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Book Report: It Can't Happen Here

So. The other day, the copy of It Can’t Happen Here was returned to the library that employs me, and I thought to myself—self, I thought, people are talking about this book, and you’ve never read it. Heck, you’ve never read any of Sinclair Lewis’sses’s books, have you? Go ahead and check this one out. So I did, and I read it, too. It’s not a very good book, unfortunately, but it’s interesting in a bunch of ways, and I’m glad I read it.

Now, the thing is… I never thought it couldn’t happen here. I don’t know why, particularly; perhaps it was my Jewish-socialist father’s influence, but my assumption has always been that it could happen anywhere at all, if by it you mean the government being taken over by some sort of anti-democratic authoritarian state. I understand that Mr. Lewis wrote the book (in 1935) in response to people saying that what happened in Germany could not happen here, and presumably there were a bunch of people actually saying that, so yeah, the target audience for this is presumably people who are starting from a very different place than I am. And for that matter, there were plenty of people around in 1935 who thought that the Nazis were no very bad thing; this book makes a substantial argument against fascism that I don’t think anybody really needs at this point.

Because of that (well, and I’m assuming the causality, yes) Mr. Lewis has written a version of American Fascism that is an awful lot like the history of National Socialism in Germany transplanted to America. As a result, looking at it from my own time and place, it simply isn’t very compelling. When and if the US falls to dictatorship, it won’t be much like Germany in the 1930s. That history is fascinating and compelling and important to think about, but doesn’t directly apply here. Frankly, it’s hard not to respond to reading this book by saying that can’t happen here, not like that.

On the other hand, I would think it would be hard to read the book and not wonder about how it might happen here. Which is a useful achievement in itself, I think.

The last time I talked about Hitler, I focused on the Sturmabteilung, the Nazi Party’s private army. The number that astonished me was that there were 100,000 men in uniform in 1930. That’s the size of the Ku Klux Klan at its height, in a population half the size. Think of the intimidation power of the KKK in the 1920s, and then double that power. And that’s years before they came to hold significant political offices; when Hitler became Chancellor, the S.A. had at least half a million men, and maybe as much as two million. Or, in terms of the percentage of our current population, think of it as between two and ten million Americans wearing the uniform of a political party or movement. That’s… a lot of people.

In the novel, Mr. Lewis simply creates a militia (the Minute Men, or M.M.s) out of the presidential campaign apparatus, with dissatisfied WWI veterans and the unemployed making up the bulk of it. It’s very, very hard for me to imagine that happening in the current US over the course of a year or two. I could be wrong! I could surely be wrong. But I don’t see it. We tend to freak out about large militias, here, and that’s probably a good thing.

Now, an immense private militia is not the only way to take over a country, mind you. And we have some pretty darned big public militias that could be used in much the same way—it’s quite easy to imagine, for example, an election in which the regular armed forces took sides fairly publicly. They haven’t in the past, but that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t. Imagine, for instance, that there were to be a special election for a Senator that determined the majority party in that august body, and that the Navy decided to dock a few boats at that State’s bases and give some shore leave to thousands of young people, who hang around the polling places in uniform (or not) and intimidate voters (or just beat the crap out of them). Oh, there would be an outcry, and so forth, but the outcome of the election would stand, and things would move on from there. Possibly very badly.

We also have about a million people in our various police forces around the country. They could, certainly, do the job for somebody that the S.A. did for Hitler—intimidate people, shake them down for money, and create the kind of chaos in the streets that could lead to support for a law-and-order platform that diminished civil liberties. I mean, at the end of Weimar, there was a substantial overlap between the police and the S.A., but they were separate organizations; here I think it would be different.

Not really a Digression: Here’s where I add that for a big chunk of the US South, the local police forces did, effectively, act as an arm of the Democratic Party, both in enforcing segregation and in roughing up people who wanted to vote against segregationist politicians. Sinclair Lewis’ horrific description of living under American fascism was also a fairly accurate description of the actual conditions for quite a lot of United States citizens while he was writing it. If the point of the exercise is to avoid the complacent smugness that it assumes can’t happen here, it’s certainly equally important to simultaneously avoid the complacent ignorance (or winking blindness) that claimed that it never did happen here, and isn’t happening here now. And yet, there is a difference between Nazi Germany and Jim Crow America, or even between Nazi Germany and pre-Civil War Slaveholding America, if only in the percentage of people who enjoy freedom. I’m not entirely sure how to define my terms, here; the United States has clearly been something of a liberal-democracy-with-exceptions, and a lot of exceptions at that. When there are enough exceptions, it’s not a liberal democracy, but I don’t know how many exceptions is enough. At any rate, right now I would say that we’re a liberal-democracy-with-exceptions, not a totalitarian state. End not really a Digression.

Well, anyway, I was focused on the M.M./S.A. part of the book, as that chimed with some stuff I had already been thinking (and the news as well), but that’s not that large a part of the book, all things considered. The most affecting part, really, was the evocation of bewildered anxiety, when Windrip had been elected but not yet inaugurated, and the fine liberal people of our town stood around wondering how bad it would really be. Maybe not so bad! Maybe very bad. Maybe not! Also: who around here surprised us by supporting this guy, and now that they are in power, how carefully do we have to tread around them? It’s quite powerful, really. I suspect that the protagonist, a small-town newspaper editor named Doremus Jessup, is a good teaching example of a mid-century literary anti-hero: he is a fundamentally good guy who is unfaithful to his wife, often unpleasant socially, morally compromised and complacent, and unable to make a moral stand until pushed into a decision. I don’t like anti-heroes, myself, but when people talk about them, this is the sort of thing people talk about.

Another thing probably worth lengthening this note to mention: this book is also an excellent example of a kind of mid-century literary liberalism that opposes racism and misogyny whilst being racist and misogynist, that centers the experience of affluent white men, not as one American experience among many, but as the normative American experience, the one that counts. Women, people of color, people with disabilities, homosexuals or Jews (or Southerners, frankly) may be plot points or even objects of sympathy, but not properly speaking people. I find that I am fully capable of recognizing that sort of thing and still enjoying mid-century American literature, but that is largely my own privilege and brutish complacency; Gentle Readers of more admirable sensitivity should consider themselves warned.

That was the last time I spoke with President Trump,


I think the chances of the armed forces interfering in an election are quite low. There is a really long tradition of serving armed forces members not taking political stances. And tradition is incredibly important in the armed forces! They aren't allowed to speak out in public about politics.

It seems to me that there are some countries where the armed forces interfere frequently ( Turkey, Thailand) and plenty of others where they never intervene (Europe). I don't think it is a coincidence, and I think it means that if you are in a country with a tradition of military separation from politics you are very likely safe from such intervention in the future.

This is quite persuasive to me, and a good thing, too. Of course, we live in a time of rapidly changing norms, so if a person were to extrapolate in that direction, it could be pretty fruitful for night terrors.


WRT Fred's comment, i think a very open question about the long-term effects of the Trump administration, always assuming we all live long enough to find out, will be what impact it's going to have on our norms about norms. You could imagine us reacting by going back and leaning on our norms pretty hard as backlash against any hint of Trumpism. Or you could imagine things which would have caused public outcry pre-Trump, not getting much reaction because they are far from the most egregious things to happen during the Trump era. Honestly, my prediction is that some of both of those things will happen, which makes it difficult for me to make a guess about the future of any particular norm.

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