It Could Happen Here

By Guest Columnist MARK PENDERGRAST, an Atlanta native and author of “For God, Country and Coca-Cola,” and other books

I am afraid of Donald Trump.

And I am appalled that a sizable number of the American voting public – at the moment over 40 percent, despite the latest revelations of his grotesque remarks about women 11 years ago – thinks he would be a good selection as the next president of the United States.

Mark Pendergrast

Mark Pendergrast

And I am terrified that he might actually win, despite the manifestly obvious fact that he is a bully, a sexist, a narcissist, a racist, a xenophobe, and that he has very little in the way of brains or plans, other than to build walls, expel illegal “aliens,” and lock people up. Just listen to him speak. He doesn’t make logical points. He just rants and repeats phrases. His self-satisfied mug and his broad gestures remind me in an uncanny way of Adolf Hitler, or perhaps more Benito Mussolini – il Donalde.

When I was a teenager growing up in Atlanta, I read It Can’t Happen Here, a 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis, who is best known as the author of Babbitt and Main Street. The protagonist of the novel is Doremus Jessup, a small-town newspaper editor who stands up to the newly elected presidency of Berzilius “Buzz” Windrip, a populist demagogue. The title of the book is ironic, since its message is that the United States could become a totalitarian state with relative ease. I just re-read the book, and although it is dated in many ways, it is also startlingly relevant, with strong echoes of Trump’s run for president and what may well follow in its wake if he is elected.

At the time Lewis wrote the book, he was disturbed by Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, and by the fact that many Americans shared Hitler’s anti-semitic, anti-immigrant, eugenic views. (Actually, Hitler probably learned about the “science” of eugenics from fine, upstanding Americans).

Jessup clearly speaks for the author when he says, early in the book,

  • “God knows there’s been enough indication that we can have tyranny in America – the fix of the Southern share-croppers, the working conditions of the miners and garment-makers, and our keeping [Tom] Mooney in prison so many years. But wait till Windrip shows us how to say it with machine guns! … Not happen here? Prohibition – shooting down people just because they might be transporting liquor – no, that couldn’t happen in America! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship, as ours!” (p. 20-22)
Donald Trump

Donald Trump maintains that big media is collaborating to derail his campaign. Credit: donaldjtrump.com

Dated? What about our prisons filled with non-violent “criminals” because of our equally misguided “war on drugs”? What about all the innocent people who have spent (and continue to spend) years in those same prisons? What about the mass incarceration of black men, as Michelle Alexander observed in The New Jim Crow? (One in three black men will go to prison some time during their lives.) What about the working conditions in our chicken factories, where immigrants work in extreme cold killing and processing poultry? I could go on.

Here is Lewis’s description of candidate Buzz Windrip:

  • “Windrip was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store. Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill….” (p. 86)

Sound familiar, Donald?

There are some differences between Trump and Windrip, though. At least Windrip gave lip service to a populist message, a la Huey Long. He promised to give every American $5,000 if elected, for instance, and said that he would fight for the little man. None of that turned out to be true, but still.

Windrip did give fair warning that he intended to change the laws and the rules, however, in his ghost-written book:

  • “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, maybe even change the whole Constitution from the horseback-and-corduroy-road epoch to the automobile-and-cement-highway period of today. 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… 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!” (p. 38-39)
Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis. Credit: historybyzim.com

Once he won the election, Windrip installed his “Minute Men” as a private army and semi-SS force. People who objected were beaten, killed, or imprisoned in concentration camps. Windrip, who came to be known affectionately by his followers as “the Chief,” explained that this was all necessary but temporary:

  • “President Windrip’s first extended proclamation to the country was a pretty piece of literature and of tenderness. He explained that powerful and secret enemies of American principles – one rather gathered that they were a combination of Wall Street and Soviet Russia – upon discovering that he, Berzelius, was going to be President, had planned their last charge. Everything would be tranquil in a few months, but meantime there was a Crisis, during which the country must ‘bear with him.’ He recalled the military dictatorship of Lincoln and Stanton during the Civil War, when civilian suspects were arrested without warrant. He hinted how delightful everything was going to be – right away now – just a moment – just a moment’s patience – when he had things in hand.” (p. 168)
  • “For the first time in America, except during the Civil War and the World War,” wrote Lewis, “people were afraid to say whatever came to their tongues. On the streets, on trains, at theaters, men looked about to see who might be listening before they dared so much as to say there was a drought in the West, for someone might suppose they were blaming the drought on the Chief!” (p. 263)

Windrip tried to create a fake war with Mexico in order to unite the country behind him:

  • “To answer this threat, America, the one country that had never lost a war and never started an unjust one, rose as one man, as the Chicago Daily Evening Corporate put it. It was planned to invade Mexico as soon as it should be cool enough, or even earlier, if the refrigeration and air-conditioning could be arranged. In one month, five million men were drafted for the invasion and started training.” (p. 445-446)
Trump, Clinton, debate

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton skipped the tradition handshake before they met for their final debate. Credit: pbs.org

Most citizens went along with Windrip, who controlled the media so that there was no vocal opposition or factual counterpoint.

  • “Most Americans had learned in school that God had supplanted the Jews as chosen people by the Americans, and this time done the job much better, so that we were the richest, kindest, and cleverest nation living; that depressions were but passing headaches and that labor unions must not concern themselves with anything except higher wages and shorter hours and, above all, must not set up an ugly class struggle by combining politically.” (p. 449)

Only radicals such as auto mechanic Karl Pascal complained to sympathetic people like Doremus Jessup:

  • “What burns me up – it isn’t that old soap-boxer’s chestnut about how one tenth of 1 per cent of the population at the top have an aggregate income equal to 42 per cent at the bottom…. But what burns me up is the fact that even before this Depression, in what you folks called prosperous times, 7 percent of all the families in the country earned $500 a year or less – remember, those weren’t the unemployed, on relief; those were the guys that had the honor of still doing honest labor. Five hundred dollars a year is ten dollars a week – and that means one dirty little room for a family of four people! It means $5.00 a week for all their food – eighteen cents per day per person for food! – and even the lousiest prisons allow more than that. And the magnificent remainder of $2.50 a week, that means nine cents per day per person for clothes, insurance, carfares, doctors’ bills, dentists’ bills, and for God’s sake, amusements – amusements! – and all the rest of the nine cents a day they can fritter away on their Fords and autogiros and, when they feel fagged, skipping across the pond on the Normandie! Seven percent of all the fortunate American families where the old man has got a job! (p. 130-131)

Bernie Sanders would understand.

And there is much more. I urge you to find a copy of It Can’t Happen Here. More than that, I urge you to vote your conscience and to try to change our country for the better. There is so much that needs to be done.

Note to readers: Mark Pendergrast now lives in Colchester, Vt. and can be reached through his website, www.markpendergrast.com.

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