It Can’t Happen Here

In 1935, America (and much of the rest of the world) was mired in the Great Depression. At this time, Mussolini was relatively new in his position, Hitler was on the rise, and the two were not yet aligned. A young John F. Kennedy, having just returned from spending time as Mussolini’s guest, was quite impressed by Fascism. Kennedy wrote a paper noting the superiority of the system in several respects, most particularly in building up military capability for the war he thought was likely to happen against Hitler. Later, Kennedy lost his enthusiasm for fascism.

But at this point, America was miserable. We were plowing crops back into the ground without harvesting them (by government order) and slaughtering millions of head of livestock without consuming them, as the US government thought this would drive prices up and put everyone back to work.  Of course, this notion is as silly as “improving the economy” by forcing gas prices to be higher and leaving fossil fuels in the ground. It would take Nobel Prize Winners (like Paul Krugman and Barack Obama) to come up with such a scheme.

So Sinclair Lewis imagined the dangers of such thinking in 1935, and wrote a book about what he thought might happen. He was inspired by Democrat Huey Long. whose real-life (though unrealistic) proposal has more than a little in common with the current Democrat platform. Here’s Huey Long’s “Share Our Wealth: Every Man a King” proposal points:

  • Cap personal fortunes at $50 million each — equivalent to about $600 million today (later reduced to $5 – $8 million, or $60 – $96 million today)
  • Limit annual income to one million dollars each (about $12 million today)
  • Limit inheritances to five million dollars each (about $60 million today)
  • Guarantee every family an annual income of $2,000 (or one-third the national average)
  • Free college education and vocational training
  • Old-age pensions for all persons over 60
  • Veterans benefits and healthcare
  • A 30 hour work week
  • A four week vacation for every worker
  • Greater regulation of commodity production to stabilize prices

Long’s great revelation was that making wealthy job-creators poor would make working people rich — and that if people didn’t need to actually work, the country would be better off. There was much evidence that Long did not actually believe any of this, but it certainly got him talked about. And he ran Louisiana, as Governor and Senator, as his private domain while keeping an eye on Presidential possibilities.

Sinclair Lewis took the Democrats’ incipient fascism, socialism, and racism and re-rolled Huey Long into the fictional “Berzelius Windrip” from an unnamed Southern state. In Lewis’ mind, this platform could be offered the following year, 1936, and he spins his cautionary tale of how it could all go horribly wrong.  I’ll pick just two points out of Windrip’s fictional Democratic Platform of 1936, to give you a taste for it, but I’ll expand more on this later:

Point 3: In contradistinction to the doctrines of Red Radicals, with their felonious expropriation of the arduously acquired possessions which insure to aged persons their security, this League and Party will guarantee Private Initiative and the Right to Private Property for all time.

Well, that sounds reasonable enough: Windrip is all for private property rights. Who could argue with that?  Well, it seems that “Buzz” Windrip could:

Point 1: All finance in the country, including banking, insurance, stocks and bonds and mortgages, shall be under the absolute control of a Federal Central Bank, owned by the government and conducted by a Board appointed by the President, which Board shall, without need of recourse to Congress for legislative authorization, be empowered to make all regulations governing finance. Thereafter, as soon as may be practicable, this said Board shall consider the nationalization and government-ownership, for the Profit of the Whole People, of all mines, oilfields, water power, public utilities, transportation, and communication.

Whoops. So much for property rights. If you’re involved in one of the targeted businesses, you don’t have property rights at all.

There is much more. And Buzz envisioned a private group of people working for him, paid by the government, and acting as an offset to the US military as well as operating within the US which the US military cannot do. This group, called the Minute Men, and as Buzz Windrip put it:

“We cannot continue to rely on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives that we’ve set. We’ve got to have a civilian national security force that’s just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded. People of all ages, stations, and skills will be asked to serve.”
This group goes on to cause all sorts of grief as private enforcers, thugs, and essentially becomes the criminal arm of the Government.  Oh, the description is not from Buzz Windrip, it’s from Barack Obama as noted here. Obama didn’t call them Minute Men (probably because he thought the name too patriotic, as well as having been taken). Instead, they were simply his Civilian National Security Force.
Back to Buzz Windrip: He won the Democratic Primary in the story, and went on to the election — and the newly formed Minute Men (the M.M.s) made sure to let people know how to vote. I will never hear the tune to “Yankee Doodle” the same way again:
The snakes disloyal to our Buzz
We’re riding on a rail,
They’ll wish to God they never was,
When we get them in jail![Chorus:]
Buzz and buzz and keep it up
To victory he’s floated.
You were a most ungrateful pup,
Unless for Buzz you voted.
Every M.M. gets a whip
To use upon some traitor,
And every Antibuzz we skip
Today, we’ll tend to later.

Now, of course, they’d have an iPhone/iPad app to find the “antibuzz” folks that didn’t vote for their guy.

The book is available for free download here.

A trivia bit: When they were working on a miniseries inspired by this book, it was so horrific that they decided to re-cast the villains. First as “right wingers,” of course, since it’s National Socialism. But even that was too horrific, so… Instead of a homegrown rise of American fascism by tweaking Democrat plans and personalities, it became an invasion by space aliens.  You might have heard of the resulting mini-series.

It is called V.  Amusingly, the remake of V recently (from the 1980s original) is rather conservative in its viewpoint, I’ve heard.

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle