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  • Rhetoric and Fascism in Jack London's The Iron Heel, Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America

Jack London's The Iron Heel (1908), Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here (1935), and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2004) portray the takeover of the United States government by fascist political parties. This article examines how the novels' political opportunists use similar rhetorical devices—the "big lie," scapegoating, Orwellian doublethink, and false ethos—to institute and maintain fascist governments. Using the rhetorical theory of Kenneth Burke, particularly his position on literature as "equipment for living," this article suggests how these portrayals can be understood as warnings to and advice for readers.

In 1939 Kenneth Burke published "The Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle" in the Southern Review. This essay appeared before many Americans understood much about what was happening in Germany, and it clearly explained, through a rhetorical analysis of Mein Kampf, the nature and the extent of Hitler's threat to the world. Probably the nation's leaders were not regularly reading the Southern Review, but if they had read this essay they may have understood better Hitler's threat to the world much sooner than they apparently did.

The article subsequently appeared in Burke's 1941 The Philosophy of Literary Form; it and another essay in that volume, "Literature as Equipment [End Page 85] for Living," provide a rationale for a rhetorical analysis of both traditionally understood literary works as well as works like Mein Kampf. The article asserts that literary works are like proverbs, and that both proverbs and literature offer strategies "for consolation or vengeance, for admonition or exhortation, for foretelling" (293). Burke further asserts that both proverbs and literary works are "strategies for dealing with situations" (296), which suggest to us ways to understand the world around us, including what attitudes we should have toward it and what actions we might best take in response. However, a literary work must "be realistic. One must size things up properly. One cannot accurately know how things will be, what is promising and what is menacing, unless he accurately knows how things are" (298). Burke's theory gives literature a practical role in human affairs, and this essay attempts to make practical use of literature somewhat along the lines of Burke's essay on Hitler and fascism. The three novels examined in this essay—Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2004), Jack London's The Iron Heel (1908), and Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here (1935)—describe how fictional political opportunists employ techniques and actions that exacerbate economic, social, and international conditions and thereby enable a fascist takeover of the American government. Through their descriptions, these novels size things up so that the conditions, events, and actions portrayed are plausible, and readers who follow carefully domestic American politics might not only see similarities between these descriptions and contemporary events, but might also identify strategies for responding to at least some of the noted similarities.

Reviewers and scholars who have discussed Roth's The Plot Against America have pointed out similarities between the book's description of the rise of a fascist government in the United States and the increasingly restrictive actions of the recent administration of George W. Bush. Blake Morrison in the Guardian calls the book "paranoid [. . .] and utterly plausible" (9), and James Wolcott in the Nation says that although the novel is set in the 1940s, it is "pure now," with "the taunting jack-o'-lantern grin of George W. Bush haunting the back of the mind as one consumes the pages" (23). Michael Rothberg notes that "President Charles Lindbergh's know-nothing populism and folksy Americanism have reminded more than a few readers of a certain American president closer to home" (306), and Paul Berman in the New York Times has this to say:

Not once in any of this does Roth glance at events of the present day, not even with a sly wink. Still, after you have had a chance to inhabit his landscape for a while and overhear the arguments about war and fascism and the Jews, The Plot Against America begins to rock almost violently in your lap—as if a second novel, something from our own time, had been locked inside and was banging furiously on the walls, trying to get out. Roth shows us President Lindbergh in his aviator's gear, speaking in a plain style—and you would have to be pretty dimwitted not to recall our current president, striding around the carrier Abraham Lincoln in his own flying attire, delivering his "Mission Accomplished" speech.

(15) [End Page 86]

Berman identifies Roth's book, as well as both The Iron Heel and It Can't Happen Here, as "phantasmagoric pictures of a United States whose every promise has been turned upside down—jeremiads about America's ability to transmute overnight into a fascist monstrosity" (14).

I do not want to argue that life imitates art, but these three novelists have shown an astute sense of what conditions would be required and what techniques would be useful for a move toward a fascist government in the United States; thus, a political consultant who wants to know what sort of strategies might be most successful if in fact a party did want to install itself as a fascist government could use these novels as an informative guide. This essay, then, will examine how the novels portray the fascists' takeovers, describe the effects on and responses of the populace, and indicate some of the ways in which we are encouraged to understand the world around us, including what attitudes we should have toward it and what actions we might best take in response. I want to suggest not that these literary works are a "foretelling" of our immediate future, but rather that they offer an "admonition" and an "exhortation," advice for keeping our fascistic tendencies at bay.

Roth's book uses numerous historical figures and events to tell a story of Charles Lindbergh's defeat of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and the creation of a short-lived fascist government in the United States. In many ways the novel is a story about the travails of a Jewish family and its friends, but in its larger sphere the novel shows the country turning against Jews at home and turning toward the Axis nations abroad. The government institutes programs to disperse Jewish enclaves in the Northeast to anti-Semitic communities elsewhere in the country; regional pogroms sweep the nation after the government consolidates its power in Washington, and non-aggression pacts with Germany, Italy, and Japan threaten the Allies' chances for survival. The book ends with the fascist government crippled and then voted out of office, and readers are returned to something like history as we now know it.

