It Can't Happen Here

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Chapter 12

I shall not be content till this country can produce every single thing we need, even coffee, cocoa, and rubber, and so keep all our dollars at home. If we can do this and at the same time work up tourist traffic so that foreigners will come from every part of the world to see such remarkable wonders as the Grand Canyon, Glacier and Yellowstone etc. parks, the fine hotels of Chicago, & etc., thus leaving their money here, we shall have such a balance of trade as will go far to carry out my often-criticized yet completely sound idea of from $3000 to $5000 per year for every single family—that is, I mean every real American family. Such an aspiring Vision is what we want, and not all this nonsense of wasting our time at Geneva and talky-talk at Lugano, wherever that is.

Zero Hour, Berzelius Windrip.

 

Election day would fall on Tuesday, November third, and on Sunday evening of the first, Senator Windrip played the finale of his campaign at a mass meeting in Madison Square Garden, in New York. The Garden would hold, with seats and standing room, about 19,000, and a week before the meeting every ticket had been sold—at from fifty cents to five dollars, and then by speculators resold and resold, at from one dollar to twenty.

Doremus had been able to get one single ticket from an acquaintance on one of the Hearst dailies—which, alone among the New York papers, were supporting Windrip—and on the afternoon of November first he traveled the three hundred miles to New York for his first visit in three years.

It had been cold in Vermont, with early snow, but the white drifts lay to the earth so quietly, in unstained air, that the world seemed a silver-painted carnival, left to silence. Even on a moonless night, a pale radiance came from the snow, from the earth itself, and the stars were drops of quicksilver.

But, following the redcap carrying his shabby Gladstone bag, Doremus came out of the Grand Central, at six o'clock, into a gray trickle of cold dishwater from heaven's kitchen sink. The renowned towers which he expected to see on Forty-second Street were dead in their mummy cloths of ragged fog. And as to the mob that, with cruel disinterest, galloped past him, a new and heedless smear of faces every second, the man from Fort Beulah could think only that New York must be holding its county fair in this clammy drizzle, or else that there was a big fire somewhere.

He had sensibly planned to save money by using the subway—the substantial village burgher is so poor in the city of the Babylonian gardens!—and he even remembered that there were still to be found in Manhattan five-cent trolley cars, in which a rustic might divert himself by looking at sailors and poets and shawled women from the steppes of Kazakstan. To the redcap he had piped with what he conceived to be traveled urbanity, "Guess 'll take a trolley—jus' few blocks." But deafened and dizzied and elbow-jabbed by the crowd, soaked and depressed, he took refuge in a taxi, then wished he hadn't, as he saw the slippery rubber-colored pavement, and as his taxi got wedged among other cars stinking of carbon-monoxide and frenziedly tooting for release from the jam—a huddle of robot sheep bleating their terror with mechanical lungs of a hundred horsepower.

He painfully hesitated before going out again from his small hotel in the West Forties, and when he did, when he muddily crept among the shrill shopgirls, the weary chorus girls, the hard cigar-clamping gamblers, and the pretty young men on Broadway, he felt himself, with the rubbers and umbrella which Emma had forced upon him, a very Caspar Milquetoast.

He most noticed a number of stray imitation soldiers, without side-arms or rifles, but in a uniform like that of an American cavalryman in 1870: slant-topped blue forage caps, dark blue tunics, light blue trousers, with yellow stripes at the seam, tucked into leggings of black rubberoid for what appeared to be the privates, and boots of sleek black leather for officers. Each of them had on the right side of his collar the letters "M.M." and on the left, a five-pointed star. There were so many of them; they swaggered so brazenly, shouldering civilians out of the way; and upon insignificances like Doremus they looked with frigid insolence.

He suddenly understood.

These young condottieri were the "Minute Men": the private troops of Berzelius Windrip, about which Doremus had been publishing uneasy news reports. He was thrilled and a little dismayed to see them now—the printed words made brutal flesh.

Three weeks ago Windrip had announced that Colonel Dewey Haik had founded, just for the campaign, a nationwide league of Windrip marching-clubs, to be called the Minute Men. It was probable that they had been in formation for months, since already they had three or four hundred thousand members. Doremus was afraid the M.M.'s might become a permanent organization, more menacing than the Kuklux Klan.

Their uniform suggested the pioneer America of Cold Harbor and of the Indian fighters under Miles and Custer. Their emblem, their swastika (here Doremus saw the cunning and mysticism of Lee Sarason), was a five-pointed star, because the star on the American flag was five-pointed, whereas the stars of both the Soviet banner and the Jews—the seal of Solomon—were six-pointed.

