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It Can't Happen Here

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It Can't Happen Here
First edition
AuthorSinclair Lewis
GenrePolitical fiction
Dystopian fiction
PublisherDoubleday, Doran and Company
Publication date
October 21, 1935
Publication placeUnited States
Media typePrint (hardcover)
Pages458 pp.

It Can't Happen Here is a 1935 dystopian political novel by American author Sinclair Lewis.[1] Set in the fictionalized version of 1930s United States, it follows an American politician, Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, who quickly rises to power to become the country's first outright dictator (in allusion to Adolf Hitler's rise to power in Nazi Germany) and Doremus Jessup, a newspaper editor who sees Windrip's fascist policies for what they are ahead of time and who becomes Windrip's most ardent critic. The novel was adapted into a play by Lewis and John C. Moffitt in 1936.[2]


The novel was published during the heyday of fascism in Europe, which was reported on by Dorothy Thompson, Lewis's wife.[3] The novel describes the rise of Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, a demagogue who is elected President of the United States, after fomenting fear and promising drastic economic and social reforms while promoting a return to patriotism and "traditional" values. After his election, Windrip takes complete control of the government via self-coup and imposes totalitarian rule with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force, in the manner of European fascists such as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The novel's plot centers on journalist Doremus Jessup's opposition to the new regime and his subsequent struggle against it as part of a liberal rebellion.


In 1936, American Senator Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip enters the presidential election campaign on a populist platform, promising to restore the country to prosperity and greatness, and promising each citizen $5,000 per year. Portraying himself as a champion of "the forgotten man" and "traditional" American values, Windrip defeats incumbent President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination, and then beats his Republican opponent, Senator Walt Trowbridge, in the November election.

Having previously foreshadowed some authoritarian measures to reorganize the government, Windrip outlaws dissent, incarcerates political enemies in concentration camps, and trains and arms a paramilitary force called the "Minute Men" (named after the Revolutionary War militias of the same name), who terrorize citizens and enforce the policies of a corporatist regime. One of Windrip's first acts as president is to eliminate the influence of Congress, which draws the ire of many citizens as well as the legislators themselves. The Minute Men respond to protests harshly, attacking demonstrators with bayonets. In addition to these actions, Windrip's administration, known as the Corpo government, curtails women's and minority rights, and eliminates individual states by subdividing the country into administrative sectors. The government of these sectors is managed by Corpo authorities, usually prominent businessmen or Minute Men officers. Those accused of crimes against the government appear before kangaroo courts presided over by military judges. A majority of Americans approve of these dictatorial measures, seeing them as painful but necessary steps to restore American power.

Open opponents of Windrip, led by Senator Trowbridge, form an organization called the New Underground (named after the Underground Railroad), helping dissidents escape to Canada and distributing anti-Windrip propaganda. One recruit to the New Underground is Doremus Jessup, a traditional liberal and an opponent of both corporatism and communism, the latter being suppressed by Windrip's administration. Jessup's participation in the organization results in the publication of The Vermont Vigilance, a periodical in which he writes editorials decrying Windrip's abuses of power.

Shad Ledue, the local district commissioner and Jessup's former hired man, resents his old employer. After discovering Jessup's actions, Ledue has him sent to a concentration camp. Ledue terrorizes Jessup's family and particularly his daughter Sissy, who he unsuccessfully attempts to seduce. Sissy discovers evidence of corrupt dealings on the part of Ledue which she exposes to Francis Tasbrough, a one-time friend of Jessup and Ledue's superior in the administrative hierarchy. Tasbrough has Ledue imprisoned in the same camp as Jessup, where inmates sent there by Ledue organize his murder. Jessup eventually escapes when his friends bribe one of the camp guards. He flees to Canada and rejoins the New Underground. He later serves the organization as a spy, passing along information and urging locals to resist Windrip.

