Who Predicted What?
By Eileen M. Lavine
In his victory speech in 2008, President Obama said, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, tonight is your answer.” This November, in a New Yorker article titled “It Happened Here,” editor David Remnick recalled Obama’s quote: “A very different answer arrived this Election Day,” he writes. “America is indeed a place where all things are possible: that is its greatest promise and, perhaps, its gravest peril.”
The title of Remnick’s article is a play on the title of Sinclair Lewis’s foreboding novel of 1935, It Can’t Happen Here. It was the forerunner of other predictive books suggesting how an authoritarian might assume power in the United States leading to a fascist dictatorship. Lewis’s model was Huey Long of Louisiana, who was assassinated just before the book was published. In another recent New Yorker article, Alexander Nazaryan notes that much of the book has “the quality not of fiction but of reportage.” It is, he says, “an argument for journalism as a basic pillar of democracy. And civic education, too.” He claims that this means a leader can exploit people, knowing they will not be accountable for their promises—“or for their flagrant violations of democratic principles.”
Lewis adapted the novel for the stage, and 18 cities staged the production in 1937, including a Yiddish production in New York and a Spanish version in Tampa. This year, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California reworked the book into a new play, which was performed around the country.
An interesting sidebar: Lewis Browne, a rabbi turned writer and lecturer, toured nationwide in the early 1940s with Sinclair Lewis debating, among other topics, “Can fascism happen here?” Biographer Richad Lingeman described them as “the Gallagher and Shean of the lecture circuit.” In 1943, Browne himself wrote an anti-fascist novel, See What I Mean?
More recently, in 2004, Philip Roth published The Plot Against America, in which Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 election against Franklin D. Roosevelt, promoting an isolationist, anti-Semitic policy and a friendly “understanding” with Hitler. Using a New Jersey Jewish family as his fulcrum, Roth follows them and their neighbors and friends as some flee to Canada, others become White House allies and support grows for Walter Winchell’s candidacy for the presidency. In a postscript note to readers, Roth gives all his sources for “readers interested in tracking where historical fact ends and historical imagining begins.” These include Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production of Hate by Neil Baldwin; The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem vol. 3, Jewish Influences in American Life by Henry Ford and The Nazi Movement in the United States, 1924-1941 by Sander A. Diamond.
Remnick’s interview with Obama also quoted passages from the 1998 book, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America by the late Stanford philosopher Richard Rorty. According to Edward Helmore in The Guardian, Rorty’s prediction that populist movements could overturn constitutional governments was cited widely on social media after the election. Rorty suggested that as workers begin to realize that governments were “not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or jobs from being exported…something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.”
It was likely, Rorty wrote, that “the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion…All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.” But ultimately, Rorty noted, the so-called strongman could not do anything but “worsen economic conditions” and “quickly make his peace with the international superrich.”