In the mid-1930's, the Nobel-prize winning author Sinclair Lewis was living in Barnard, Vermont with his equally famous wife, the columnist Dorothy Thompson. Both were worried about the rise of Governor Huey Long of Louisiana and the European dictators Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler. Thompson, the most influential woman journalists of the day, had herself interviewed Hitler. And for his part, Lewis conceived a satiric novel about a fictional populist Republican politician modeled on Long's run for President.
Candidate Berzilius "Buzz" Windrip promises economic security to Depression-frightened middle and lower classes. He denounces Jews for causing economic havoc. He builds a private army called the Minute Men to intimidate the opposition. In one speech he says "My one ambition is to get all Americans to realize that they are, and must continue to be, the greatest Race on the face of this old Earth, and second, all this does not apply to people who are racially different from us." He’s dismissive of the press as men without scruples who plot the downfall of, as he says, “Statesmen who have given their all for the common good...."
Windrip himself is described as "an actor of genius [who] would whirl his arms, bang tables, glare with mad eyes and coo like a nursing mother, and in between tricks would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts... that were inescapable even when as often happened they were entirely incorrect." But he wins the election and sets out to create a dictatorship, as Hitler had done a mere three years earlier. He neuters Congress and the Supreme Court. He outlaws dissent, jails political enemies in concentration camps, and turns the Minute Men into storm troopers and secret police who terrorize citizens and enforce the policies of his "corporatist" regime.
My favorite character in the book is Lewis’ hero, Doremus Jessup, a small town Vermont editor. He’s arrested and sent to prison, but then he escapes to join a resistance movement in Canada that eventually takes back the country.
At the time, some criticized Lewis for conceiving of fascism and dictatorship in terms of traditional American political models. But today some of those parallels seem both closer, and one might say, even more unnerving than in the 1930's.