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John T. Reed’s review of It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

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It Cant Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

In the course of researching my book How to Protect Your Life Savings from Hyperinflation & Depression 

I came across mention of the novel It Can’t Happen Here (caution: reading this Wikipedia write-up will spoil the novel for you) by Sinclair Lewis. I just got the book and read it.

Sinclair Lewis was a 1920s and 1930s, Nobel Prize-winning, astonishingly successful novelist and playwright. His top seller, Main Street, was, according to his biographer Mark Schorer “the most sensational event in twentieth-century American publishing history.” His royalties on that one book were about $4 million in 2012 dollars. It was also a silent film.

It Can’t Happen Here was probably his other best-remembered novel. It was also a play. It was written in 1934 and came out in 1935, during the Great Depression and the first FDR administration.

Wins election then turns U.S. into dictatorship

The basic idea of it is that a Democrat politician—Buzz Windrip— runs against FDR for the 1936 Democrat presidential party nomination and wins both that and the presidency. FDR retires from politics as a result of losing the nomination.

Like Adolf Hitler, Windrip wins the election fair and square. He is inaugurated in January 1937. And like Hitler, he immediately dispenses with the rule of law and imposes a dictatorship.

We are a long way toward being a dictatorship already

The book’s value today is, with regard to depression (which is deflation) and hyperinflation, people still believe it can’t happen here. With regard to loss of our freedom and liberty, Americans still believe it can’t happen here. Actually, it already has to perhaps 30% to 50% of total loss of liberty, and the American people are too dumb to recognize it.

See my articles:

Countries with the most financial freedom

A financial Berlin Wall is going up and you are on the wrong side of it

Good intentions and presidential impatience are 100% substitutes for Constitutional authority

• You are probably a Marxist, and that is a big problem

The Right to Earn a Living by Timothy Sandefur

• Call it socialism, not big government

If you can keep it

Americans do not know the definition of freedom

We need a book-burning bonfire

Freedom and its loss are precise, not vague, and easily seen, if you bother to look and think

Anyway, that will give you the idea. Freedom is a precise, not vague thing. The more of the national income the government spends, the less free we are. Similarly, every law and every regulation diminishes our freedom. Free men choose. Un-free men comply. By that latter measure, our freedom goes away to the tune of 80,000 pages of new federal laws and federal regulations a year.

In many ways, Buzz Windrip’s totalitarian America is more free than Barack Obama’s. You could eat transfat then. And the government did not tell you what kind of lightbubs you could buy, or what kind of health insurance your employer had to provide.

Examples of the perennial politician smooth talk that robs us of our freedom

The great power of It Can’t Happen Here is the smooth, sugar-coated language that demagogue politicians and despots use to slip totalitarianism past the American people. Here is a politician who turns out to murder or jail everyone who disagrees with him, yet he worms his way into power using very similar or the same language as politicians today tell us they are from the government and they are here to help us.

Book is dated to an extent

The book is, as you would expect, dated. But that helps make the point that some things never change, like the dishonesty and true goals of politicians.

Windrip is apparently based on 1930s Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long. Here is a video where you can hear him speak—says a lot of the same stuff as Obama does now: take from the rich and give to the poor. Buzz Windrip said about the same in the book.

There is no modern day counterpart to Long other than guys like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Louis Farrakhan. Obama is a more polished counterpart, which is more dangerous. Long was a lout, so are Sharpton et al., and louts turn off many audience members from the get go.

Anti-Semitism and anti-black bad guys

The book also is full of anti-Semitism and anti-black talk by Windrip and many others. To a 2012 reader, this will seem gratuitous, and politically incorrect and not believable. You need a little history lesson if you react that way. In 1935, America and the rest of the western world were anti-Semitic and approved of legal segregation of blacks.

The book also uses the phrase “fascist dictatorship” a lot. To me, the word fascist refers to the government letting private business owners continue to own their businesses, but they have to run them as the government says. By that definition, The Obama administration is fascist and the Bush administration wasn’t much better. The American people are fascist in their notion that business needs to be heavily regulated. In fact, heavy regulation of business violates freedom and lowers the U.S. standard of living by partially using socialism or communism to run the economy and those idealogies are disastrous when applied to economies.

To the American public, fascist means being like Hitler or Mussolini. That is only partly correct.

Disguising totalitarian wolves in sheep’s clothing

Windrip uses warm and fuzzy cherished American icons and words to sugar-coat his dictatorship. For example, his equivalent of the Nazi brown shirts or Storm Troopers—a bunch of slacker bullies turned into a private militia, are called “The Minute Men.” Mindful of the unpopularity of Hitler’s brown shirts and Mussolini’s black shirts, Windrip simply has his wear white shirts.

