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Unrest in Europe. Economic uncertainty in the U.S., especially for the middle class, which feels left behind. A dictator seizes power in an important European country, adding more unrest. A charismatic demagogue promising to return America to greatness by assuming dictatorial powers wins the presidency.
No this doesn’t describe the world of 2016, where Britain has voted out of Europe, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has destabilized the continent with his aggressive foreign policy and Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for president.
Instead, it is the plot of Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 satirical novel It Can’t Happen Here, which came out as America was in the grip of the Great Depression, Hitler and Mussolini had just come to the power, and in the U.S., Sen. Huey Long emerged as a powerful challenger to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the upcoming 1936 presidential election with his “Every Man a King” slogan and his Share Our Wealth clubs (which attracted more than seven million members at their peak).
In It Can’t Happen Here, Buzz Windrip (played by Hamm in the clip) is a charismatic populist senator who is elected president by fomenting fear against enemies of America (mostly imagined) and promising a return to American greatness and economic prosperity. He is opposed by Doremus Jessup (Gyllenhaal), a small-town Vermont journalist. After Windrip wins, he establish himself as a totalitarian dictator, supported by the “Minute Men,” a paramilitary group that terrorizes citizens and enforces his policies. The novel ends with the U.S. on the verge of new civil war between Windrip’s forces and a liberal opposition of men like Jessup who want to return America to democracy.
Though the book is more than 80 years old, the story has obvious parallels to today’s election — as seen in this clip of Jake Gyllenhaal and Jon Hamm performing a scene from a stage adaptation of the book at the Oct. 17 Broadway for Hillary fundraiser. Choosing this selection for the fundraiser was clearly designed to suggest that Donald Trump is a modern-day incarnation of Buzz Windrip and that his election could lead the U.S. to becoming a dictatorship.
Other monologues performed at the event — chosen by Playwright John Guare (Six Degrees of Seperation) because they also touched on themes from the election — included Angela Bassett reading Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” speech, Helen Mirren reading Eleanor Roosevelt’s speech to the Democratic National Convention in 1940 and Julia Roberts reading a piece by Molly Ivins. Additional performances included Lin-Manuel Miranda remixing “Ten Duel Commandments” from Hamilton with current topics, Sarah Jessica Parker and Andrea McArdle performing “Tomorrow” from Annie, and an original Trump-bashing number sung by the evening’s emcee, Billy Crystal.
The book was a huge — and controversial — hit at the time. A movie version never got off the ground when the Germans — who didn’t like the obvious comparisons to Hitler — pressured Hollywood not to make it. (For more on how Germans in the 1930s pushed Hollywood to avoid making anti-Nazi movies read this exclusive excerpt from The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler). But it has continued to be one of the most-read works about the possibility that the U.S. could devolve into totalitarianism of fascism. (Little-known fact: The 1983 NBC series V was loosely based on by It Can’t Happen Here, with aliens replacing fascists.)
Inspired by the parallels with the present, a new stage adaptation of It Can’t Happen Here, written by Tony Taccone and directed by Lisa Peterson in partnership with Rodgin and Barbara Cohen, premiered Sept 23 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and it is from this version Hamm and Gyllenhaal’s scene is drawn.
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