Once upon a time — in Vermont, of all places — Sinclair Lewis sat down to write a counterfactual satire about American politics. Never having cracked the book myself, I’m grateful to Chris Braithwaite for relating its details. “If you’ve been as gob smacked as I have by The Donald phenomenon,” he writes in the Chronicle, “I have a recommendation: Find a copy of It Can’t Happen Here and give it a read. It’s the most relevant commentary I’ve encountered in this crazy election year.”Lewis, who was already famous as a best-selling novelist and Nobel laureate, “holed up in his second home in Barnard, Vermont, in May of 1935,” Braithwaite notes, “and in four months wrote and revised his cautionary tale about the coming of fascism to America.”
The book is set in 1936 when, in reality, the incumbent president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, would claim the Democratic nomination and go on to win his second of four terms. But that’s not how things work out in Lewis’ version.
In both worlds, the country is still deep in the great Depression and FDR’s controversial new policies have yet to make much of a dent. There are other political models to choose from, and a substantial number of Americans see some promise in Germany and Italy, where Hitler and Mussolini have replaced the uncertainties of democracy with something more robust.
FDR is challenged for the Democratic Party’s nomination by a charismatic blowhard, Senator Buzz Windrip, as Lewis tells it, “a tireless traveler, a boisterous and humorous speaker, an inspired guesser at what political doctrines the people would like, a warm handshaker, and willing to lend money.”
Windrip isn’t Trump exactly. Wrong party. No jet plane. No germ phobia. No wacky comb over. But there are enough similarities to make the connection. “At the Democratic Convention, after endless balloting to break a deadlock,” Braithwaite explains, “Windrip heads for his hotel room, leaving behind a letter for the delegates. The letter does the trick, and Windrip wins the nomination.” What’s in the letter? Very Trumpish stuff, actually. Lewis writes:
Summarized, the letter explained that he [Windrip] was all against the banks but all for the bankers — except the Jewish bankers, who were to be driven out of finance entirely; that he had thoroughly tested (but unspecified) plans to make all wages very high and the prices of everything produced by these same highly paid workers very low; that he was 100 per cent for labor but 100 per cent against all strikes; and that he was in favor of the United States so arming itself, so preparing to produce its own coffee, sugar, perfumes, tweeds, and nickel instead of importing them, that it could defy the World . . . and maybe, if that World was so impertinent as to defy America in turn, Buzz hinted, he might have to take it over and run it properly.
Note the all-caps cover line on the first edition of Lewis’s novel. It asks the question: “WHAT WILL HAPPEN WHEN AMERICA HAS A DICTATOR?” Come this summer at the Republican Convention, we’ll likely get a prequel to the answer, and come November we’ll find out whether the question still applies.