BY MATTHEW HERBERT
Joining a recent trend, I finally got around this year to reading Sinclair Lewis’s dystopian novel It Can’t Happen Here, which depicts the rise of a fascist dictator in 1930s America.
But before I picked up It Can’t Happen Here, I first took in Lewis’s other major novels–Mainstreet, Babbit, Elmer Gantry and Arrowsmith. It was an entrancing journey. Lewis is a keen, searching critic of American society, even if he is not quite in the front rank of America’s great novelists. His morality tales bravely answer Kafka’s demand that, “Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us.”
Furthermore, Lewis’s novels form a fascinating historical bridge between post-Civil War, steam-powered America and the country we know today. Lewis was born in 1885, the year after Huckleberry Finn was published, and he died in 1951, the year Boeing produced the first B-52 bomber, which is still in service. Much of the language in Lewis’s early dialogues is either hilariously cornball (“Gee!” once expressed real vehemence, if you can believe it.) or barely intelligible (“Punk” was an adjective, not a noun, meaning inferior or objectionable.). By the time of his last novels, though, Lewis’s dialogue needed no translation even for those of us born after 1960.
For anyone who grew up in the rural Midwest, as I did, here is another charming part of Lewis: he mounts his critique of American prejudices and blindspots straight from the amber-grained heartland, bypassing the urban coasts where the smart set presumes all our great national debates begin and end. There is something wickedly fun about watching Lewis attack American complacency from the same Minnesota plains that inspired Laura Ingalls Wilder to pen stories of such innocent wonder. The name “Mankato,” signifying a shining, magical place where Pa Ingalls went to buy real glass window panes for the little house and peppermint candy for the kiddoes, will never ring the same after Lewis uses the village to stage the self-satisfied duncery of middlebrow townies.
It was only by accident that I read Lewis’s back catalogue before I took in It Can’t Happen Here, but I’m very glad I did. Lewis was a great chronicler of social change in America. By the time he wrote It Can’t Happen Here, in 1936, he had already rendered a fine-grained map of the national mindset, one that is still capable of enlightening us postmoderns. It was this deeper fund of insight that I found more useful in making sense of Trump than the novel that was supposedly “about” him.
When the U.S. Electoral College produced Donald Trump’s presidential win in 2016, obervers who had abstractedly scratched their chins and wondered what the College was truly for suddenly had concrete reason to ask whether this quirk in the system could somehow open democracy’s gates to barbarism. Could tyranny happen here, based on a technicality?
Trump’s first shot across the bow of democracy, on day one, was typical for an aspiring tyrant. Sending Sean Spicer out to shout plain falsehoods about crowd size to the press was a variation on one of Hitler’s and Stalin’s go-to tactics, the Big Lie. The Big Lie is a crucial test for an aspiring dictator. It doesn’t matter whether the people believe it or not, but if a large enough group is beguiled by its mere boldness–if they are stirred by the strong man’s ability to say whatever he wants and not be constrained by convention–that group becomes a mob. And mobs are very good for aspiring dictators.
Even if you dismiss Trump as a mere grandstanding, phillistine bigot, not a credible tyrant, his win was still disquieting. It raised the question of what might happen next, after Trump spends four years test-driving the country through the basic maneuvers of fascism. Might a competent dictator then arrive?
A year and a half after Trump’s win, with white supremacists still Sieg Heiling him, ICE agents increasingly comporting themselves like stormtroopers, and Trump’s inner circle insisting he is above the law, we have ample reason to wonder how loathesome Trumpism can become before it hits a limit of some kind. And this is where the novels of Sinclair Lewis prove to be instructive. Lewis’s subject was always, in some way, the American national character, and if there are limits on Trumpism, it is in our character we are likely to find them. After all it was the American idea that gave rise to the Constitution, not vice versa. Unfortunately, to get to the heart of what Lewis had to say on this subject, you have to bypass some significant flaws in the novel that has brought his name back into national light.