In time, Windrip's hold on power weakens as his promised economic prosperity fails to materialize, and increased numbers of disillusioned Americans, including Vice President Perley Beecroft, flee the country. Windrip also angers his Secretary of State, Lee Sarason, who had served earlier as his chief political operative and adviser. Sarason and Windrip's other lieutenants, including General Dewey Haik, seize power and exile the president to France. Sarason succeeds Windrip, but his extravagant and relatively weak rule creates a power vacuum in which Haik and others vie for power. In a putsch, Haik leads a party of military supporters into the White House, kills Sarason and his associates, and proclaims himself president. The two coups cause a slow erosion of Corpo power. Haik's government tries to arouse patriotism by launching an invasion of Mexico, slandering the country in state-run newspapers and ordering a mass conscription of young American men, infuriating many who had until then been Corpo loyalists. Riots and rebellions break out across the country, with many realizing the Corpos have misled them.

General Emmanuel Coon, one of Haik's senior officers, defects to the opposition with a large portion of his army, giving strength to the resistance movement. Although Haik remains in control of much of the country, a new civil war soon breaks out as the resistance tries to consolidate its grasp on the Midwest. As the conflict begins, Jessup works as an agent for the New Underground in Corpo-occupied portions of southern Minnesota.


Reviewers at the time,[4] and historians and literary critics ever since, have emphasized the resemblance to Louisiana politician Huey Long, who used strong-arm political tactics and who was building a nationwide "Share Our Wealth" organization in preparing to run for president in the 1936 election. Long was assassinated in 1935 just prior to the novel's publication.[5][6][7][8] The inspiration for Winthrup backer Bishop Prang was renowned radio priest Charles Coughlin,[9][10] who in real life conspired with Long to oust Roosevelt in the 1936 U.S. Presidential election.[11][10]

Poster for the stage adaptation of It Can't Happen Here, October 27, 1936, at the Lafayette Theater as part of the Detroit Federal Theatre
Poster for the Federal Theatre Project presentation of It Can't Happen Here at the Adelphi Theatre in New York City, showing the Statue of Liberty

According to Boulard (1998), "the most chilling and uncanny treatment of Huey by a writer came with Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here."[12] Lewis portrayed a genuine U.S. dictator on the Hitler model. Starting in 1936, the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency, performed the stage adaptation across the country; Lewis had the goal of hurting Long's chances in the 1936 election.[5]

Keith Perry argues that the key weakness of the novel is not that he decks out U.S. politicians with sinister European touches, but that he finally conceives of fascism and totalitarianism in terms of traditional U.S. political models rather than seeing them as introducing a new kind of society and a new kind of regime.[13] Windrip is less a Nazi than a con-man-plus-Rotarian, a manipulator who knows how to appeal to people's desperation, but neither he nor his followers are in the grip of the kind of world-transforming ideology like Hitler's Nazism.[14]



In 1936, Lewis and John C. Moffitt wrote a stage version, also titled It Can't Happen Here,[15] which is still produced. The stage version premiered on October 27, 1936, in 21 U.S. theaters in 17 states[16] simultaneously, in productions sponsored by the Federal Theater Project.

The Z Collective, a San Francisco theater company, adapted the novel for the stage, producing it both in 1989 and 1992. In 2004, Z Space adapted the Collective's script into a radio drama that was broadcast on the Pacifica radio network on the anniversary of the Federal Theater Project's original premiere.[17]

A new stage adaptation by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in September 2016.[18]

A staged reading of the original Lewis and Moffitt play was held at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities on October 17, 2016 in collaboration with the theatre company, Elemental Ensemble.

Unfinished film[edit]

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) purchased the rights in late 1935 for a reported $200,000[19] from seeing the galley proofs,[20] with Lucien Hubbard (Wings) as the producer. By early 1936, screenwriter Sidney Howard completed an adaptation, his third of Lewis's novels. J. Walter Ruben was named to direct the film with the cast headed by Lionel Barrymore, Walter Connolly, Virginia Bruce, and Basil Rathbone.[21] Studio head Louis B. Mayer indefinitely postponed production, citing costs, to the publicly announced pleasure of the Nazi regime in Germany. Lewis and Howard countered that financial reason with information pointing to Berlin's and Rome's influence on movies. Will H. Hays, responsible for the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, had notified Mayer of potential problems in the German market. Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration department under Hays, thought the script was too "anti-fascist" and "so filled with dangerous material".[22][23][24]