Oh, well, I guess they’re okay then.

In general, Windrip uses all sorts of references to the American Revolution, Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and liberty language to disguise totalitarianism—and the majority of the American people buy it. After Windrip imposes his dictatorship, the majority of the American people wimp out and go along with it.

312 million individuals who are afraid to let their individualism show

In his other book Main Street, Lewis has a character say she wants,

a more conscious life, we’re tired of seeing just a few people able to be individualists.

That really struck home with me. Since college, I have felt like one of the few individualists. Never understood why almost all other people are so timid. You only live once, why pretend to be someone else and always go along to get along?

If we get a Windrip now, I’m a dead man. But if we are truly the“ land of the free and the home of the brave,” why are only a few people like me worried about a dictator taking over? Because about 99% of Americans talk a far better game than they play when it comes to freedom and liberty and individualism. Few among us would today pledge “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” and sign a Declaration of Independence that would get them hung if they lost.

‘…for good men to have filters’

At one point, the hero of It Can’t Happen Here, Doremus Jessup, thinks,

[It is the Jessups] who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest.

Well, I will not be guilty of that. The phrase I used recently is,

All that is necessary for bad men to prevail is for good men to have filters.

The word “filter” is a modern code word for never saying anything that might not be universally popular because if you do say such a thing, like “Obama is a socialist,” your career might be hurt, you might get invited to fewer cocktail parties, and so on. People with filters believe popularity and not displeasing anyone trumps truth.

‘Can’t make an omelet…’

One of the most powerful phrases in the book is

you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs

This is used by the Windrip people and those who acquiesce to him to justify such “imperfections” as shooting, torturing, and/or putting into concentration camps those who disagree with Windrip.

Real live Communists

Another anachronism is the book is the Communists. Most Americans have probably never met an open Communist. I don’t think that was true in the 1930s. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was an open party with tens of thousands of members loosely confederated with hundreds of thousands of leftists in labor and Socialist parties. During the Spanish Civil War, many American Communist party members proudly volunteered to fit for the leftists against Spanish dictator Franco and his Nazi German allies.

Briefly, the Communist party was not a regular political party. It was an agent of of the Soviet Communist Party and never deviated from Soviet party line. Many Communists claimed not to be Communists and were essentially spies or clandestine recruiters. During the McCarthy Era in the early 1950s, suspicion of being a Communist ended your career. McCarthy overdid it and was discredited. In retrospect, he was a bit too discredited. We learned after the Cold War that some Americans who were thought to have been wrongly accused of being Soviet agents were, in fact, Soviet agents.

In the book, Communists are quite real and prominent, somewhat appreciated for their willingness to die to get rid of Windrip, but disdained for their blind allegiance to the Soviet Union. There is no comparable group is the U.S. today.

Ignore the Constitution and rule of law

On page 30 of my 2005 paperback version, Windrip says in his pre-election, book/political biography Zero Hour—Over the Top,

The Executive has got to have a freer hand and be able to move quick in an emergency, and not have to be tied down by a lot of dumb shyster-lawyer congressmen taking months to shoot off their mouths in debates.

This is a Democrat politician running for office giving early warning that he intends to be a dictator.

It is also very reminiscent of Obama’s recent tendency to shout “We can’t wait!” again and again to justify his various unconstitutional appointments of czars, recess appointments, riding roughshod over the Constitution, and so on. It is what I was talking about in my web article Good intentions and presidential impatience are 100% substitutes for Constitutional authority.

Lewis never heard of Obama, but describes him very well

And do not tell me Sinclair Lewis was an Obama-hating racist. He died in 1951. Lewis was defining an American demagogue/dictator by way of his deceptive language. His model for Windrip was Huey Long, a white Southerner during the segregation era. Both the fictional Windrip and the real Obama both have messiah complexes. Neither can stand being restrained by such insignificant trivialities as the Constitution or rule of law or the public.

Right after the election of 2008, I wrote an article that, among other things, pointed out disquieting similarities between Obama and Hitler.

Here are some of the words I circled while reading It Can’t Happen Here as deceptive words used to dishonestly hurt opponents and hide their own true nature.

word or phrase

my comment

exploiter it simply means making a profit; used to make capitalist look evil
It can’t happen here said by many early in the book This ignorant complacency is why we are going to see the federal government go bankrupt and maybe see a prolonged economic stagnation like in Japan since 1990
the Forgotten Men 1936 equivalent of the 99%
President Windrip said “Everything would be tranquil in a few months, but meantime there was a Crisis, during which the country must ‘bear with him’.” In fact, he was establishing a dictatorship and his “bear with me” “temporary” stuff was the equivalent of Hitler’s claiming he was appeased so he could buy more time to make his true evil ends harder to undo. So-called “war-time powers,” which do not exist in the U.S. Constitution, are often invoked because of “crises” and “emergencies.”
things do look kind of hectic down here in Washington Windrip euphemism for murder and imprisonment of of political opponents
unreasonable description of political opponents who were murdered, tortured and imprisoned
unscrupulous agitators ditto
profiteered same as exploiter above
old-fashioned reason to dismiss political opponents
traitors same as unreasonable
bellyachers ditto
realistic Windrip policies
vicious elements same as bellyachers, etc.
selfish individualism aversion to dictatorship

‘Wife and kids to feed’

Doremus hates the “can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs” line. He also hates people going along to get along because they “have a wife and kids to support.”

