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Literature / It Can't Happen Here

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If it could happen there
It could happen anywhere
So watch out, Jews
New Reich, New Reich!

It Can't Happen Here is a 1935 speculative fiction novel written by Sinclair Lewis.

In the novel, the United States succumbs to a far-right totalitarian government headed by President Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, a charismatic politician who wins over the voters through populism and empty promises. With his cadre of advisors and brutal private militia of Minute Men (M.M.s), Windrip oversees a new era of poverty, corruption, oppression, and fear; women and minorities are stripped of their rights, all dissent is outlawed, and those who displease the government are imprisoned in concentration camps or killed.

Meanwhile, a Vermont newspaper publisher named Doremus Jessup watches these developments with horror. Doremus is torn between fear for 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.


Lewis based this tale in part on the experiences of his wife, Dorothy Thompson, a journalist who had gotten expelled from Nazi Germany for writing articles critical of Adolf Hitler. Lewis used Thompson's research and personal experiences in Germany and Fascist Italy to imagine how America might become a fascist state. Unfortunately, he also had many American figures to draw upon, from Huey Long, who planned to challenge Franklin D. Roosevelt's re-election on his "Share Our Wealth" platform, to fringe figures like Gerald Winrod,note  Gerald L.K. Smith,note  and William Dudley Pelley.note  A bestseller due to its unnerving contemporary resonance, the novel remains one of Lewis's best-known works.


Adapted by Lewis himself into a 1936 stage play produced by the Federal Theatre Project. It also inspired the sci-fi series V. Not to be confused with the British alternate history film based on a similar premise.

It Can't Happen Here provides examples of:

