“It can’t happen here”
Fascism in America?

A number of articles, books, plays, films and a re-enactment have explored the possibility

By Byron Toben

July 26 2020 is the 100th anniversary of H. L. Mencken’s 1920 Baltimore Sun article which predicted that “… On some great and glorious day, the plain folk of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

I leave it to others to comment on the accuracy of that prediction as to the current occupant of that house as I have focused on the literary and performing arts aspects of Donald Trump.

… On some great and glorious day, the plain folk of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

– H. L. Mencken, Baltimore Sun

With the increasing federal militarism of local policing, as evidenced in recent events in Portland, Oregon and imminent events in Chicago, Kansas City and Albuquerque, comments have suggested similarities to the rise of fascism in mid-1930s Germany where Herman Goring established the Gestapo in Prussia and Heinrich Himmler secret national police in Bavaria.

It Can’t Happen Here Poster - WestmountMag.ca

Image: Works Progress Administration / Public domain

Chad Wolf, the acting Secretary of Homeland Security (way over the 210-day limit acting Secretaries are authorized), rejects the analogy to Hitler’s Gestapo as dismissive hyperbole. He would do well to read the history of the Gestapo.

History may not always repeat itself exactly, but it sure does rhyme.

In 1935, American author Sinclair Lewis (first American to win a Nobel Prize in Literature) wrote a novel It Can’t Happen Here which dealt with possible fascism coming to America. In 1936, it was adapted into a play.

Therein, a demagogue, Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, is elected President of the United States, defeating Franklin Roosevelt in the 1936 election after a campaign of fear and a return to patriotism and traditional values. He then takes totalitarian control of the government with the help of a paramilitary force.

The opposition is organized by journalist Doremus Jessup, who is imprisoned in a concentration camp but manages to escape to Canada where he contributes to a Liberal resistance, the New Underground, by publishing articles in the Vermont Vigilance periodical.

Many reviewers have stressed the connection to Louisiana Governor and Senator Huey Long who ran on a populist program but was assassinated in 1935 just before the novel’s publication.

Lewis’s stage adaptation (with John C. Moffit) ran in 21 theatres in 17 states in 1936. San Francisco’s Z Collective adapted the novel for the stage in 1989 and 1992, as well as a radio version in 2004. A new stage adaptation by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2016.

MGM had purchased the movie rights but never made the film.

If Day German tanks on Portage Avenue - WestmountMag.ca

If Day “German” tanks on Portage Avenue, Winnipeg – Image: Winnipeg Free Press

A 1968 television movie Shadow On The Land was a Screen Gems pilot for a mini-series loosely based on the book.

In 2007, Joe Conason’s non-fiction book, It Can Happen Here, frequently quotes Lewis’s book.

‘Of particular interest to Canadians is If Day. This was a simulated Nazi invasion of Winnipeg, Manitoba on February 19, 1942.’

Allusions to Trump have appeared in articles in The Guardian, Salon, Washington Post and Slate.

Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America is a 2018 collection of essays on the subject edited by Cass Sunstein.

Victory Bonds poster - WestmountMag.ca

Image: Gordon K. Odell, Canadian War Museum

Of particular interest to Canadians is If Day. This was a simulated Nazi invasion of Winnipeg, Manitoba on February 19, 1942. It was a fundraiser for a Victory Loan campaign and included a staged firefight between Canadian troops and volunteers dressed as German soldiers, the arrest of prominent local politicians and the switch to Nazi rule. To prevent mass panic, as with Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds 1938 radio broadcast, which many listeners thought was real, local residents, as well as neighbouring northern Minnesotans, were warned in advance.

More on Trump’s Annus Horribilis

Adding to the dozens of books on Trump, mostly negative, is the expected “tell-all” by his former personal attorney and “fixer”, Michael Cohen, whom he had attempted to return to jail as a parole violator for planning such a book but had been thwarted by a U.S. district judge.

Feature image: Winnipeg Free Press

Bouton S'inscrire à l'infolettre – WestmountMag.ca

Read more articles from Byron Toben

Byron Toben, a past president of The Montreal Press Club, has been WestmountMag.ca’s theatre reviewer since July 2015. Previously, he wrote for since terminated web sites Rover Arts and Charlebois Post, print weekly The Downtowner and print monthly The Senior Times. He also is an expert consultant on U.S. work permits for Canadians.

There are 4 comments

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  1. Sabeli

    In the 1960s, Andrei Amalrik, a soviet dissident, provided a kind of blueprint for analysing a country’s population alienation. It is actually possible, he suggested, to think your way through the end of days. The method is to practice living with the most unlikely outcome you can fathom and then to work backward, systematically and carefully, from the what-if to the here’s-why. The point isn’t to pick one’s evidence to fit a particular conclusion. It is rather to jolt oneself out of the assumption of linear change—to consider, for a moment, how some future historian might recast implausible concerns as inevitable ones. https://fam.ag/2P2h20d

  2. Andy Dodge


    Every time I turn around I see more comparisons with the rise of Hitler: Trump closed down the government over the deficit a couple of years ago, then declared a state of emergency, then started putting refugees in concentration camps, tried to close off Muslims from entering the country, dismissed renegade staff members, now he is organizing his own SS militia. Obviously we are now in the 21st century and the country is far more aware of what is going on, but I have a fear that either the pandemic itself or the move to carry out the election by mail is going to encourage Trump to cancel the elections and take over absolute control, make a move on Mexico and try to create an axis of power with Brazil.

    Don’t say nobody ever imagined it could happen!

    • Sabeli

      Actualy, if he’d make a move, it would most certainly be the ‘Anschluss’ of Canada, not Mexico (He certainly doesn’t want to have to deal with more Latinos). Canada has more resources the Americans may crave, including water, a smaller population and army, a common language (except in Quebec), and our country is their first trade partner.


    The American historian and journalist just published her latest book titled: Twilight of Democracy: the seductive lure of authoritarianism. In it she talks about the current governments in Poland (she is the wife of Radoslaw Sikorski, ex-Polish foreign minister) and Hungary and also about our ”southern neighbor”.

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