The first thing an educated reader notices about It Can’t Happen Here is the technical implausibility of its plot at several key junctures. When the dictator-president, Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, imposes emergency rule mere hours after his election and has his Brown Shirt militia arrest several key opponents, the judicial branch offers not a squeak of resistance. With no device to explain this development, Lewis simply has every judge in the land roll over for Windrip. Are populist militia men poised to arrest the judges? We don’t know; Lewis fails to convince.
There are other similar plot gaps. They all turn on technicalities, but in a state governed by a constitution, court rulings, and a written body of law, technicalities are of primary importance. When Trump’s administration tried to pass off a jejeunely written, tub-thumping pamphlet as an executive order banning Muslims last year, the courts duly trimmed it down to lawful size. An essential technicality.
By mistake or by design, though, Lewis simply doesn’t attend to mechanisms like this, the features of our political system that could realistically curb a tyrant’s ambitions.
So why read him, then? Because he plumbs the deeper question I just alluded to about national character, which has implications for the potential cultural limits on Trumpism. Lewis compels as to ask biting, stinging questions about who we are and what the American idea is.
The most apalling thing about Trump’s movement is not the man himself. As George Will stoically pointed out recently, “Trump is what he is, a floundering, inarticulate jumble of gnawing insecurities and not-at-all compensating vanities, . . . .“ The real horror of Trumpism is the relish with which his fanbase metabolizes his garish flaws, converting celebrity worship into organized bigotry. What kind of citizen has our country brought forth, capable of seeing Trump’s attacks on tolerance, honesty and responsibility as a tonic for our democracy?
I am an optimist about the truth and its importance for democracy. Sort of. I do not believe one man can tell lies as big as Trump’s and be believed based only on what he says. There must be people out there who already want to believe things that are extravagantly false. As I read Lewis’s novels this spring, it dawned on me how deep this well of credulity is in America. We’ve been digging it since we started to become a prosperous, modern country. In a moment, I’ll offer some thoughts on Lewis’s back-catalogue novels that deal with this history.
But, first, back to It Can’t Happen Here. In the riproaring weeks leading up to Buzz Windrip’s election, the establishment candidate is campaigning “as placidly as though he were certain to win.” (Sound familiar?) This is because the populist firebrand Windrip is simply not credible on the stump; his threats, promises and harrangues are all super sized. The novel’s hero, though, crusty old newspaper man Doremus Jessup, is starting to realize that Windrip’s base, fueled by grievances not facts, will carry the day. “This,” Jessup pronounces, “is revolution in terms of Rotary.”
What did Lewis mean by that? What’s so bad about Rotarians? Aren’t they self-starting, optimistic do-gooders, boosters of the local community? How could their brand of public-spiritedness possibly menace American democracy? Shouldn’t it actually be good for Americans? De Tocqueville thought very positively of our habit of forming and joining prosocial clubs. Lewis’s ultimate Rotarian character, George Babbitt, describes his fellows’ worldview as “a loyal and vigorous faith in the goodness of the world, a fear of public disfavor, a pride in success.” This attitude seems virtuous enough, even if slightly parochial. What malice did Lewis sense lurking behind such small-town pride?
I said earlier that Lewis is a fascinating writer because he links vaguely-intelligible ideas of an American past to the familiar country of today. And so, his idea of “Rotary,” while suggestive of a certain late-Victorian mindset, requires a bit of recontextualizing to bring it up to date. For Lewis the Rotarian mind was one that equated get-ahead commercialism with civic virtue. In the Anytown, USA of Lewis’s day, it was the local business leaders who were creating the jobs that floated everyone’s boat a little higher. If anyone deserved to be listened to above others, it must have been these yeoman of the American dream. Without them, thousands, possibly millions of Americans gifted with less grit or creativity would have floundered in poverty.
This cross-section view of American class structure reveals something of great historical significance, the idea that all political power derives from property. Our Declaration of Independence says each person may claim freedoms based on her status as a human being, but our culture says she’ll need to beg permission of the wealthy first. It is they who safeguard the land’s political power and mete it out to those they deem deserving.
Today, the the quintessence of the Rotarian persona survives in the class of white, male Christian property owners, who believe implicitly that the political opinions of the differently-minded must pass a tribunal of WASP values to enter the marketplace of ideas. Gay marriage?–Hmm, maybe, but only after enough rich white Christians convince the mob to go light on Leviticus and Deuteronomy and politely ignore whatever it is the fags are up to.
