by Norman Berdichevsky (April 2010)
It Can’t Happen Here was a best-selling satirical political novel by Sinclair Lewis published in 1935. It aroused considerable controversy when published and in the years leading up to World War II. The plot featured the account of a crusading newspaperman Doremus Jessup, struggling against the newly elected fascist regime of President Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a populist leader whom some observers on the political Right assumed was a parody of FDR while others, particularly on the political Left rejected the possibility that a “popular” leader of the Democratic Party could possibly lead the country into a Fascist regime.
What makes the claim that Windrip is a Leftwing tyrant hard to refute is that he is painted in the image of Huey Long with the same demagogic appeal of a young, dynamic, charismatic “populist” from a humble background, full of charm, wit and promising “the poor and downtrodden” their place in the sun. He rails against the wealthy and his platform emphasizes that the “crisis” that gets him elected is due to the machinations of the Wall Street speculators. This resembled the new administration of President Roosevelt and his New Deal advisors as enemies of the “Wall Street crowd” that bore responsibility for the stock market crash and depression. Readers of the novel today who have been blinded by the political rhetoric of the misleading terms of Left and Right in common use, will nevertheless also find it “obvious” that a character such as Windrip, who was an outright racist and opposed “foreigners” and immigration, must be associated with the Political Right.
A closer and more realistic look at the characteristics of the National Democratic Party in the 1930s and today will reveal that indeed, the fear of a Fascist take-over in the United States was most likely then and is most likely to occur today as a direct result of a charismatic leader and collectivist policies that weaken the checks and balances of our representative form of government and the built-in safeguards of Constitutional Liberties. They were threatened most aggressively in the 1930s by the attempt of FDR to create an enlarged Supreme Court as a puppet institution under Presidential Control and today, by the maneuvers of President Obama promising an enormous expansion of entitlements to a public conditioned by sixty years of expanded welfare benefits, to trade in their liberty for security.
In the novel, Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a power-hungry politician, is elected President of the United States on a populist platform pledging to restore the country to prosperity and greatness, with the explicit campaign promise of giving each citizen five thousand dollars a year! It’s simple; all he needed to do was print the money!
His opponent in the 1936 election is Walt Trowbridge, “a Republican candidate for President, suffering from the deficiency of being honest and disinclined to promise that he could work miracles, was insisting that we live in the United States of America and not on a golden highway to Utopia.”
The description of the fictional 1936 election campaign is prescient and has many parallels with the real one of 2008. Lewis, the first American to win the Noble Prize for Literature and generally regarded as an acidic critic of American society, nevertheless predicted that if Fascism ever succeeded in America, it would be imposed by the Democratic Party winning the support of the masses, envious of those wealthier and more successful than themselves. The sophisticated but honest journalist Jessup, who is narrating the story, has a dilemma – whether to support the stodgy Republican Trowbridge (with all the old fashioned boring virtues of honesty and integrity) in his native Vermont during a time of crisis, or the dazzling Democrat Windrip with his fantastic promises. He eventually listens to the voice of reason and realizes that Windrip, for all his appeal to the masses, is bent on seizing the instruments of power to install himself as a dictator.
“He wanted to follow Roosevelt and the Jeffersonian Party–partly for admiration of the man; partly for the pleasure of shocking the ingrown Republicanism of Vermont. But he could not believe that the Jeffersonians would have a chance; he did believe that, for all the mothball odor of many of his associates, Walt Trowbridge was a valiant and competent man; and night and day Doremus bounced up and down Beulah Valley campaigning for Trowbridge. Out of his very confusion there came into his writing a desperate sureness which surprised accustomed readers of the Informer. For once he was not amused and tolerant. Though he never said anything worse of the Jeffersonian Party than that it was ahead of its times, in both editorials and news stories he went after Buzz Windrip and his gang with whips, turpentine, and scandal.
In person, he was into and out of shops and houses all morning long, arguing with voters, getting miniature interviews. He had expected that traditionally Republican Vermont would give him too drearily easy a task in preaching Trowbridge. What he found was a dismaying preference for the theoretically Democratic Buzz Windrip. And that preference, Doremus perceived, wasn’t even a pathetic trust in Windrip’s promises of Utopian bliss for everyone in general. It was a trust in increased cash for the voter himself, and for his family, very much in particular.”
Once in power, Windrip becomes a tyrant. He goes on to outlaw dissent after characterizing it as treason. He places his political enemies in detainment camps and creates a paramilitary force, the Minute Men who terrorize the citizens. One of his first moves as President is to make changes to the Constitution that give himself sole power over the country, rendering Congress obsolete.
