Sinclair Lewis – Profile of an American Demagogue (excerpt from ‘It Can’t Happen Here’)

Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here, portrays a world where several of the popular Far Right and populist demagogues of the 1930s—including Louisiana Senator and corrupt oligarch Huey Long, antisemitic priest and radio show host Father Coughlin, and  pro-Nazi Kansas minister Gerald Winrod—combine forces. They win the presidency and turn the country into a dictatorship wrapped in a kitschy Americana. (Although Long was assassinated before the 1936 presidential campaign, Coughlin and several others did join together, forming the far right Union Party. Their candidate, William Lemke, received over 900,000 votes in the race.)

It Can’t Happen Here’s protagonist is Doremus Jessup, a liberal who is the editor of a small town Vermont newspaper. Senator Buzz Windrip—based on Long—is the book’s successful presidential candidate and, soon after, the first dictator of the United States. Lee Sarason is Windrip’s Steve Bannon—a circus-show svengali who guides Windrip’s ambitions and later takes the crown himself.

The famous passage below isn’t so much an eerie prognostication of Donald Trump—although it is that, too—so much as a description of the canned shtick of the American right-wing demagogue. Trump is merely the latest incarnation of this hackneyed role, which seems to have a perpetual audience. Far RIght demogaguery allows talented speakers to harness the emotion of the public and tap into their disenchantment at the systemic problems of capitalism. But instead of directing this anger at the system, it is channeled toward Jews, blacks, immigrants, and finance capital; and the the very structures that created these problems are reinforced.

* * *

“Doremus Jessup, so inconspicuous an observer, watching Senator Windrip from so humble a Boeotia, could not explain his power of bewitching large audiences. The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.

Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill. Seven years before his present credo—derived from Lee Sarason, Hitler, Gottfried Feder, Rocco, and probably the review Of Thee I Sing—little Buzz, back home, had advocated nothing more revolutionary than better beef stew in the country poor-farms, and plenty of graft for loyal machine politicians, with jobs for their brothers-in-law, nephews, law partners, and creditors.

Doremus had never heard Windrip during one of his orgasms of oratory, but he had been told by political reporters that under the spell you thought Windrip was Plato, but that on the way home you could not remember anything he had said.

There were two things, they told Doremus, that distinguished this prairie Demosthenes. He was an actor of genius. There was no more overwhelming actor on the stage, in the motion pictures, nor even in the pulpit. He would whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a gaping mouth; but he would also coo like a nursing mother, beseech like an aching lover, and in between tricks would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts—figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.”

But below this surface stagecraft was his uncommon natural ability to be authentically excited by and with his audience, and they by and with him. He could dramatize his assertion that he was neither a Nazi nor a Fascist but a Democrat—a homespun Jeffersonian-Lincolnian- Clevelandian-Wilsonian Democrat—and (sans scenery and costume) make you see him veritably defending the Capitol against barbarian hordes, the while he innocently presented as his own warm-hearted Democratic inventions, every anti-libertarian, anti-Semitic madness of Europe.

Aside from his dramatic glory, Buzz Windrip was a Professional Common Man.

Oh, he was common enough. He had every prejudice and aspiration of every American Common Man. He believed in the desirability and therefore the sanctity of thick buckwheat cakes with adulterated maple syrup, in rubber trays for the ice cubes in his electric refrigerator, in the especial nobility of dogs, all dogs, in the oracles of S. Parkes Cadman, in being chummy with all waitresses at all junction lunch rooms, and in Henry Ford (when he became President, he exulted, maybe he could get Mr. Ford to come to supper at the White House), and the superiority of anyone who possessed a million dollars. He regarded spats, walking sticks, caviar, titles, tea-drinking, poetry not daily syndicated in newspapers, and all foreigners, possibly excepting the British, as degenerate.

But he was the Common Man twenty-times-magnified by his oratory, so that while the other Commoners could understand his every purpose, which was exactly the same as their own, they saw him towering among them, and they raised hands to him in worship.”

= = =

Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (NY: New American Library/Penguin, 1935/2005), pages 70­–71.

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