London's The Iron Heel was published in 1908, which is to say before the rise of any fascist governments in Europe, yet commentators as diverse as Leon Trotsky, George Orwell, and Do Duc Duc, as well as numerous American literary critics, note just how remarkably prescient London was.1 The novel takes the form of a manuscript, written about the life and activities of a revolutionary socialist leader, Ernest Everhard, which is found and edited seven centuries after the events of the novel, during a socialist utopia. The manuscript covers the time when the Iron Heel, known officially as the Oligarchy, seizes and consolidates power in the United States.

Lewis's It Can't Happen Here tells its story not with the national and international sweep of The Iron Heel but locally, through events in the life of a small-town Vermont newspaper man, Doremus Jessup. The novel attempts to show how American democracy might fall to a populist demagogue with a fascistic agenda, but it does not employ the sense of inevitability that is [End Page 87] the hallmark both of Marxist theory and of the literary naturalism of which London's novel is an example. It recounts the rise of the Corporatist Party (the "Corpos"): after the election of their presidential candidate, Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, in 1936, the Corpos quickly turn the United States into a fascist state, offering cronyism to their supporters, concentration camps for their opponents, and corruption for everyone. The novel ends in the midst of a Civil War only a few years after the rise of the Corpo government, with half the country in the hands of The American Cooperative Commonwealth.

One significant comparison among these three novels that has not been made concerns their relative aesthetic qualities, and this topic merits a brief comment. Both London's and Lewis's novels received mixed reviews when they appeared, but Earle Labor and Jeanne Campbell Reesman are correct when they criticize in The Iron Heel the "cloying sentimentality" of the narrator, and they are at least reasonable to claim that the hero is a "relentless bore" (65). If Everhard is a bore, it is because London's work is oftentimes more of a polemic than a novel, and his hero serves too often as a mouthpiece for the author's economic, social, and political beliefs without advancing the plot. Regarding It Can't Happen Here, Mark Schorer notes that reviewers "applauded it as a major political act" but did not argue that it was an artistic achievement (609), and Richard Lingeman claims that reviewers thought Lewis's novel lacked the craft of his earlier works and was derivative of events already happening in Europe rather than successful in giving a particularly American flavor to the fictional rise of fascism in this country (404).

Roth's novel, as Alan Cooper contends, "is not a polemic, but a beautifully crafted story of a family's attempt to preserve its identity, its values, and its sanity" (242). The novel also gives a particular American flavor to fascism, and it has a narrator who not only captures a reader's imagination and sympathy but who serves oftentimes to drive the plot. As Matthew Schweber says, the novel's "autobiographical façade, at its most basic, aids the reader's suspension of disbelief " (128), and "the plausibility of the novel's alternate history alone merits awe (to say nothing of its feat in fictionalizing a pantheon of historical personages by ventriloquizing oratory in their distinctive voice and cadence)" (129). This novel's characters are more realistic than those in The Iron Heel , and in comparison to the unbelievably heroic Everhard, Herman Roth, the narrator's father, proves to be not idealistically heroic but realistically so. Hana Wirth-Nesher notes that in this novel the elder Roth's "dignity and manhood" are foregrounded (168): his willingness to stand up to the prejudice against the family during their trip to Washington D.C. and his refusal to move under the Homestead 42 project to Kentucky (giving up his job to work as a truck driver for substantially reduced wages) are but two instances that portray him as a character to whom we can relate and for whom we can fear. Similarly, Elaine B. Safer comments that in the last chapter Herman Roth "shows what real heroism is" when he drives fifteen hundred miles to Kentucky and back— shortly after Walter Winchell had been assassinated in Louisville and during [End Page 88] anti-Semitic riots that were convulsing the country—to bring home a Jewish boy whose mother had just been murdered by rioters" (161). We can, then, relate to him, fear for him, and exalt in his hard-won success.

While it is fair to say that Ernest Everhard is to Herman Roth as Superman is to Everyman, it may be less fair to say, as Schweber does, that The Plot Against America compares to It Can't Happen Here "as would a documentary to the cartoon farce of a particularly trenchant episode of The Simpsons" (129); however, it is undeniable that the realism of Roth's narrative and characterizations make his book not only more powerful but also more aesthetically complex than Lewis's novels.2 While Doremus Jessup is also an Everyman, he remains underdeveloped as a character—especially as compared with the youthful Philip Roth—just as Buzz Windrip is, if not a cartoon, certainly less realistic than Winchell or Lindbergh. So, while the purpose of this essay is not to evaluate the aesthetic accomplishments of the novels but rather to examine their utility as "equipment for living," it is important to note that Roth's book is an aesthetic success, since that attribute not only redraws attention to the other two novels but also provides, despite Roth's demurrer, a powerful critical statement about the current political climate.

