When Donald Trump decided to run for president his rhetoric seemed familiar to me, like I’d seen this kind of leader before—and I had. Only it wasn’t in real life, it was in a book I’d read at three memorable points in my life: Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here.
I first read It Can’t Happen Here was in high school, when, like so many Jewish boys, the fear of what had happened in Germany resounded in my head. The second time was after visiting Israel and being repeatedly asked, “What makes you so sure that what happened so many times in the past can’t happen in the United States?” (My reply was that it couldn’t. More on my response below.) The last time was after first being elected to the South Dakota Legislature as the first Jewish person in thirty years—and only the third ever—to serve in that capacity.
The book was meaningful to me at these points in my life as it warned what could be if we give up some of the central values we hold so dear in the United States. It tells of an authoritarian leader, Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, who campaigns for and wins his bid for president. Once in office he implements a totalitarian government in which dissent is outlawed. Windrip is described as “…vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic….” But he captivates supporters, addressing them as if “he was telling them the truths, the imperious and dangerous facts that had been hidden from them.”
The hero book’s hero, Doremus Jessup, is an aging, small-town newspaper editor who joins the resistance writing and publishing articles about governmental abuses of power. When his actions are discovered he is sent to a concentration camp and his family terrorized in his absence. Jessup realizes in the book that, yes, “it can happen here.”
It seems that I’m not the only one who recognized the similarities between Trump’s “leadership” style and that of Windrip. Carlos Lozada did too in his Washington Post article “How does Donald Trump stack up against American literature’s fictional dictators? Prety well, actually.” It opens:
“Americans have seen this leader before. Boastful, deceptive, crudely charismatic. Dabbling in xenophobia and sexism, contemptuous of the rule of law, he spouts outlandish proposals that cater to the lowest instincts of those angry or frightened enough to back him. He wins the nation’s top office, triggering fears of an authoritarian, even fascistic U.S. government.”
The article continues. (The article is well worth you reading in its entirety, which you can do by clicking here.)
“…features a populist Democratic senator named Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip who wins the White House in the late 1930s on a redistributionist platform — with a generous side order of racism — and quickly fashions a totalitarian regime purporting to speak for the nation’s Forgotten Men.”
“Reading these works in this moment, it is impossible to miss the similarities between Trump and totalitarian figures in American literature — in rhetoric, personal style and even substance. Yet the American-bred dictators are not the true protagonists. Ordinary citizens, those who must decide how to live under a leader who repudiates democratic values and institutions, are the real story. They must choose: Resist or join? Speak up or keep your head down? Fight or flee”
“If Trump is elected and the fears of those crying “fascism” materialize, it is those characters and their choices that become especially relevant. In Donald Trump’s anti-America, what would you do, and who would you be?”
Who would you be?
At the end of the article Lozada observes:
“Even now, whether or not Trump wins this election, whether or not he builds his walls and subverts our laws, he has set loose passions and compelled choices that will long mark us.”
I encourage you to read to pick up a copy of It Can’t Happen Here, give it a read, and think about who you would be. (The audio book can also be checked out through the Rapid City Public Library website). I hope you will share your answer in the comments below.
I know who I would be: I would resist. I would speak up. I would fight.
P.S. My reply when asked, “What makes you so sure that what happened so many times in the past can’t happen in the United States?” was that these United States have had a two-hundred-year commitment to a political concept and almost universal pluralistic support of differing religions, races, and ethnic origins. Trump has been blatant in both his challenge both the Constitution and ignorance of the operation of our government. An obvious challenge to the Constitution was the statement that the U.S. Armed Forces would do whatever he told them—even if it meant breaking the law. His ignorance of the operation of our government was shown in ordering elected members of his party to “keep quiet.” How dare he order the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives to be “quiet.”
Click here for a summary of It Can’t Happen Here’s plot.