It Can't Happen Here: Chapter 4


All this June week, Doremus was waiting for 2 P.M. on Saturday, the divinely appointed hour of the weekly prophetic broadcast by Bishop Paul Peter Prang.
Now, six weeks before the 1936 national conventions, it was probable that neither Franklin Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Senator Vandenberg, Ogden Mills, General Hugh Johnson, Colonel Frank Knox, nor Senator Borah would be nominated for President by either party, and that the Republican standard-bearer--meaning the one man who never has to lug a large, bothersome, and somewhat ridiculous standard--would be that loyal yet strangely honest old-line Senator, Walt Trowbridge, a man with a touch of Lincoln in him, dashes of Will Rogers and George W. Norris, a suspected trace of Jim Farley, but all the rest plain, bulky, placidly defiant Walt Trowbridge.
Few men doubted that the Democratic candidate would be that sky-rocket, Senator Berzelius Windrip--that is to say, Windrip as the mask and bellowing voice, with his satanic secretary, Lee Sarason, as the brain behind.
Senator Windrip's father was a small-town Western druggist, equally ambitious and unsuccessful, and had named him Berzelius after the Swedish chemist. Usually he was known as "Buzz." He had worked his way through a Southern Baptist college, of approximately the same academic standing as a Jersey City business college, and through a Chicago law school, and settled down to practice in his native state and to enliven local politics. He was a tireless traveler, a boisterous and humorous speaker, an inspired guesser at what political doctrines the people would like, a warm handshaker, and willing to lend money. He drank Coca-Cola with the Methodists, beer with the Lutherans, California white wine with the Jewish village merchants--and, when they were safe from observation, white-mule corn whisky with all of them.
Within twenty years he was as absolute a ruler of his state as ever a sultan was of Turkey.
He was never governor; he had shrewdly seen that his reputation for research among planters-punch recipes, varieties of poker, and the psychology of girl stenographers might cause his defeat by the church people, so he had contented himself with coaxing to the gubernatorial shearing a trained baa-lamb of a country schoolmaster whom he had gayly led on a wide blue ribbon. The state was certain that he had "given it a good administration," and they knew that it was Buzz Windrip who was responsible, not the Governor.
Windrip caused the building of impressive highroads and of consolidated country schools; he made the state buy tractors and combines and lend them to the farmers at cost. He was certain that some day America would have vast business dealings with the Russians and, though he detested all Slavs, he made the State University put in the first course in the Russian language that had been known in all that part of the West. His most original invention was quadrupling the state militia and rewarding the best soldiers in it with training in agriculture, aviation, and radio and automobile engineering.
The militiamen considered him their general and their god, and when the state attorney general announced that he was going to have Windrip indicted for having grafted $200,000 of tax money, the militia rose to Buzz Windrip's orders as though they were his private army and, occupying the legislative chambers and all the state offices, and covering the streets leading to the Capitol with machine guns, they herded Buzz's enemies out of town.
He took the United States Senatorship as though it were his manorial right, and for six years, his only rival as the most bouncing and feverish man in the Senate had been the late Huey Long of Louisiana.
He preached the comforting gospel of so redistributing wealth that every person in the country would have several thousand dollars a year (monthly Buzz changed his prediction as to how many thousand), while all the rich men were nevertheless to be allowed enough to get along, on a maximum of $500,000 a year. So everybody was happy in the prospect of Windrip's becoming president.
The Reverend Dr. Egerton Schlemil, dean of St. Agnes Cathedral, San Antonio, Texas, stated (once in a sermon, once in the slightly variant mimeographed press handout on the sermon, and seven times in interviews) that Buzz's coming into power would be "like the Heaven-blest fall of revivifying rain upon a parched and thirsty land." Dr. Schlemil did not say anything about what happened when the blest rain came and kept falling steadily for four years.
No one, even among the Washington correspondents, seemed to know precisely how much of a part in Senator Windrip's career was taken by his secretary, Lee Sarason. When Windrip had first seized power in his state, Sarason had been managing editor of the most widely circulated paper in all that part of the country. Sarason's genesis was and remained a mystery.