In all of these novels, fascist elements use similar means to gain and retain power; all use, for instance, a strong military and police and all gain the consistent approval of religious leaders. However, in each of the novels, the media are the most effective agents for the public's acceptance of the subsequent encroachments on their freedoms, and while the threat of a police officer's billy club and eternal perdition are powerful inducements to submit, so are the techniques of dissimulation available through the media. I want to examine four of these techniques employed by the novels' fascists: the "big lie," scapegoating, Orwellian doublethink, and false image-building or what rhetoricians would call false ethos. As I describe how these techniques are used in the novels, readers will no doubt recognize similar uses by politicians in recent years. The recognition, of course, is part of the point, in that seeing how these rhetorical techniques are used in a compelling narrative makes us sensitive to recognizing them and their purposes in the "real" world.

Rhetorical Techniques in the Novels

Governments need not own the media in order to control them—it seems a more effective rhetorical strategy for governments not to own them—and control can come through legal threats, bribes and the capitulation of friendly and favored media corporations. In The Iron Heel and It Can't Happen Here , news reporters do the bidding of the government because they are afraid that they will lose their jobs or because they see it as a way to improve their positions. For instance, when Avis Everhard visits a newspaper to find out why it would not publish her exposé concerning legal malfeasance in a worker's compensation claim, she is told that the paper cannot publish the story because [End Page 89] the corporations would put it out of business (Iron Heel 57). The press also suppresses a speech by a minister who has spoken out in favor of Christian charity for the working poor, and it does not report on legislation to draft citizens into the militia. It accedes to the government's request not to publish a book critical of the relationship of capitalist interests to higher education, and ultimately it assists the government in harassing and finally destroying the socialist press that did plan to print it (144). Lewis's Doremus Jessup runs afoul of the Corpos and is told that he must cede control of his newspaper to his erstwhile assistant, Doc Itchitt, who is less a true believer of the Corpos than a person who sees that he can gain power and money by allying himself with the Party; Itchitt's job is to help the party "to work with and through the newspaper editors in the great task of spreading correct Corporate ideals and combating false theories" (Can't Happen 151). After the newspapers have fallen under the control of the Corpos, Jessup notes the paucity of foreign news, the large number of comic strips, and the misinformation about domestic matters (250). In effect, the press has been removed as a means of independent information and is now used for cheap entertainment for the masses, for unrelenting and unchallenged propaganda to maintain and reinforce the government's position, and for attacks on its enemies and their positions.

In Roth's The Plot Against America, newspapers and radio stations parrot the government's argument that the attacks against Jews result not from anti-Semitism but from the Jewish people's own anti-American behavior and activities. When Lindbergh welcomes the Nazi minister Joachim von Ribbentrop to the White House, ex-president Franklin Roosevelt criticizes him and for a while is successful with his claim that the invitation is the "political blunder of the century" (184); then, newspaper editorial pages counter with their belief that the Democrats had deliberately misrepresented a cordial White House dinner as a sinister conspiracy, and soon it is Roosevelt who is labeled as having committed the political blunder. The press is also used to bring down Walter Winchell, who had decided to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, and the Detroit Times justifies an American Kristallnacht which occurs after a Winchell campaign stop as the "unfortunate but inevitable and altogether understandable backlash to the activities of the […] 'Jewish demagogue whose aim from the outset had been to incite the rage of patriotic Americans with his treasonous rabble-rousing'" (266). The airwaves also are used by religious leaders—including Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, and Father Charles Coughlin—to promote the fascists' agenda.

The compliant media help the fascist governments in part by repeating the "big lie," which was used by the German leadership of the Third Reich in two ways. One way is the "colossal" lie; in Mein Kampf Hitler said that this form was useful because people are more susceptible to big lies than to small ones, "since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would [End Page 90] be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously."3 The other use of the big lie, which apparently originated with the Nazi Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, is the practice of repeating a lie while ignoring any attempts to correct it, in the belief that a lie told often enough will come to be accepted as a truth by most people.

In The Plot Against America, both manifestations of the big lie are used.

President Lindbergh states that

Adolph Hitler has established himself as the world's greatest safeguard against the spread of Communism and its evils. This is not to minimize the efforts of imperial Japan. Dedicated as the Japanese are to modernizing Chiang Kai-shek's corrupt and feudal China, they are equally dedicated to rooting out the fanatical Chinese Communist minority.

