Late in last year's presidential campaign, remarks by candidate Donald Trump stirred memories of a novel read long ago and I ordered a copy on line. Weeks later, following the Trump triumph, a battered, contemporary (1935) copy of Sinclair Lewis' "It Can't Happen Here," arrived.
Meanwhile, without my notice, Lewis's 80-year-old best seller had become one once again in 2017, this time on Amazon.com, along with George Orwell's 1984 and other dystopian titles from the past. Anyone familiar with the work of Lewis would recognize that this one was a quickie job, driven by circumstances of the day and a little light in plot and lacking slick editing. But given that it was the middle of America's worst depression, that Hitler and Mussolini were on the rise, proto-fascist Louisiana Senator Huey Long (shortly to be assassinated) was riding high and that the 1936 presidential election was coming up, it understandably won a lot of readers in its day.
Lewis chronicles the rise of a Trump-like anti-establishment candidate: "Few men doubted that the Democratic candidate would be that sky-rocket Senator Berzelius 'Buzz' Windrip --- that is to say, Windrip as the mask and bellowing voice, with his satanic secretary, Lee Sarason, as the brain behind." In the present day, Sarason, a former journalist, bears more than a little resemblance to Trump's "chief strategist and senior counselor," Stephen K. Bannon.
Sarason is the ghostly author of Windrip's supposed autobiography, Zero Hour --- Over The Top. Lewis has a lot of fun with this tome, fabricating quotes that are a mish-mash parody of Hitler's Mein Kampf and the Dale Carnegie-style inspirational and sales literature that was popular at the time. Clearly, those who voted for Windrip could not say they weren't warned in advance, but as with Trump, the message worked --- in the short run. "I want to stand right up on my hind legs and not just admit but frankly holler right out that we?ve got to change our system a lot, maybe even change the whole Constitution...The Executive has got to have a freer hand and be able to move quick in an emergency, and not be tired down by a lot of dumb shyster-lawyer congressmen taking months to shoot off their mouths in debates..." said Windrip in Zero Hour.
Meanwhile, out in the Vermont sticks, Doremus Jessup, lovable old small town newspaper editor, is watching developments with growing dread. His candidate isn't the real life President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but a Republican, "...that loyal yet strangely honest old-line Senator, Walt Trowbridge..."
Jessup agonizes in a familiar liberalish way as he listens to radio sermons supporting Windrip by the politicized Bishop Peter Paul Prang and observes the thuggish and increasingly armed "Minute-Men" supporters of Windrip at campaign rallies. But he doesn't or can't do much to stop Windrip's ascent.
When Windrip wins and takes office, things happen fast, very fast, starting with the Commander in Chief's immediate move to equip his Minute-Men with the latest in machine guns and other weapons and attach them to the U.S. Army.
On day two of his administration, the U.S. Congress refuses to grant the executive's demand for unlimited personal authority over the entire government.
"Before six, the President had proclaimed that a state of martial law existed during the 'present crisis,' and more than a hundred Congressmen had been arrested by Minute Men, on direct orders from the President. The Congressmen who were hot-headed enough to resist were cynically charged with 'inciting to riot'; they who went quietly were not charged at all."
Of course you say, the real U.S. courts wouldn't ever stand for this. But in Lewis's fictional world, there wasn't much all those judges could do after being shortly thereafter jailed by the President's armed followers.
President Windrip relies on a varied bag of tricks, as he distracts from these developments with high paid patronage positions for supporters, milking revenue from corporate leaders and a vast military buildup in support of war plans for conquering all of Mexico and other countries.
Things proceed to go downhill even faster as the once "United" States descends into a morass of military-zoned districts and concentration camps for dissidents. Justice under law becomes a joke as law books are literally thrown out the window while uniformed pseudo-judges take over the courts.
This is of course bad news for editor Jessup and the vaunted American principle of freedom of the press as his newspaper is taken over by the government and he is forced to preside over a new-born propaganda sheet. Jessup and other former establishment figures shortly run afoul of the new government and are locked up in the new camps, guarded and often tortured by former friends and neighbors.
Of course, resistance begins early, with underground cells and secretly printed newspapers. In an eerie foreshadowing of the Vietnam era, a vast number of resisters eventually cross into Canada, making it a base for their protest and eventually wearing out their welcome with their northern neighbors.
As one would expect, things get even worse as the resistance proceeds slowly and the Windrip administration implodes, leading to political murders, exiling of opponents and a succession of coup d'etats.
In his alarming first weeks, President Trump has made this clunky old novel startlingly relevant again.
Former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough has insisted that fears that Trump "is an autocratic tyrant" capable of unraveling America's elaborate system of checks and balances [are] laughable. Madison and Hamilton's constitution is alive and well nearly 230 years after its adoption, and you can bet your last dollar that it will still be thriving the day Trump leaves office.
After watching Trump's 31-year-old senior policy adviser Stephen Miller proclaim on national TV that his boss is always 100 percent right and that, "The end result of this...is that our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see, as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned," I'm not laughing.