In December 1938, Charlie Chaplin announced his next movie would satirize Hitler (The Great Dictator).[25] MGM's Hubbard "dusted off the script"[26] in January, but the "idea of a dictator ruling America" had now been discussed in public for years. Hubbard rewrote a new climax, "showing a dictatorship in Washington and showing it being kicked out by disgruntled Americans as soon as they realized what had happened." The film was placed back on the production schedule for the third time with shooting starting in June and Lewis Stone playing Doremus Jessup.[27] By July 1939, MGM "admitted it would not make the movie after all"[28] to some criticism.[29]


The 1968 television movie Shadow on the Land, which also went by the title United States: It Can't Happen Here, was produced by Screen Gems as a backdoor pilot for a series. The TV movie, a thriller which takes place following the fascist takeover, is often cited as an adaptation of Lewis's novel but does not credit the novel.

Inspired by the book, director–producer Kenneth Johnson in 1982 scripted a miniseries entitled Storm Warnings. NBC executives, to whom Johnson presented the script, rejected the original, which they considered too cerebral for the average American viewer. In order to make the script more marketable, Storm Warnings was revised into a far less subtle alien invasion story in which the invaders initially pose as humanity's friends, but prove to be a genocidal militaristic power with thinly disguised Nazi trappings intent on draining the planet of its water and using humanity predominately as a food source. The new script formed the basis for the popular miniseries V, which premiered May 3, 1983.[30]


Since its publication, It Can't Happen Here has been seen as a cautionary tale, starting with the 1936 presidential election and potential candidate Huey Long.

In retrospect, Franklin D. Roosevelt's internment of Japanese Americans during World War II has been used as an example of "It can happen here".[31]

Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention released their first album Freak Out! in 1966 with the song "It Can't Happen Here".[32][33]

In May 1973, in the middle of the Watergate scandal, Knight Newspapers published an ad in their own and other publications, headlined "It Can't Happen Here" and emphasizing the importance of free press: "There is a struggle going on in this country. It is not just a fight by reporters and editors to protect their sources. It is a fight to protect the public's right to know. [...] It can't happen here as long as the press remains an open conduit through which public information flows."[34] Herbert Mitgang in his op-ed piece said "The headline of this ad is the title of a novel that keeps insinuating itself these days, not because of its literary qualities but because of its prescience." And that Lewis's point was "that home‐grown hypocrisy leads to a nice brand of home‐grown authoritarianism."[34]

Joe Conason's non-fiction book It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush (2007) frequently quotes Lewis's book in relation to the presidency of George W. Bush.[35]

Presidency of Donald Trump[edit]

Several writers have compared the demagogue Buzz Windrip to Donald Trump. Michael Paulson wrote in The New York Times that the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's 2016 rendition of the play aimed to provoke discussion about Trump's presidential candidacy.[36] Writing for The Guardian, Jules Stewart discussed the similarities between Trump's America with the country as depicted in the book.[37] In Salon, Malcolm Harris stated: "Like Trump, Windrip uses a lack of tact as a way to distinguish himself" and "The social forces that Windrip and Trump invoke aren’t funny, they’re murderous."[38] In The Washington Post, Carlos Lozada compared Trump to Windrip, opining that "it is impossible to miss the similarities between Trump and totalitarian figures in American literature."[39] Jacob Weisberg wrote in Slate that one "can’t read Lewis's novel today without flashes of Trumpian recognition."[40] Following the results of the 2016 United States presidential election, sales of It Can't Happen Here surged significantly, and it appeared on Amazon.com's list of bestselling books.[41] Penguin Modern Classics released a new edition of the novel on January 20, 2017, the same day as the inauguration of Donald Trump.[42]

In 2018, HarperCollins published Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America, a collection of essays about the prospect of authoritarianism in the United States, edited by Cass Sunstein.[43]

In 2019, Robert Evans produced the podcast series It Could Happen Here, which speculated on the causes and consequences of a hypothetical second American Civil War.[44]

In 2021, New York University Press published a book It Can Happen Here: White Power and the Rising Threat of Genocide in the US by genocide scholar Alexander Laban Hinton. Hinton argued that "there is a real risk of violent atrocities happening in the United States".[45]

Similar works[edit]


Films & Television

  • It Happened Here (1964; also known as It Happened Here: The Story of Hitler's England), a black-and white film about a fictitious fascist government in Britain during World War II.
  • The Plot Against America, a 2020 alternate history drama television miniseries by David Simon and Ed Burns, based on the novel of the same name.


