Sinclair Lewis is back in fashion because of his parable of American fascism, It Can’t Happen Here. I’m not sure how many people have read the novel as opposed to posting pictures of the cover on social media. That’s more common than you might think. It’s gotten to the point where I ask errant social media commenters if they’ve read the post of mine they’re attacking. They usually have not.
I had a high school English teacher who was kin to Sinclair Lewis. I don’t recall the consanguinity, but her stock line was “Sinclair Lewis, not Upton Sinclair.”
People were just as easily confused in the 20th Century as they are now. I wish I could say that Twitter birthed mass stupidity, but its been with us forever. Hell, when I ran a Google search for Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair’s name came up almost as often.
That brings me to another Sinclair Lewis novel Babbitt, which is a fine example of satire circa 1922. It was the story of a Midwestern real estate developer named George Babbitt. He was the epitome of vapid conformity and banal boosterism.
It’s every writer’s dream to coin a word or phrase that makes the dictionary. That happened with Babbitt, which is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as:
“a person and especially a business or professional man who conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle-class standards.”
A mini essay at Merriam-Webster.com adds this thought about Babbittry:
The values, attitudes, and mores associated with the American middle class in the 1920s can be summed up in the word Babbitry. It derives from the protagonist of Babbitt, a satirical novel by Sinclair Lewis published in 1922. George F. Babbitt epitomizes the unimaginative and self-important businessmen that Lewis found typical of the provincial cities and towns of America. Despite his evident prosperity and status, he remains vaguely dissatisfied with life and makes tentative attempts at rebellion; however, in the end, he finds his need for social acceptance greater than his desire for escape.
To a great extent that describes the conformism that is Trumpism. Trumpers tend to trumpet the cliches they’ve heard on Fox News, Newsmax, Breitbart, and other wingnutty web sites. Trumpism is a conformist creed that relies on talking points instead of independent thought hence the anti-intellectual attacks on science and education. Who among us isn’t tired of hearing about cancel culture?
The anti-intellectualism of Trumpism is nothing new. George Wallace was fond of attacking “damn pointy-headed intellectuals who can’t park their bicycle straight.”
The Impeached Insult Comedian was never that witty.
Like most right-wing populist movements, Trumpism is based on grievances, real and imagined. Such a movement requires martyrs. The Nazis had Horst Wessel a Brownshirt who allegedly died in a street fight with Communists. The truth was more complicated but his death led to an anthem of the Nazi movement, Horst Wessel Lied. Lied is of course the German word for song but it describes the modus operandi of both Nazism and Trumpism better known as the BIG LIE.
It Can’t Happen Here and Babbitt have converged in the name of Trumpism’s latest martyr, Ashli Babbitt. She was one of seven people to have died as a result of the Dipshit Insurrection. The Trumpers, however, have chosen to honor a troubled woman instead of the police officers who died defending the Capitol from attack. So much for law and order.
Months before the Paul Gosars of the world turned her into a MAGA movement martyr, the New York Times ran a piece about Babbitt’s struggle with civilian life after leaving the Air Force. It depicts a confused and troubled woman who swallowed Trumpism and QAnon whole. Ashli Babbitt was a victim of Trumpist disinformation, not a martyr.
The BIG LIE about the “rigged election” has a new compatriot: the Dipshit Insurrection was no big whoop. It was a peaceful protest with a few folks who got out of line. They were unarmed elderly tourists, not weapon wielding Oath Keepers or Proud Boys. The violent videos? Don’t believe your lying eyes. They’re fake news.
Former President Pennywise* is a relative newcomer to Ashli Babbittry but he has the loudest megaphone:
There were no guns in the Capitol except for the gun that shot Ashli Babbitt. And nobody knows who that men were.
If that were the opposite way that man would be all over, he would be the most well-known and I believe I can say man, because I believe I know exactly who it is. But he would be the most well known person in this country, in the world. But the person that shot Ashli Babbitt right through the head, just BOOM. There was no reason for that. And why isn’t that person being opened up and why isn’t that being studied?
Boom? Really? Trump talks about the Dipshit Insurrection as if were an action movie. He incites violence but never gets his own hands dirty, he leaves that to suckers like Ashli Babbitt. If she’s a martyr, Trump is Dirty Harry. He’s a cheap punk. In the immortal words of Sam Spade, “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.”
We’ve gone from Sinclair Lewis to Dashiell Hammett. Let’s return to the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. That’s Sinclair Lewis, not Upton Sinclair who was an estimable muckraker. According to Snopes, Lewis did NOT say this: “When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross”
“But he saw too that in America the struggle was befogged by the fact that the worst Fascists were they who disowned the word ‘Fascism’ and preached enslavement to Capitalism under the style of Constitutional and Traditional Native American Liberty.”
Sounds like the Kaiser of Chaos at one of his Elmer Gantry style rallies. Elmer Gantry is another Sinclair Lewis novel. It was adapted into an Oscar-winning movie starring Burt Lancaster. Trump only resembles Burt Lancaster in his dreams, but the most ardent MAGA cultists see him as an action hero instead of what he really is: an Impeached Insult Comedian with a nutria pelt atop his head.
“A country that tolerates evil means- evil manners, standards of ethics-for a generation, will be so poisoned that it never will have any good end.”
I hope we can prove Lewis wrong again as happened after McCarthyism and Watergate. But there’s a great deal of Ashli Babbittry out there to confront and defeat. It won’t be easy but nothing worthwhile in life ever is.
The last word goes to my New Orleans homeys, The Iguanas: