The creeping fascism of American literature

It can, can't, will, might, or won't happen here

Every few years, a public figure proposes repression and violence in the name of patriotism, and we go back to the dystopian novel It Can’t Happen Here. Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 book is currently being read in the context of Donald Trump’s presidential run, built on bare-faced xenophobia and an unsettling acceptance of violence on the campaign trail. But really, It Can’t Happen Here is perpetually relevant, and it’s just one of many books that explore the fascinating, disturbing notion of creeping fascism in America.

The US turning totalitarian covers an incredibly wide swathe of fiction. But what sets a book like It Can’t Happen Here apart from a “Nazis win World War II” story like The Man in the High Castle is that it’s all about the slow process, not the product, of a fascist takeover. The rot in America doesn’t come from an invading force in these books, it comes from within, to the shock and dismay of some everyman (or everywoman) protagonist who holds the comforting belief that, well, it can’t happen here. These books condemn their demagogues and oligarchs, but they also ask a simple, more important question: how much can you trust the people around you?

It Can't Happen Here cropped

A 1936 stage production poster for It Can't Happen Here (Wikimedia)

There’s a good argument that It Can’t Happen Here is remembered largely for its fantastic title, a bitter little four-word story in its own right. But as a number of people have pointed out, it’s not hard to draw parallels with Trump. Lewis’ demagogue is Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, a charismatic populist who encourages struggling white Americans to blame their misfortunes on minorities. Windrip makes attractive promises that are both vague and probably impossible — in this case, promising all Americans an annual stipend whose numbers inflate on the campaign trail. His rallies, attended by a loyal militia called the Minute Men, regularly end in violence. And through it all, the upper class insists that he’s a secret moderate, appealing to popular anger to win votes. Then he’s elected president, and America devolves into a nation of manufactured wars, mass destitution, and concentration camps.

Lewis was a keen satirist, and It Can’t Happen Here is full of weird comic touches like an extreme version of the misspelled signs that Trump is periodically called out for: Windrip’s anti-intellectual administration accidentally copies the communists’ five-pointed star for its insignia, convinced that the Soviet flag’s star has six points, and hurriedly changes it months later when somebody finally notices. Lewis' worst jabs, though, are at the American populace that voted him in, its members either venal or sadistically authoritarian. The book questions its protagonist’s moderate and complacent middle-class liberalism and mocks the elite’s naïveté, but both compare favorably against the crude sentimentality of the easily duped masses. Lewis himself displays a certain amount of the classism that Trump’s critics are sometimes accused of — the most loathsome villain isn’t Windrip or a member of his inner circle, but the protagonist’s stupid, lazy, and power-hungry handyman.

In some ways, though, It Can’t Happen Here is an uneasy fit for current populist rhetoric. For one thing, Trump doesn’t bank on the "professional common man" folksiness that Windrip exudes — it was George W. Bush, the favored Windrip analogue before him, who played up his image as an affable Texas cowboy. Where Trump is a singular figure, Windrip is portrayed as the figurehead for a calculating and manipulative advisor, who eventually gets tired of his cultivated ignorance and deposes him.

And the Trump campaign has been, if anything, unusually secular. Sinclair Lewis never actually made the famous claim that "when fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross," but religion is inextricable from his dystopia. Windrip wins the presidency with help from a Methodist version of Roman Catholic pundit Father Coughlin, and his platform bars non-believers from law, medicine, and teaching. He takes a complementarian view of gender, forcing women out of work to promote the "incomparably sacred duties" of homemaking and childbearing.

The "anti-religious totalitarian state" motif has its own place in dystopian science fiction, whether in allegories for Communism like Ayn Rand’s Anthem or the End Times predictions of Left Behind. But literature’s specifically patriotic, all-American version of fascism often treats Americanism as synonymous with Christianity. Sometimes this evolves into the outright theocracy of books like The Handmaid’s Tale and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents. But it’s present to a lesser extent even in Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, perhaps the most measured and ambiguous vision of American fascism ever written.

The Plot Against America starts with nearly the same premise as It Can’t Happen Here: as Hitler and Mussolini gain power in Europe, America elects a charming racist and anti-Semite, in this case a fictionalized Charles Lindbergh. But the practical consequences of his prejudice are unclear. He’s unsettlingly comfortable with high-ranking Nazis, but his platform is a reasonably sympathetic pacifist isolationism. To present-day readers, he’s on the wrong side of history, but most of the book is spent anticipating the fallout of having a Nazi sympathizer in the White House.

Daredevil Lindbergh Wikimedia

Charles Lindbergh: a real-life admirer of Nazi Germany, but not a US president. (Wikimedia)

The Jewish family at the center of The Plot Against America is divided on how sinister the Lindberg administration actually is — it’s usually not their safety that’s at stake, it’s their cultural identity, under a president who promotes assimilation into Christian America as a benevolent counterpoint to Nazi genocide. Are student exchange programs that weaken Jewish family ties a prelude to something worse? Or are they, as their supporters claim, an anti-segregation effort meant to bring Americans together? Are the people who voted for Lindbergh secret bigots, or are they just trying to avoid entering a bloody world war? And are individual incidences of anti-Semitism a relic from years past, or part of a mass movement sparked by Lindbergh?

It’s not until the very end that the American people abruptly lurch into mass anti-Semitic violence — and in another echo of It Can’t Happen Here, it’s Lindbergh’s vice president who sets it off. Before that, the greatest fear comes from uncertainty. Where It Can’t Happen Here safely dismisses Windrip’s supporters as either idiots or monsters, The Plot Against America creates a kind of plausibly deniable bigotry, an American populace whose neutrality makes it hard to tell who’s truly dangerous. If fascism came to America, not only might we let it in, we might not even notice until it’s too late.

If there’s an optimistic version of the creeping totalitarianism trope, oddly, it’s one where the vast majority of people have no power whatsoever. The Iron Heel, published in 1908 by Jack London, is a long political tract disguised as a pulp novel starring an impossibly heroic protagonist — think of it as the more entertaining socialist version of Atlas Shrugged: Its fascists are businessmen so self-confident that they outright tell their worst enemy that they’re planning to take over America within the first five chapters. The rest of the book is about a failed attempt to stop them, first through the democratic process and then through a series of rebellions.

The novel’s text might be that capitalism slowly crushes everything in its path, including personal freedom and democracy — if workers resist, robber barons will attack and subvert the unions; if voters resist, corrupt politicians will refuse to leave office; and most people are too short-sighted and complacent to see any of it coming. But the subtext is that these same people are one short lecture and slum visit away from becoming dedicated socialist agitators, whatever the personal cost. The Iron Heel is supremely cynical about institutions like newspapers and the church, which are at best bourgeois cover for the oligarchy, but it’s unflaggingly confident in individuals. And in case there was any doubt that capitalism was doomed to fail eventually, the whole account is annotated by a scholar from a far-future utopian society, which has ostensibly found and kept it as a historical document.

If there’s any consolation to be found here, it’s that we’ve been reading cautionary tales for over a century, and we’ve never gotten to the point of an Iron Heel or Buzz Windrip. Then again, waiting for the worst of all possible worlds is its own kind of dangerous complacency. When we get a hint of American fascism, how far can we safely go before we have to admit that something has happened here, and how can we stop it from going further? Dystopias can be alarm bells. But unfortunately, they’re rarely good at solutions.