It was said that he had been born in Georgia, in Minnesota, on the East Side of New York, in Syria; that he was pure Yankee, Jewish, Charleston Huguenot. It was known that he had been a singularly reckless lieutenant of machine-gunners as a youngster during the Great War, and that he had stayed over, ambling about Europe, for three or four years; that he had worked on the Paris edition of the New York Herald; nibbled at painting and at Black Magic in Florence and Munich; had a few sociological months at the London School of Economics; associated with decidedly curious people in arty Berlin night restaurants. Returned home, Sarason had become decidedly the "hard-boiled reporter" of the shirt-sleeved tradition, who asserted that he would rather be called a prostitute than anything so sissified as "journalist." But it was suspected that nevertheless he still retained the ability to read.
He had been variously a Socialist and an anarchist. Even in 1936 there were rich people who asserted that Sarason was "too radical," but actually he had lost his trust (if any) in the masses during the hoggish nationalism after the war; and he believed now only in resolute control by a small oligarchy. In this he was a Hitler, a Mussolini.
Sarason was lanky and drooping, with thin flaxen hair, and thick lips in a bony face. His eyes were sparks at the bottoms of two dark wells. In his long hands there was bloodless strength. He used to surprise persons who were about to shake hands with him by suddenly bending their fingers back till they almost broke. Most people didn't much like it. As a newspaperman he was an expert of the highest grade. He could smell out a husband-murder, the grafting of a politician--that is to say, of a politician belonging to a gang opposed by his paper--the torture of animals or children, and this last sort of story he liked to write himself, rather than hand it to a reporter, and when he did write it, you saw the moldy cellar, heard the whip, felt the slimy blood.
Compared with Lee Sarason as a newspaperman, little Doremus Jessup of Fort Beulah was like a village parson compared with the twenty-thousand-dollar minister of a twenty-story New York institutional tabernacle with radio affiliations.
Senator Windrip had made Sarason, officially, his secretary, but he was known to be much more--bodyguard, ghost-writer, press-agent, economic adviser; and in Washington, Lee Sarason became the man most consulted and least liked by newspaper correspondents in the whole Senate Office Building.
Windrip was a young forty-eight in 1936; Sarason an aged and sagging-cheeked forty-one.
Though he probably based it on notes dictated by Windrip--himself no fool in the matter of fictional imagination--Sarason had certainly done the actual writing of Windrip's lone book, the Bible of his followers, part biography, part economic program, and part plain exhibitionistic boasting, called Zero Hour--Over the Top.
It was a salty book and contained more suggestions for remolding the world than the three volumes of Karl Marx and all the novels of H. G. Wells put together.
Perhaps the most familiar, most quoted paragraph of Zero Hour, beloved by the provincial press because of its simple earthiness (as written by an initiate in Rosicrucian lore, named Sarason) was:

"When I was a little shaver back in the corn fields, we kids used to just wear one-strap suspenders on our pants, and we called them the Galluses on our Britches, but they held them up and saved our modesty just as much as if we had put on a high-toned Limey accent and talked about Braces and Trousers. That's how the whole world of what they call 'scientific economics' is like. The Marxians think that by writing of Galluses as Braces, they've got something that knocks the stuffings out of the old-fashioned ideas of Washington and Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Well and all, I sure believe in using every new economic discovery, like they have been worked out in the so-called Fascist countries, like Italy and Germany and Hungary and Poland--yes, by thunder, and even in Japan--we probably will have to lick those Little Yellow Men some day, to keep them from pinching our vested and rightful interests in China, but don't let that keep us from grabbing off any smart ideas that those cute little beggars have worked out!
