IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE: “There Are No Neutrals Here”

It Can’t Happen Here (1935) by Sinclair Lewis

lewis

          In the past year, Sinclair Lewis’ novel about the rise of fascism in the United States has had an unfortunate resurgence in popularity as Donald Trump has increasingly dominated American politics and has, inexplicably, become President-elect. The novel is selling out in bookstores and remains one of the top-selling classic American novels on Amazon.com. Theaters and libraries presented a nation-wide simultaneous reading of a stage adaptation of Lewis’ work in October of 2016, almost in preparation for the unthinkable that might (and did) occur on November 8 of that year.

          But was it really unthinkable? All the signs were there. Americans were sick of career politicians, even if they were extraordinarily experienced. Their fear of Muslims, immigrants, and blacks was real (in their own minds), and horribly exploited by Trump, who used the most vulnerable of our citizens as scapegoats to distract from the genuine problems of labor, economic inequality, and an unfair justice system. He utilized and abused Twitter in a way that revolutionized how campaigns are run.

          And in doing so, the one man who most represented precisely the problems, challenges, and pitfalls facing modern America became the man Americans elected to fix those problems, not through policy suggestions, genuine ideas, or even hopeful rhetoric, but on a platform of nativism,  xenophobia, fear, militarism, and anti-intellectualism. Trump became Sinclair Lewis’ nightmare come to life. Those who have read Lewis’ novel understand that it can happen here because it always was here, long before Trump was ever born, much less descended the Golden Escalator.

sinclairlewis

Sinclair Lewis

          Lewis’ novel was wickedly satirical. Unfortunately, that satire has become somewhat prophetic as we enter 2017 and continually push the boundaries of absurdity in American political discourse. The folksy, homespun Buzz Windrip seems clearly modeled on Huey Long, with touches of Eugene Talmadge, Theodore Bilbo, and Father Coughlin thrown into the mix — all of whom Lewis name-checks in the novel. In my early-20s I was fascinated with Depression-era demagogues (and read Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, naturally), so I was very familiar with all these names. Readers might benefit from some background study to understand the 30’s political climate that fostered these types of populists. However, while the book is firmly rooted in 1930s politics, there are significant parallels to the modern day that will resonate with readers in 2017. The fictional Windrip represents a unique type of American fascism that values equal parts P.T. Barnum buffoonery, Will Rogers schtick, and militarism. If this sounds like a recipe for Trumpism, then perhaps you’ll understand why this book still has a great deal to say to 21st century Americans.

          Into this fire, Lewis drops Doremus Jessup, a classic Twainsian Don’t-Tread-on-Me Connecticut Yankee — independent, skeptical, liberal, practical, and a bit curmudgeonly. He refuses both fascism and communism as dangerous collectives. His guiding worldview is pretty much “mind your own business and let others do as they please.” Yet he’s forced into action when Windrip is elected, giving Lewis free reign to satirize everyone form the dolts who fall for Windrip’s rhetoric to the housewives-turned-underground revolutionaries who rage against the machine.


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.

Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.

–Sinclair Lewis


          Lewis begins each chapter with a quote from Windrip’s fictional book Zero Hour, but suddenly stops quoting about halfway through the novel, just as Windrip attains power. At that point, the novel becomes less about the rise of fascism and more about the way in which average people choose their destinies. Indeed, Windrip’s message is only the spark. The true horrors occur when regular people begin to make decisions (or refuse to act) based on collective fear. And here is where Lewis’ novel takes on prophetic form: not in its chronicle of how a fascist-leaning politician rises to become president, but in how Lewis imagines the American people would respond. They each make a decision to fall into line or to resist; to fight or to flee. Each more outrageous word and action becomes normalized, until Windrip’s own ignorant rhetoric fades into the background. At a certain point, even Windrip himself becomes irrelevant; the events he sets in motion move to a point beyond where he might stop them, even if he wanted to (which he does not). Americans like Jessup are forced out of their indifferent attitudes or politically neutral position and must resist. In the words of the protest song “Which Side Are You On,” written by Florence Reece and popularized by Pete Seeger: “There are no neutrals here.”

          When Lewis writes (ironically) “it can’t happen here,” he’s not talking about fascism so much as the overly-militarized, patriotic, and nationalistic groupthink that already is here, and which can so easily lead average citizens to accept or embrace fascist ideologies. (The SA-styled military unit patrolling the borders before an all-out war with Mexico is called the Minute Men [MM]. Again, this sounds all-too-familiar to modern American readers.) As we enter the Trump Era in the United States, sadly, the novel has become required reading for all Americans, even if its message falls on deaf ears, and might very well be too late to make an impact.

