It Can’t Happen Here Revisited

Last week, while Occupy movement encampments across the US stared down eviction or were smashed up by police attacks, a number of theater companies around the US held readings of Sinclair Lewis’ 1936 adaptation for the stage of his bestselling novel It Can’t Happen Here. The play, which was commissioned by the Roosevelt administration’s Federal Theater Project, a part of its massive Depression era public works program, is the story of the rise to power of a good ol’ boy country lawyer who wins the presidency through a combination of charm, demagoguery and threats, and then cements his power with terror and violence, ultimately creating a police state.

The last time I’d heard about a coordinated cultural event like this was when there were over a thousand productions of Lysistrata, an anti-war satire by the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes, taking place across the US and around the world on a single night—in March 2003, as the US was preparing to invade Iraq. Such events are hopeful in themselves: they invoke something primal and positive, the power of certain narratives, illuminated by the imagination, to persist and unite us in something other than hatred, clannishness and war—in fact, their opposite–across enormous swaths of time and space. They are a form of resistance, because they represent the survival of things most power structures would rather we be without: intelligence, consciousness, dignity.

The Facebook page for the much smaller rolling flash mob of ICHH readings (there were apparently about twenty-five across the US) has comments on the surprising relevance that many who attended them discovered in the seventy-five year old play. I was at the reading organized in San Francisco by the San Francisco Mime Troupe, one of the country’s oldest self-described political theater companies, itself founded just over fifty years ago.

It gave me pause the next day to realize that as a small group of us sat in the Mime Troupe’s darkened rehearsal space in the Mission District, across the bay in Oakland, police from eighteen different local law enforcement agencies (yes, you may well ask why there are that many to begin with, much less why they were all were involved) must have been mapping out a pre-dawn assault on the Occupy Oakland camp that would end up being one of the most violent in the nation so far. Hearing the Mime Troupe read Lewis’ play gave me lots of food for thought, but most of it was in the form of questions on just exactly what kind of relevance we’re talking about—or not—right now.

It Can’t Happen Here was modeled on the dispatches about Hitler’s rise that Lewis’ wife Dorothy Thompson, a prominent journalist, filed from Europe in the early 1930s. Its setting is mostly a fictitious small town in northern Vermont. The time period for the action is described, tellingly, as: “very soon, or never.” The title is obviously ironic.

While Euro-fascism is the frame, Lewis’s Buzz Windrip, the good ol’ boy in ICHH who rides his “Corporative” Party to power, is based largely on Louisiana governor and US Senator Huey Long, with a dose of the aw-shucks cornball humor of popular radio comedian Will Rogers thrown in. Long was actually (certainly by today’s standards) a left-wing populist, who frequently attacked the Roosevelt administration for not going far enough to restrain the greed of banks and redistribute wealth. He had a tendency to long oratory and fiery rhetoric. He did build a formidable political machine that eventually allowed him to control most of the political and economic deal-making in his state. In 1935 he was assassinated on the steps of the Louisiana state house, as he was preparing to launch a presidential run to challenge Roosevelt the following year.

ICHH, like a lot of Sinclair Lewis’ work, is steeped in his disgust at anti-intellectualism and the ease with which great numbers of what he perceived as the US’s unsophisticated and socially isolated people—Lewis called them “the booboisie”—can be swayed by rhetoric that appeals to their prejudices and base instincts, like opportunism and fear.

And in many portrayals, he did get something about that patented all-American blank stare of utter ignorance and simultaneous infinite self-importance dead-on correct. It’s a toxic combination that never seems to die in our culture, where publicly, these days, it seems mainly endemic in the political right. There are some comments from clueless characters in ICHH about how the youth of today (once again, this is the 1930s) don’t really want to work, have had everything given to them, don’t know how to do anything for themselves and are just a bunch of lazy whiners… and you can hear Rush Limbaugh bellowing to his ditto-heads as he tries to dismiss the growing numbers of Occupy-ers in just that way. One of the play’s worst villains is Shad Ledue, a brutal, lumpen goon. Interestingly, he is the only member of the lower classes among its main characters, and he is mainly characterized by resentment and envy of the well-meaning middle class characters who have patronized him, on whom he revenges himself as he rises in Windrip’s ranks.

