newspaper editor, is sent to a camp, then escapes to Canada to ponder how this happened and why even he, who saw it coming and warned his fellows that it can happen here, missed the seriousness of the takeover.
Early on in the book, Lewis elucidates Jessup’s observations: “Doremus Jessup, so inconspicuous an observer, watching Senator Windrip from so humble a Boeotia, could not explain his power of bewitching large audiences. 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.”
Reading these words in 2006 is downright eerie. Whether it’s George Bush and his folksy smirk alternating with his sneering admonitions that “if you’re not with us you’re with the terrorists,” or Arnold Schwarzenegger, reinventing himself as the friend to the working man and woman, education and health care, two months after waging war on all of it with his November propositions, the warning is clear: Those who want absolute power will stop at nothing, will use any tactics, measures and lies to convince a gullible public they are on “your” side.
Thinking people would do well to be heed the lessons of the past, even fictional ones. Novels like It Can’t Happen Here are worth reading, especially now. This book was recently reissued, although I found my copy in ancient paperback form in a used bookstore. The Boston Globe reviewed it only last month:
And bloggers like me are joining in. Read it and be afraid. Be very afraid.