I CAME across this book very recently, not having heard of it before. I have read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, published in 1932, 1984 by George Orwell, published in 1949, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, published in 1953, and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, published in 1985, all of which portray different future worlds. It Can’t Happen Here was published in 1935, as the US was still recovering from the depression. In addition, the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy was well underway.
Lewis’s book is slightly different in that it looks at the mechanism of how these future worlds could arise. He explores and explains the ways and means that fascism could rise and establish itself in the US in the wake of World War I and the Great Depression.
In brief, a populist presidential candidate Buzz Windrip promises riches for all the white working class, plays on the baser sentiments of those being exploited and creates a uniformed support group of the under employed and disaffected. With the support of popular religious figures and use of the media, he is successful and becomes president. The uniformed support group become an effective militia and is then armed and incorporated within the armed forces.
His platform is based on ’15 points of victory for the forgotten men’ which the narrator and protagonist of the book Doremus Jessup, a liberal small town newspaper editor, summarises as follows:
“Articles 1 and 5 mean that if financiers and transportation kings and so on don’t come through heavily with support for Buzz they may be threatened with bigger income taxes and some control of their businesses… 2 that by controlling their unions directly, Buzz’s gang can kidnap labour into slavery. 3 backs up the security for Big Capital and 4 brings the preachers into line as scared and unpaid press agents for Buzz. 6 doesn’t mean anything at all… 7 means we’ll get ready to follow all the European nations trying to hog the whole world. 8 means that by inflation, big industrial companies will be able to buy their bonds back at a cent on the dollar, and 9 that all Jews who do not cough up plenty of money for the robber baron will be punished… 10 that all well-paying jobs and businesses held by negroes will be grabbed by the poor white trash amongst Buzz’s worshippers and that instead of being denounced they’ll be universally praised as patriotic upholders of racial purity. 11 that Buzz’ll be able to pass the buck for not creating any real relief for poverty. 12 that women will later lose the vote and the right to higher education… 13 that anybody who opposes Buzz in any way can be called a communist and scragged for it… 14 thinks enough of the support of the veterans’ vote to be willing to pay high for it in other people’s money. 15 well, that’s the one lone clause that really does mean something and it means … they’ve realised that this country has gone so flabby that any gang daring enough and unscrupulous enough, and smart enough not to seem illegal, can grab hold of the entire government and have all the power and applause and salutes, all the money and palaces and willing women they want”
I found the book very readable, and it contained many parallels to the rise of Trump in the US, Orban in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey and Johnson in the UK, particularly with regard to point 15: “Any gang daring enough and unscrupulous enough, and smart enough not to seem illegal, can grab hold of the entire government and have all the power.” There is the use of faux patriotism, the control of the media, a cunning Cummings-type figure called Lee Sarason manipulating the public and eventually Buzz Windrip, and inevitably the othering of minority groups and attacks on human and workers’ rights. The speed at which fascism evolves, first Labour camps for the unemployed, beatings, summary executions and finally concentration camps for dissidents, is breathtaking but believable.
In all fairness, following the depression of 2008 and austerity of 2010-20s, this book could have been written about almost any country in the world. We have seen Trump and his Proud Boy gangs and the eventual storming of the capitol, the populist president of Ukraine and his Azov militias, the roll back of women’s rights in the US and Hungary and crackdowns on the media in Turkey and many other countries; one can almost imagine the book being used as a blueprint by many leaders worldwide.