But these bitter portrayals of a certain kind of US lowest common denominator stop short of any real understanding of the economics that underlie the culture, the skeleton under the skin. Like most of the liberal intelligentsia right down to today, Lewis mostly faulted personality types, not material conditions, for the evils that men do. It’s not that personal psychology is irrelevant, by any means (and it sure is dramatic, too), but if you’re going to take on political subjects, you have to realize that character defects alone do not explain why wars are fought, or millions of people lose their homes or jobs, or crucially, where and when and why dictators take power.

Rather than much of ICHH itself, it’s the social context of the 1930s that may be most relevant to the 2010s: a time of financial collapse, fear, unemployment, scapegoating, dislocation, and severe ecological stress. There is a lot of history that seems to be repeating itself these days, a sure sign that we have not learned its lessons. But history follows neither a straight line nor a circular path, maybe something more like a spiral, so that when certain phenomena reappear, they always reappear in a context that has changed, and those phenomena are, in turn, altered by their time and place.

What isn’t like the 1930s? The US is no longer an isolated, fortress republic, but deeply enmeshed in a global financial system in hyper-drive that is whipping not just its people but most of the world around like a rabbit in the mouth of a wild dog. And it now also has a hugely expanded global military presence to maintain, and a series of resource wars that aren’t serving as middle class-building public works programs with high moral objectives, like Roosevelt’s war, but only as venal and vicious corporate welfare boondoggles offering the deadly job of cannon fodder to the poor. It’s now 75 years since the Works Progress Administration put 8.5 million Americans directly to work (almost 13,000 of them in the Federal Theater Project) and there’s no sign of the possibility of anything like that in a political system that’s marked by a crawling servitude to private money in both major political parties, and has even granted corporations the legal status of persons in just about every significant respect (except serving time for crimes, apparently).

I started to think that many of Lewis’ stalking horses have already gone galloping out the barn door, since the beginning of the Reagan revolution at least. And so what we have is a situation where the kind of totalitarianism he feared now actually seems superfluous. Power and wealth have continued to concentrate in ever fewer hands, the spectrum of discourse to be narrowed, and dissenters to be functionally silenced by marginalization, without the need for formally suspending the constitution, disbanding parliament and declaring anyone president for life to make it so. “It” hasn’t happened here, because something else did: a kind of stealth coup, carried out over decades.

In fact, most people really didn’t seem to know why their lives were so out of their own control until recently, when the little Toto of the Occupy protests began to pull back a curtain and show how the men at the levers of the spin machine were wildly pulling them to blow smoke and bellow, while their promises and their threats were equally empty, because the real problem is not drugs, terrorists, immigrants, or homosexuality, and the real solution isn’t either of those bizarrely entwined American fantasies, the Free Market or Jesus. And who’s wielding the power is not a dictator, not any single person, benign or malign, but a percentage: the 1% who control more than 40% of the nation’s wealth, and have basically succeeded in rigging its political system to preserve and increase that share, at the expense of the rest of the population and the natural world. Sinclair Lewis may have imagined tyranny; he never foresaw oligarchy.

After the reading, my husband and I talked with R.G. Davis, who founded the Mime Troupe in 1961, and left it in 1970. It was something of a surprise to see him there: he has long been critical of what he considers the Mime Troupe’s loss of political acuity, and also its reliance on formulaic melodrama to produce its annual message plays, both of which unfortunately put it in tune with Lewis’s work here. Davis thought the only way ICHH could be considered relevant to what’s happening in the US right now is if you radically altered it in a way that would basically undermine both the play’s structure and its ideology. He talked about the “creative misreadings” that can sometimes produce a new interpretation that’s fertile in a different context and a completely different way than was intended by the author. Apparently the French students who carried out their own version of an Occupy movement in May 1968 had read Mao in such a creative way—so maybe anything is possible.

On the way home from the reading, we drove past an enormous police sting at the Valencia Gardens housing project: a whole block filled with squad cars, lights flashing, officers surrounding a group of black and brown young men on the steps of the complex, that looks for all the world like a minimum security prison. The next day, after an Iraq vet at Occupy was hospitalized with a cracked skull from a police projectile, and tear gas filled the streets of Oakland, the Washington Post had a picture of a cop petting a cute stray cat in the ruins of the Occupy Oakland camp. In other words, business as usual in 21st century America. “It” happens every day.

Christy Rodgers is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant living in San Francisco. She blogs at What If? A Personal Journal of Radical Possibilities. Read other articles by Christy, or visit Christy's website.