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The novel and play that predicted Donald Trump’s rise – and countered a swell of Great Depression demagoguery

Posters advertise the dramatization of Sinclair Lewis’ ‘It Can’t Happen Here.’ Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The novel and play that predicted Donald Trump’s rise – and countered a swell of Great Depression demagoguery

Posters advertise the dramatization of Sinclair Lewis’ ‘It Can’t Happen Here.’ Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The performing arts and politics have an uneasy relationship.

From Aristophanes satirizing the senselessness of the Peloponnesian War in Lysistrata to Shakespeare telling the story of Elizabeth I’s grandparents in Henry IV Parts I and II, artists have put forth sharp criticisms of their governments. Artists in Russia and Germany during the 1910s and 1920s created art that supported communism. And during the 1960s, artists all over the world were some of the loudest voices for social and political change, whether it was the civil rights or anti-war movements.

Art’s ability to represent the human experience in visceral ways makes its ideas real and immediate. For that reason, art can be far more effective than propaganda or other forms of political rhetoric. Not surprisingly, many governments throughout history have realized the danger art poses. For example, many European governments had licensing and censorship laws through the 1960s that carefully reviewed what might be presented onstage. When the Continental Congress banned trade with Great Britain in 1774, it also encouraged the colonies to turn away from the licentious dangers of the theater.

Given this history, how might voters turn to performance to combat campaigns based on hate and discrimination? Where might they look for inspiration?

One place would be the Great Depression, when the nation faced a similar dilemma – only to write and perform its way out of the mess.

A time ripe for demagoguery

In the early 1930s, the world’s prospects could not have been bleaker, and global unemployment rates were between 25 percent to 33 percent.

It was a true calamity. And most feared democracy was not up to the task. Nations like Germany, Russia and Japan were succumbing to the lure of totalitarianism, accompanied by the violent suppression of internal dissent and aggressive militarism outside their borders.

Back in the United States, Louisiana’s Huey Long, who first served as governor and was later elected to the U.S. Senate, had captured the imaginations of many voters. The charismatic populist appealed to millions who had been disenfranchised – especially poor, rural whites – by promising roads, good schools and access to public services.

But he also used fraud, coercion and violent intimidation to enrich himself and his inner circle.

‘Every Man a King’ was one of Huey Long’s populist slogans. Library of Congress

Like Donald Trump, Long exploited class resentment, and his insurgent politics threatened the status quo of the governing elite. President Franklin Roosevelt considered Long one of the “most dangerous men in America.”

Long wasn’t the only one exhorting people to radicalism. Father Charles Coughlin, the Catholic priest of a parish near Detroit, had a weekly radio program with millions of listeners. His populist, anti-communist message resonated, but he also embraced isolationism and became the voice of American anti-Semitism.

Both men affirmed their followers’ worst fears: that their future and security were being jeopardized. Their solution, however, was that only a strong, centralized government could save the nation.

Could it happen here?

In 1935, Sinclair Lewis published a novel titled It Can’t Happen Here, which awakened the U.S. to the dangers of a possible dictatorship. The book describes the rise of the fictional Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a U.S. senator elected president after promising extensive populist reforms. His presidency immediately moved to outlaw dissent, open concentration camps and authorize paramilitary forces that answered only to the president. While Lewis was mostly concerned about the rise of fascism in Europe, Windrip was also modeled on Long and Coughlin.

Sinclair Lewis. Time

Most tended to agree a dictatorship like the one depicted in It Can’t Happen Here could, in fact, happen in the United States under the right circumstances. As New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson warned, the play “ought to scare the daylights out of the heedless Americans who believe…that it can’t happen here.”

The book sold well. But its biggest impact came after the Federal Theatre Project, formed as part of the New Deal, adapted it for the stage.

The stage version of It Can’t Happen Here opened on October 27, 1936. Twenty-one productions across 17 states took place in cities as varied as Birmingham, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Omaha.

It was adapted to appeal to diverse audiences. In Tampa, it was performed in Spanish. A Yiddish version was staged in New York City. And in Seattle, an African-American theater company produced a version. Nine national touring companies were formed in all.

In the end, over 500,000 people saw the production, which ran for five years. Few in the U.S. could have missed hearing about the play, and from coast to coast, the press debated the production. MGM had even started producing a film version, but canceled it in deference to the objections of Nazi Germany, which wielded influence over the studio.

Nonetheless, the stage version forged ahead. The Hollywood-Citizen News trumpeted: “Where the motion pictures feared to tread, the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) tomorrow night will step boldly into the limelight of a controversial issue.” And as FTP head Hallie Flanagan exalted, the show kept “alive the free, inquiring critical spirit which is the center and core of democracy.”

Art as a tool of democracy

Though Long was assassinated in September 1935 at the beginning of his presidential campaign, Coughlin’s anti-Semitic rhetoric became more virulent as the 1930s wore on. Only after the country’s entry into World War II did the Roosevelt administration and the Catholic Church join forces to cancel his radio show and cease publication of his newspaper.

As voters are exposed to demagogues like Donald Trump, they have resources in their own history: works like It Can’t Happen Here. The novel and play remind us of the US tradition of confronting hatred and bigotry with courageous resistance.

Art offered a powerful image of what the triumph of a Long or Coughlin – now a Trump – would be like. Today, artists and comedians engage in political protest, just as they did during the Great Depression. Television shows like John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” and Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” both skewer the political lies and pretensions that imbue contemporary life.

On the Texas border, one piñata maker saw his business soar when he introduced a Trump piñata. And artist Sarah Levy painted a portrait of Trump using a tampon and menstrual blood.

Art is continuing its historical role to push past spin and point out the hypocrisy – and dangers – of certain rhetoric. In the process, it can offer us ways to redouble our commitment to the kind of democracy It Can’t Happen Here fought to preserve 80 years ago.