But history occasionally cracks open to empower the voiceless. The tension in It Can’t Happen Here arises because America’s tycoons wake up to the Great Depression to find their presumptive status as gatekeepers under threat. History’s tectonic plates shifted in 1929, and the poor and unlucky were suddenly claiming a form of political agency that did not need or seek the say-so of the rich. Windrip’s campaign succeeds in It Can’t Happen Here because he promises to quiet the rabble and restore the gatekeeper status of the go-getter wealthy.
Lewis only imagined there were Americans who would believe a Windrip’s pledge to make America great again. With Trump’s rise, we now know there are living, breathing citizens of this country who favor a humiliating power order that compels the poor, the female, the colored and other bothersome little types to apply to the rich for political patronage.
For the rich and famous, things don’t get much better than this. The peasantry is actually cheering them on, praising the height and beauty of the walls they have built around their treasures. Lewis’s back-catalogue novels are great because they document the besetting sins that made this level of abasement possible.
Babbitt records the American idea that wealth is the best measure of a person’s value. Wealth worship starts out innocently enough. Everyone has to make a living; George Babbitt simply propounds the idea that, the more pep one puts into money-making, the better sort of person he is. Babbitt’s life falls apart because of the moral bankruptcy of this view, but never mind.
Elmer Gantry establishes the indispensibility of religious fundamentalism for political credulity and the special role it plays in subjugating the poor to the the rich. Once a preacher turns the trick of fooling most of the people most of the time, he has produced the ultimate political commodity–blind faith. And with God on any given politician’s side, there is nothing a mob cannot be persuaded to believe from him. Gantry is a profane, dimwitted womanizer who nonetheless succeeds as a preacher because he stands up and fights for the tribal Christian identity of America.
Mainstreet addresses the overwhelming power of social conformity, especially in small towns. The novel’s heroine, Carol Milford, leaves the big city for true love in a small town, but she soon discovers how overpowering her new neighbors’ desire is for sameness of thought. A panoply of structural injustices (against women, children, minorities, etc.) is disguised as the loyalty ordinary folks feel toward traditional ways. By trying to make the smallest of changes to her new surroundings, Carole discovers how deeply entrenched the old power order is and how strong its immunities are to new ideas.
Arrowsmith showcases the social significance of populist skepticism about science. One interesting division of a society is the kinds of invisible things its members believe in. Scientitsts tend to believe in entities too small to see–genes, atoms, microbes, etc. Non-scientists tend to believe in entities too wondrous to see–the Trinity, the Invisible Hand, the power of prayer, and so forth. In Arrowsmith, Lewis suggests, gloomily, that the latter camp will always have the upper hand. Science is fine as long as it makes money or reinforces the established power order, but as soon as it starts to upset the received view, the mob closes ranks to denounce it as “just” a theory.
Taken together, Lewis’s back catalogue goes a long way toward explaining the rise of the Trumpist mob. America used to be great, goes their narrative, before differently-minded people appeared on the scene to challenge the implicit political superiority of the country’s WASP gatekeepers. This is what Lewis really hated–the bland, presumptive assholery of WASP Mainstreet. His most blinkered characters believed that hardworking white Americans were just doing what came naturally to an organically virtuous, industrious people, and anyone who stood out–or stood up to them–was just asking for trouble.
Lewis’s novels encompass much more than this critique, of course. Read him for all he has to say. But you just might find yourself thinking he has a lot to say about who we are today.
- In an effort to keep my essays moving, I sometimes don’t slow down to define key terms. I realize I am using tyranny, authoritarianism and fascism more or less interchangebly about Trump depsite the fact that they mean different things. Without consulting a primer on political science, I consider tyranny to be a form of government, which elevates the ruler’s will over the law; authoritarianism to be a style of government, which coopts institutions to reinforce a ruler’s will; and fascism to be a political culture that uses nationalism, militarism and industrialism to advance an aggressive, rights-violating agenda. I don’t believe my slurring over these concepts does any serious injury to precision in describing Trump’s political style.