  • Alternate History: An unusual example. When it was written, in 1935, it was speculative fiction set in the near future. Decades later, it reads very much like an alternate history, speculating what would have happened if a fascist dictatorship took power in the US around the same time the Nazis came to power in Germany.
  • Ambiguously Jewish: General and Resistance leader Emmanuel Coon. The name may be a reference to Béla Kun, a Jewish Marxist leader in postwar Hungary.
  • 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).
  • Black Sheep: Both Doremus and his son Philip see each other as this, due to their opposing views.
  • 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 eviscerated, 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, and the insurrection gets so fierce that by the end of the book, the US is heading towards its second civil war.
  • 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 (The latter was an actual torture method used in Fascist Italy).
  • Composite Character: Windrip is heavily modeled on Huey Long, along with other Depression-era demagogues like Gerald Winrod, Charles Coughlin, and William Dudley Pelley.
  • Crappy Holidays:
    • Christmas under Corpoism is, unsurprisingly, a decidedly non-joyful affair for the Jessup family:
      To make the holiday as good an imitation of mirth as possible, they were very noisy, but their holly, their tinsel stars on a tall pine tree, their family devotion in a serene old house in a little town, was no different at heart from despairing drunkenness in the city night. Doremus reflected that it might have been just as well for all of them to get drunk and let themselves go, elbows on slopped café tables, as to toil at this pretense of domestic bliss. He now had another thing for which to hate the Corpos—for stealing the secure affection of Christmas.
    • Doremus is arrested by the M.M.s and taken to Trianon on the Fourth of July.
  • Day of the Jackboot
  • Dead Sparks: Doremus and Emma.
  • 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.
  • Dye or Die: Sissy and Lorinda dye Doremus's hair and mustache black and shave off his beard prior to smuggling him into Canada.
  • 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.
  • Emergency Authority: President Windrip declares a state of emergency (or the 1930s equivalent expression) immediately after taking office, dismisses Congress and the Supreme Court and suspends the Constitution, becoming the dictator of the USA. (Needless to say It Happens Here.)
  • Fascist, but Inefficient: The Windrip regime is efficient when it comes to suppressing dissent. On matters of education and the economy, not so much.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Buzz Windrip, the folksy, good-humored senator turned fascist dictator.
  • Foreshadowing: Ominous weather foreshadows the arrival of M.M.s at the Jessup home, who proceed to vandalize the house, brutalize Doremus, and eventually haul Doremus away to Trianon.
  • From Bad to Worse: Even after Doremus is briefly arrested for writing an anti-government editorial, things aren't too bad for Jessup and his family. He actually has a lot of fun writing propaganda for the resistance. Then Jessup is arrested and thrown in a concentration camp next to a bunch of his friends and family members and things get very real and very harsh.
  • The Fundamentalist: Karl Pascal, a die-hard communist. His ideological 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.
  • Hanging Separately: The different anti-Corpo political factions fail to unite to prevent Windrip's election. The Communists refuse to form a common front with the other La Résistance factions even as the full scope of Corpo tyranny is revealed.
  • 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 Charles Coughlin) briefly appear or 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.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Bishop Prang compared to Father Coughlin. Whereas Prang does end up objecting to the brutality of the Windrip regime, Coughlin was a vicious and unapologetic antisemite and fascist, to the point where a large number of American bishops, the Apostolic Nunciature to the United States, and the Vatican itself wanted his radio show shut down; it remained on the air for as long as it did because Coughlin's direct superior, who alone had the authority to muzzle him, just happened to be one of the few bishops who supported him.note 
  • The Horseshoe Effect:
    ... he denounced all "Fascism" and "Nazi-ism," so that most of the Republicans who were afraid of Democratic Fascism, and all the Democrats who were afraid of Republican Fascism, were ready to vote for him.
  • Ironic Name: The original Trianon was a lavish French royal palace constructed as an adjunct to Versailles. The American version is a concentration camp, with all the "luxury" that that implies.
  • Just Following Orders: Emil Staubmeyer's excuse, when he and the other M.M.s show up at Doremus's house to burn his books.
  • Kangaroo Court: How the Windrip regime tries dissidents. Doremus is hauled before one before being incarcerated at Trianon.
  • Karma Houdini: Windrip and Macgoblin. Both of them are removed from power but live in comfortable exile afterwards.
  • La Résistance: Lorinda, Doremus, and several members of the Jessup 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. And of course, four years later, the Nazis themselves used a false flag attack as a casus belli for invading Poland.)
  • The Migration: American refugees begin steadily pouring into Canada.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: The Windrip regime is led 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.: The novel, written in 1935, depicts the 1936 Presidential election and its aftermath.
  • Noble Demon: Some of the higher-minded Corpos are described as this.
    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 faces 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: The Trope Codifier.
  • 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.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Some of Windrip's diplomatic appointments are hinted as being this.
    It was said, though Doremus Jessup could never prove it, that Windrip learned from Lee Sarason the Spanish custom of getting rid of embarrassing friends and enemies by appointing them to posts abroad, preferably quite far abroad.
  • 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.
  • Second American Civil War: The story ends rather suddenly with America engulfed in a civil war following a disastrous right-wing populist presidency and multiple coups.
  • 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.
  • The Starscream: Sarason is this to Windup. Haik is later this to Sarason.
  • Take That!: Several against Upton Sinclair, who is described as a supporter of Windrip and his later ambassador to the UK. Sinclair was a devoted socialist and FDR supporter, but quit the Socialist Party of America to run as a Democrat, and used populist tactics similar to Windrip during his campaign. Ironically, Sinclair's books were among those burned by the Nazis at their rallies.
    • William Randolph Hearst, and his newspapers, are described as willing propagandists for Windrip and the Corpos even after the dictatorship is established.
  • 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.
  • Unbuilt Trope: From a modern perspective, it can read as this to many later dystopian novels in which the heroes triumph against the oppressive regime and restore life as it was before, especially in how it predicted the problems with radicalism, demagoguery, and instability that would face many newly-democratic and/or ex-colonial nations in the latter half of the 20th century.
  • Underground Railroad: How many refugees flee to Canada, including Doremus.
  • Unperson: Bishop Prang becomes this after traveling to Washington to complain to Windrip about some of his more brutal actions since taking office.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Bishop Paul Peter Prang was indispensable in getting Windrip elected, persuading the twenty-seven million members of his "League of Forgotten Men" to vote for the man. Then, in the first week of his administration, rather than rewarding Prang for his help, Windrip throws this potential rival for power into an insane asylum, never to be seen again.
    • This also goes for Windrip's Secretary of State, Lee Sarason, just as he is about to depose Windrip after two years of Presidency.
      Windrip: Lee! Do you remember the time when your old mother was so sick, and I gave you my last cent and loaned you my flivver so you could go see her, and I hitch-hiked to my next meeting? Lee!
      Sarason: Hell. I suppose so.
    • Back in Fort Beulah, the little favors and kindnesses Doremus did for Shad Ledue when he was working for him seem to have merely stoked the latter's resentment even further.
  • Vice President Who?: Ineffectual VP Perley Beecroft plays no part in the power struggles, except perhaps for declaring a Congressional quorum while most of them are stuck in jail.
  • 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.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Doremus describes Bishop Prang as one of these.
    "That's why he's such a real Fascist menace—he's so confoundedly humanitarian, in fact so Noble, that a majority of people are willing to let him boss everything!"
  • 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 Jessup can never die.
  • You Can't Make an Omelette...: Doremus's son Philip uses the phrase defending the regime. 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.