The fact that the Soviet star, actually, was also five-pointed, no one noticed, during these excited days of regeneration. Anyway, it was a nice idea to have this star simultaneously challenge the Jews and the Bolsheviks—the M.M.'s had good intentions, even if their symbolism did slip a little.

Yet the craftiest thing about the M.M.'s was that they wore no colored shirts, but only plain white when on parade, and light khaki when on outpost duty, so that Buzz Windrip could thunder, and frequently, "Black shirts? Brown shirts? Red shirts? Yes, and maybe cow-brindle shirts! All these degenerate European uniforms of tyranny! No sir! The Minute Men are not Fascist or Communist or anything at all but plain Democratic—the knight-champions of the rights of the Forgotten Men—the shock troops of Freedom!"

 

 

Doremus dined on Chinese food, his invariable self-indulgence when he was in a large city without Emma, who stated that chow mein was nothing but fried excelsior with flour-paste gravy. He forgot the leering M.M. troopers a little; he was happy in glancing at the gilded wood-carvings, at the octagonal lanterns painted with doll-like Chinese peasants crossing arched bridges, at a quartette of guests, two male and two female, who looked like Public Enemies and who all through dinner quarreled with restrained viciousness.

When he headed toward Madison Square Garden and the culminating Windrip rally, he was plunged into a maelstrom. A whole nation seemed querulously to be headed the same way. He could not get a taxicab, and walking through the dreary storm some fourteen blocks to Madison Square Garden he was aware of the murderous temper of the crowd.

Eighth Avenue, lined with cheapjack shops, was packed with drab, discouraged people who yet, tonight, were tipsy with the hashish of hope. They filled the sidewalks, nearly filled the pavement, while irritable motors squeezed tediously through them, and angry policemen were pushed and whirled about and, if they tried to be haughty, got jeered at by lively shopgirls.

Through the welter, before Doremus's eyes, jabbed a flying wedge of Minute Men, led by what he was later to recognize as a cornet of M.M.'s. They were not on duty, and they were not belligerent; they were cheering, and singing "Berzelius Windrip went to Wash.," reminding Doremus of a slightly drunken knot of students from an inferior college after a football victory. He was to remember them so afterward, months afterward, when the enemies of the M.M.'s all through the country derisively called them "Mickey Mouses" and "Minnies."

An old man, shabbily neat, stood blocking them and yelled, "To hell with Buzz! Three cheers for F.D.R.!"

The M.M.'s burst into hoodlum wrath. The cornet in command, a bruiser uglier even than Shad Ledue, hit the old man on the jaw, and he sloped down, sickeningly. Then, from nowhere, facing the cornet, there was a chief petty officer of the navy, big, smiling, reckless. The C.P.O. bellowed, in a voice tuned to hurricanes, "Swell bunch o' tin soldiers! Nine o' yuh to one grandpappy! Just about even—"

The cornet socked him; he laid out the cornet with one foul to the belly; instantly the other eight M.M.'s were on the C.P.O., like sparrows after a hawk, and he crashed, his face, suddenly veal-white, laced with rivulets of blood. The eight kicked him in the head with their thick marching-shoes. They were still kicking him when Doremus wriggled away, very sick, altogether helpless.

He had not turned away quickly enough to avoid seeing an M.M. trooper, girlish-faced, crimson-lipped, fawn-eyed, throw himself on the fallen cornet and, whimpering, stroke that roustabout's roast-beef cheeks with shy gardenia-petal fingers.

 

 

There were many arguments, a few private fist fights, and one more battle, before Doremus reached the auditorium.

A block from it some thirty M.M.'s, headed by a battalion-leader—something between a captain and a major—started raiding a street meeting of Communists. A Jewish girl in khaki, her bare head soaked with rain, was beseeching from the elevation of a wheelbarrow, "Fellow travelers! Don't just chew the rag and 'sympathize'! Join us! Now! It's life and death!" Twenty feet from the Communists, a middle-aged man who looked like a social worker was explaining the Jeffersonian Party, recalling the record of President Roosevelt, and reviling the Communists next door as word-drunk un-American cranks. Half his audience were people who might be competent voters; half of them—like half of any group on this evening of tragic fiesta—were cigarette-sniping boys in hand-me-downs.

The thirty M.M.'s cheerfully smashed into the Communists. The battalion leader reached up, slapped the girl speaker, dragged her down from the wheelbarrow. His followers casually waded in with fists and blackjacks. Doremus, more nauseated, feeling more helpless than ever, heard the smack of a blackjack on the temple of a scrawny Jewish intellectual.

Amazingly, then, the voice of the rival Jeffersonian leader spiraled up into a scream: "Come on, you! Going to let those hellhounds attack our Communist friends—friends now, by God!" With which the mild bookworm leaped into the air, came down squarely upon a fat Mickey Mouse, capsized him, seized his blackjack, took time to kick another M.M.'s shins before arising from the wreck, sprang up, and waded into the raiders as, Doremus guessed, he would have waded into a table of statistics on the proportion of butter fat in loose milk in 97.7 per cent of shops on Avenue B.

