“The devil can cite scripture for his purpose.”
– The Merchant of Venice Act I, scene III
The phrase “It can’t happen here” was common in the U.S. in the 1930’s. It expressed the feeling that what was happening in Germany could never happen in America. To counter that idea, Ayn Rand in her essay “The New Fascism” recommends we read, even re-read, the novel It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, published in 1935. The theme of the novel is that on the contrary it – fascism – can happen here. America is not automatically immune from turning into a police state. Sinclair Lewis shows how it could happen.
The novel depicts the rise of Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a back-slapping Huey Long type, and his Corpo Party conspirators. Windrip runs for President of the United States, wins, and gradually takes control of every aspect of the country, all the while spouting bromides about freedom, liberty, and individualism. We focus here on that last aspect of the story: how Windrip corrupted the English language to get what he wanted.
During his presidential campaign Windrip calls his enemies “unAmerican.” They are the “enemies of American principles.” Windrip on the other hand is for “individual freedom.”
Sinclair Lewis describes one of Windrip’s campaign speeches:
He slid into a rhapsody of general ideas—a mishmash of polite regards to Justice, Freedom, Equality, Order, Prosperity, Patriotism, and any number of other noble but slippery abstractions.
Windrip in his campaign book Zero Hour, actually ghost written for him by Lee Sarason, the brain behind the Corpos:
“I want to stand up on my hind legs and not just admit but frankly holler right out that we’ve got to change our system a lot ... . The Executive has got to have a freer hand and be able to move quick in an emergency, and not be tied down by a lot of dumb shyster-lawyer congressmen taking months to shoot off their mouths in debates. BUT—and it’s a But as big as Deacon Checkerboard’s hay-barn back home—these new economic changes are only a means to an End, and that End is and must be, fundamentally, the same principles of Liberty, Equality, and Justice that were advocated by the Founding Fathers of this great land back in 1776!”
The story revolves around Doremus Jessup, a small-town newspaper owner, and how he copes with what is happening. Sinclair Lewis describes Doremus before Windrip’s administration has fully matured (keep in mind that at the time he was writing “Fascist” meant a follower of Mussolini):
Constantly, in the Informer [Doremus’s newspaper], he criticized the government but not too acidly.
The hysteria can’t last; be patient, and wait and see, he counseled his readers.
It was not that he was afraid of the authorities. He simply did not believe that this comic tyranny could endure. IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE, said even Doremus—even now.
The one thing that most perplexed him was that there could be a dictator seemingly so different from the fervent Hitlers and gesticulating Fascists ... Did that, puzzled Doremus, make him less or more dangerous?
Doremus describes Windrip as “consistently American” in form “even if he has thrown out all our traditional independence.”
Windrip sets up a domestic military which he calls the Minute Men, after the heroes of the American Revolution. They come to be called M.M.’s for short. Here is Lewis on the Minute Men:
... the craftiest thing about the M.M.’s was that they wore no colored shirts, but only plain white when on parade, and light khaki when on outpost duty, so that Buzz Windrip could thunder, and frequently, “Black shirts? Brown shirts? Red shirts? Yes, and maybe cow-brindle shirts! All these degenerate European uniforms of tyranny! No sir! The Minute Men are not Fascist or Communist or anything at all but plain Democratic—the knight-champions of the rights of the Forgotten Men—the shock troops of Freedom!”
Windrip addresses a group of Minute Men hesitant about rounding up resisting citizens:
“I tell you that you are ... the makers of the new America of freedom and justice.”
Lewis concerning Independence Day:
The M.M.’s brought out their burnished helmets and all the rideable horses in the neighborhood ... for the great celebration of the New Freedom on the morning of Fourth of July.
Lewis describing Corpo idealists:
Like all religious zealots, they had blessed capacity for blindness, and they were presently convinced that (since the only newspapers they ever read certainly said nothing about it) there were no more of blood-smeared cruelties in court and concentration camp; no restrictions of speech or thought. They believed that they never criticized the Corpo régime not because they were censored, but because “that sort of thing was, like obscenity, such awfully bad form.”
Eventually Doremus gets arrested and sent to a concentration camp. At one point during his incarceration a cellmate says:
“You’re a lot too simple when you explain everything by saying that the Corpos, especially the M.M.’s, are all fiends. Plenty of ’em are. But even the worst of ’em, even the professional gunmen in the M.M. ranks, don’t get as much satisfaction out of punishing us heretics as the honest, dumb Corpos who’ve been misled by their leaders’ mouthing about Freedom, Order, Security, Discipline, Strength! All those swell words ...”
All this by way of comment on Harry Binswanger’s sickening praise of Bush and his American catch-phrases in “Bush’s Speech on Freedom” Capitalism Magazine March 14, 2005. For more about Mr. Binswanger’s essay see How to Kill an Idea on this website. For another quote from It Can’t Happen Here see Torture.