(Plot 83)

Newspapers repeat the government's contention that Jewish people are assaulted not because of anti-Semitism but because of their own anti-Americanism— this despite the fact that those attacking them are often members of the German-American Bund and supporters of the German Nazi party, while the Jews are doing nothing more than exercising the very American right of voicing their political preference for the Democratic party and their distaste for pro-fascist political policies. The newspapers report that large-scale anti-Jewish riots in the United States are the result of "'local Jewish elements' working as part of 'a far-reaching Jewish conspiracy intent on undermining the country's morale'" (315) and that the Jews, along with Franklin Roosevelt and New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, are involved in the kidnapping of President Lindbergh. The government offers no proof that Lindbergh has been kidnapped so of course offers no evidence against these people, but these American politicians, along with the half-Jewish governor of New York and Jewish Supreme Court justices, are nonetheless rounded up. Ironically, the New York Times claims that Walter Winchell, who calls a government program "a fascistic strategy to isolate Jews and exclude them from the national life," is guilty of "journalistic recklessness and an illustration of the Big Lie technique" (241)—when in fact the big lie is the claim that government programs will provide Jewish families with opportunities to be integrated into national life even though they are being sent to rural communities with no other Jewish families and fervid anti-Semitic attitudes.

The governments in Lewis's and London's novels also employ the big lie technique. Lewis, for instance, has his narrator make this observation:

Never had there been, even in the days when Mr. Hearst was freeing Cuba, so many large red headlines. Never so many dramatic drawings of murders—the murderers were always notorious anti-Corpos. Never such a wealth of literature, worthy of its twenty-four-hour immortality, as the articles proving, and proving by figures, that American wages were universally higher, commodities universally lower-priced, war budgets smaller but the army and its equipment much larger, [End Page 91] than ever in history. Never such righteous polemics as the proofs that all non-Corpos were Communists.

(Can't Happen 250-51)

And in The Iron Heel the "the newspapers of the land lived up to the reactionary policy of the ruling class" by vilifying the socialist press and praising those who physically destroyed them as "true patriots" (Iron Heel 145).

The big lie technique is an especially useful tool for another of the fascist governments' characteristic uses of rhetoric and the media: the creation of scapegoats, who shift the people's attention from government transgressions and from economic, military, and other failures. Roth mentions Father Coughlin's anti-Semitic virulence (Plot 7), Lindbergh's warnings against "'dilution by foreign races' and 'the infiltration of inferior blood'" (14) and the linkage by America First of "Bolshevism with Judaism" (176). In the second half of the book, the country is convulsed by anti-Semitic riots and, after the disappearance of President Lindbergh, the acting president arrests not only those figures mentioned above but also liberal members of Congress, labor union leaders, and respected Jewish journalists and intellectuals (316)—thereby linking scapegoating with political opportunism.

In The Iron Heel the media attack socialists and labor leaders, and in It Can't Happen Here they have a wide range of targets: for instance, they publish satiric cartoons of the defeated Roosevelt, they verbally attack Mexico in preparation for the Corpos' war meant to distract Americans from domestic problems, and they vilify Jews, foreigners, socialists, and other groups perceived to be political opponents of the Corpos. Such attacks do work to unify and distract the people: Lewis says that "nothing so elevates a dispossessed farmer or a factory worker on relief as to have some race, any race, on which he can look down" (Can't Happen 86), and a bit later in the novel he observes that these dispossessed Americans "had the Jews and the Negroes to look down on, more and more" (144).

The master trope of Orwell's rulers of Oceania, "doublethink," is a variation of the big lie technique, and it appears in one way or another in all of these novels. A form of reality control, it is defined as "the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them" (Orwell, 1984 176). Because Roth's Lindbergh has fascistic connections and sympathies, and has made numerous anti-Semitic statements, Rabbi Bengelsdorf 's claim—"I want Charles Lindbergh to be my president not in spite of my being a Jew but because I am a Jew" (Plot 36)—is an example of doublethink; so too are claims made by Lindbergh supporters that Lindbergh did not visit Nazi Germany "as a sympathizer or supporter of Hitler's but rather he traveled each and every time as a secret advisor to the U.S. government" (38), and that going to war against Germany because of its treatment of the Jews would only worsen their predicament "immeasurably" (39). Finally, anti-Jewish administration programs exude a doublethink rationale: the "announced purpose of the OAA (Office of American Absorption) was to [End Page 92] implement programs 'encouraging America's religious and national minorities to become further incorporated into the larger society,'" though, as the young narrator says, "the only minority the OAA appeared to take a serious interest in encouraging" was the Jewish minority (85). Furthermore, the Good Neighbor Project was designed to "enrich the 'Americanness' of everyone" by introducing a steadily increasing number of non-Jewish residents into predominantly Jewish neighborhoods, but it actually served to "weaken the solidarity of the Jewish social structure as well as to diminish whatever electoral strength a Jewish community might have in local and congressional elections" (280-81).

An example of doublethink in It Can't Happen Here is the Corpos's desire to remove Congressional oversight of the Executive branch so that Americans can have what was "advocated by the Founding Fathers of this great land back in 1776" (Can't Happen 40); also, as a candidate for president, Buzz Windrip wants "to put a damn quick stop to all this radicalism—all this free speech and libel of our most fundamental institutions" (88). London is less interested in representing the Oligarchy as needing to use this form of rhetorical manipulation; however, Everhard notes that the churchmen, whom he identifies as agents of the political power structure, claim to believe in charity and equality of all peoples yet say nothing about slavery and nothing about the sweat shops that employ children (31). Further, he notes that the capitalists complain of "class warfare" in the face of labor demands even as they work assiduously to benefit the capitalist class at the expense of the middle class and working class (28-29).

