These past few years Sinclair Lewis’s novel, It Can’t Happen Here, has attracted interest as an eerily prescient story about an authoritarian US president, more con artist than ideologue. Writers at Salon, Slate, and The Washington Post have certainly drawn parallels between Donald Trump and Lewis’s Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a character based on the demagogue Huey Long. Windrip wins the 1936 presidential election, defeating Franklin Delano Roosevelt by promising the common man that he will restore a halcyon past that never actually existed. Once in office, Windrip dissolves whatever obstructs his will to power: Congress and the Judiciary; the sovereignty of states; the rights of women and minorities. In their place, he establishes what Lewis terms the “Corpo” government, a homogeneous “corporatist” regime that brooks no differences and no dissenting opinions, explicit or implied, and is administered by businessmen such as the prosperous Francis Tasbrough, who insists flatly that “it” (fascism) can’t happen in the US.
Of course, Lewis knew better. For one thing, he was married to Dorothy Thompson, the renowned journalist and radio broadcaster who reported from Germany and other parts of Europe about the rise of the Nazi party. Her reportage and her experience as the first US journalist expelled by Hitler informed Lewis’ story of how easily a democracy can slip into a dictatorship, a “Corpo” government. For another, though he was neither a conscious stylist nor a meticulous plotter, Lewis was drawn to the problem of a society that values material wealth over all else. Indeed, this was his grand theme, an idea that runs through so much of his work and may be the very reason why H.L. Mencken considered him such an “authentic” writer.
Lewis describes Buzz Windrip as a “corporatist,” his government as “Corpo”. In the novel, the corporation works in direct opposition to democracy and its values, represented by Doremus Jessup, the Vermont newspaper editor “locally considered ‘a pretty smart fella but kind of a cynic’”. The problem, however, is that Doremus the Dormouse has stayed in hibernation too long. His retreat symbolizes our collective retreat from civic engagement, the commonweal. Lewis was criticized by his contemporaries for not offering clear political solutions through his novel. I think he did, though. The “corporatist” state that values material wealth and power above all else is a harbinger of authoritarianism, a shift in values that transforms the world and everything in it into a series of transactions meant to satisfy the interests of Windrip.
The archaeology of the word “corporation” reveals something of that difficult answer Lewis sought to convey. The earliest example offered by The Oxford English Dictionary is from Thomas More’s 1534 Treatise on the Passion, (written while More was sitting in the Tower of London, the object of the king’s disdain):
“He [Christ] doth…incorporate all christen folke and hys owne bodye together in one corporacyon mistical.”
In this early use of the word, Christians join together in the corpus, the body of Christ, which is a mystical space, one that offers unity and solace.
For us and for Lewis, the more recognizable definition of “corporation,” drawing again on The Oxford English Dictionary, is “a body corporate legally authorized to act as a single individual; an artificial person created by royal charter, prescription, or act of the legislature, and having authority to preserve certain rights in perpetual succession.” This is a legal, a transactional space that ensures certain rights over property. It offers ownership in perpetuity.
Lewis’ religious faith changed at points in his life, sometimes believing, sometimes not at all. So, I am not suggesting that he offered a religious answer to the problems of a secular democracy. When the Minute Men (an armed militia) burns Doremus’ beloved 34-volume illustrated edition of Dickens, books lovingly passed down to him by his father, Doremus cannot look away. He can only accept the spectacle passively: “It was like seeing for the last time the face of a dead friend.”
Authoritarianism depends on collective passivity. Lewis’s characters hesitate to talk about difficult subjects, to put aside their differences in order to advance the common good, and that makes them vulnerable to the buzz of a political wind that rips through them. Authoritarianism depends as well on a type of education that draws on the virtues of the “corporatist” state–speed, superficiality, a strictly transactional short-term pragmatism. Indeed, under Windrip’s government, “students were encouraged to read, speak, and try to write modern languages, but they were not to waste their time on the so-called ‘literature’; reprints from recent newspapers were used instead of antiquated fiction and sentimental poetry. As regards English, some study of literature was permitted, to supply quotations for political speeches, but the chief choruses were in advertising, party journalism, and business correspondence, and no authors before 1800 might be mentioned, except Shakespeare and Milton.”
A secular democracy depends first on an educated citizenry that can understand complex ideas and distinguish between fact and fallacy. Eventually, Doremus the Dormouse learns to roar like a lion. He joins the liberal resistance. He writes editorials for The Vermont Vigilance. And vigilance is the second necessary element required to maintain a balance between individual and collective rights.
The collapse into an authoritarian government could happen here, just ask any of us who come from other parts of the world where a foreign government, often the US, has intervened in national elections and suppressed the vote or just downright ignored the will of the people. For anyone with a dark sense of humor, or even just a mild predilection for irony, Lewis’ work is worth the time and effort. There’s a good reason why he was the first US writer awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
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