"I want to stand up on my hind legs and not just admit but frankly holler right out that we've got to change our system a lot, maybe even change the whole Constitution (but change it legally, and not by violence) to bring it up from the horseback-and-corduroy-road epoch to the automobile-and-cement-highway period of today. The Executive has got to have a freer hand and be able to move quick in an emergency, and not be tied down by a lot of dumb shyster-lawyer congressmen taking months to shoot off their mouths in debates. BUT--and it's a But as big as Deacon Checkerboard's hay-barn back home--these new economic changes are only a means to an End, and that End is and must be, fundamentally, the same principles of Liberty, Equality, and Justice that were advocated by the Founding Fathers of this great land back in 1776!"

The most confusing thing about the whole campaign of 1936 was the relationship of the two leading parties. Old-Guard Republicans complained that their proud party was begging for office, hat in hand; veteran Democrats that their traditional Covered Wagons were jammed with college professors, city slickers, and yachtsmen.
The rival to Senator Windrip in public reverence was a political titan who seemed to have no itch for office--the Reverend Paul Peter Prang, of Persepolis, Indiana, Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, a man perhaps ten years older than Windrip. His weekly radio address, at 2 P.M. every Saturday, was to millions the very oracle of God. So supernatural was this voice from the air that for it men delayed their golf, and women even postponed their Saturday afternoon contract bridge.
It was Father Charles Coughlin, of Detroit, who had first thought out the device of freeing himself from any censorship of his political sermons on the Mount by "buying his own time on the air"--it being only in the twentieth century that mankind has been able to buy Time as it buys soap and gasoline. This invention was almost equal, in its effect on all American life and thought, to Henry Ford's early conception of selling cars cheap to millions of people, instead of selling a few as luxuries.
But to the pioneer Father Coughlin, Bishop Paul Peter Prang was as the Ford V-8 to the Model A.
Prang was more sentimental than Coughlin; he shouted more; he agonized more; he reviled more enemies by name, and rather scandalously; he told more funny stories, and ever so many more tragic stories about the repentant deathbeds of bankers, atheists, and Communists. His voice was more nasally native, and he was pure Middle West, with a New England Protestant Scotch-English ancestry, where Coughlin was always a little suspect, in the Sears-Roebuck regions, as a Roman Catholic with an agreeable Irish accent.
No man in history has ever had such an audience as Bishop Prang, nor so much apparent power. When he demanded that his auditors telegraph their congressmen to vote on a bill as he, Prang, ex cathedra and alone, without any college of cardinals, had been inspired to believe they ought to vote, then fifty thousand people would telephone, or drive through back-hill mud, to the nearest telegraph office and in His name give their commands to the government. Thus, by the magic of electricity, Prang made the position of any king in history look a little absurd and tinseled.
To millions of League members he sent mimeographed letters with facsimile signature, and with the salutation so craftily typed in that they rejoiced in a personal greeting from the Founder.
Doremus Jessup, up in the provincial hills, could never quite figure out just what political gospel it was that Bishop Prang thundered from his Sinai which, with its microphone and typed revelations timed to the split-second, was so much more snappy and efficient than the original Sinai. In detail, he preached nationalization of the banks, mines, waterpower, and transportation; limitation of incomes; increased wages, strengthening of the labor unions, more fluid distribution of consumer goods. But everybody was nibbling at those noble doctrines now, from Virginia Senators to Minnesota Farmer-Laborites, with no one being so credulous as to expect any of them to be carried out.
There was a theory around some place that Prang was only the humble voice of his vast organization, "The League of Forgotten Men." It was universally believed to have (though no firm of chartered accountants had yet examined its rolls) twenty-seven million members, along with proper assortments of national officers and state officers, and town officers and hordes of committees with stately names like "National Committee on the Compilation of Statistics on Unemployment and Normal Employability in the Soy-Bean Industry." Hither and yon, Bishop Prang, not as the still small voice of God but in lofty person, addressed audiences of twenty thousand persons at a time, in the larger cities all over the country, speaking in huge halls meant for prize-fighting, in cinema palaces, in armories, in baseball parks, in circus tents, while after the meetings his brisk assistants accepted membership applications and dues for the League of Forgotten Men. When his timid detractors hinted that this was all very romantic, very jolly and picturesque, but not particularly dignified, and Bishop Prang answered, "My Master delighted to speak in whatever vulgar assembly would listen to Him," no one dared answer him, "But you aren't your Master--not yet."