A fourth rhetorical strategy demonstrated in these novels is the creation of unrepresentative and even untrue images. The distinction between such images and accurate representations can be made by looking at the evidence that supports the implicit arguments. For instance, when Roosevelt tells Lindbergh that he should rescind the invitation of von Ribbentropp to the White House, he says to do it "for the sake of all freedom-loving Americans of European stock whose ancestral countries must live beneath the Nazis' crushing yoke" (Plot 174), and when Walter Winchell refuses police and National Guard protection, he says that "when a candidate for the presidency of the United States requires a phalanx of armed police officers and National Guardsmen to protect his right to free speech, this country will have passed over into fascist barbarism" (264). Both of these men are accused by their political enemies of "grandstanding," even though their arguments are grounded in basic American principles. On the other hand, when Lindbergh is campaigning, the Republicans emphasize his "relative youth and […] graceful athleticism that contrasted so starkly with the serious physical impediments under which FDR labored as a polio victim" (53), as if running the country were an athletic event. During his campaign, Lindbergh wears a replica of the flight outfit he wore when he crossed the Atlantic in 1927 (30), as if running the country were best done by an airplane pilot. What Lindbergh is said to represent to the [End Page 93] citizens is "normalcy raised to heroic proportions, a decent man with an honest face and an undistinguished voice" (53). The image created for Lindbergh is of a person who is "at once youthful and gravely mature, the rugged individualist, the legendary American man's man who gets the impossible done by relying solely on himself " (30). Of course, while that image is almost blindly accepted by American citizens, it is also almost completely untrue, outside of the fictionalized versions like Natty Bumpo or an Ayn Rand hero, that leaders do things alone. In effect, the implicit arguments that support such image building—that a candidate should look presidential, that a candidate should be glamorous—equate with doublethink. So do the names of government agencies, such as the Good Neighbors Project, the Just Folks program, and the Homestead 42 program, which are meant to help citizens imagine government programs quite differently from what these programs actually try to achieve—to create in the United States a Jewish diaspora that will weaken the political and social power that Jews have in the Northeast.

Lewis's Corpos are masterful image builders. Buzz Windrip is presented as a common and religious man of the people both in his campaign book, Zero Hour, and in numerous media pieces before and after his election. The excerpts from Zero Hour that introduce many of the chapters, for instance, illustrate Windrip's attempt to be seen as "just folks," and his stump speeches reinforce this image. Similar to Lindbergh's "normalcy raised to heroic proportions," Jessup says of Windrip that despite his reputation as a common man, his oratorical skill makes him "twenty-times-magnified" so that the common people saw him towering above them and so "raised their hands in worship" (Can't Happen 74). With this common touch, Jessup observes, Windrip might actually be more dangerous than those dictators who do not have it (132).

Imagery in Lewis's novel goes beyond the construction of the president's ethos. At the Democratic national convention at which Windrip is running for president, his organization has a small group march onto the floor. The group includes

two G. A. R. veterans, and between, arm-in-arm with them, a Confederate in gray. [. . .] The Confederate carried a Virginia regimental banner, torn as by shrapnel; and one of the Union soldiers lifted high a slashed flag of the First Minnesota. [. . .] On the platform the band played, inaudibly, "Dixie," then "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again," and, standing on his chair midway of the auditorium, as a plain member of his state delegation, Buzz Windrip bowed—bowed—bowed and tried to smile, while tears started from his eyes and he sobbed helplessly, and the audience began to sob with him.


Jessup observes wryly that while the press "pretty well proved" that the battle flags were authentic, it was never known, except to campaign insiders, that they were in fact props for a 1929 patriotic drama. However, as Jessup also notes, "When Buzz gets in, he won't be having any parade of wounded soldiers. That's bad Fascist psychology. All those poor devils he'll just hide away [End Page 94] in institutions, and just bring out the lively young human slaughter cattle in uniform" (60).

Fictional Rhetoric and Contemporary Political Discourse

Following Burke's observations concerning literature as equipment for living, I want to look now to how these novels can be said to admonish and exhort us as we consider our situation as citizens and members of society. As mentioned earlier, I do not want to assert that life imitates art, that the United States has been on the verge of a fascist takeover. I do, however, want to say that the rhetorical strategies used by the fascist governments in Roth's, London's, and Lewis's novels make us sensitive to similar strategies used by the Bush Administration, and that the responses suggested by the novels to these strategies might help us to consider the adequacy of any of our responses.

