In mid 1930's, small-town Vermont, Doremus Jessup works as a journalist and the publisher of a local newspaper. He lives what might be called an idealized American life at that time with his wife, adult children, and his dog. His housekeeper makes a delicious coconut cake for Sunday supper. He's friendly with his neighbors, but sometimes has to endure dinner parties with men who love to hear their own voice and have little common sense. He's not of strong political persuasion, although he has a general dislike for Communists and a preference for pacifism.
He begins to hear rumblings of a senator, Berzelius ("Buzz") Windrip, who is making a bid for the presidency, against Franklin D. Roosevelt. He speaks of giving the poor and suffering a lump sum amount of money, to ease their suffering. Of increasing patriotism across the country. Of a return to traditional values. He holds rallies, and whips the audiences into a fervent uproar with his grand promises and flowing words, but an hour afterward they can't seem to recall anything that he actually said. He supports the increased presence and recruitment of ROTC-type activities, and gives that group the name Minutemen ("MM").
Doremus and his neighbors don't actually believe that Buzz means what he says. They expect that it's all a bluster, that will blow over after the election has happened. They seriously doubt that he would ever be elected President. However, Doremus encounters more and more people who seem to think that some of his plans sound pretty good - especially that lump sum of money. This creates a divide in the small town, and has ramifications that last long into the future.
Buzz is elected President, and swiftly enacts a wide-sweeping program of change, with the help of his now-radicalized and mobilized MMs. He strips the legislative and judicial branches of their power, places the Congressmen and Supreme Court justices under house arrest (later having those who refuse to support him assassinated). He dissolves all political parties, save for his American Corporate State and Patriotic Party (Corpos). He sets up work camps and concentration camps for dissidents, enemies of the state, and those who the Corpos dislike for any reason or no reason at all. He strips non-white people of their citizenship and has them forcibly relocated. He openly discriminates against Jews and any group of people who he sees as elitist and therefore against the State. He redraws the US map, taking away statehood and organizing territories into collective Districts. Although there are still courts and judges to decide prisoners' fates, the rule of law and due process are effectively suspended.
His agents and henchmen, throughout all of this, are the MMs. Although some people call them "Mickey Mouse" or "Minnie's", they show to be callous and cruel in their work. After his election, Buzz declares martial law. There are protests against the action of Buzz's regime, but the MMs violently suppress them. Many of those who sign up for the MMs, especially in the wake of the election, were the poor and uneducated men, looking to get even with the upper-class people who they felt owed them. One such person was a man named Shad Ledue, a hired hand who did odd jobs for Doremus and his family. Shad is so clouded by his sense of entitlement and his underlying hatred due to his poverty that he is especially cruel and unrelenting in his treatment of those who had previously hired him. He also exploits his power to his own financial gain, strong-arming businessmen to make deals with him which he takes advantage of but never fulfills.
Doremus' newspaper is of interest to the Corpos because of it's usefulness in spreading their propaganda. The only way that the MMs allow Doremus to continue running his operation is if it's done in the service of training one of their men to eventually take it over. Slowly and deliberately, signs of the repressiveness of Buzz's presidency become glaringly clear. There are raids on houses to remove any "seditious" material, unapproved books are burned, and people are disappeared. This creates a fear of going anywhere, of living, because nobody knows for sure who might be a disguised MM or sympathizer who would report you for talk or conduct against the State.
However, there are activists (called "New Underground", as an homage to the Underground Railroad of the American Civil War) who are working to spread anti-Corpo messages through pamphlets and newsletters. They also help refugees make passage into Canada, which is not impacted by the Corpos. Doremus joins them, and as reports of torture and gross violence at the hands of the MM's and of the Corpo leadership, the New Underground makes covert use of Doremus' printing equipment to disseminate the information. They are successful for awhile, but are eventually discovered and Shad cannot hide his joy at being able to send Doremus, along with some of the other New Underground members, to a concentration camp. Incidentally, the prison camp is called Trianon, which is the name of the treaty that ended WW1. Horrific acts of war taking place under the name of peace.
While prisoners are being tortured, starved, and dehumanized by the guards at Trianon, there are drastic changes taking place at the highest levels of Corpo leadership. Buzz is lamenting the loneliness and distrust that surrounds an oligarchic leader, still deep in his belief that he is doing what's right for America. Some of his closest political allies worried that Buzz may be coming for them, have fled to Canada. Sensing a vulnerability, his pleasure-loving, power-hungry Secretary of State, Lee Sarason, overthrows Buzz as leader and sends him into exile in France. Sarason, quite a Caligula-like figure, indulges in lavish parties, enjoys unmatched luxury, and sets up his homosexual lovers in high positions of power. During one of Sarason's orgies, he is interrupted by General Dewey Haik and his most-loyal MMs, and they systematically execute everyone there. Haik then declares himself the new president. Haik is described as a repressively conservative Puritan, who implements a program of forced Christian conservatism. Any kind of frivolity is punishable.
While the book ends of a slight upturn of hope, Dewey Haik is still in power with his repressive, fundamentalist, bible-based regime. What struck me most about the ending of It Can't Happen Here is how much it seemed to function as a precursor for Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. In that story, the United States was overthrown by a Christian fundamentalist group called Sons of Jacob, which instituted a rigid caste society based on its biblical interpretations. Haik, and those loyal to him, could have easily given themselves that very name and implemented those social programs. In both It Can't Happen Here and The Handmaid's Tale, Canada is seen as a kind of Promised Land that the disillusioned and persecuted characters strive to reach. It really feels as though Sinclair's book might actually be Part 1 of the story, and Atwood's book could be Part 2. I may re-read The Handmaid's Tale soon, just to see if there are more connections between the two novels.
In our current political climate, It Can't Happen Here is shockingly telling and completely relevant. It demonstrates that, under the right circumstances and with the right people, democracy can easily tumble. Through this exploration of the rise of dictatorship and its effects on the American public, the author is warning us. Don't fall under the spell of politicians' promises that are too good to be true. Don't be apathetic about wild accusations and bluster. Be wary of increases in domestic police/military presence. Think critically and challenge your leaders. These are messages that we need to remember and take to heart. Read It Can't Happen Here because it can happen here.