ALL THE KING’S MEN: Shotgun Politics and Transferral Blame

All the King’s Men (1946) by Robert Penn Warren

warren

          Between the ages of 10 and 13, I went to LSU’s baseball camp every summer in Baton Rogue, Louisiana. They had just attained the status of college baseball powerhouse in the mid-90s under coach Skip Bertman, and the camps were packed every year with eager youngsters hoping to glean a bit of magic from the storied program. One year we heard a motivational speaker — the kind of guy who gives pep talks to professional and college athletes — give a speech on Responsibility. He began by asking, “What’s the national pastime?” “BASEBALL!” we all yelled. “Wrong,” he barked. “The national pastime is… transferral blame.” He then went on to describe how the greatest hindrance to success — from the ball field to the boardroom — is blaming others for our failures and pitfalls, a universal trait that spoke strongly to any 11-year-old who gives myriad excuses for not turning in homework or doing chores. It was the kind of speech that stuck with every kid sitting in the stands at Alex Box Stadium that day. As I grew older, I began to accept “transferral blame” as more than merely buzzwords in a cheesy motivational speech aimed at tween boys, but as a useful tool for understanding American life.

          Nowhere is the national pastime of transferral blame more starkly on display than in American politics (where so many participants, from politicians to voters to media personalities, often seem to have the mentality of tween boys), most notably in the form of psychological projection. We project our complex, multifaceted problems on easy, vulnerable targets, and then expect one politician — upon whom we project our ideal, unrealized desires — to wipe them all away (both problems and vulnerable scapegoats) with one mighty blast of bombastic rhetoric. Back in Louisiana, we called this “shotgun politics”: just aim, pull the trigger, and hope that some of those pellets from the spread find the mark…any mark at all, good or bad, consequences be damned.

          It’s no surprise that one of the great American political novels of the 20th century was born in Louisiana, land of shotgun politics, home of transferral blame. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, written when he was a professor at LSU and surely based on the politics of Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long (despite Warren’s half-hearted attempts to distance the novel from Huey), is largely about the damage we do to ourselves (and to each other) when we stubbornly insist that our actions are meaningless in the larger scheme of things, and when we refuse to acknowledge our complicity in the rise of corruption, and even violence, in the political system due to our own apathy. Or, even worse, when we cynically work to undermine a broken political system instead of working to fix the problems. It’s far easier to load a shotgun and stand by idly as it’s fired than to speak up and stop the ham-fisted moron who is intent on blasting away. 

Warren

Robert Penn Warren

          It’s a lesson that many of us learned in the 2016 election cycle (and not only the United States), and it’s one that we could have avoided perhaps had we heeded Warren’s warning in the form of Jack Burden in All the King’s Men. Burden is an intellectual, cynical, former academic and current journalist whose apathy and cynicism leads him to cover — and eventually work for — the populist politician Willie “Boss” Stark.

          Burden soon works as Stark’s hatchet man, digging up dirt on political enemies, including his father-figure, Judge Irwin. Stark’s brand of amoral politics — in which ideas and deeds exist independent of truth or fact, which are never concrete realities, and should always be manipulated as a means of some larger political end — initially appeals to Burden’s nihilistic worldview. We all wallow in the dirt, Burden rationalizes, and all dirt is equal. Therefore, a respectable judge’s bribe and a governor’s attempt to cover it up — isolated moments of failure in lives of otherwise moral public service — are on par with the rampant corruption and amorality of Stark, whose entire career has been dedicated to the obfuscation of truth and the slinging of dirt.


“Dirt’s a funny thing,” the Boss said. “Come to think of it, there ain’t a thing but dirt on this green God’s globe except what’s under water, and that’s dirt too. It’s dirt makes the grass grow. A diamond ain’t a thing in the world but a piece of dirt that got awful hot. And God-a-Mighty picked up a handful of dirt and blew on it and made you and me and George Washington and mankind blessed in faculty and apprehension. It all depends on what you do with the dirt. That right?”

–Robert Penn Warren


          All the King’s Men shows us what happens when our moral compass has become so distorted that we think, “All politicians are corrupt. All corruption is equal. Therefore, all politicians are equally corrupt, so our only option is to elect an outsider who best knows how to manipulate the corrupt system in order to destroy it.”

          Does this sound familiar, American voters?

          But the lesson of  All the King’s Men is less about the rise of Boss Stark and more about the fall of Jack Burden, an Everyman who should have been smart enough to know that not all crimes are equal and that we are all interconnected. Words and ideas, like actions, can have a far-lasting impact that goes beyond our own cynically detached circumstances. When Burden’s world comes crashing down, he only has himself to blame. Stark might fire the shotgun, but Burden did the loading. And when that happens, one can’t merely stand back and say, “Well, I can’t be blamed for the result of the blast!”

         And yet, this is precisely how authoritarians operate with impunity. When we don’t take responsibility for our actions, then the authoritarian can work without objection, resistance, or responsibility. His minions can do the dirty work while claiming plausible deniability. And they will, with rationalizations like, “I don’t agree with everything he says but…” (Translation: Don’t blame me!), or “Well, other people might vote for him for unethical reasons, but ALL politicians are unethical, and that doesn’t mean all of us voters feel that way…” (Don’t blame me!).

          And then we have the ultimate transferral blame, in the form of those who stayed home during election day: “I didn’t vote at all/voted third party.” (Don’t blame me!) In a sense, we are all to blame for the Willie Starks of the world, in one way or another. He is a monster of our own creation.