The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists. –Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism


Let’s begin with a warning. Before fascism takes hold in Sinclair Lewis’s vision of dystopic America, the protagonist — a liberal journalist called Doremus Jessup — gathers in a bar, warning his fellow patrons of the tyranny to come.

A business executive says, “That couldn’t happen here in America, not possibly! We’re a country of freemen.”

Jessup, outraged, gives the following reply:

“…Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution? […] Remember the Kentucky night-riders? Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings? Not happen here? Prohibition — shooting down people just because they might be transporting liquor — no, that couldn’t happen in America! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours!”

This was It Can’t Happen Here, published in 1935. In the novel, the charismatic Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip runs on a platform of faux-populism, promising immediate prosperity to every American citizen. What ensues after his victory is textbook fascism: the silencing of political enemies, muzzling women and minorities, the thorough corporatization of American politics. Then come the concentration camps, paramilitary enforcement, and the silent acceptance of the American populace who assure themselves, long after the wrecking-ball has hit, that fascism simply “can’t happen here.”

Read the rest of this essay here at the LA Review of Books.

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