Me, too. I heard that shit my whole life coming out of the mouths of career military and civilian big-organization bureaucrats.

At Harvard Business School, all our classroom discussion cases were actual case histories. In one, a defense contractor was unable to get the wheel breaks on a new jet to work right by the deadline. The question was whether they should divulge that or cover it up and falsify the test results. They were likely to lose the contract or get penalized if the breaks were not ready.

A test flight of the prototype by a test pilot was about to take place. I thought the case was too obvious to discuss. To my astonishment, many of my classmates said the executives in whose place we were academically put had “wives and kids to feed,” so they should falsify the test results.

I went nuts. “What!? The pilot doesn’t have a wife and kids!? Are we allowed to kill him if he is a bachelor? Not only do you tell your superiors, you tell everyone involved and sure as hell the pilot before he climbs into the cockpit!”

I likened it to the problem with the fictional “Reindeer” planes in the great 1951 Jimmy Stewart movie No Highway in the Sky. In that movie, Stewart was an aeronautical engineer who concluded the new Reindeer design planes were fatally defective. No one would listen. Finally, when his last effort to persuade them failed, and he happened to be in the cockpit of the first Reindeer that was going to take off after the temporary grounding based on his warning, he just grabbed the landing gear control and raised the gear, while the plane was on the ground! That wrecked the plane preventing it from taking off.

Throughout It Can’t Happen Here, after Windrip takes office, person after person declines to do anything because they have a wife and kids.

On page 200, Doremus thinks,

Why not let the wife and family die of starvation or get out and hustle for themselves, if by no other means the world could have the chance of being freed from the most boresome, most dull, and foulest disease of having always to be a little dishonest?

That was always the issue. My colleagues in the military and elsewhere were almost daily required to be a little dishonest and a little obsequious—and they did. See my article “Is military integrity a contradiction in terms?” especially the standard “counseling” session and my response to those rationalizations for going along to get along. See also my articles on things that were Officially Voluntary but Unofficially Mandatory in the Army officer corps and The 30-year, marathon, single-elimination suck-up tournament, or How Amercia selects its generals.


One part of the book which was obviously copied from Nazi Germany and which I do not think applies to the U.S. was a desire to conquer neighboring countries and make them part of the U.S. Uh, we have all sorts of bad guys in this country, but I am not aware of any group, no matter how nutty, that wants to militarily conquer Mexico, Canada, or any other nearby country and make it part of the U.S. Not even back in the 1930s.

Yes, we had an odd one-direction (west) expansion tapeworm in the 19th century called Manifest Destiny. And we conquered our way to the Pacific Ocean. But even back in the 1930s, we owned the Philippines, which we gave independence in 1945.

Conquering and annexing your neighbors was never an American thing other than Manifest Destiny. Lewis was overdoing the Hitler analogy when he made Windrip eager to invade and annex Mexico. Today, Americans would be horrified by the idea of annexing Mexico, unless the Mexicans would vacate the premises before the deed changed hands.

Great speech but I don’t remember anything he said

Here is a page 70 sentence about Windrip’s speeches:

Doremus had never heard Windrip during one of his orgasms of oratory, but he had been told by political reporters that under his spell you thought Windrip was Plato, but that on the way home you could not remember anything he had said.

I said almost exactly that about Obama. Is Barack Obama really the great speaker everyone has been saying he is?

In that article, I noted that almost all informed Americans can recite memorable speech lines by Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy, and Reagan off the tops of their heads. Now try doing that with Obama other than campaign slogans like “Yes we can” or“ Change you can believe in.”

During the 2008 campaign, Obama made a highly touted speech about race in Philadelphia. Liberals raved it would be taught in schools along side the preamble to the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address. I could not remember a single line of Obama’s race speech the day after he delivered it. I doubt you can remember a single line of it now—or any other speech Obama ever made.

A line form page 71 echoes the he’s-out-of-touch-with-ordinary-Americans, anti-Romney Republicans:

Aside from his dramatic glory, Buzz Windrip was a Professional Common Man.

