Election 2008 History Libertarianism Politics

It Can’t Happen Here

[digg-reddit-me]Following the Ron Paul quote (quoting Sinclair Lewis), which I had heard before but never looked into, I came across Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here. (The quote doesn’t appear to be in the book which is part of Project Gutenberg. But it clearly is related to the book which illustrates the concept.)

The title comes from a character in the novel who, upon being told that one of the Senators running for president would impose a “real Fascist dictatorship”, exclaims:

“Nonsense! Nonsense!” snorted Tasbrough. “That couldn’t happen here in America, not possibly! We’re a country of freemen.”

Lewis’s novel tells the story of anti-intellectual, populist Southern politician (loosely based on Huey Long, who also inspired the Governor in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men) called Berzelius Noel Weinacht Windrip, or Buzz Windrip. Windrip rides to power on Christian values and patriotic fervor. One character observes of the charismatic politician:

“I don’t know whether he’s more of a crook or an hysterical religious fanatic.”

Lewis observes that the candidate speaks with soaring rhetoric, but few specifics:

He slid into a rhapsody of general ideas – a mishmash of polite regards to Justice, Freedom, Equality, Order, Prosperity, Patriotism, and any number of other noble but slippery abstractions.

In a review, the Boston Globe noted that Buzz Windrip wins because of:

his easy-going personality…massive cash donations from Big Business; disorganization in the liberal opposition; a stuffy, aloof opponent; and support from religious fanatics who feel they’ve been unfairly marginalized

After being elected, President Windrip opens large detention centers – Guantanamo on a larger scale ((or if we were to stay closer to the period, like the Japanese internment camps)) – for enemies of the state, which is his label for supporters of the Constitution and traditional liberal democracy. He also creates a system of military tribunals to try these enemies of the state.

In another passage in the book, Lewis channeled today’s radicals – and John Edwards – in assailing the corporate political parties:

[T]he President, with something of his former good-humor [said]: “There are two [political] parties, the Corporate and those who don’t belong to any party at all, and so, to use a common phrase, are just out of luck!” The idea of the Corporate or Corporative State, Secretary [of State] Sarason had more or less taken from Italy.

I’m sure there are quite a few gems in this eerily prophetic work, but this is my favorite as the President Windrip explains why civil liberties, democracy, and the rest should be put aside for a time while the current Crisis is dealt with:

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, to their fury, 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; and he wound up with a comparison of the Crisis to the urgency of a fireman rescuing a pretty girl from a “conflagration,” and carrying her down a ladder, for her own sake, whether she liked it or not, and no matter how appealingly she might kick her pretty ankles.

The whole country laughed.

Looking at the book both through today’s Crisis, and the Crisis of 1935 – Great Depression and the opening rumblings of World War II – and comparing what this fictional Christianist Fascist did to what happened during both crises, one senses how easily republics can fail, and how fragile democracy is.

Ron Paul has actually invoked Lewis’s novel before in an essay entitled “It Can’t Happen Here?” that appeared on in December of 2004:

We are not yet living in a total police state, but it is fast approaching. The seeds of future tyranny have been sown, and many of our basic protections against government have been undermined. The atmosphere since 2001 has permitted Congress to create whole new departments and agencies that purport to make us safer – always at the expense of our liberty. But security and liberty go hand-in-hand. Members of Congress, like too many Americans, don’t understand that a society with no constraints on its government cannot be secure. History proves that societies crumble when their governments become more powerful than the people and private institutions…

Those who believe a police state can’t happen here are poor students of history. Every government, democratic or not, is capable of tyranny. We must understand this if we hope to remain a free people.

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