While the administration of George W. Bush had not tried to control and then use the media to the extent that political forces do in these three novels, these novels encourage us to see some parallels in the administration's relationship to the media. Any number of commentators have noted the compliant nature of today's media, not only with respect to their lack of analysis in the administration's preparations for the Iraq War, but in a more general manner.4 Further, while the coercion of reporters by this administration was less overt than in the novels, again there are similarities.5 Further still, the administration had allegedly engaged in a tactic similar to that described in Lewis's novel by paying ostensibly legitimate reporters to insert into their news reports and opinion page columns material favorable to the government. It is known, for example, in the case of the Talon News reporter, "Jeff Gannon" (a pseudonym for James Dale Guckert), that the administration had reporters designated to ask "softball" questions if questions at the press conference become too aggressive.6

There is compelling evidence that the Bush administration employed both varieties of the big lie. One example of the "colossal" lie was the various claims made (and later retracted) by administration officials in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Examples of the second form of the big lie, the repeated untruth, were observable in administration comments regarding education, the environment, health care, and the economy.7 Administration examples of doublethink included an Anti-Terrorism Act that ensures citizens' freedom by allowing the FBI to examine our communicative activities, and the statement that we were bringing freedom to Iraq by bombing and then occupying it. In other areas, the administration also had a "Clear Skies" bill that increased pollution and a "No Child Left Behind" education program that reduced funding. And, while the Bush administration repeatedly called for support of the military, it put forth plans to cut a billion dollars from the Veteran's Administration, even after it had cut over 150,000 veterans from existing prescription drug coverage.8 [End Page 95]

Scapegoats of the administration were like those identified by the governments of the novels: they included anyone who questioned the Iraq War, the Patriot Act and other "anti-terrorist" legislation, as well as liberals in general— including feminists and those who supported gay rights, a woman's right to choose, stem cell research, arguments for global warming, and even, it seems, evolution.9 Saddam Hussein himself might be considered a scapegoat, given the difficulty that the administration had finding Osama bin Laden. It sometimes appears that Muslims generally were also being scapegoated, and it now seems possible that, with the increasing problems with the Iraqi government, that the entire nation has come to be the scapegoat for a failed American policy in that country.

Like that of Windrip and Lindbergh, President Bush's image was cultivated, and to much the same effect. While his background made him anything but a "common man," that image was used quite successfully by his campaign in 2000, and after 9/11 it mutated into a Lindberghian "normalcy raised to heroic proportions" (Plot 53). Like Windrip, Bush employed religious language and imagery10 and a background of American flags and uniformed soldiers whenever he made an important speech or appearance. Further, despite Roth's assurances that he was not thinking of this administration when he wrote The Plot Against America, one would have to be "pretty dimwitted" (Berman 15) to read about Lindbergh's appearance in his aviator's uniform and not think of Bush, in an Air Force uniform, being flown in a military jet onto the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare "Mission Accomplished." It is also nearly impossible, after reading about Buzz Windrip's "just folks" image, not to think of Bush, and nearly impossible, after reading Jessup's observation about fascist psychology requiring that injured soldiers be hidden away, not to remember that the Bush administration had banned any pictures of soldiers' coffins.

The novels suggest only very generally ways by which readers might consider protecting themselves from a real-life fascist takeover of the American government, but they do admonish us about some of the country's social and political shortcomings, and they exhort us to protect our democratic government. 11 They address the importance of a strong and independent media, an educated citizenry that understands and can resist rhetorical manipulation, and the willingness among the citizenry to sacrifice in order to maintain freedom.

Such media would be a bulwark against fascists, as is suggested by Roth's depiction of Walter Winchell. However, while Winchell is shown offering strong opposition to the Lindbergh administration, he is fired from both his radio show and his newspaper column, and after he is assassinated no other strong voices are at hand. The press in The Iron Heel is completely dominated by the Oligarchy after the destruction of the socialist press, since the rest of the press was already in the hands of large corporations who favored and were favored by the government. A similar situation is depicted in It Can't Happen [End Page 96] Here, and Jessup says that if a newsman is "going to assume the right to tell several thousand readers what's what—most agreeable hitherto—he's got a kind of what you might say priestly obligation to tell the truth" (Can't Happen 160). Yet, as his socialist and communist friends tell him, terrible things had been happening all over the world and the American press did not report them, particularly if Americans were gaining financially or politically or both as a result. Once the Corpos are in power, the press becomes as subservient as it is shown to be in London's and Roth's novels. Clearly, these novels would admonish us about the commercialization of news and the compliant nature not just of the Fox network, but also of the other network news organizations. At its best, the press in the United States has kept in check corporate and government excesses, but these novels illuminate the dangers of media complicity.

But a strong and independent media does no good if Americans are not interested in or unable to understand the important events of the day. The comic strips and other entertainment pieces that fill the Corpos papers echo such diversions as reality television, the focus on celebrities, and the much-diminished news reporting, and while it is not clear whether Americans would respond positively to a more thorough reporting of important news, it is clear that the media's functioning as a check on corporations and the government requires a citizenry educated enough to follow the issues. That is, the novels would exhort us to work to understand the news, so that we can understand and protect our democracy.

