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An eerily familiar fiction

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Shad Ledue, leader of the fascist "Corpos," beat Doremus Jessup, a Vermont newspaperman who has been opposing the dictatorship in his newspaper in a scene from “It Can't Happen Here.”National Archives

Here’s what the candidate promises: He’s going to “Make America a proud, rich land again.”

Everything's going to work if he's elected. Goods will be manufactured here, not overseas. He has certain (unspecified) plans to make everyone prosper. We'll rely on American sweat and initiative and know-how. America will stop getting involved in foreign affairs, but will enlarge its military. He delivers coded messages regarding other ethnic groups and religions, and women. He hates journalists. He is a tireless showman, seen to "whirl arms, bang tables . . . and in between tricks would jab his crowds with figures and facts — figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect."


His critics find him "vulgar" and "clownish." They wonder if he understands his own ideas — wonder if in fact these are his ideas, or the ideas of his sinister campaign manager. His supporters excuse his most outrageous statements by saying that he shoots his mouth off but doesn't really mean it. They believe that only he can protect them from disaster.

His political message relies on vagueness, xenophobia, and fervor. In short, he's a demagogue.

This eerily familiar American presidential candidate is actually a character in Sinclair Lewis's satirical 1935 novel "It Can't Happen Here." Written during the Depression, with an uneasy eye on the rise of totalitarianism overseas, the novel chronicles the rise of a fear-mongering, coyly autocratic candidate named Buzz Windrip (not even a novelist could invent a name as succinctly, juicily apt as "Trump").

Spoiler: Windrip wins. And what happens after the inauguration ain't good.

Lewis's demagogue is not a fascist or a communist, the two specters looming over the world in which he wrote. His point is that every country is susceptible to its own particular rescue fantasy, which becomes especially seductive in troubled times. His demagogue is a homegrown phenomenon: a tell-it-like-it-is guy who doesn't want much — just that everyone else should get out of his way so he can fix the mess that is government.


The novel's question is: What would it take to topple democracy in the United States?

The answer: Voters willing to hand power to someone who promises that he alone can fix things.

A candidate whose refrain is "Trust me" propagates the myth that presidential power is unilateral. In fact, American democracy is a three-legged race. The president and Congress have to run with their legs tied together. It is inherently, and intentionally, awkward. The president's job isn't to boss; it is to preside. A candidate who says, "I know more about ISIS than the generals, believe me" and "I alone can fix it" either doesn't understand the job description (scary) or wants to override the job description (even scarier).

Sinclair Lewis's protagonist, the dazed small-town newspaper editor Doremus Jessup, attributes Windrip's election to "justified discontent against the smart politicians," and recognizes that "if it hadn't been one Windrip it'd been another."

Full disclosure: I picked up Sinclair Lewis's novel because its alarmist title intrigued me. I hoped to find some sense of prescience. It was satisfying, but also somewhat terrifying, to think that if Sinclair Lewis were around now and could see Donald Trump, he would say, "I told you so."

But afraid as I am of Trump, who is crudely asking Americans to trust him on November 8, I'm even more afraid of this: What happens to the hate and frustration unleashed by this campaign? What happens when someone who is smarter, more personable, more savvy, and more subtle comes along and makes the same dangerous, ephemerally plausible request?


Joan Wickersham's column appears regularly in the Globe.