Sinclair Lewis Warned Us Then

These days, as I live under the drumbeat of mindless nativist screes flowing from the lips of Donald Trump and reverberating among the throngs of his angry supporters, I’m carried back in memory to my high school English class where a wonderful teacher tried to introduce us green teenagers to the writings of the American Nobel Laureate, Sinclair Lewis. At the time, I was too young and immature to fully appreciate the imagination and political savvy of the extraordinary visionary that Lewis was. One of his important works of the 1930s came in the form of a small novel. He called it, “It Can’t Happen Here”. His inspiration for the story were the events that were taking place in Europe and especially in Germany as it recovered its pride in the wake of The Great War (known today as World War I). He watched as a generation of disaffected Germans fell under the spell of a bombastic chauvinist called Adolph Hitler who promised the rise and establishment of an never-ending “Reich” for which Germany could ever be proud. Lewis sensed that what was happening in Germany could very well happen in America, a concept that is hard for most to envision today. But at the time, Americans were hearing through the radio the words of “America Firsters” spouted by the nativist, anti-Semite, Father Coughlin. They were enthralled by the loud ramblings of “Only I Can Do It” and “Every Man a King” postulates of the ebullient and popular Louisiana Governor, Huey Long. And the activities and anti-war writings of the much-beloved aviator, Charles Lindbergh, who was proud of meeting and being photographed with Hitler himself.

The novel spins the story of a small-town Vermont newspaper editor who watches as his America inexorably descends into dictatorship under the sway of a leader who was (like Hitler) elected into office by a hopeful and believing electorate. It’s a suspenseful page-turner which follows the editor’s experiences as he hopes for an eventual re-awaking of American ideals but instead, sees as America falls into mindless subservience to an illiterate dictatorship which blames the “Other” for its problems.

As a teenager in my English class of the 1950s, my mind wasn’t mature enough and prepared to see the possibility of such a thing happening in America. And truthfully, even as recently as yesterday, I could barely bring myself to take the concept seriously. But today it seems ever more possible to me that without a population able to think and speak for itself, that can find its way out of the mire of negative tropes and lies, that can open its heart and mind to the enlightened creation that is our special republic;  that this, our American society can fail and tumble into tyranny. This is what Sinclair Lewis feared. He wrote about it as a warning to his generation. He warns us too.

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