  1. ^ Lewis, Sinclair (1935). It Can't Happen Here. gutenberg.net.au. Retrieved 2 February 2017.
  2. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: Apicella, John (9 September 2012). "It Can't Happen Here and the Federal Theater Project". Retrieved 15 August 2018 – via YouTube.
  3. ^ Strenski, Ellen (2017). "It Can't Happen Here, or Has It? Sinclair Lewis's Fascist America". Terrorism and Political Violence. 29 (3): 425–436. doi:10.1080/09546553.2017.1304760. S2CID 151438638.
  4. ^ Haas, Edward F. (2006). "Huey Long and the Dictators". Louisiana History. 47 (2): 133–151.
  5. ^ a b Perry 2004, p. 62.
  6. ^ Martin J. Jacobi (2010). "Rhetoric and Fascism in Jack London's The Iron Heel, Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America". Philip Roth Studies. 6 (1) (Online ed.): 85–102. doi:10.1353/prs.2010.a383559. JSTOR 10.5703/philrothstud.6.1.85. S2CID 153531868.
  7. ^ Yerkes, Andrew Corey (2010). "'A Biology of Dictatorships': Liberalism and Modern Realism In Sinclair Lewis's 'It Can't Happen Here.'". Studies in the Novel. 42 (3): 287–304. doi:10.1353/sdn.2010.0019. S2CID 145127305.
  8. ^ Kaiser, Wilson (2014). "The Micropolitics of Fascism in Carson McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here". Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture. 47 (3): 285–307.
  9. ^ Nazaryan, Alexander (October 16, 2023). "Getting Close to Fascism with Sinclair Lewis's "It Can't Happen Here"". The New Yorker. Retrieved December 2, 2023.
  10. ^ a b "Radioactive: Ep. 6: Social Justice". PBS. March 9, 2022. Retrieved December 2, 2023.
  11. ^ Lunt, Richard L. (May 27, 1959). "Agitators: Long, Townsend, and Coughlin Versus The New Deal--1932 Through 1936". The University of New Mexico Department of History. Retrieved December 2, 2023.
  12. ^ Boulard 1998, p. 115.
  13. ^ Perry 2004.
  14. ^ See also Lingeman 2005, pp. 400–408
  15. ^ "It Can't Happen Here". IBDB. Retrieved 30 July 2023.
  16. ^ Flanagan 1940.
  17. ^ "Act One Radio Drama – October 31, 2004". KPFA. 2004-11-01. Retrieved 2018-11-16.
  18. ^ Etheridge, Tim (2016-03-28). "Berkeley Rep Announces 2016–17 Season Opener: Sinclair Lewis' Classic Novel It Can't Happen Here" (PDF) (press release). Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-09-18. Retrieved 2016-10-07.
  19. ^ Vasey, Ruth (1997). The World According to Hollywood, 1918–1939. Univ of Wisconsin Press. p. 205. ISBN 978-0299151942.
  20. ^ ""It Can't Happen Here" May Happen Very Soon". Santa Cruz Sentinel from Santa Cruz, California. February 20, 1936.
  21. ^ "The Film Daily". archive.org. February 4, 1936.
  22. ^ Bald, Margaret; Karolides, Nicholas J. (2006). Literature Suppressed on Political Grounds. Infobase Publishing. pp. 262–267. ISBN 978-0816071517. Retrieved 28 February 2017.
  23. ^ David Mikies "Hollywood’s Creepy Love Affair With Adolf Hitler, in Explosive New Detail", Tablet, 10 June 2013
  24. ^ Green, Jonathon; Karolides, Nicholas J. (2005). Encyclopedia of Censorship. Infobase Publishing. p. 324. ISBN 978-1438110011. Retrieved 28 February 2017.
  25. ^ "Next Chaplin Film Will Be Fascist Blow". Madera Tribune. 16 December 1938.
  26. ^ "The Dictator". The New Yorker. January 28, 1939.
  27. ^ "Pittsburgh Post-Gazette". Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. June 2, 1939. p. 10. Retrieved 20 March 2017 – via Newspapers.com.
  28. ^ "Entertainment vs. Propaganda". Shamokin News-Dispatch from Shamokin, Pennsylvania. July 13, 1939.
  29. ^ "Film Company Criticized for Dropping "it Can't Happen Here". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. July 6, 1939.
  30. ^ Simpson.
