Donald Trump’s presidency, his inauguration and Sean Spicer’s unbelievable press conference all seem a work of fiction. Moments when you hope the eyes are deceiving you, and when you hope an author’s imagination is running wild and verging on the ridiculous. This is a nightmare the American people, and the rest of the world will find incredibly difficult to wake up from. Rather worryingly, the ascent of fascism into mainstream American politics and the presidency was predicted 82 years ago in Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here. Or as Sean Spicer would describe: 200 years ago, when George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Stonewall Jackson, Walt Disney and Nigel Farage all converged to prophesize the moment when a messiah-like figure would visit Earth from the heights of business failure and bigotry to make America great again. You can choose not to believe that truth but I can tell you in full confidence, it is merely an alternative fact.
Michael Meyer’s wonderfully acute, succinct and thought-provoking introduction describes the book’s protagonist, Doremus Jessup, as ‘a mild, rather indolent and somewhat sentimental liberal’. If only the world today was full of indolent sentimental Liberals. Similar to those in It Can’t Happen Here, with the exception of Jessup, today’s Liberals seem on the one hand content to hold together a world that is evidently not working for the majority of people, while also to their credit are able to identify a truly dangerous, hapless president who poses a threat not just to their world but to the ideals of the whole population.
It is in this population that is perhaps the most frightening of all similarities. Trump’s ascension to power relied on the American population’s fear of a cultural invasion brought upon them through immigration, while the threat of a failing global economy that is seeing American hegemony slowly disintegrate also hangs over the middle classes like a guillotine hanging by a thread. Oddly, they have decided to take their chances at the gallows instead.
Lewis describes the populous in the novel as having chosen security over freedom, and there is a general sense that this is exactly what the American people have voted for the next four years. Sinclair creates a world not dissimilar to the society depicted in George Orwell’s 1984, where fear dictates all actions, and leader-worship is necessary to survive. It is not impossible to see that already developing in America. Indeed, it is Trump, not the Republican Party who won the election. Trump arguably has the mandate to govern exactly how he wishes (if you ignore the popular vote issue, which he no doubt will). This is a dangerous possibility, but one that the red cap wearing army of supporters would relish.
These hardcore Trumpists resemble Lewis’ ‘Minute Men’, the fictional president’s version of stormtroopers. With obsessive followers who hang on his every word, with Breitbart news, and with Twitter providing a platform for his spiel, Trump has amassed a civilian army identifiable with his ridiculous slogan headed red cap that aptly performs its role as a uniform, and ironically marks out each person who, if wearing, you would cross the street to avoid.
The novel’s equivalent of Trump, Berzelius Windrip, is a similarly clueless, right wing populist who demonises an easily persecuted group to gain power. The population seems to be in denial about having a fascist government that is full of paradox, similar to the Trump administration that is pro-life but anti-gun control among other frankly horrifying policies. Windrip appeals to America’s forgotten men, from the survivors of the first world war to those fallen from affluence, or at least relative comfort after the depression. Today’s America is full to the brim with such forgotten men, while even the circumstances are similar. While the 1929 depression was worse than 2008, the effects still shook, and continue to shake, a fragile world political and economic order. Similarly, while no post-1945 conflict can, within any stretch of the imagination, be compared to The First World War, the patriotic fervour ignited by the War on Terror creates a strikingly similar context to Lewis’ novel. Trump even referred to America’s forgotten men in his inauguration speech, which sounded eerily like a battle cry and a call to arms for these forgotten men to reclaim what they perceive as rightfully theirs – the American dream and international American hegemony.
The novel’s plotline includes secret espionage and newspaper publication, political imprisonment, escape and what the reader assumes is a bloody but ultimately successful rebellion against the failing regime. It is this aspect of the plot that Trump has yet to reach, and it also the most terrifying, and possibly the most far-fetched in this modern era.
The fictional depiction of the concentration camps and the torture rife within them; an ideologically enslaved society, a country so proud of its democracy governed by fear and dictatorship; and a lying, scheming political elite that is far worse than the broken machine that it replaced, truly make you want to close your eyes repeating the phrase “it can’t happen here”. What Lewis’ book should teach us is that if we keep our eyes closed for too long, then it really can.