The Rise of an American Dictatorship

It Can't Happen Here - Sinclair Lewis, Michael Meyer

I discovered this book after reading a collection of interviews by Howard Zinn where he described it as a warning about how the United States could become a fascist dictatorship. Zinn's argument was that the US is already heading down that road, though it has not quite reached that point at the time of the interviews. When comparing the United States as outlined in this book and what we perceive today I would also suggest that we have not yet arrived at that point and would also suggest that we may still have some time to go as well. In this review I will begin by discussing this book itself and then consider some comparisons with Ancient Rome.



This book was written in 1935, a crucial point in 20th century history. The Great Depression was ravishing the western world and millions were unemployed relying on food stamps and whatever job that they could get. One of the things that is mentioned over again is how stockbrokers and accountants have been relegated to jobs that involved digging ditches. In Germany the situation had become so dire that the population had become radicalised and Reichstag consisted of ultra-right Nazis and ultra-left communists. Hitler had allegedly created a panic by burning down the Reichstag and then used that panic to secure his position of power. Things quickly changed as elections were abolished and the storm troopers were put onto the streets to keep order. Germany had ceased to be a democracy and within a few months had become a dictatorship. By the time It Can't Happen Here had been published, book burnings were sweeping Germany, Hitler had purged all of his enemies and perceived enemies, and the Jews and other undesirables were being rounded up and imprisoned.


So, we jump over the Atlantic to the United States. 1936 would be an election year, and Lewis no doubt wanted this book released to coincide with the lead up to the election. This would not be the last time this happened as numerous books were being published in the leadup to the 2004 election in an effort to prevent Bush from being re-elected. Obviously that did not happen in 2004, but we should continue to hold that period in our mind as this will become important. The reason I say this is because this book was reprinted in 2005, ironically during a time when political polarisation was once again beginning to sweep the United States. However there is a difference between this book and many of the others. It reminded me of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle in that it is a political commentary using a prose story as a vehicle. Come 2004 and we do not see much literature like this but rather collections of non-fiction books that simply provide a list of case studies as to how Bush is a bad president who cares only for the interests of his corporate backers.



Lewis shows us how it is possible for the United States to become a dictatorship and how easily this could happen. Obviously the soil has to be right for such a system to grow, and that soil was more than evident in 1935. We were in the midst of one of the greatest economic downturns that the modern world had experienced, capitalism had effectively collapsed, and millions were out of work. In Germany they wanted a saviour and that saviour was Adolf Hitler. In the United States they wanted a saviour, and that saviour was Roosevelt, however Lewis seems to flag the proposition that Roosevelt, in his four years in office, had done little to relieve the suffering of the population. As such he creates a new politician, a Democrat, named Buzz Windthrip, who comes to prominence promising $5000.00 a year for everybody and to return the United States to its former glory. People are caught up in the hype, Roosevelt is sidelined, and Windthrip is elected president.



Windthrip is modelled on Hitler, and the methods that he uses to seize control are more than possible. In one of the chapters Lewis outlines Windthrip's manifesto, and while reading it one questions how Windthrip could conceivably breach the constitution by putting the manifesto in place as one continues to read one can see how this is done. Like Germany, Windthrip establishes his own secret police, the Minute-Men. This name harkens back to the rebellion, where a fledging republican army was being created using the name Minute-Men. They were called as such because they could be armed and ready to fight in a minute. By creating the Minute-Men, Windthrip is conjuring up the revolution, and the changes and freedom that it brings.



Now the United States constitution allows militias, though one should remember that it refers only to lawfully constituted militias. The MMs begin their life as a group of people who like to parade in uniform, however upon his election, Windthrip uses his executive powers to make the MMs a lawful militia. He then uses the militia to shut down congress and the supreme court. All who are considered hostile to his regime are arrested and shot, and those that are ambivalent are put in protective custody. By the time everybody wakes up they discover that the MMs have been elevated above the police and the army and that democracy has died.



The book shifts perspectives between what is happening at a federal level and the small town experiences of the newspaper editor named Doremus Jessup. Jessup is watching events unfold from the view of a liberal leaning newspaper editor. This is a bad situation to be in because one of the things that the regime seeks to control is information. A rogue newspaper editor is a dangerous person, so Jessup finds himself caught in a situation where if he were to continue he would get into a lot of trouble, and if he were to capitulate he would be denying himself. Also we see how the people of Fort Beulah react to the changes. A number get themselves moved into administrative positions, while other attempt to resist the changes. It is clear that the bullies are using this as an opportunity to promote themselves and their own fortune. We also note how they use fear and spying to maintain control. It is a method that is even used today to maintain control in some groups. The impression is given that if one were to 'dob' on somebody else then the dobber will receive a reward, and control is maintained. However the catch is that the 'dobber' is never truly rewarded, but rather given the impression that they are now in the leaders good books. As such it creates distrust amongst the group as nobody knows who is going to tattle on them.



Another theme that comes out is how in reality extreme left and right are not necessarily the opposite but rather the same. If you take Nazi Germany and Communist Russia for instance. While ideologically they were the opposite, in reality they were the same. Both were dictatorships, both maintained order through a system of secret police, and both kept the populations oppressed and marginalised. The difference is that in Russia the means of production were in the hands of the state while in Germany the means of production where in the hands of a small group of oligarchs who were in the pockets of the government. As such, there was no difference, and as such this is why people are looking back at that period. Lewis uses the term Corpoism, whereas nowdays we call it corporatism. It seems that modern business is run by a handful of oligarchs connected to the government. If a law upsets the oligarchs, the government will not be able to pass it. We have seen that today with the influence of the oil barons, the health insurers, and the fast food magnates, as well as the media enterprises. Even closer to home in Australia, we see this with the Mining Tax and with the Carbon Tax.



One of the best ways to attempt to understand the historical forces at play is to compare and contrast these events with past empires and powers. While there is a contrast between 1935 and 2004, there are better comparisons elsewhere, namely with Athens and Rome. With regards to the Bush regime and the Windthrup regime, we see differences with regards to the MMs. Bush did not have his own private army on the streets, and while he did attempt to establish a secret police in the form of the department of homeland security, he never went to the extent of rounding up dissidents. Well, there were arrests arising from the anti-Bush and anti-war protests, but there was no rounding up the anti-war establishment and confining them to concerntration camps. In the end, if it was not for September 11th, then the Bush Administration would have unlikely moved in the direction that he did. If the US is moving towards a corporate dictatorship, it is a slow move. All that really came out of it was endless rhetoric, ridicule of those who did not agree, and military intervention on foreign shores. In the end, the worst we got was 'if you are not for us, you are for the terrorists' though nobody was ever locked up for waving a placard on the streets of New York City stating 'no blood for oil'.



As for further back, let us consider Athens and Rome. The Athenian democracy probably lasted about two hundred to two hundred and fifty years before it collapsed. Even then, the period of the Thirty Tyrants lasted only a short time before democracy was restored, however this period was what I considered to be the end of the Classical Period, in that supporters of the Thirty Tyrants were rounded up and executed (Socrates being amongst them). This act in and of itself signalled the end of Athenian democracy, and the trigger that brought about its collapse was it's imperial ambitions. It wasn't even the Peloponesian War that brought about its end, Athens could have held out for much longer than it did, if not for the disastrous Sicilian Expedition. As I have indicated elsewhere, the events of the Peloponesian War are uncannily similar to the events of the modern era.


The second place we look at is Ancient Rome. The republic lasted much longer than Athens, about 450 years, before it finally collapsed to become a dictatorship. However it wasn't a sudden move, but a gradual shift as the government sought to bring in more and more checks and balances to attempt to restrain the power of any single person. However, with the checks and balances in place, nothing could be done. Rome had not had an easy time as a Republic, and as the government began to grind to a halt as the interests of the plebians and the patricians clashed, people would step up and attempt to bring Rome back on track. It is noticeable that both pre-imperial dictators (Sulla and Ceaser) both appealed to the populace against the patricians. It was the same with Augustus, who brought himself to power on the backs of the plebians. While one may suggest that compared with Rome, the United States still has a way to run, if we compare it with Athens, it has already entered the end game. Further, in comparing the United States with Rome, we uncannily find ourselves looking back to Germany of the 1930s, where the totalitarian government (as is the case in this book) rose to power on the backs of the people. In the end, it is not the corporate cronies that we should be wary of, but rather those who reach out to the people and convince the people that they are out to support their interests. One never realises that a populist government will transform into a dictatorship until it has already happened.