The ability to understand the news requires more rather than less support for education, an education that prepares people to take responsibility in their civic lives and that serves as protection against any doublethink short of the torture-induced form practiced in 1984. A liberal arts education, as educators since Isocrates have maintained, does in fact prepare people to take responsibility in their civic lives, and at least since Isocrates's time autocratic regimes have worked to limit education. Under the rule of London's Oligarchy, "public schools deteriorated, education slowly ceased to be compulsory, [and] the increase in the younger generation of children who could not read nor write was perilous" (Iron Heel 199); institutes of higher education were simply shuttered—at least for all but the elite. In It Can't Happen Here the Corpos replaced the institutions of higher education with regional super-universities which, instead of courses in philosophy, history, or English literature offered

a wealth of courses in mining engineering, lakeshore-cottage architecture, modern foremanship and production methods, exhibition gymnastics, the higher accountancy, the therapeutics of athlete's foot, canning and fruit dehydration, kindergarten training, organization of chess, checkers, and bridge tournaments, cultivation of will power, band music for mass meetings, schnauzer-breeding, stainless-steel formulæ, cement-road construction, and all other really useful subjects for the formation of the new-world mind and character.

(Can't Happen 188-89) [End Page 97]

As a member of the corporate elite states early in the novel, echoing Callicles's sneering comment to Socrates in Plato's Gorgias, "We don't want all this highbrow intellectuality, all this book-learning. That's good enough in its way, but isn't it, after all, just a nice toy for grownups?" (20).

Events move too quickly in Roth's novel for policy changes to be enacted concerning the universities, but in The Iron Heel London describes how university funding was to be determined by the desires of private sources rather than the needs of "profitless" pure research. It is not yet quite the case that state universities—even of the land grant variety—are teaching schnauzer-breeding and the therapeutics of athlete's foot along with their current offerings in canning and fruit dehydration and cement-road construction, but despite the traditional role of the liberal arts in university education and despite their essential role in helping citizens to think clearly and critically in all areas of adult life, they are increasingly under financial duress.

Yet, while a liberal education helps people understand what sorts of societies and governments are possible and which ones are desirable, that education does no good unless citizens are willing to use it. As Jessup says,

All these years he had heard responsible men who weren't being quite honest— radio announcers who soft-soaped speakers who were fools and wares that were trash, and who canaryishly chirped "Thank you, Major Blister" when they would rather have kicked Major Blister, preachers who did not believe the decayed doctrines they dealt out, doctors who did not dare tell lady invalids that they were sex-hungry exhibitionists, merchants who peddled brass for gold—heard all of them complacently excuse themselves by explaining that they were too old to change and that they had "a wife and family to support."

(Can't Happen 182)

Finally, there is the question not just of what kind of sacrifice, or what form of resistance is possible, but also what form is legitimate. London's Underground uses violence against the Oligarchy, but its members are careful to use formal trials—even if needs be in absentia—to convict those whom they will execute. And in Lewis's novel, the exiled ex-Vice President Walt Trowbridge, who leads the opposition, says that "there's got to be a new feeling—that government is not a game for a few smart, resolute athletes [. . .] but a universal partnership, in which the State must own all resources so large that they affect all members of the State, and in which the one worst crime won't be murder or kidnapping but taking advantage of the State" (318-19). In Roth's novel, immediately after the first anti-Semitic riots, the Jews of Newark establish the "Newark Committee of Concerned Jewish Citizens" (Plot 268) and shortly thereafter, the "provisional Jewish Police" (271), an armed militia designed to protect the Jewish community.

But while the citizens of the country should be willing to punish those who take advantage of the State, we should also be unwilling to use torture and political assassinations to defeat our enemies. As Jessup says to his son, "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" (Can't [End Page 98] Happen 213). And as Walter Winchell says, "when, God forbid, America goes fascist, Lindbergh's storm troopers can […] lock you away in a concentration camp to shut you up. […] What they cannot take away—unless the gullible and the sheepish and the terrified are patsies enough to return them to Washington one more time—is the power of the ballot box" (Plot 260). Significantly, Roth's novel offers not violence as the response to a fascist government, but rather a democratic vote, and it is also significant both that London's Oligarchy lasts for hundreds of years while Lewis's Corpos are, if under siege, still in control of the national government at the end of that novel. But perhaps ominously, the ballot box, in Florida in the 2000 election and in Ohio in the 2004 election, may not be the panacea it proved to be for Roth's citizenry, and the "evil means" warned against by Jessup have already been used in our own war on terror—if torture and "extraordinary rendition"12 can be considered "evil means."

These novels not only warn Americans of the ease with which we can lose our fundamental democratic freedoms, but, as Burke's theory suggests, they also encourage us, indirectly and implicitly, to develop strategies for encompassing such a potential situation. As Safer notes, The Plot Against America had over one hundred eighty book reviews in the first month after its publication (160), and a great many of them mentioned, if only briefly, the ways in which the novel directs readers' attention to the Bush administration. The attention given to Roth's book speaks not only to the echoes of the administration's actions but also to the power that literature has to direct our attention. As Burke pointed out, Hitler showed his hand himself when he wrote Mein Kampf, and Burke wanted to warn the American reading public about what a wicked hand it was. In these three American novels the authors present to us wicked politicians showing their hands, and the plausibility of these politicians' successes warns us just how easily we too can lose our liberties. It is good that we have these novels, and good that Roth's novel has helped to bring these warnings into clearer focus. It would be good as well if we attend to their admonitions and exhortations.

