In 1964, when Barry Goldwater was running for president, Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here came to my attention, so I promptly checked a copy out of the library and read it right away.
In case you’ve never heard of this satirical work of fiction, here’s a sketch of some of the early part of the plot: a demagogue runs for president of the United States by stoking fear and racial divisiveness, promising economic prosperity and a return to the “traditional values” that America used to have. To everyone’s amazement, he wins. He then proceeds to make himself a dictator, imposing one-man rule in a fascistic government supported by a private militia, which, among other things, attacks protestors with bullets and bayonets.
One of his big supporters says “We ought to keep all these foreigners out of the country, and what I mean, the Kikes just as much as the Wops and Hunkies and Chinks.”
Some of the consequences:
Secretary of State Lee Sarason was arrested in the basement of a handsome boys’ club in Washington on unspecified charges by a policeman who apologized as soon as he recognized Sarason, and released him, and who that night was shot in his bed by a mysterious burglar.
Albert Einstein, who had been exiled from Germany for his guilty devotion to mathematics, world peace, and the violin, was now exiled from America for the same crimes.
Mrs. Leonard Nimmet, wife of a Congregational pastor in Lincoln, Nebraska, whose husband had been sent to concentration camp for a pacifist sermon, was shot through the door and killed when she refused to open to an M.M. raiding section looking for seditious literature.
In Rhode Island, the door of a small orthodox synagogue in a basement was locked from the outside after thin glass containers of carbon monoxide had been thrown in. The windows had been nailed shut, and anyway, the nineteen men in the congregation did not smell the gas until too late. They were all found slumped to the floor, beards sticking up. They were all over sixty.
Tom Krell—but his was a really nasty case, because he was actually caught with a copy of Lance for Democracy and credentials proving that he was a New Underground messenger—strange thing, too, because everybody had respected him as a good, decent, unimaginative baggageman at a village railroad depot in New Hampshire—was dropped down a well with five feet of water in it, a smooth-sided cement well, and just left there.
Ex-Supreme Court Justice Hoblin of Montana was yanked out of bed late at night and examined for sixty hours straight on a charge that he was in correspondence with Trowbridge. It was said that the chief examiner was a man whom, years before, Judge Hoblin had sentenced for robbery with assault.
And so it goes. This is fiction, remember.
After all, it can’t happen here.
This image is a poster of the state adaptation. But remember, it’s satire. It can’t happen here. We hope.