Reading IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE

Apparently sales of Sinclair Lewis’s book It Can’t Happen Here have skyrocketed since the election of Donald Trump. This is a book, written in 1936, fascism’s first heyday, about a homespun politician’s rise to the Presidency and subsequent institution of German-style fascism in the United States.

I feel like a little bit of a hipster about Sinclair Lewis, since I liked him long before he was cool. Main Street is one of my favorite novels, and I read Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, Arrowsmith, and Dodsworth in a great big rush about six or seven years ago. I’m pretty sure I wrote about them on this blog at the time (omg this blog is ten years old, it’s absurd), but I’m too lazy to dig up the posts right now.

What strikes me most about the book, however (which I’m currently listening to on audio) is the primary parallel between it and Hitler that Trump has not followed. Both the rise of Buzz Windrup, the politician in It Can’t Happen Here, and the rise of Hitler were facilitated by the creation of paramilitary forces that quelled dissent by extralegal methods. Windrup’s ‘Minutemen’ occupy Congress after he declares a state of emergency, and Hitler’s SA was used, after the Reichstag fire, in a similar manner to arrest all opposition and to intimidate the Reichstag into giving him dictatorial powers. In the latter case, the SA, which had about two million members, was by far the largest armed force in the country (the army only had 100,000 members) and was literally unstoppable. From the moment that Hitler took office as Chancellor, there was no longer anything that the citizenry of Germany could do to stop him.

Right now, for all the parallels between Trump and Hitler, there exists no such paramilitary force. I’m not saying one couldn’t be created. Given the degree to which law enforcement and the military and the various gun-owning persons in this country tend to be pro-Trump, it’s not impossible that he could create such a force in relatively short order. But as of this moment, it doesn’t exist.

Which is more of an accident than anything else. I think the thing that Sinclair Lewis did not predict (and he predicted a lot) is the sheer ineptitude of Donald Trump. It’s something that we, as Americans, really don’t have an easy time understanding. He has a certain low cunning that enables him to stop other people from having victories–nobody is ever able to claim victory in a deal w/ Trump, because he’s always willing to pull the rug out from under the them, even if it hurts the country as a whole–but he’s just not particularly organized, and he’s not great at delegation or at leveraging other peoples’ talents.

Our nation is in pretty rickety shape right now, and if our democracy endures, it won’t be a testament to anything we did, but rather to all the things that Trump failed to do.

6 thoughts on “Reading IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE

  1. disperser

    I could argue the point that paramilitary forces are not that far into the future . . . on both sides. Still, I don’t think they would take hold.

    There’s another glimmer of hope. Patriots, actual patriots, and not self-styled PINOs, have a large presence in the military and law enforcement. These are people who believe in the spirit of the constitution. For that matter, a large portion of the public does as well.

    It’s only the left and right fringes that keep trying to circumvent the rule of law and the spirit of the constitution.

    I could be wrong, of course . . . if so, I hope we limp along for another twenty or thirty years . . . after which I won’t care and the whole place can go to heck.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yes, I think we will only survive if people, on the left and right, believe on some level in the real value of the American system of government. For all that Hitler didn’t actually have the support of a majority of Germans, what he had was the support of at least twenty or thirty percent. And that support rose during the period when it seemed like he’d MADE GERMANY GREAT AGAIN.

      We need to be a people who believe, on some concrete level, in the rule of law. Not just in human rights or in justice in the abstract, but in the actual written and unwritten institutions that govern the United States. What’s striking, when you look at history, is the degree to which Presidents and Congress adhered to unwritten standards. Presidents didn’t run for third terms for over a century, even though they well could’ve, because they knew the people wouldn’t stand for it. Majority parties allowed minority party presidents to select Supreme Court justices, even though they could’ve stopped it, because they knew the people expected the government to contain some collegiality.

      I don’t know that we expect this anymore. With Bush, Obama, and now Trump we’ve had a succession of Presidents who’ve abrogated Congress, and we’ve had a succession of Republican Congresses, since 1994, that’ve been totally uninterested in compromise. And now the left has learned from the right, and we’re seeing the rise of a radical left-wing activism that is playing to win, and I’m not entirely certain that I don’t support them. It’s hard to see how, in this environment, our institutions can ever be sustained and renewed. Extremism has its place in America, but moderation also has a place, and it’s moderation that’s in danger right now. Sigh. But it’ll probably hold together for another little bit, and maybe you’re right and we’ll die before it collapses.

    2. disperser

      There are more and more people who see the dangers . . . the problem is that the “Center” has also split so that where I used to have confidence in a center voting block keeping things in check, there’s now a definite shift away from the center.

      Meaning, there’s more of both Center-Left and Center-Right than just plain Center.
      http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/

      That’s from 2014 and I’m betting the middle ground has now virtually disappeared and all we have are two opposing mountains unwilling to meet in the valley. This will make every election close and likely contested and resembling the spectacle of banana republics with accusations of fraud flying back and forth amid calls for recounts even calls for demonstrations and “taking to the street”.

      I am hearing more and more people who recognize the failings of each party, but their overall numbers (and influence) remains small. In part, that’s because now each side demands “loyalty” and fosters something akin to hate with regard to the “other side”.

      I better stop . . . this is not good for my inner calm.

      1. R. H. Kanakia

        My problem is that I believe in almost everything radical progressives believe…but I still want there to exist some body of moderates to keep us healthy as a nation. My compromise is I guess that I still believe in compromise.

        1. disperser

          Not sure I can but into anything with the word “radical” in front of it. Even the word progressive now encompasses less-than-ideal ideals.

          These days, I prefer taking things on a issue-by-issue basis as oppose to buying in to any self-defined movement that may have conflicting aims spanning broad issues and testing them as if they all had one simple solution. But, that’s just me.

          1. disperser

            The danger of answering on the phone . . .

            That should read “Not sure I can *buy* into . . .”

            Also “. . . spanning broad issues and *treating* them . . . ”

            I am curious though . . . do you see compromise anywhere? Are you even hearing compromise from either side?

            I also ask because “radical progressive” doesn’t sound like someone who favors compromise.

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