The Journal Gazette
Thursday, October 15, 2020 1:00 am

'It can't happen here'

After 75 years, cautionary tale relevant again

David Waas

During the Great Depression, our family was “into” politics and, as a tyke, I reveled in the discussions. Interestingly, those years had similarities with our own.

We had a controversial president about whom there were strongly held views pro and con. The economy was in the tank with solutions hotly debated. The powers and makeup of the Supreme Court were on the table. There were those in our town who were sure the president was taking us toward an authoritarian state. Adolf Hitler's Germany was a frequent topic in our conversations.

There was even “proof” of a coming authoritarian state.

After all, the newly passed Social Security Act made it mandatory that every citizen have a personal number. The columnist Westbrook Pegler warned from the pages of our local newspaper that President Franklin Roosevelt was going to make us wear dog tags revealing that number. It was a sure sign of an approaching dictatorship.

Tensions were high enough to get me into a fistfight over Social Security on my school playground. (I don't remember which of us prevailed!)

It was all very confusing to me. My father ardently supported FDR, while others hated him. Families and communities were divided.

The Pegler warning about a dictatorship worried me, and I remember asking my dad if a dictatorship was going to happen in America. He assured me that it couldn't happen here because America was a different kind of country.

Unbeknownst to us, Sinclair Lewis was troubling about the same issue. In 1935, he wrote a book called “It Can't Happen Here,” but in his book it did.

It is a cautionary tale about the rise of American fascism; he laid the blame at the feet of enablers.

“The tyranny of this dictatorship [is the fault of] all the conscientious, respectful, and lazy minded . . . who have let the demagogues wriggle in without fierce enough protest,” Lewis wrote. Does that sound like anyone in the United States you know?

I only learned of Lewis and his books 20 years later. By then, the hot controversies of the late '30s had cooled and other issues had taken their place. But, lo and behold, here in the 20th year of century 21, Sinclair Lewis's book is relevant again. Could it be that we are about to have a president who would override the Constitution and refuse to leave office if defeated in November? Is our democracy strong enough that it would survive such a body blow?

If you are brave enough to handle the scare, Lewis' “It Can't Happen Here,” 75 years on, is worth reading.

David Waas is a North Manchester resident.

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