Martin J. Jacobi

Martin Jacobi is Professor of English at Clemson University, where he teaches courses in classical and contemporary rhetoric and drama. Recent publications include an article on Alan Bennett's The History Boys in the South Atlantic Review, a chapter on Bob Dylan's collaborators in The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan (2009), and a forthcoming article on Ian McEwan's Atonement in Critique. His ongoing larger project is on the relationship of rhetoric, politics, and drama.


1. For Trotsky's Do Duc Duc's comments, see Susan M. Nuernberg (137-38 and 144-49, respectively); for Orwell's comments, see his "Prophecies of Fascism" (30). Carolyn Johnston says that London "saw more clearly than his comrades the extremes to which corporate capitalists would go to thwart the workers' struggles" (126) and that he "recognized the growing aristocracy of labor and the collaboration of powerful unions with the government and corporate capitalism" (127).

2. A much more "cartoon" version of American totalitarianism appears in Nathaniel West's A Cool Million, also mentioned by a number of Roth's reviewers. West's novel is a satire in the style of Voltaire's Candide (and is called by Perry Meisel, in his 1993 introduction to It Can't Happen Here, a "Kafkaesque fantasy" [8]). In it a youthful Lemuel Pitkin leaves rural Vermont to gain his fortune in New York City. He is quickly and unjustly imprisoned, then serially loses his teeth, an eye, a thumb, his scalp, and [End Page 99] a leg in various picaresque adventures; finally he is shot and killed at a political rally. Although West shows capitalism as vicious and brutal, the episodes are so broadly farcical that the satire, I think, goes wide of the mark.

3. The big lie argument appears in Vol. 1 ("A Retrospect"), Ch. X ("Why The Second Reich Collapsed") of Mein Kampf.

4. For analyses on the media's silence concerning the Iraq War, see Michael Massing's two articles, "Now They Tell Us" and "Unfit to Print," as well as the report by the Program on International Policy Issues. For discussions of media bias in favor of the administration, see Brian Keefer, George Monbiot, Frank Rich ("All the President's Newsmen"), and Paul Krugman ("Reading the Script"). A number of recent books devote sections to both of these topics as well. See, for examples, Joe Conason, David Corn, Eric Alterman (When Presidents Lie), Rich (The Greatest Story Ever Sold ), Michael Isikoff and Corn, and Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber. For a specific example of media complicity, see the articles by Bob Edwards and by Nicholas Confessore on Clear Channel's involvement with the administration.

5. See Alterman ("Bush's War on the Press") and Edwards for discussions of "scripted" news conferences in which friendly reporters ask friendly questions and unfriendly reporters do not get to ask questions at all.

6. For a report on "bought" reporters, see Gail Russell Chaddock; on prepackaged news, see David Barstow and Robin Stein. For a discussion of the Talon News scandal, see Paul Harris, Rich ("White House Stages Its Own Daily Show"), and Clarence Page.

7. For a compilation of the administration's use of both forms of the "big lie" through May of 2003, see Drake Bennett and Heidi Pauken. For extensive discussions on the administration's lies, see Joe Conason; Corn; Scheer, Scheer, and Chaudry; and Rampton and Stauber. While there is a wealth of reportage that continues to compile examples of the administration's lies, see recent examples in Rich (The Greatest Story Every Sold), Bob Woodward, and Sidney Blumenthal.

8. See Judd Legum for a list of one hundred lies and examples of doublethink, categorized under the headings "Iraq," "Terrorism," "National Security," "Cronyism and Corruption," "The Economy," "Education," "Health Care," "Environment," "Rights and Liberties," "Flip Flops," "Biography," and "Secrecy." This article also has links to further sources.

9. In a 22 June 2005 speech before the New York Conservative Party, Karl Rove said that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks the conservatives prepared to "defeat our enemies" while the liberals said that "we must understand our enemies." He asserted that "Liberals saw that savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers."

10. See Juan Stam on Bush's religious language.

11. In "The Story Behind The Plot Against America," Roth claims that "it would be a mistake" to read this novel as a "roman a clef to the present moment in America." However, many reviewers and critics have done just that. Safer mentions a few who read the novel this way and she says that the novel serves generally as a "prophetic warning against spreading fear and hysteria, which would lead to the destruction of the nation's most cherished liberties" (160) and that it "calls attention to the fact that what may seem to be paranoia may actually be possible" (189).

12. The term "extraordinary rendition" refers to the United States government's practice of moving suspected foreign terrorists to third countries for imprisonment, interrogation, and oftentimes torture. [End Page 100]

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