'It Can’t Happen Here!'

Trevor Soderstrum

When I was a teenager, I read Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 satiric dystopian novel “It Can’t Happen Here,” which told the story of an American demagogue who is elected president of the United States through a message of fear, racism, patriotism and a promise of a return to “traditional values,” coupled with a populist message of economic, political and social reform. While Lewis never wrote, “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross,” which has been attributed to him, it is a sentiment that would resonate with him.

Once in power, with the help of a paramilitary force called the “Minute Men” and with the approval of the American people, this charismatic president quickly establishes a fascist government to maintain a stranglehold on power. I remember, as I finished the last page, thinking to myself because of our wonderful system of checks and balances, “It can’t happen here.”

Trevor Soderstrum

A couple of decades later, I had a minor role in a stage production based on the novel. Several hundred theater companies across the United States performed the play at the same exact moment. So, an audience in New York City heard the same words as an audiences in Texas, California, and places that would be difficult to find on a map.

A rushed production, at an odd time of day, several of the amateur actors were seeing Lewis’ words for the first time as they repeated them with little enthusiasm to the audience. I could tell that the mostly young cast believed the same thing I did, “It can’t happen here.”

Last week Americans witnessed on their television sets a scene most of us thought could never happen here, a mob descended on the most prominent symbol of our democracy. Windows were smashed. Offices were ransacked. Senators and Representatives huddled on the floor in terror. Police officers with guns drawn were overwhelmed. Pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails were found, reporters harassed, blood covered the floor, and a gallows constructed.

The people who attacked the capitol left believing they had done a good thing. They were “patriots,” “special,” “loved.” They could not put themselves in the shoes of the parents and family of the police officer they killed. He was hit in the head with a fire extinguisher, just doing his job. There was the knock on the door, the silence that comes as their world falls apart, and the empty spot that will always be there at every family gathering and in a family’s heart. Nor could they identify with our representatives, their staffs and the nameless civil servants just earning a paycheck sweeping floors, running the elevators and picking up trash, who had to hide in fear. Patriots are a lot of things. They don’t terrorize innocent people.

In 1956, Senator John Kennedy, with the help of a ghostwriter, published a book called “Profiles in Courage.” It was about individual politicians who went beyond their own self-interest to do what they saw as the right thing. When the history of the last few months of the Trump White House is written, I hope some future historian takes the time to profile those who showed real courage.

They were not Congressmen or Senators, nor, for the most part, the well-known, rich and powerful. They were the nearly one hundred judges who heard the post-election lawsuits, whose politics ranged across the spectrum. They all did what they deemed right under the law. A person would have thought that there would have been at least one crazy or ambitious jurist with aspirations of high office who would have been willing to bend the law.

The election officials, more often than not Republicans, stood by their staffs and employees and continued to count the votes even in the face of threats of violence, even when some of them knew it could possibly cost them their jobs or dreams of advancement down the road. I don’t know how many of us could stay true to the ideals of this nation when the president of the United States and the entire weight of his office is threatening you with jail and calmly say, “I don’t think you have your facts correct, sir.”

There were the military officers who quietly let it be known that they would not obey any possibly unlawful orders. These people did not view themselves as Trump’s judges or Trump’s generals, but rather as American servants. They were simply trying to do their jobs, even in the face of a mob and threats on their lives. That is true patriotism and courage!

I am not saying Donald Trump is a fascist, but a future president, Republican or Democrat, could be. Slightly different circumstances, one little slip, one less ethical individual, and our democracy fades away. In our new echo chamber of us against them politics, it is such a thin, uncomfortable place for us to say, “It can’t happen here.”

Columnist Trevor Soderstrum was born and raised in Story City. He can be reached at