Sinclair Lewis called 2016 in 1935. In It Can’t Happen Here we follow the rise of Berzelius «Buzz» Windrip, a demagogue running for president using a platform built on patriotism, a return to «better» times, xenophobia, and unattainable economic promises: $5,000 payout per family, which would equal around $90,000 today. How could you not vote for this man‽
How could you not, indeed, and vote the people did, often times with the reasoning of a status quo that needed to be shook up by an outsider.
Buzz himself appealed to the masses by telling them exactly what they wanted to hear. Drinking beer with miners he would assure them banks would face stronger regulations; during cocktails with Boston socialites an increased private control of the same banks would be promised… Buzz is a man who will tell anyone what they want to hear without having a shadow of a chance to deliver any of it.
The actual narrative centers around Doremus Jessup, a newspaper editor—write anything negative about Buzz and get shut down—trying to fight the increasingly fascist government, where power slowly gets transferred from the president to a group of Svengalis.
Disturbing as the lead-up to the election is, then, it’s what happens after that makes one, today, want to brace for what could happen in the future. Because clearly it can happen here.
I wasn’t particularly familiar with Sinclair Lewis before reading It Can’t Happen Here, only having heard of his Main Street, which was the foundation for the Nobel Prize he won in the early thirties. I’m not going to say this was the best book I ever read—it’s a bit too straightforward for my liking—but parallels to present times are chilling.
In other words, this is a timely read, one that might be a bit too depressing for some right now, but also one that could work others up in positive ways. Or both.
Either way, it’s definitely a well-written book, and it’s interesting how well Lewis nailed what the present would look like, more so than either 1984 or Brave New World.