”Vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected… He was an actor of genius’
A vain, outlandish, anti-immigrant, fear-mongering demagogue runs for President of the United States- and wins. Sinclair Lewis’s chilling 1935 bestseller is the story of Buzz Windrip, who promises poor, angry voters that he will make America proud and prosperous once more, but takes the country down a far darker path. As the new regime slides into authoritarianism, newspaper editor Doremus Jessop can’t believe it will last- but is he right? This cautionary tale of liberal complacency in the face of populist tyranny shows it really can happen here.’
As someone who has been keenly interested in politics, especially American politics, for the last two or so years I was particularly interested when I saw this book in my local Waterstones. It was on a display comprised of dystopian novels such as Brave New World and 1984 which immediately caught my attention. I read the blurb (above) and was astounded by the immense feeling of deja-vu I was struck by. The description of an America ruled by such a vile authoritarian such as Buzz Windrip instantly reminded me of Donald Trump’s America and I rushed to the counter to buy the novel.
Of course, the first thing you’re struck by when examining this book is that it was published in 1935. This is incredibly interesting to me because of how amazingly relevant it is today and just how much the shadowy figure of Buzz Windrip mirrors Donald Trump. Obviously, Trump isn’t exactly Windrip’s clone but while reading the novel I made a list of similarities and differences between the fictional demagogue and our real life one and, strikingly, I could find only 3 stark differences while the similarities filled an entire page. The main difference between the two seemed to me to be that Windrip had political experience as a State Senator while Trump has no experience whatsoever. Meanwhile, some of the most evident qualities Trump shares with his fictional counterpart were:
- Distinct distrust of mainstream media and press
- Trusted by supporters to protect them from malevolent outside forces (Windrip- Bolsheviks, Jews etc. Trump- ISIS, terrorists and Islamic extremists etc.)
- Main support base is the ‘Forgotten Men’
- Seen to mock his opponents
- Both divide their party
- Limited knowledge of economy and how it works (e.g. both promise to create more industry in America and increase wages while also managing to somehow lower prices)
- Promises to make the poorest better off- everyone will be rich
- Controlled by much smarter men (Windrip- Sarason etc. Trump- Bannon etc.)
- Xenophobe branding foreigners as dangerous to America’s safety
- Famous for “writing” a book
- Claims to be the candidate of the “common man” despite having clear ties with big businesses
- Supported by the KKK
- Under heavy scrutiny by the New York Times
- Known for his preference for “pretty women”- judges them based on appearance
- Opponent seemed confident of success
- Uses ridiculous language that is both incorrect and childish (Windrip- talky talk, Trump- bigly etc.)
- Has large rallies with violent supporters
- Supports calls for opponents to be jailed
- Riots following inauguration
And that’s just some of the ones I made notes of.
I think what I found most interesting while reading this fascinating novel was just how quickly the events in the book escalated and how realistic the attitudes towards these changes were. While the Minute Men gained power and numbers the rest of the population lay in a state of inaction. The predominant reactions by those who did not vote for Windrip, as with Trump, seemed to be to wait and see. ‘How bad could he be?’ was the point on everyone’s lips and it didn’t take long for Windrip and his Minute Men to show them. Violence, authoritarian rule, control of the press and concentration camps came quickly as Windrip and his cabinet seized control of the country. As soon as congress signed away their power Windrip and his cronies had America by the jugular and weren’t planning on letting go anytime soon.
In fact, reading Lewis’s tale today you cannot help but be reminded of the man currently residing in the White House. Perhaps the most interesting and revealing description of Windrip as “a public liar easily detected” could have so easily been plucked out of any editorial the world over regarding Trump. Windrip’s blatant disregard for the facts is so reminiscent of Trump (or rather the other way around) that one could be forgiven for thinking Trump had based his circus act on the novel- which is obviously highly unlikely as it would suggest he’d read the book at all. Although if anyone could read Lewis’s warning against America’s personal brand of fascism and completely miss the point of the book it would be Donald Trump.
And obviously the two characters are similar enough for the comparison to be self evident. Windrip’s attack on those of Jewish faith, African American heritage and those politically inclined towards the communist party is a tactic used in America and other countries for years to distract them from what their own government is doing, especially relevant since Trumps war on illegal immigration from South America and “anti-American” Muslim countries does just that.
Trumps war on the Court system and Congress is also exceedingly reminiscent of Windrip’s, although thankfully they haven’t yet been stupid enough to sign over their power and influence to the idiotic orange faced “winner” who couldn’t even win the popular vote against a woman with an already dodgy reputation who suffered a Russian smear campaign in the weeks before the election.
Although of course this novel does serve as a warning against such a dictator that we have clearly ignored, hopefully it’s not too late to learn some important lessons from the book. Those who silently waited for the better times to come again were not spared. Those who insisted that it could not happen there and that perhaps Windrip and his goons were not that bad were not spared. Those who voted for him in good faith and were left disappointed and disheartened were not left in peace and, most importantly, those who did not mind because they were not the ones originally targeted did not stay that way for long. Only the most ardent of fascists and supporters did well in that society and even then they were betrayed by friends and neighbours they’d known their whole lives so that they could get a foot up the ladder. Breeding hate and intolerance only increases social divides, it pushes the boundaries out until no one is safe. It starts out as a small ‘other’, a minority without the means to protect themselves but it never just stays with them. The circle of cruelty will expand outwards and envelope all those who can’t defend themselves. If we let hate and intolerance turn us against one group of innocents, it won’t just stop there. This is all the more important to remember now as anti-semitic hate crimes continue to rise, anti muslim feeling becomes more poisonous and anti-foreigner hate speech becomes far too commonplace.
I think perhaps one of my favourite quotes from this book is found on page 358 of the edition pictured above:
“He was afraid that the world struggle today was not of Communism against Fascism, but of tolerance against the bigotry that was preached equally by Communism and Fascism.”
Now I have to be honest and say I adored reading this book. I haven’t felt so genuinely invested in a book since I read Orwell’s 1984 and even then perhaps not so much. It is a perfect blend of real life issues and fiction and had me completely unable to put it down for even a second. I can tell that this novel will be one of my favourites that I will come back to time and time again. I can only hope that more people read it and begin to recognise the signs of dictators around them today and are on their guard. This is not the sort of issue you can wait out, and without a working check and balance system and a public actively invested in their political system men like Windrip and Sarason, Bannon and Trump will continue to take advantage of the ‘Forgotten Men’ and use their votes and voices to take once prosperous and respected nations down the dark path men like Hitler once trod proudly.
For me, the main message of this book is don’t just sit back and say ‘it won’t happen here, not in this free democracy’. It can happen anywhere. Look closely at America and the regime taking shape right now. It might be closer than you think. We need to actively engage in our politics, in current events and the truth, while we still have access to them.
If you got completely bored and zoned out somewhere in that rant (and I don’t blame you), then all you need to know is this:
READ THIS BOOK.