Title: It Can’t Happen Here
Author: Sinclair Lewis
Genre: Classic / Dystopia
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
I’m a fan of dystopias. I find the classic dystopias like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World to be far scarier than anything in the horror genre. They are usually a great blend of satire and science fiction that provide timely warnings about the various forms that despotism can take and/or how it can come about. When a news article brought this book to my attention after it rocketed up the Amazon sales chart I was excited to give it a read. On Amazon it is currently billed as “The novel that foreshadowed Donald Trump’s authoritarian appeal” to give it that added “ripped from the headlines” boost. First I’ll address the actual book and then the “it’s all about Donald Trump!” aspect.
There are reasons that It Can’t Happen Here has not garnered the fame of the three classic dystopias I mentioned above – and it’s not due to some right (or left)-wing conspiracy of suppression. It just isn’t as timeless or believable as they are. Rather than setting it in the distant future, Sinclair Lewis placed the action in 1936, only a year or so after the publication date. This leads to a lot of references to contemporary politicians, authors, etc. which have not necessarily aged well. Also, the rapidity and ease with which the president/dictator transforms the US into a totalitarian fascist state after his election (seemingly a matter of days!) seemed completely unbelievable to me. There were aspects of the book that hit the right notes for a dystopia once the fascist state was in full swing, but I was mostly unimpressed (and didn’t care much for the hero: a liberal, moderately socialistic newspaper editor who has little use for God or marital fidelity).
In regards to the similarities between President Trump and President/Chief Windrip, the perceived parallels are largely in regard to how/why they were elected. See, for example, this quote describing Windrip’s idealistic supporters (alongside the “bullies and swindlers” who also support him):
…they were the men and women who, in 1935 and 1936, had turned to Windrip & Co., not as a perfect, but as the most probable savior of the country from, on one hand, domination by Moscow and, on the other hand, the slack indolence, the lack of decent pride of half the American youth, whose world (these idealists asserted) was composed of shiftless distaste for work and refusal to learn anything thoroughly, of blatting dance music on the radio, maniac automobiles, slobbering sexuality, the humor and art of the comic strip – of a slave psychology which was making America a land for sterner men to loot. (p. 422)
In this and other quotes it becomes apparent that Windrip was elected as “a strong man” and “savior” by angry, white, working-class people afraid of a foreign enemy, opposed to the perceived immorality and weakness of the younger generation & intellectual elites, and upset that people of different ethnicities are taking their jobs. This is certainly one portrayal of why Donald Trump was elected as well (whether it is an accurate one I leave up to your opinion…I despise getting into political debates).
A couple other potential parallels to Trump are Windrip’s inflammatory speeches about Mexico and the mutual hatred between himself and the press. Most of the details of their background, political policies, and assumption of power are completely divergent.
Overall: a moderately interesting book that doesn’t measure up to the classic dystopias and does bear some passing resemblance to our current political situation.