What Can’t Happen Here

On this day in 1936 Sinclair Lewis’s play It Can’t Happen Here, adapted from his novel published the previous year, opened simultaneously in twenty-one theaters across the U.S. In Lewis’s satiric story, what couldn’t happen but did was the surprisingly easy rise of a folksy, conservative, regional politician to fascist dictator of the nation. The American Il Duce pushes some convenient buttons — fear mongering, Bible thumping, prosperity offering — and before too many have noticed, his Minute Men are shooting people in the name of God and Country. The following excerpt is from chapter 1 of the novel, as a general endorses some slippery-slope ideas to an enthusiastic group of Rotarians:

…And I’ve got good news for you! This gospel of clean and aggressive strength is spreading everywhere in this country among the finest type of youth. Why today, in 1936, there’s less than 7 per cent of collegiate institutions that do not have military-training units under discipline as rigorous as the Nazis, and where once it was forced upon them by the authorities, now it is the strong young men and women who themselves demand the right to be trained in warlike virtues and skill…. And all the really thinking type of professors are right with ’em!

It Can’t Happen Here is mentioned in a number of recent books sounding an alarm about the current state of American politics — for example, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (Chris Hedges, 2007) and The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Jeff Sharlet, 2008) — but it gets more than a cameo in Joe Conason’s It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush (2007):

If “it” denotes the police state American-style as imagined and satirized by Lewis, complete with concentration camps, martial law, and mass executions of strikers and other dissidents, then “it” hasn’t happened here and isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. For contemporary Americans, however, “it” could signify our own more gradual and insidious turn toward authoritarian rule. That is why Lewis’s darkly funny but grim fable of an authoritarian coup achieved through a democratic election still resonates today — along with all the eerie parallels between what he imagined then and what we live with now.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.