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Literature: It Can't Happen Here
"When Fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and bearing the cross."

It Can't Happen Here is a speculative fiction novel written by Sinclair Lewis and published in 1935. In the novel, the United States succumbs to a totalitarian government headed by Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, a charismatic politician who wins over the voters through populism and empty promises. With his cadre of advisors and a brutal militia of Minute Men (M.M.s), Windrip oversees a new era of poverty, oppression, and fear. Women and minorities are stripped of their rights, dissent is outlawed, and those who displease the government are imprisoned in concentration camps or killed.

Meanwhile, a New England newspaper publisher named Doremus Jessop watches these developments in horror. Doremus is torn between his own safety and the safety of his family, and his moral responsibility to speak out against the regime. After one of Windrip's advisors murders two innocent men in a drunken rage, Doremus is galvanized into using his voice.


This novel provides examples of:

  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Among the casualties of Windrip's coup are some of the very people who put him in power.
  • Bilingual Bonus: When Doremus asks Lorinda about translating German, she replies that the only German she knows is a phrase Buck taught her: "God bless you" (Verfluchter Schweinehund). Verfluchter Schweinehund actually means "damned pig-dog".
  • Bittersweet Ending: Doremus returns to America to encourage dissidents, thereby playing a vital role in the resistance against the government. However, he's constantly on the move to evade Corpos and unable to see his loved ones. Even in a best case scenario, it will likely be years before he can settle down with Lorinda and Sissy again.
  • Black Shirt: The Minute Men (M.M.s).
  • Book Burning: The Windrip regime orders the burning of any book that might be perceived as subversive. Even P. G. Wodehouse's books get burned because he makes fun of the nobles.
  • Book Dumb: Much of the American populace after the Windrip regime's educational "reforms", book burnings, and censorship campaigns. Institutions of higher learning have been evicerated, and the remaining schools only teach practical or useless classes, meaning that much of the populace is ignorant of history, literature, and civics. When citizens revolt against the Corpos, this works against them as well as the Corpos.
    So, after the first gay eruptions of rioting, the revolt slowed up. Neither the Corpos nor many of their opponents knew enough to formulate a clear, sure theory of self-government, or irresistibly resolve to engage in the sore labor of fitting themselves for freedom ... Even yet, after Windrip, most of the easy-going descendants of the wisecracking Benjamin Franklin had not learned that Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" meant anything more than a high-school yell or a cigarette slogan.
  • Civil War: A large-scale resistance mounts after Haik takes power.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: The M.M.s delight in torturing detainees at the concentration camps. A favorite torture at Trianon is whipping prisoners and force-feeding them castor oil.
  • Crusty Caretaker: Jessup's hired hand, Shad Ledue, starts out as this before transforming into something far more sinister under the Corpos.
  • Day of the Jackboot
  • Deadly Decadent Court: Windrip's administration. His closest advisors are constantly vying for power, and coups abound by the end of the novel. They also aren't slouches in the "decadent" department; Macgoblin once hosts meetings with business leaders in a Roman-era ship with nude hostesses, while Sarason hosts orgies with handsome young men after he exiles Windrip.
  • Depraved Homosexual: Lee Sarason and the handsome M.M.s he surrounds himself with.
  • Divided States of America: When the resistance against Haik's regime mounts in earnest, sizeable chunks of America come under dissident control.
  • Dystopia Is Hard: Poverty and economic downturns are the fruits of Windrip's regime, much to Windrip's dismay.
  • The Exile: Canada becomes a destination for American refugees fleeing the Windrip regime.
    • Windrip himself is ousted from power by Lee Sarason and forced to live in exile in Europe. Similarly, Macgoblin flees after a coup and lives in exile in the Haitian countryside.
  • Fascist, but Inefficient: The Windrip regime is efficient when it comes to suppressing dissent. On matters of education and the economy, not so much.
  • Foreshadowing: Ominous weather foreshadows the arrival of M.M.s at the Jessop home, who proceed to vandalize the house, brutalize Doremus, and eventually haul Doremus away to Trianon.
  • The Fundamentalist: Karl Pascal, a die-hard communist. His communist fervor reaches a fevered pitch during his incarceration at Trianon, much to his cellmates' annoyance.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: Doremus and Lorinda have had an ongoing affair behind Emma's back. The affair is depicted as positive, since the two are intellectual equals who are passionately in love.
  • Government in Exile: Trowbridge's resistance movement after he finds refuge in Canada.
  • Hellhole Prison: The concentration camps. Trianon is a filthy, crowded, miserable prison where guards torture detainees with whippings and force-feed them castor oil.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Several real-life public figures of the '30s (including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Huey Long, and Father Coughlin) are mentioned in passing.