When these measures are met by protest from the congressmen as well as outraged citizens, Windrip declares a state of Martial Law and with the help of his Minute Men, throws the protesters in jail. As he dismantles American democratic institutions, most Americans either support him and his “Corpo Regime,” devoted to bringing relief to the “ordinary citizens” and enlarging the common welfare, his supporters wholeheartedly reassure themselves that fascism cannot happen in America. Eventually Windrip’s hold on power begins to weaken. The economic prosperity he promises does not materialize, and more and more people flee to Canada to escape his government’s brutality.
How fanciful, imaginative, ridiculous, far-fetched or accurate is it to compare charismatic populist President Obama to the character of Buzz Windrip? Take a look at some of the cardinal points in Windrup’s electoral campaign platform in “It Can’t Happen Here”. During the very first week of his campaign, Senator Windrip clarifies his philosophy by issuing his distinguished proclamation: “The Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Men.”
The VERY FIRST VICTORY POINT IS …..(1) All finance in the country, including banking, insurance, stocks and bonds and mortgages, shall be under the absolute control of a Federal Central Bank, owned by the government and conducted by a Board appointed by the President, which Board shall, without need of recourse to Congress for legislative authorization, be empowered to make all regulations governing finance. Thereafter, as soon as may be practicable, this said Board shall consider the nationalization and government-ownership, for the Profit of the Whole People, of all mines, oilfields, water power, public utilities, transportation, and communication.
Doesn’t that sound familiar? The first year of the Obama administration and its “call for action” with the various relief proposals, the TARP, various “stimulus programs” and the President’s proposals for cap and trade, energy, the banks sound like a rerun.
(2) The President shall appoint a commission, equally divided between manual workers, employers, and representatives of the Public, to determine which Labor Unions are qualified to represent the Workers; and report to the Executive, for legal action, all pretended labor organizations, whether “Company Unions,” or “Red Unions,” controlled by Communists and the so-called “Third International.” The duly recognized Unions shall be constituted Bureaus of the Government, with power of decision in all labor disputes. Later, the same investigation and official recognition shall be extended to farm organizations. In this elevation of the position of the Worker, it shall be emphasized that the League of Forgotten Men is the chief bulwark against the menace of destructive and un-American Radicalism.
Does this sound familiar too? It should.
(5) Annual net income per person shall be limited to $500,000. No accumulated fortune may at any one time exceed $3,000,000 per person. No one person shall, during his entire lifetime, be permitted to retain an inheritance or various inheritances in total exceeding $2,000,000. All incomes or estates in excess of the sums named shall be seized by the Federal Government for use in Relief and in Administrative expenses.
Isn’t this what was/is called “Share the Wealth?”
(8) Congress shall have the sole right to issue money and immediately upon our inauguration it shall at least double the present supply of money, in order to facilitate the fluidity of credit.
(11) Far from opposing such high-minded and economically sound methods of the relief of poverty, unemployment, and old age as the EPIC plan of the Hon. Upton Sinclair, the “Share the Wealth” and “Every Man a King” proposals of the late Hon. Huey Long to assure every family $5000 a year, the Townsend plan, the Utopian plan, Technocracy, and all competent schemes of unemployment insurance, a Commission shall immediately be appointed by the New Administration to study, reconcile, and recommend for immediate adoption the best features in these several plans for Social Security…..
(15) Congress shall, immediately upon our inauguration, initiate amendments to the Constitution providing (a), that the President shall have the authority to institute and execute all necessary measures for the conduct of the government during this critical epoch; (b), that Congress shall serve only in an advisory capacity, calling to the attention of the President and his aides and Cabinet any needed legislation, but not acting upon same until authorized by the President so to act; and (c), that the Supreme Court shall immediately have removed from its jurisdiction the power to negate, by ruling them to be unconstitutional or by any other judicial action, any or all acts of the President, his duly appointed aides, or Congress.
This too sounds like the “needed legislation” rammed through by the President’s aides, Reid, Pelosi, Axelrod, and Rahm to protect and defend the “poor victims” (i.e. citizens) inevitably faced with ruin, economic destruction, and catastrophic ill health before the election of President Obama. Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano and Obama have already identified the dangers to their rule by labeling conservative Americans and even returning Vets “potential” domestic terrorists.
Added to their long list of “enemies” are pro-life Christian Evangelicals, anti-abortion Catholics, pro-Israel Jewish “neocons,” conservative Blacks and Latinos, the Tea Party supporters, (whose behavior in public demonstrations has been almost impeccable compared to the mayhem and chaos generated by the many anti-war and anti-Bush rallies), gun owners, College Republicans, Sarah Palin, Anne Coulter, Michelle Malkin and Bill O’Reilly, talk radio hosts and conservative career women and housewives. Speaker Pelosi’s comments that the nature of the grassroots Tea Party Movement is more like “astro-turf” and that she is “afraid” for the safety of ordinary Americans because she had noticed a swastika carried somewhere by someone are the two most desperate attempts ever made by a high ranking cabinet member of the government to demonize political opponents since the Civil War.
What about the points 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13, and 14 in Windrip’s Platform that I omitted? They identify the enemies of the President, subversives, traitors and those who must be strictly kept under close supervision, namely radicals, Communists, Jews, Blacks, independent women and immigrants. They are all stereotypes identified then by Lewis as somehow the exclusive preserve of the “Far Right” that supposedly characterized the most conservative elements in American society of the 1930’s but many of them applied equally as well or to an even greater degree among many Democrats of the populist variety that dominated the Party in the South and the Midwest. It must be remembered that until quite late in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, the Democratic Party was the natural home of many Congressmen who opposed immigration, anti-lynching laws, and voting rights for African-Americans. Its 19th century heritage was the Party of Slavery, Secession and Segregation. Today it has added another S – Socialism. The Democratic Vice President of the United States under FDR from 1933 to 1940, John Nance Garner, a former Texas Congressman, was considered one of the most reactionary members of the Congress with regard to his racist, isolationist, anti-Semitic, anti-Mexican, anti-Labor unions and anti-immigrant views and could well have matched “Buzz Windrip” more closely than any other Congressman in the 20th century.
The false and often irrelevant dichotomy of LEFT vs. RIGHT obscures the basic similarities uniting the two wings of political thought at their extremes that glorify and deify abstractions such as THE leader, party, race, church or class that embody THE NATION. Both ideologies at their extremes grant ALL POWER to a demagogic leader who, once in power, promises either to save the people from poverty, restore their heroic traditions and glorious past, redeem the nation and restore its historic borders, or wipe away the humiliation and the privileges of the “ruling class.” Every demagogue whether labeled as a Rightwing or Leftwing dictator throughout Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa has made the same appeal and it is always predictably anti-American, anti-Capitalist, anti-Jewish and anti-Israel.
Many imagined iconic heroes of the past consistently pushed their domestic agendas on behalf of the “common man” and the “poor” or for “civil rights” or “minorities” yet committed the worst abuses among our many Presidents in the direction of more and more centralized federal power – Abolition of Habeus Corpus (Lincoln), the “Red Scares” with their wholesale incarcerations and deportations of all those opposed to American entry into World War I (Wilson), and the internment of Japanese-Americans including those who were American citizens in “relocation camps” (FDR).
The Left-Right continuum is a false paradigm. The extremes meet but it is more often the liberal agenda, so universally proclaimed today as “progressive”, rather than conservative policies, that lead the way to abolishing the restraints of local government and individual rights which guarantee individual liberties. The end result is the government’s reach for unlimited power. Not only is it not true that “It Can’t Happen Here,” it already has begun to happen.
The Obama Health Care Bill passed by the Senate on March 23, 2010 is the most invasive imposition of the power of the Federal Government since Prohibition (ultimately repealed). It was fittingly referred to by Vice President Biden as “A Big F—– Deal!” Of course, that did not prevent the VP, the President, Cabinet members and Congress from exempting themselves from the provisions of the law. In an eerie coincidence, the date was the 77th anniversary of Hitler’s Enabling Act in 1933 just a month after his election that permanently did away with the Weimar German Constitution in order to “Protect the German People from domestic enemies.”
Shifting explanations by the Democrats to justify the mandate of obligatory health care under the terms of regulating “Interstate Commerce” have shredded the Constitution and reduced its protection of individual and states rights to the First Ten Amendments (Bill of Rights) as the only ones not subject to constant Congressional and Presidential manipulation. Everything else is fair game. The fact that the new law has immediately been challenged as unconstitutional by no less than 15 State Attorneys-General is a rebuke to the Congress that so cheaply sold our birthright as American citizens. It is up to us to prevent Obama, the “Yes, We Can Man” from taking Windrip’s place and turning fiction into reality.
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