Who Said ‘It Can’t Happen Here’?

Who Said 'It Can't Happen Here'?

In his novel, "It Can't Happen Here," published in 1935, Sinclair Lewis tried to capture the mood of the time and let Americans know that what was happening in Europe could also happen here. It's amazing that his warnings of 81 years ago seem so relevant to this period in American history.

The  book's main characters are Senator Berzelius (Buzz) Windrip, who ran for the office of President of the United States as head of The League of Forgotten Men and won, and Doremus Jessup, the editor of a small-town newspaper in Vermont.

Through Jessup, Lewis describes Buzz Windrip as "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." Political reporters said that "under the spell you thought Windrip was Plato, but on the way home you could not remember anything he said."

During the first week of his presidential campaign, Windrip issued a proclamation titled "The Fifteen Points of Victory for The Forgotten Men," which outlines his philosophy and his approach to governing. Here, somewhat abbreviated, are the "Fifteen Points."

1) All finance in the country, including banking, insurance, stocks and bonds and mortgages, shall be under the absolute control of a Federal Central Bank owned by the government and conducted by a Board appointed by the President. It will not need recourse to Congress for legislative authorization and be empowered to make all regulations governing finance. As soon as practicable, this Board shall consider the nationalization and government-ownership of all mines, oil fields, water power, public utilities, transportation and communication for the Profit of the Whole People.

2) The President shall appoint a commission equally divided between manual workers, employers, and representatives of the Public to determine which Labor Unions are qualified to represent the Workers. This commission will report to the Executive for legal action all pretended labor organizations, whether "Company Unions" or "Red Unions," controlled by Communists and the so-called "Third International." The duly recognized Unions shall be constituted Bureaus of the Government with power of decision in all labor disputes.

3) In contradistinction to the doctrines of Red Radicals, with their felonious expropriation of the arduously acquired possessions which insure to aged persons their security, this League and Party will guarantee Private Initiative and the Right to Private Property for all time.

4) Believing that only under God Almighty, to Whom we render all homage, do we Americans hold our vast Power, we shall guarantee to all persons absolute freedom of religious worship, provided, however, that no atheist, agnostic, believer in Black Magic, nor any Jew who shall refuse to swear allegiance to the New Testament, nor any person of any faith who refuses to take the Pledge to the Flag, shall be permitted to hold any public office or to practice as a teacher, professor, lawyer, judge or as a physician, except in the category of Obstetrics.

5) Annual net income per person shall be limited to $500,000. No accumulated fortune may at any one time exceed $3,000,000 per person. No one person shall, during his entire lifetime, be permitted to retain an inheritance or various inheritances in total  exceeding $2,000,000. All incomes or estates in excess of the sums named shall be seized by the Federal Government for use in Relief and in Administrative expenses.

6) Profit shall be  taken out of war by seizing all dividends over and above 6 per cent that shall be received from the manufacture, distribution, or sale during Wartime of all arms, munitions, aircraft, ships, tanks and all other things directly applicable to warfare, as well as from food, textiles and all other supplies furnished to American or to any allied army.

7) Our armaments and the size of our military and naval establishments shall be consistently enlarged until they shall equal, but — since this country has no desire for foreign conquest of any kind — not surpass in every branch of the forces of defense the martial strength of any other single country or empire in the world. Upon inauguration, this League and Party shall make this its first obligation, together with the issuance of a firm proclamation to all nations of the world that our armed forces are to be maintained solely for the purpose of insuring world peace and amity.

8) Congress shall have the sole right to issue money and immediately upon our inauguration it shall at least double the present supply of money in order to facilitate the fluidity of credit.

9) We cannot too strongly condemn the un-Christian attitude of certain otherwise progressive nations in their discriminations against the Jews, who have been among the strongest supporters of the League, and who will continue to prosper and to be recognized as fully Americanized, though only so long as they continue to support our ideals.

10) All Negroes shall be prohibited from voting, holding public office, practicing law, medicine, or teaching in any class above the grade of grammar school, and they shall be taxed 100 per cent of all sums in excess of $10,000 per family per year which they may earn or in any other manner receive. However, to give the most  sympathetic aid possible to all Negroes who comprehend their proper and valuable place in society, all such colored persons, male or female, that can prove they have devoted not less than forty-five years in such suitable tasks as domestic service, agricultural labor and common labor in industries, shall at the age of  sixty-five be permitted to appear before a special Board, composed entirely of white persons and, upon proof that while employed they have never been idle except through sickness, shall be recommended for pensions not to exceed the sum of $500 per person per year, nor to exceed $700 per family. Negroes shall, by definition, be persons with at least one sixteenth colored blood.

11) This item deals with people and programs related to that time and has no relevance here.

12) All women now employed, except in such peculiarly feminine spheres of activity as nursing and beauty parlors, shall be assisted as rapidly as possible to return to their sacred duties as home-makers and as mothers of strong, honorable future Citizens of the Commonwealth.

13) Any person who advocates Communism, Socialism, Anarchism or refuses to enlist in case of war, or advocates alliance with Russia in any war whatsoever, shall be subject to trial for high treason with a minimum penalty of twenty years at hard labor in prison and a maximum of death on the gallows or other form of execution which the judges may find convenient.

14) All bonuses promised to former soldiers of any war in which America has ever engaged shall be immediately paid in full, in cash, and in all cases of veterans with incomes of less than $5,000 a year, the formerly promised sums shall be doubled.

15) Immediately upon our inauguration, Congress shall initiate amendments to the Constitution providing (a) that the President shall have the authority to institute and execute all necessary measures for the conduct of the government during this critical epoch; (b) that Congress shall serve only in an advisory capacity, calling to the attention of the President and his aides and Cabinet any needed legislation, but shall not act upon same until authorized by the President to so act, and (c) that the Supreme Court shall immediately have removed from its jurisdiction the power to negate any or all acts of the President, his duly appointed aides or Congress by ruling them to be unconstitutional or by any other judicial action,.

There are times when life imitates fiction and, in the selection of the members of his cabinet, President-elect Donald Trump reminds us that the laws that have made this country great can be stripped away by those with the power to change them without regard to your wishes or mine. With a Republican president and a Republican-dominated Congress, this prospect has never been more dire.

"It Can't Happen Here" is probably available in your local library. But, for some reason, it has suddenly become a very popular book and you might have to wait for it to be available. It is well worth the wait.

(Editor's Note: In 1930, Sinclair Lewis was the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. His other novels include Main Street, Babbitt, Dodsworth, Elmer Gantry and Arrowsmith.  He died in 1951.)

Beau Weisman, Editor