Here is another fabulous sentence that puts me in mind of Obama and Gingrich. It is also an amazingly long sentence—reminiscent of Sarah Palin rambling, but meaningful and coherent in spite of its length.

The conspicuous fault of the Jeffersonian Party [Democrats], like the personal fault of [fictional 1936 Republican presidential eletion opponent of Windrip] Senator Trowbridge, was that it represented integrity and reason, in a year when the electorate hungered for frisky emotions, for the peppery sensations associated, usually, not with monetary systems and taxation rates but with baptism by immersion in the creek, young love under the elms, straight whiskey, angelic orchestras heard soaring down from the full moon, fear of death when an automobile teeters above a canyon, thirst in a desert and quenching it with spring water—all the primitive sensations which they thought they found in the screaming of Buzz Windrip.

The Republican debates remind me of all this. The two big problems facing our next president are entitlement reform and the Iran nukes. Yet the media would have a visitor from Mars conclude that the big issues in America are birth control, returning to the moon, conservative cathecism consistency, and who is most a member of the Reagan cult.

‘Defenseless against a dream’

Another good line is the phrase “defenseless against a dream” describing Windrip’s political opponents who refused to make promises like Windrip’s promise of $5,000 ($81,000 in 2011 dollars) for every American, a car (rare then), luxury items like movie cameras (also rare then).

Do something! Anything!

I first saw and came to hate the Do Something Do Anything mentality of government employees whenever something embarrassing happened. I was on guard duty all night once at my brigade headquarters in the 82nd Airborne Division. The written instructions said I had to ho to the top floor hall in each company barracks and visit the window at the end of each hall to make sure nothing was wrong.

“What the heck was that about?” I asked. Years before, a soldier had committed suicide by jumping out one of those windows.

My embarrassed superiors “did something.” They put a stupid, meaningless requirement on the all-night guard foreverafter.

Here is page 113,

Pondered Doremus: Blessed be they who are not Patriots and Idealists, and who do not feel they must dash right in and Do Something About It, something so important that all doubters must be liquidated…

‘Professional heroes’

On page 114, Lewis has Doremus denounce “professional heroes”—back then, Civil War vets who would make politicians look good by hanging around them. We have them now, too. The ’Nam vets—if they really are such—who hang around memorials and parades wearing camouflage combat uniforms to draw attention to themselves, get free drinks and “Thank you for your services” and the more recent active duty guys who fish for compliments and expressions of gratitude by wearing combat fatigues in public and sympathy in the case of the now ubiquitous choking-back-tears “wounded warriors.”

It Can’t Happen Here versus Atlas Shrugged

I had the thought that It Can’t Happen Here does a better job of selling freedom and depicting the clear and present danger to it than Atlas Shrugged. For one thing, I could never force myself to read Atlas Shrugged.

And I cannot read fiction, which It Can’t Happen Here supposedly is. But I found reading this enjoyable and at times I could not put it down. If it truly was fiction, I would literally not be able to stand reading it. In fact, it was sort of political science fiction. I can handle science fiction because it is not a lie about the past but a speculation about the future. When you are writing about the future, speculation is the only alternative. I am currently working on a novel which is sort of a mirror image of It Can’t Happen Here—a non-politician Libertarian accidentally becomes president in 2013 and ignores all political considerations to expand liberty and economic freedom and thereby, the GDP.

My novel mixes real and fictional characters. I did not know anyone else did that. Lewis does in It Can’t Happen Here.

Lewis can write some great sentences. I do not regard his plot line so highly.

Windrip appoints people to powerful, previously-nonexistent cabinet positions. Opponents say it’s illegal. Windrip essentially responds, “So sue me.”

Sound familiar?

By the way, I was excited about the movie Atlas Shrugged Part 1, until I saw it. It was not very well done. See my review of it. Actors were okay, but not the direction. Anyway, Part 2 is supposed to be out in October of 2012. I wish someone would make a movie of It Can’t Happen Here set in 2012 and update it.

Imprison the entire population

President Windrip enacts wage and price controls, capital controls (prevent taking money out of the country or possessing foreign currency), bans travel outside the U.S. and stations a zillion guards at Mexican and Canadian borders as well as wherever boats and planes depart.

About two-thirds of the way through the book, it becomes apparent that the good guys all need to get out of the U.S. right now. But a typical rejection of the suggestion to flee was

But I’m not going to let a bunch of lunatics and gunmen drive me out of the country that I and my ancestors made!

That is pretty much exactly what all the Jews who died in the gas chambers in Nazi Germany said at one point or another back when they could have escaped or at least should have tried.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

I recommend It Can’t Happen Here mainly to see the perennial techniques of politicians who are wannabe dictators and to vicariously experience a police state chillingly set set in small town America.

John T. Reed

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