Sinclair Lewis, the first American
to receive the Nobel Prize For Literature, wrote this satirical political
novel in 1935, a time when the United States and Western Europe had been
in a depression for six years. In this novel, Sinclair Lewis asks the question
– what if some ambitious politician would use the 1936 presidential election
to make himself dictator by promising quick, easy solutions to the depression
- just as Hitler had done in Germany in 1933.
The hero, Doremus Jessup, a small-town newspaper
editor in Vermont, turns 60 years old the year the dictator is elected.
Doremus struggling for a year with the new government’s attempts to censor
his paper and ends up in a concentration camp. Within a year he escapes
to Canada, from there, he goes on missions back into the states for the
underground resistance movement against the dictatorship.
While Doremus Jessup could be anybody, the
identity of Buzz Windrip, the power-hungry senator who makes himself a
dictator would be obvious to any American in 1935. Parallels are made in
his dictatorial control of his own un-named state with the career of Huey
Long, senator from Louisiana. In 1935 Long had a mass organization, the
Share the Wealth League, and was planning to challenge Roosevelt for the
Democratic nomination for the president in 1936. (While Lewis was writing
his novel, Long was assassinated.)
The identity of the main ally of the
fictional dictator would be equally obvious, Bishop Peter Paul Prang, the
popular radio preacher who endorses Buzz Windrip’s campaign, is based on
Father Charles Coughlin, the most popular radio speaker of the thirties
who had a weekly program on CBS in which he denounced President Roosevelt
and the Jews for causing and perpetuating the depression. Father Coughlin’s
fans included the father of Pat Buchanan, a candidate for the Republican
nomination for the president in the year 2000.
The parallel between Father Coughlin and such
present-day TV evangelists as Pat Robertson is equally obvious. (In his
novel, Lewis foresees that TV would have even greater propaganda potential
than the radio – this fictional dictator introduces mass coast-to-coast
TV broadcasting in 1937 - something that did not happen in reality until
Lewis’s novel was supposed to be made
into a film in 1936, but Will Hays who was in charge of censorship for
the movie studios, used all his power and stopped the film from being made.
Hays felt that a film of this novel would be seen as an attack on the Republican
party. Although Lewis’s fictional dictator Windrip ran for President as
a Democrat, any implied attack on Hitler’s Germany was seen as Democratic
party propaganda in 1935, since Jews, Hitler’s enemies, mostly voted Democrat,
and eighty percent of all movie studio executives at that time were Jews.
Whatever dislike most Republicans might have for Hitler’s Nazi State, Republicans
were seen as more opposed to anything that might lead to war with Germany
than Democrats were.
IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE was issued in a
new edition in 1993. At the moment, there seems less chance of the current
equivalents of Lewis’s villains gaining dictatorial power in this country
than there was a few years ago, because the economy has improved - but
the equivalents are still there on the sidelines, waiting for the next
big economic down turn to try for power.