I live in the land of Garrison Keillor and Sinclair Lewis. Most of the time I find Keillor a more accurate guide to current American life. That is, we’re usually much like Lake Wobegon: all the men are strong, all the women are good looking, and all the children are above average. We go to Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, attend Lake Wobegon Lutheran or Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, eat lunch at the Chatterbox Café, and occasionally have a beer and a bump at the Sidetrack Tap.
But every once in a while Sinclair Lewis’s world shows up too. Like Keillor, he wrote about the small towns and cities of central Minnesota and upper Midwest. Unlike Keillor, Lewis saw a world that was nasty and typical Americans who were churlish and inward looking.
Donald Trump’s march through the Republican primaries and caucuses reminds me of Sinclair Lewis’s novels of the 1920s: Main Street, Babbitt, and Elmer Gantry. All of them resonate with the no-nothingness, boosterism, and evangelical fervor on display in the Republican nominating process.
Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930 but his novels were already becoming passé by then in the US. The Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression took much of the shine off of big business and mainstream religion.
In 1935, Lewis roared back with the book that especially keeps coming to my mind these days: It Can’t Happen Here, his 1935 novel about the rise of fascism in the United States. He modeled his central character, Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, on Huey Long and his promises of “every man a king” and “share our wealth.” Lewis saw fascism arriving via populist politicians, but re-reading the novel I find Windrip sounds an awful like Trump in his promises to restore America’s greatness.
No, I don’t think Trump is a fascist. That’s a term that needs to be used carefully and precisely and I don’t equate Trump with Mussolini, Franco, or Hitler.
However, I do see much of the Windrip-style politician in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the current president of Turkey, Hugo Chavez, the late president of Venezuela, and Silvio Berlusconi, the long-serving prime minister of Italy. Trump’s exhortations sound much like theirs, and I worry that more of us need to take Trump’s rise as a serious problem to be addressed rather than a blowhard that need only be mocked.
After all, in Turkey, Venezuela, and Italy, it did happen there.
Update, 11:30 am: From Vox.com: