Will the Trump presidency play out like Sinclair Lewis’ "It Can’t Happen Here?"

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2017/01/25/will-the-trump-presidency-play.html


It’s certainly off to a rollicking big start.


Thankfully, probably unlikely. When Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here, most of the civil rights jurisprudence we now have didn’t exist yet. This was a time when Congress passed “anti-sedition” laws during wartime, effectively criminalizing voicing a negative opinion of the government or our involvement in World War I – and everyone was hunky-dory with it at the time. Today, we have a more robust body of laws and case authority regarding free speech, as well as a more culturally ingrained norm that dissent is okay, or at least isn’t actionable.

Furthermore, the president lacks any authority to strip Congress of anything; I don’t recall how Buzz Windrip did it in the book, but there’s no extant mechanism, short of a constitutional amendment, that would permit anything of the kind. The analogies to white nationalism, sexism, and xenophobia are well taken, but I don’t foresee the rest taking shape. Satire takes things to their logical, if implausible conclusion, not their realistic conclusion.

That doesn’t make any less dangerous the things that can happen short of the events in the book.


Written in 1935. Sinclair wasn’t just warning readers about leaders like Trump who would turn out to be like Hitler. He was warning people that HITLER would turn out to be like Hitler.


Also, Hitler and Windrip came from the left. Most people would expect autocrats to come from the right.

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Sure. But you do know that THE key provision of the Voting Rights Act was recently gutted, right? Like the key thing that allowed African Americans to participate in full citizenship was deemed unnecessary and too burdensome to states? [quote=“fitzador, post:3, topic:93633”]
“anti-sedition” laws

Have these been removed? Or the ones passed in the 1790s? As far as I know, still all on the books.

That doesn’t mean that he can’t get them to do as he wants them to do, though. This congress will probably roll over as long as their own agenda is part of the deal. So far, so good, there. And look locally. There are laws restricting abortion, and now restricting people’s right to free assembly and free speech (or at least trying to chill it). [quote=“fitzador, post:5, topic:93633”]

Yeah… No. He didn’t. The use of socialist was to win over the working classes and the first thing he did in power was to go after the communists and trade unions. So no, Hitler was not anywhere near being “on the left.”



fortunately I was too slow typing and can simply write “what @Mindysan33 said”


Relax, it’s right there in the title, “It Can’t Happen Here.”

I feel placated.



No, Hitler didn’t.


Ah, yes–the Pacman left. The topology of political ideology makes for strange terrain, doesn’t it?


Will the Drumpf presidency play out like Sinclair’s “It Can’t Happen Here?”

I hope not. [ETA: spoiler alert for 80-year-old novel] In the book the demagogue and his right-wing authoritarian regime are defeated only due to political infighting followed by coups and a civil war.

The liberal journalist protagonist ends up in a concentration camp for his efforts against the regime, followed by escape to Canada and participation in an underground movement that serves mainly to keep the flame of American liberal democracy alive until the generals and party thugs have killed each-other off.

The scary thing is, our mainstream press isn’t displaying half the integrity of Doremus Jessup. Today’s example is David A. Graham of The Atlantic.


It’s an article of faith on the right (see Glenn Beck) that anything bad must come from the left. Fascism, though, is conservative in many ways, even as it seeks to harness technology and often the economy for the volk; also you can say it does attempt to appeal to the common man, but on the basis of his race/nationality/gender norms/religious norms/position in the “old culture, which exists since forever” (like think of Mussoulini hailing back to Rome or Hitler to the mythical Aryan past). But it’s anti-democratic, often racism, and always ethnocentric, mired in a version of the past that often bears no connection to historical reality, with a strong appeal to a patriarchal authority. So by definition, culturally, it’s on the right.


Why would he need to, when that bunch of opportunists and poltroons are willing to rubber stamp whatever he wants so long as he pushes for deregulation of business, socially conservative judges, measures against the press, giveaways to the oil and coal industries, etc.?

Windrip does not come from the left any more than Huey Long (his real-life model) did. He’s a traditional-values ultra-nationalist populist, which translates to right-wing authoritarian. In the book the money he promises each citizen isn’t a sustainable welfare scheme like the New Deal being offered to them by his opponent, but rather a con-man’s bribe to get their votes.

To say that Hitler himself “came from the left” is absurd. There is nothing that supports Marxist notions of re-distribution and equality in “Mein Kampf” – he came from the right and he ended up there. Some of his supporters did come from the left, but the “beefsteak Nazis” (brown on the outside, red on the inside) were either purged early on or were smart enough to be flexible in the political application of their sociopathy.


Well, he was really warning about Huey Long (Windrip is an obvious parody, with a similar unworkable “share the wealth” scheme) – the Hitler stuff was in there to suggest that Long would basically be a Fascist in practice if he got power. The thing is, except for people who read “All the King’s Men” (with its own Long parody of Willie Stark), nobody much thinks of Long these days.


Both Hitler and Windrip came from a populist ideology, which has no place on the “left/right” spectrum. Populism is about saying whatever resonates with the public. Since your average citizen cares more about where their next meal comes from, socialist rhetoric can play really well, and even Trump has been happy to say things like promise that every American will have health care, and even float the idea of extending the Congressional health plan to all Americans (he did say that, once).

The key difference between Trump and Windrip is that Windrip was a career politician with experience and connections within his party, and essentially qualified (in experience, if not in persona) to be president.


Preclearance was taken away. I’d disagree that preclearance is “THE key provision” of the Voting Rights Act, given that the Act’s substance remains in place; i.e., all the actual prohibitions on poll taxes, literacy tests, or any other obstacle to voting. The lack of preclearance is certainly a huge obstacle to enforcement, though.

The Sedition Act of 1918 was repealed in 1920. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 expired by their own terms in 1800 and 1801.

Sure, but Congress going along with what’s in its best interest is a long way from the president unilaterally stripping Congress of power. Most importantly, the minute Trump’s actions start to drag members of Congress down in the eyes of their constituents, they’ll turn on him. They’re already suspicious of him because they’re not sure if he can be controlled. I agree that laws restricting, or even chilling, the rights to abortion, speech, and assembly, are problematic. They’re also probably unlawful, too.

You’re right. Hitler ultimately ended up on the right wing. But as you acknowledge, he started on the left – at least publicly. I think one of the major thrusts of Buzz Windrip’s rise to power in It Can’t Happen Here was the notion that dictators come from the right, not the left. Sinclair wanted to prove that autocracy doesn’t adhere to the bipolar political order.


This is what I keep wondering. What’s to stop Trump from doing… whatever?

Well, according to the law

Sure, the law. But someone has to stand up and enforce it.


So enforcement doesn’t matter? I think the NAACP disagrees with you on that point. Preclearance made the rest of the bill function, so without it, you get NC becoming a less than democratic state (not as in the party, as in actually democracy)[quote=“fitzador, post:16, topic:93633”]
The Sedition Act of 1918 was repealed in 1920. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 expired by their own terms in 1800 and 1801.

Fair enough. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t attacks on free speech already making their way into the local and state legislation round (heavier fines/jail for protesters, attempts to make protesters pay for any perceived cost incurred by the police for doing their jobs, allowing people to run over protesters on the streets, etc). When we talk about the break down of powers, the local, state, and federal dynamic matter, too.

Have you seen this congress? Do you trust them, if the reichstag starts burning? Many of these cats are the same ones that passed the Patriot Act, in case you’re forgetting that. These are not people who have OUR best interest at heart, because they have no idea what it’s like to live our lives, on a day to day basis.

Except they have continued to roll over and play dead, because it’s getting them what they want (which is control over two branches and eventually over the 3rd). Bannon’s top aide is someone who spent the election declaring that Ryan was backing Clinton in the nastiest of terms, which he wasn’t. Yet he continues on as if this shouldn’t be considered a problem. I have literally no faith in this congress to have any sort of spine, with a few exceptions and certainly not the majority leadership… You might be right that they’d stand up to their own power being stripped, but as others have noted over the years, the power of the executive has grown vis-a-vis the other branches since the Reagan administration.

Which won’t matter one whit if they are if the supremes refuse to hear cases challenging them or vote to uphold them when they do. The executive branch enforces the law, so if the other branches won’t back our interests, we’re screwed. [quote=“fitzador, post:16, topic:93633”]
Hitler ultimately ended up on the right wing.

No. I didn’t acknowledge that, because it’s not true. Please don’t put words in my mouth. The Nazi Party was never “on the left” as evidenced by the running street battles between the fascists and communists in Berlin in the 1920s and their coherent message from the beer hall putsch to the moment put a bullet in his brain. If you don’t like or agree with the left, that’s fine, but don’t make connections that literally do not exist. Hitler never was on the left.

Which I agree with. Stalin certainly came from the left, as did Mao, Chavez, and Castro, all of whom built up states with oppressive tendencies. Go read some Hannah Arendt, who does a great job in talking about the roots of Totalitarianism, on the left and right, which she experienced during her lifetime. She probably knew better than almost anyone at the time she was writing what the roots of that are and how they can come from either the left or the right. It’s about power and an attempt to empower an individual or small group at the expense of the rest of society.



Hitler didn’t have any deep knowledge of politics or economics until he got involved in antisemitic groups (the Nazis didn’t have any clear economic policy), he just borrowed ideas and terms from all over to support whatever he wanted. In fact he later bemoaned having used word “socialism” to describe his party. If he “started on the left” then why did he spend so much of “Mein Kampf” arguing against Marxism? I’d say he started with “nationalism” which I think is a much more right wing ideal.