Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Every Man a King, but no one wears a crown

So, with recent events in the US, I thought it might be wise to finally read Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, since it, along with Orwell, seems to occasionally crop up in various conversations.

So, where do we start with this?

How about some background? Lewis wrote this in 1935, which would have been 2ish years into FDR's presidency, and not that far into the rising Nazi era in Europe. It was also the Great Depression in the US. (We're kind of skipping a heck of a lot of human history with that summation, but for the sake of setting the scene, this should work.)

We open in Vermont during the election cycle of 1936. Doremus Jessup edits the Fort Beulah paper, and is attending the monthly rotary meeting. The speakers that night are retired Brigadier General Edgeways and the anti-suffrage DAR woman Mrs. Gimmitch. (Note to some readers here, particularly mom, if she clicks the link. Lewis obviously didn't have a high opinion of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The character's description uses her DAR status as shorthand for a longer diatribe about a type of woman who campaigned against women's suffrage, tried to find ways in the great war to keep the Doughboys from frequenting French cafes and meeting women of international morals, and generally being a conservative gadfly.) Edgeways expresses his belief that the horrors of poverty could be remedied with a strong domestic military (echoing the isolationism of the era) that defends the US borders from invasion by foreign powers. Gimmitch spends most of her time attacking the Unitarian minister's wife, who tends to be a little more liberal than anyone else in the room.

The one things both speakers seem to agree on is that Buzz Windrip should be the next President of the USA. Windrip (who's home state is never mentioned, but is implied to be somewhere southern-midwestish) is running against FDR for the Democratic nomination of 1936 against the rather milquetoast Trowbridge in the Republican Party. Windrip is supported in this by his Legion of Forgotten Men, the workers feeling they aren't getting their fair share, the vets returned home with none of the benefits they were promised, the downtrodden, et cetera. Windrip gets a boost from a syndicated Father Prang (here analogous with Father Coughlin, another Depression era potstirrer), who believes Windrip will lead America back to Jesus and prosperity. Windrip himself is an analogue of The Kingfish himself, Huey Long. Windrip runs on a platform saying that men under him will get $5000 a year (I don't have the math handy to figure out how much that winds up being in 2016 money, so we'll just claim it's quite a bit) and he'll redistribute the wealth from the rich so that everyone can prosper. Of Windrip's supporters in the microcosm of Fort Beulah, Vermont, his biggest one is Shad Ledue, who works as the rather lazy handyman for the Jessup family. Not that Shad is alone in his support, several of the middle class citizens like his promises of sticking it the 5% who own most of the wealth in America. (What little bit there is in this period.)

Eventually, as the Conventions roll around, Windrip gets introduced last to the convention floor, arriving in a parade of military, poor, and disaffected youth worthy of P. T. Barnum. It takes several rounds of balloting before he eventually gets named the Democratic party nominee of 1936.

Windrip, unsurprisingly, gets elected. FDR, much like Teddy, formed his own Party, the Jeffersonians which unsurprisingly failed to get him reelected. Windrip's political rivals either get ambassadorships to out of the way places, or in his main opponent's case, exiled to his ranch in Wyoming. The Legion of Forgotten Men, in turn, become the Minute Men, who, in turn take over as the official military of the US. Windrip, with some rather large strong arming (like having the Minute Men arrest uncooperative congressmen and senators, dissolving the Supreme Court), passes a series of bills that help get his 15 points into being the law of the land. Most of it falls under Martial Law provisions, suspending most of the Constitution, but includes some rather special provisions like making sure Congress can't do anything without his approval, praising the Jewish population while robbing them blind, stripping women of any right beyond keeping house and having babies, and making sure African Americans are awarded only for being good little Negroes. (It's really ugly. However, it's presented much like a pill to a dog wrapped in flowery peanut butter.)

Windrip's Secretary of State, Sarason, takes on many hats in the administration, essentially running everything under Windrip's benevolent guidance. The US eventually gets redistributed as 8 states, new labor laws make sure quite a few people wind up in a labor camp, and eventually Concentration Camps spring up for dissenters who dare speak against the Corpo government.

Trowbridge, the Republican nominee, ends up in Canada running the resistance from there. Jessup winds up in trouble with the law for writing rather anti-Windrip editorials, thereby getting a new supervisor at the paper. The Underground Railroad starts up again, helping smuggle (or given that Prohibition was newly ended around the time of this being written) or bootlegging humans into Canada.

To skip over quite a bit, Jessup eventually ends up in a Concentration Camp for "Being a communist" (which he isn't), his one daughter winds up killing a member of the government by crashing her plane into his, his other daughter runs the local resistance chapter, his son becomes a true believer in the new government.

Jessup eventually does escape into Canada, then comes back the the US via Minnesota long after Windrip gets exiled to France, Sarason gets killed by the new dictator Haik, and the press and Corpos start trying to engineer a war with Mexico.

Many of the references are a bit dated for a modern reader; when's the last time William Randolph Hearst was a major topic of conversation? When's the last time we were particularly worried about communists undermining American values? *cough*

On a personal note, Lewis doesn't seem to particularly hate the homosexuals of the era, while none are major players in the main plot, a few do get shipped off to the camps, while another one gets killed after deposing Windrip. (To be fair, Sarason is analogous with Rohm, who met a similar fate on the Night of Long Knives.)  Also, the morality of Jessup is a bit different, he's having an affair with the local barkeep, and his one daughter even goes as far to encourage the affair.

There's quite a bit of philosophizing in here, from the contention that those most responsible for Fascism's arrival in the US is due to people not dissenting loud enough, pointedly discussing how dictators both reactionary (Mussolini, Hitler) and Radical (Lenin, Stalin) aren't better than their counterparts on the other side of the aisle, and pointing out one revolution that strips rights tends to lead to a counterrevolution where the rights remain stripped for similar reasons. 

Lewis also uses sarcasm the way friends of mine use Nutealla. Which is to say slathered libreally over almost everything, dripping juicily off of each morsel.

Ultimately, Lewis offers no real answers on how to dig out of the hole once one is buried, figuring it's up to us to be creative and find our own solutions, or, better yet, speak up, dissent, and avoid being buried in the first place.