With all the flourish of the League and its mass meetings, there had never been a pretense that any tenet of the League, any pressure on Congress and the President to pass any particular bill, originated with anybody save Prang himself, with no collaboration from the committees or officers of the League. All that the Prang who so often crooned about the Humility and Modesty of the Saviour wanted was for one hundred and thirty million people to obey him, their Priest-King, implicitly in everything concerning their private morals, their public asseverations, how they might earn their livings, and what relationships they might have to other wage-earners.
"And that," Doremus Jessup grumbled, relishing the shocked piety of his wife Emma, "makes Brother Prang a worse tyrant than Caligula--a worse Fascist than Napoleon. Mind you, I don't really believe all these rumors about Prang's grafting on membership dues and the sale of pamphlets and donations to pay for the radio. It's much worse than that. I'm afraid he's an honest fanatic! That's why he's such a real Fascist menace--he's so confoundedly humanitarian, in fact so Noble, that a majority of people are willing to let him boss everything, and with a country this size, that's quite a job--quite a job, my beloved--even for a Methodist Bishop who gets enough gifts so that he can actually 'buy Time'!"

All the while, Walt Trowbridge, possible Republican candidate for President, suffering from the deficiency of being honest and disinclined to promise that he could work miracles, was insisting that we live in the United States of America and not on a golden highway to Utopia.
There was nothing exhilarating in such realism, so all this rainy week in June, with the apple blossoms and the lilacs fading, Doremus Jessup was awaiting the next encyclical of Pope Paul Peter Prang.

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  1. This is a key chapter in which Lewis first describes the 3 main fictional villains of the piece: Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip (the likely Democratic nominee for the presidency), Lee Sarason (Windrip's "bodyguard, ghost-writer, press-agent, economic adviser; and in Washington... the man most consulted and least liked by newspaper correspondents in the whole Senate Office Building.), and Bishop Paul Peter Prang (of whom Lewis writes "No man in history has ever had such an audience as Bishop Prang, nor so much apparent power" and yet"who seemed to have no itch for office"). It is also where Lewis introduces the apparent Republican candidate for the presidency Walt Trowbrudge ("that loyal yet strangely honest old-line Senator...a man with a touch of Lincoln in him, dashes of Will Rogers and George W. Norris, a suspected trace of Jim Farley, but all the rest plain, bulky, placidly defiant Walt Trowbridge.) The descriptions of these characters and their political positions may confuse or disorient some readers of our day, especially liberals, as the demagogues of this work of fiction are Democrats, whereas the Republicans seem to be the more liberal by our standards. A question that may be worth discussing is: why would Lewis (writing in 1935) have chosen the Democratic Party to be the birthplace of American Totalitarianism?

  2. In this chapter (and throughout the book), Lewis sprinkles the names of actual American politicians and celebrities of his day, some of whom today's readers will know something about (e.g., Franklin D. Roosevelt), but others of whom readers may know little or nothing, indeed may believe them to be fictional (e.g. Senator Vandenberg, Ogden Mills, General Hugh Johnson, Colonel Frank Knox, Senator Borah, Father James McLaughlin, and Jim Farley, all mentioned in this chapter, alone). I think Lewis cites these actual figures as foils to his fictional characters. Unfortunately,this device will probably not work well for most of today's readers; rather it may confuse or frustrate them. I wonder if it would be helpful to members of this online reading group if links to Wikipedia entries on the real characters mentioned were made available? Or would this just be a distraction? Perhaps, instead we might substitute in our minds real characters from our own age like Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Joe Biden, Colin Powell, Rush Limbaugh, etc. to stand in as foils to Lewis' fictional characters. What do discussion group members think about this?