Allan Powell: 'It Can't Happen Here'

November 10, 2011

In 1935, prolific novelist Sinclair Lewis wrote an imaginative account of a fascist takeover in the United States during the depth of the Great Depression. The stage was set by Lewis in an argument between some friends about the possibility of a fascist coup d'état taking place in the United States in view of the internal chaos. By that time, several European nations had succumbed to authoritarian regimes.

Lewis has one of his characters recite a list of social malfunctions in the United States that might incubate a revolution: unemployment (25 percent), rampant organized crime, gangs, poverty, political corruption, starving farmers and irresponsible bankers. He then adds that it "might be a good thing to have a strong man in the saddle, but it just can't happen here in America." To which another person muttered, "The hell it can't."

Lewis then creates a scenario that presumes to describe how, in 1937, a violent conversion of a troubled capitalist economy to a fascist dictatorship would take place. We now have the luxury of hindsight and are aware that this coup never materialized. We now know that several Rooseveltian reforms and World War II provided the stimulus to recovery.

There is actually little in the novel that could not be found by an examination of a reliable history of the Third Reich. Lewis was fully aware of what was going on in Germany and freely used it as a model to project what would take place in the United States if his predictions occurred.

The Constitution was promptly altered to enhance the powers of Lewis' watered-down version of Adolf Hitler, with the unlikely name, Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip. "Buzz" is generous in offering opinions that have an amazing similarity to those found in Hitler's "Mein Kampf" (my struggle). An early creation of the M M (Minute Men) provided a paramilitary force of armed thugs to terrorize those with the mistaken will to resist.

There was an immediate suppression of free speech by M M enforcers and a once-free press was watched closely and silenced when unacceptable topics went to press. As the regime became more repressive and brutal, there was a steady increase in the numbers migrating to Canada. Uniformed M M officers were alert to any signs of irregularities and applied force liberally to discourage aberrations.

As bad as the situation was in the new America under the iron heel of a fascist all-powerful state, Lewis, of necessity, could not deal with events happening after 1935. He could (and did) outline what might be expected but German expansion was in its infancy and relentless anti-Semitism was not yet pervasive or at least as brutal.

The world must have gasped in disbelief when Nazi leadership revealed the extent of its expansionist goals. Their geopolitical fantasies were the brainchild of theorist Karl Haushofer whose ideas seemed unreal to the timid. In brief, his concept was "Who controls the world heartland (Germany) can control the world island (Europe and Asia). Who controls the world island can control the world."

Since, "It Can't Happen Here" did not really happen here, is it still possible that it might happen here? We can only speculate about what constellation of events it might take to accomplish the feat of a fascist coup such as that imagined by Sinclair Lewis and which did take place in several nations. For what it is worth, here is one attempt.

First, we can almost rule out a coup from the left. Americans have not shown much attraction to socialism and communism throughout our history, and the membership in both parties has been consistently small. In addition, most failed capitalist economies have been vulnerable to right-wing ideology. In our country, the most vocal opposition to the New Deal was from the right, and current attempts to crush the fruit of the New Deal are from the right.

It now appears that our real threat is from the vast power of large corporations that are "too big to let fail." Their loyalty is largely to money — the ultimate source of power. Corporations have been gifted with so much power by the courts. They are also successful because members of both houses of Congress are very wealthy. There is a symbiotic connection between the wealthy in politics and the wealthy in commerce and finance. They fund each other.

There might not need to be a military coup as of old to accomplish the goal of becoming the new managers of the country. Would-be dictators need only to smother the capacity of the average person to resist the overwhelming power of the politico-economic combinations. In "It Can't Happen Here," Lewis shows the horrible consequences of weak populism and strong demagogues.

We might end up like the radioactive atom in decay. Before we reach death, we live a long half-life. There is some hope in the systemic dispersion of power (federalism and the separation of powers) to come to our rescue and inhibit the concentration of power needed to conduct a fascist coup.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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