    • Which is rather interesting, when you consider that characters like Windrip and Bishop Prang are clearly intended as stand-ins for people like Long and Coughlin.
  • Kangaroo Court: How the Windrip regime tries dissidents. Doremus is hauled before one before being incarcerated at Trianon.
  • Karma Houdini: Windrip and Macgoblin.
  • La Résistance: Lorinda, Doremus, and several members of the Jessop household disseminate forbidden news that they receive from Canada. At the end of the novel, a full-blown rebellion against the Haik regime has erupted across the country.
  • Mexico Called; They Want Texas Back: Inverted. The regime invades Mexico as a means of spreading its empire and encouraging patriotism among the masses. Played with in that the regime falsely claims Mexico attacked America as justification for the war. (This being something of a Historical In-Joke, as the real Mexican-American War was justified by a similar imaginary invasion.)
  • The Migration: American refugees have been steadily pouring into Canada.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: The Windrip regime is lead by a charismatic dictator and characterized by racism, jingoism, vicious suppression of dissent, concentration camps, and foolish wars of conquest. To boot, the Corpo Youth is reminiscent of the Hitler Youth.
  • Next Sunday A.D.
  • Noble Demon: Some of the higher-minded Corpos, who joined for ideological reasons.
    They were the idealists of Corpoism, and there were plenty of them, along with the bullies and swindlers; they were the men and women who, in 1935 and 1936, had turned to Windrip & Co., not as perfect, but as the most probably saviors of the country from, on one hand, domination by Moscow and, on the other hand, the slack indolence, the lack of decent pride of half the American youth ... They were proud of new Corpo roads, hospitals, television stations, aeroplace lines; they were touched by processions of the Corpo Youth, whose faced were exalted with pride in the myths of Corpo heroism and clean Spartan strength and the semi-divinity of the all-protecting Father, President Windrip.
  • No Ending: The novel ends rather abruptly with the United States engulfed in a civil war. We don't find out whether the resistance will win, and what will be Doremus' eventual fate.
  • No Woman's Land: The Windrip regime robs women of many rights and bars them from most occupations. Lorinda and Sissy chafe under the regime's misogyny.
  • Oppressive States of America
  • Police Brutality: Many of the M.M.s are bullies at best and sadists at worse, perpetrating atrocities against dissenters and minorities.
  • Police State
  • Politically Correct History: The regime uses propaganda to teach their version of history. Not helped by its book burnings and evisceration of the educational system.
  • Prayer of Malice: Before being executed at Trianon, Falck cries out a vengeful prayer against his oppressors.
    "Father, Thou hast forgiven so long! Forgive them not but curse them, for they know what they do!"
  • Propaganda Machine: The fascist regime exerts rigid control over all media, reporting rose-colored news to the masses. The media leaves out inconvenient stories such as revolts against M.M.s, refugees fleeing to Canada, and global events. One of the tasks of the resistance is importing factual news from Canada and secretly disseminating it to citizens.
  • Reign of Terror: When Windrip's regime takes power, the M.M.s perpetrate atrocities against minorities and dissenters. When Haik takes power, it gets even worse.
  • Spiritual Successor: George Orwell's 1984, published fourteen years after It Can't Happen Here. Both depict formerly democratic nations that succumb to totalitarianism. Both novels feature protagonists who find salvation in their lovers, rebel against the government through the written word, and endure torture and incarceration.
  • Take That: Several against Upton Sinclair, who is described as a supporter of Windrip.
  • The Starscream: Sarason is this to Windrip. Haik is later this to Sarason.
  • Torture Always Works: Subverted. Doremus and other characters are deeply traumatized from torture at Trianon, but they do not betray each other or abandon their convictions.
  • Underground Railroad: How many refugees flee to Canada including Doremus.
  • Vice President Who: Ineffectual VP Perley Beecroft plays no part in the power struggles.
  • War for Fun and Profit: The regime's war on Mexico is essentially this.
  • We Are Struggling Together: Doremus tries to join the Communists so he could fight against the Windrip regime, but gives up when he hears that they're unwilling to work together with other opposition forces, like the Socialists or Trowbridge.
  • You Cannot Kill An Idea: The moral of the novel is that noble people will always fight for justice against oppressive regimes. The last lines of the novel stress this.
    And still Doremus goes on in the red sunrise, for a Doremus Jessop can never die.
  • You Can't Make an Omelette...: Doremus' son, Philip uses the phrase defending the reigme. Doremus reacts with anger.
    If I ever hear that 'can't make an omelet' phrase again, I'll start doing a little murder myself! It's used to justify every atrocity under every despotism, Fascist or Nazi or Communist or American labor war. Omelet! Eggs! By God, sir, men's souls and blood are not eggshells for tyrants to break!
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Sarason exiles Windrip, only to be assassinated by Haik.

Iron Shadows in the MoonLiterature of the 1930sJane of Lantern Hill
Invisible MonstersLit FicJackdaws
The Iron DreamAlternate History LiteratureKushiel's Legacy
It's a Good LifeScience Fiction LiteratureJason Wood

alternative title(s): It Cant Happen Here
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