Imagine an America in the throes of an economic depression while around the world nations react to similar circumstances by turning authoritarian — Nazis in Germany and Fascists in Italy. Could it also happen in the hallowed land of freedom, the United States of America? Pulitzer prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis saw such a threat in 1935 and described a chillingly plausible scenario in “It Can’t Happen Here.”
Lewis introduces us to the ridiculously named Berzelius Windrip (you can call him Buzz), a charismatic, plain-spoken politician who appeals to many of those hardest hit by the Depression by making grand promises and exploiting divisions in society. He becomes the Democratic nominee for president by defeating the incumbent Franklin Delano Roosevelt with the intent of upending the current way Washington operates.
Spoiler — he wins the election and the results aren’t good. He soon rearranges the government to make the roles of the Supreme Court and Congress symbolic. All power is in the hands of Buzz in the Executive Branch. A “Corporate State” is established. A militia calling themselves the Minute Men grows and effectively becomes the law of the land. Political enemies are imprisoned and freedom of the press is threatened. There are extrajudicial killings, books are burned and eventually people are rounded up into camps.
This book could be categorized as a work of “alternative history,” but at the time it was very much written as a warning for the present. Reacting to a growing strain of demagoguery and authoritarianism he saw in America (Buzz was based partly on Huey Long) and growing fascism in Europe, Lewis wrote this novel in four months. While Lewis’ rush to publish is evident in the quality of the writing, that urgency also permeates the most intense episodes in the book.
The story is told from the point of view of Doremus Jessup, a father, grandfather and newspaper editor/publisher in Vermont. As Buzz’s candidacy gains steam, his concerns are mostly met with support for Buzz or the refrain that “It can’t happen here.” Even some of Buzz’s supporters lean on that phrase when his authoritarian tendencies are pointed out. They see Buzz as the strong leader that America needs, but have confidence the United States couldn’t go the way of Germany or Italy. Lewis’ novel is written to shake people from overconfidence and complacency and in the hope that the exercise of imagining such a scenario will inoculate us from its possibility in the real world.