  31. ^ "California Historical Society: It Can't Happen Here – Executive Order 9066 Revisited". California Historical Society. 2017-01-05. Retrieved 2017-03-21.
  32. ^ Crandell, Ben (January 10, 2017). "Frank talk about Dweezil Zappa's Culture Room show". southflorida.com. Archived from the original on 2018-08-16. Retrieved 2018-08-15.
  33. ^ Courrier, Kevin (March 10, 2013). "American Composer: Frank Zappa's Understanding America". www.criticsatlarge.ca. Retrieved 2018-08-15.
  34. ^ a b Mitgang, Herbert (20 May 1973). "Babbitt in the White House". The New York Times.
  35. ^ Levin, Josh (2009-08-06). "How Is America Going To End?". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved 2018-06-26.
  36. ^ Paulson, Michael (2016-09-25). "A Play Timed to Trump's Candidacy Asks What If". The New York Times. Retrieved 2016-10-08. Some, like Berkeley Rep, explicitly aim to prompt discussion about Donald J. Trump
  37. ^ Stewart, Jules (2016-10-09). "The 1935 novel that predicted the rise of Donald Trump". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016-10-24.
  38. ^ Malcolm Harris. "It really can happen here: The novel that foreshadowed Donald Trump’s authoritarian appeal". Salon, September 29, 2015.
  39. ^ Lozada, Carlos (June 9, 2016). "How does Donald Trump stack up against American literature's fictional dictators? Pretty well, actually". The Washington Post.
  40. ^ Weisberg, Jacob (March 2016). "An Eclectic Extremist: Donald Trump's distinctly American authoritarianism draws equally from the wacko right and wacko left". Slate.
  41. ^ Selter, Brian (January 28, 2017). "Amazon's best-seller list takes a dystopian turn in Trump era". CNN Money. Retrieved February 26, 2017.
  42. ^ Lewis, Sinclair (January 20, 2017). It Can't Happen Here. Penguin Modern Classics. Retrieved March 18, 2019.
  43. ^ "Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America". Kirkus Reviews. November 28, 2017. Retrieved May 13, 2018.
  44. ^ "It Could Happen Here". iHeartRadio.
  45. ^ Hinton, Alexander Laban (2021). It Can Happen Here. New York University Press. doi:10.18574/9781479808038 (inactive 31 January 2024). ISBN 978-1479808038.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: DOI inactive as of January 2024 (link)
External images
image icon Poster for Federal Theatre Project presentation of "It Can't Happen Here" by Sinclair Lewis at the President Theatre, Des Moines, IA, showing soldiers and a fist in a raised-arm salute.
image icon Poster for Federal Theatre Project presentation of "It Can't Happen Here" at the Adelphi Theatre, 54th Street, east of 7th Ave., showing the Statue of Liberty.
image icon Poster for Detroit Federal Theatre Project presentation of "It Can't Happen Here" by Sinclair Lewis at the Lafayette Theatre, showing a stylized Adolf Hitler carrying a rifle standing behind a map of the United States and a fist in a raised-arm salute.
image icon Design for poster for It Can't Happen Here By an unknown WPA artist, 1937 Pencil, gouache, and colored pencil on board National Archives, Records of the Work Projects Administration (69-TSR-132(3))


  • Boulard, Garry (1998). Huey Long Invades New Orleans: The Siege of a City, 1934–36.
  • Flanagan, Hallie (1940). Arena: The Story of the Federal Theatre. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce.
  • Lingeman, Richard R. (2005). Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street. St. Paul, Minn: Borealis Books. ISBN 978-0873515412.
  • Perry, Keith (2004). The Kingfish in Fiction: Huey P. Long and the Modern American Novel.
  • Simpson, MJ. "Kenneth Johnson interview". MJSimpson.co.uk. Archived from the original on October 27, 2007. Retrieved 2011-09-12.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]