Way back, well before my time, American author Sinclair Lewis wrote a novel with the title, “It Can’t Happen Here.” It was 1935 to be precise. It’s not unusual for a novel to be colored by the current historical situation of the day when they are written, and that’s certainly true with Lewis’ book.
Hitler was coming to power in Germany and fascism was spreading around Europe. In the United States, a wild card from Louisiana named Huey Long was making preparations to run for president in the ’36 election. However, he was assassinated shortly before the novel was published.
The story is about a character named Berzelius Windrip, more frequently referred to as Buzz. Windrip defeated FDR in the primary and was eventually elected as President. His campaign was based on creating fear and promising a return to patriotism and traditional American values. Does that last sentence sound familiar to you?
The similarities between a fictional President and our current President nearly 80 years later are eerie. Here’s a list of some of them:
- Had a ghostwritten book that was a big seller and made him popular
- Wife not involved in his campaign, stayed home to raise the kids
- A strong supporter of veterans
- The New York Times was anti-Windrip
- Most religious periodicals wrote that he had been called of God
- Strong emphasis on patriotism
- Promises to return the country to greatness and prosperity
As Windrip got closer and closer to becoming President, occasionally people would say, “It can’t happen here.” Any kind of warning about a man misleading the nation was usually tucked away with those words of assurance.
Listen to other excerpts from the book. During the campaign, Buzz Windrip said, “I know the Press only too well. Almost all editors hide away in spider-dens, men without thought of Family or Public Interest or the humble delights of jaunts out-of-doors, plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pocketbooks by calumniating Statesmen who have given their all for the common good and who are vulnerable because they stand out in the fierce Light that beats around the Throne.” He didn’t use the term “Fake News,” but he did refer to the lies of the press in an attempt to make money and harm the country.
A prominent preacher sounded like Franklin Graham or any other of dozens of leading evangelicals today with these words, “His program and that of the League do not in all details agree. But he has implicitly pledged himself to take our advice, and, at least until election, we shall back him, absolutely—with our money, with our loyalty, with our votes… with our prayers. And may the Lord guide him and us across the desert of iniquitous politics and swinishly grasping finance into the golden glory of the Promised Land! God bless you!” Listen carefully and you can hear Robert Jeffress say it doesn’t matter what Trump says or does, he’s going to help us.
There were also similarities between Trump and Windrip’s past. Windrip began his career peddling tonic as a medicine show doctor. Then we hear these words, “But since then Windrip had redeemed himself, no doubt, by ascending from the vulgar fraud of selling bogus medicine, standing in front of a megaphone, to the dignity of selling bogus economics, standing on an indoor platform under mercury vapor lights in front of a microphone.”
This sounds very familiar to Trump selling bogus university degrees and building projects being turned into bogus economic policies. Sinclair even describes Windrip by saying, “The senator 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.”
He then went on to talk about his campaign speeches. “…but he would also coo like a nursing mother, beseech like an aching lover, and in between tricks would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts—figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.”
Further, Lewis adds this description of the candidate’s false identity. “…since it was known that, though he drank a lot, Senator Windrip also praised teetotalism a lot.” In other words, he would pretend to be whatever was necessary for the crowd at that moment, without any consistent convictions.
I encourage you to read the book, so I’m not going to tell you how it ended, other than to say it wasn’t happy.
Obviously, I’m not the first person to note the similarities between Buzz Windrip and Donald Trump. It is fascinating to me that a novel written more than 80 years ago can be so prescient about today’s world.
I’ll also admit that I’m one of those who would probably say, “It can’t happen here.” But, I don’t know for sure. Perhaps it can. After all, he has garnered enough support to win the election, and there seems to be enough incompetence or compliance from Congress that many of his policies might actually be implemented. Perhaps it can happen here.