Book review: What can 1930’s dystopian fictions teach us about today’s populist insurgents?

This review was published in the Oxford Forum Journal, June 2017

The year is 1936 and America’s freshly elected, vain, anti-immigrant president is addressing his pool of angry and emboldened supporters, as opposition riots break out across the country.

‘I am addressing my own boys, everywhere in America! To you and only you I look to make America a proud rich, land again. You have been scorned. They thought you were the ‘lower classes.’ They wouldn’t give you jobs. They told you were no good, because you were poor. I tell you that you are, ever since yesterday noon, the highest lords of the land – the aristocracy – the makers of a new America of freedom and justice. Boys! I need you! Help me – help me to help you!’

Sound familiar? It’s the alarming similarities of Sinclair Lewis’ anti-hero, Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip, a blustering populist elected on the back of anti-Mexican rhetoric, that have led to his novel It Can’t Happen Here – written at a pace in 1935 – surge to the top of bestsellers lists as spectators reach out for historical parallels in the Age of Trump. Within a week of the US election, the book was apparently sold out on Amazon.com. It’s one of several works of 1930s dystopian fiction which are thriving in today’s disorienting political climate. But what can they really teach us about today’s populist insurgents – and what liberals can do to halt them?

While other fictions of authoritarianism of the time capture its distinctive ideological aspirations: a devout desire to remodel mankind anew – from Aldous Huxley’s scientific utopia in Brave New World to the Party’s attempt to condition members in its own ideal image with puritanical piety in George Orwell’s 1984 – it is the chaotic ambition of Lewis’ Buzz Windrip which renders his depiction so incisive today. Unlike Hitler and Mussolini, who arose from fascism’s complex ideological history, Windrip – and his right-hand-media-man Lee Sarason, the shadowy ‘brains behind’ his operation – encapsulates the ‘help me!’ power-hungry cynicism of our new ruling Liar Class.

No matter how large the lies they tell, how misdirected the attacks they make, nothing can restrain the unaccountable, emotive appeal of the populists. Lewis captures the alluring seduction of these outsider parties and movements, vowing to destroy existing systems, to those feeling left-behind and ignored – in this case, Windrip’s followers, ‘The League of Forgotten Men’. In one of their battle songs, his supporters sing, ‘The League of Forgotten Men / Don’t like to be forgotten, / They went to Washington and then / They sang, ‘There’s Something Rotten!’’

sinclair-lewis-it-cant-happen-here-the-fictional-cafe

Attending a Windrip rally – an ‘orgasm of oratory’ – we sense the dead-certain compulsions behind the rage driving our present preachers of populism – the tell-it-like-it-is radicals moved as much by the heart as the head. We learn that, ‘under the spell you thought Windrip was Plato, but on the way home you could not remember anything he had said.’

In a fifteen-point manifesto, Windrip sets out his policies of restricting the rights of radicals, blacks and Jews, and promising every family a salary of $5,000 a year (around $86,000 today). It is the timeless concoction of wild promises with rabid intolerance.

But there are differences and they are significant. The quote above sees Windrip addressing the ‘Minute Men’ – his own private army, which flanks his every move and violently props up his personal rule. After failing to pass an early bill through congress, Windrip declares a state of martial law; the Minute Men go on to inflict group beatings and brutal arrests on subversive senators and citizens.

Indeed, Lewis’ contemporary forms of fascism were militaristic to their bones. After his election, President Windrip is officially recast as ‘the Chief’, calling on his supporters to ‘give the swine of your bayonet’ to perceived subversives. Military music and the ‘rhythmic tramp of soldiers’ boots’ echo through Orwell’s Oceania. This kind of highly militaristic, ‘strongman’ appeal – the paramilitary organisations of Blackshirts and Storm Troopers which came to characterise Lewis’ 1930s – is, importantly, absent from today’s nationalisms.

It also arises out of different economic realities. The deprivation of the 1930s does not match our epoch. The nomadic jobless hordes and rampant poverty of post-crash America do not remotely compare to the economic insecurities on which today’s opportunists feed. In fact, It Can’t Happen Here’s anti-hero is almost certainly based on the left-wing populist Huey Long, who came close to running for president on a platform of ‘Share the Wealth’, before being assassinated in 1935.

Yet this is also a tale of liberal complacency in the face of tyranny. The novel’s protagonist is the ‘inconspicuous’ newspaper editor Doremus Jessup, a quiet, ‘bourgeois intellectual’ type who leans to the left and is assured by his companions that fascism could never come to America – that ‘it can’t happen here.’ Jessup is every bit the stereotype of the ‘metropolitan elite’ which we hear of endlessly today – who, in their own secure bubble, don’t entirely understand the rage fuelling current insurrections. But equally, he embodies a timeless liberal temperament, an unflinching self-doubt, which makes him an unlikely, and at times frustrating, protagonist. In contrast, 1984’s everyman Winston Smith is steadfast in his opposition to the thought controlling methods of the Party, his first act of protest coming in the first chapter.

The ‘It’ in the novel’s title, therefore, refers not just to the risk of ‘public liars’ like Buzz Windrip rising to power, but a ‘collective apathy’, a fatal insouciance, on behalf of careless liberals like Doremus Jessup, which allows them to flourish. It is Lewis’ contention, as Burke famously (and disputably) wrote, that ‘the only thing that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ Their indifference is matched only by their impotence. ‘But what can I do?’ Jessup worries, in the months before the election. ‘Oh – write another editorial viewing-with-alarm, I suppose!’

But as the regime slides further into authoritarian tyranny – censoring and subsuming the press, placing political opponents in concentration camps – it becomes clear that Jessup’s editorials have not done enough. He is stripped of his post as editor and turns to working in clandestine with the ‘New Underground’, producing incendiary pamphlets detailing damaging stories on Windrip’s administration. Here, technological changes – namely, the ushering in of social media – may give us hope that controlling the information flow in a similar way today would be impossible – Jessup and his co-conspirators must lay-in type in a basement – yet few would argue that the internet has made the truth any less malleable.

In this way, we may consider Orwell’s Thought Police, conceived in the following decade, to be more enlightening. While his vision of the nation-state – or a Ministry of Truth – as the sole arbiter of information may have been challenged by a democratising web, the conception of a society in which reality is constantly in question is becoming increasingly prescient. Be it Putin’s cyber-state or truth-bending mass-media outlets, we are living in a world of disorienting doublethink, in which the tools open for powerful players to reconstruct reality, trivialize truth and obliterate the past are commonplace on levels which 20th century tyrants could only dream about.

Nonetheless, It Can’t Happen Here remains an impassioned defence of the importance of journalism as an essential pillar of democracy. As Jessup scrambles for compromising stories on members of the regime, we are reminded of the crucial role that inquisitive, determined reporting – on a president’s ties to a foreign power, or corrupt politicians’ conflicts of interest – can have in holding those in power to account. But as Lewis and others posit, through both liberal complacency and the machinations of despots’ regimes, it remains a fragile thing.

The novel ends on Jessup apparently still on the run from the police, fleeing from one hiding place to another; forever, along with others like him, ‘awaiting news of freedom.’ It is both an image of the endless terror of life under dictatorship, as well as that of an ill-informed but helpless liberal optimism in any time. For numerous reasons, it is the latter which is more relevant to us today. There is still much separating our present politics from earlier fictions of fascism, and the very real horrors of Lewis’ day. But the novel’s key lesson – that in the face of passionless indifference, it really can happen here – remains as powerful as ever.

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