Till then, only half-a-dozen Communist Party members had been facing the M.M.'s, their backs to a garage wall. Fifty of their own, fifty Jeffersonians besides, now joined them, and with bricks and umbrellas and deadly volumes of sociology they drove off the enraged M.M.'s—partisans of Bela Kun side by side with the partisans of Professor John Dewey—until a riot squad of policemen battered their way in to protect the M.M.'s by arresting the girl Communist speaker and the Jeffersonian.

 

 

Doremus had often "headed up" sports stories about "Madison Square Garden Prize Fights," but he did know that the place had nothing to do with Madison Square, from which it was a day's journey by bus, that it was decidedly not a garden, that the fighters there did not fight for "prizes" but for fixed partnership shares in the business, and that a good many of them did not fight at all.

The mammoth building, as in exhaustion Doremus crawled up to it, was entirely ringed with M.M.'s, elbow to elbow, all carrying heavy canes, and at every entrance, along every aisle, the M.M.'s were rigidly in line, with their officers galloping about, whispering orders, and bearing uneasy rumors like scared calves in a dipping-pen.

These past weeks hungry miners, dispossessed farmers, Carolina mill hands had greeted Senator Windrip with a flutter of worn hands beneath gasoline torches. Now he was to face, not the unemployed, for they could not afford fifty-cent tickets, but the small, scared side-street traders of New York, who considered themselves altogether superior to clodhoppers and mine-creepers, yet were as desperate as they. The swelling mass that Doremus saw, proud in seats or standing chin-to-nape in the aisles, in a reek of dampened clothes, was not romantic; they were people concerned with the tailor's goose, the tray of potato salad, the card of hooks-and-eyes, the leech-like mortgage on the owner-driven taxi, with, at home, the baby's diapers, the dull safety-razor blade, the awful rise in the cost of rump steak and kosher chicken. And a few, and very proud, civil-service clerks and letter carriers and superintendents of small apartment houses, curiously fashionable in seventeen-dollar ready-made suits and feebly stitched foulard ties, who boasted, "I don't know why all these bums go on relief. I may not be such a wiz, but let me tell you, even since 1929, I've never made less than two thousand dollars a year!"

Manhattan peasants. Kind people, industrious people, generous to their aged, eager to find any desperate cure for the sickness of worry over losing the job.

Most facile material for any rabble-rouser.

 

 

The historic rally opened with extreme dullness. A regimental band played the Tales from Hoffman barcarole with no apparent significance and not much more liveliness. The Reverend Dr. Hendrik Van Lollop of St. Apologue's Lutheran Church offered prayer, but one felt that probably it had not been accepted. Senator Porkwood provided a dissertation on Senator Windrip which was composed in equal parts of apostolic adoration of Buzz and of the uh-uh-uh's with which Hon. Porkwood always interspersed his words.

And Windrip wasn't yet even in sight.

Colonel Dewey Haik, nominator of Buzz at the Cleveland convention, was considerably better. He told three jokes, and an anecdote about a faithful carrier pigeon in the Great War which had seemed to understand, really better than many of the human soldiers, just why it was that the Americans were over there fighting for France against Germany. The connection of this ornithological hero with the virtues of Senator Windrip did not seem evident, but, after having sat under Senator Porkwood, the audience enjoyed the note of military gallantry.

Doremus felt that Colonel Haik was not merely rambling but pounding on toward something definite. His voice became more insistent. He began to talk about Windrip: "my friend—the one man who dares beard the monetary lion—the man who in his great and simple heart cherishes the woe of every common man as once did the brooding tenderness of Abraham Lincoln." Then, wildly waving toward a side entrance, he shrieked, "And here he comes! My friends—Buzz Windrip!"

The band hammered out "The Campbells Are Coming." A squadron of Minute Men, smart as Horse Guards, carrying long lances with starred pennants, clicked into the gigantic bowl of the auditorium, and after them, shabby in an old blue-serge suit, nervously twisting a sweat-stained slouch hat, stooped and tired, limped Berzelius Windrip. The audience leaped up, thrusting one another aside to have a look at the deliverer, cheering like artillery at dawn.

Windrip started prosaically enough. You felt rather sorry for him, so awkwardly did he lumber up the steps to the platform, across to the center of the stage. He stopped; stared owlishly. Then he quacked monotonously:

"The first time I ever came to New York I was a greenhorn—no, don't laugh, mebbe I still am! But I had already been elected a United States Senator, and back home, the way they'd serenaded me, I thought I was some punkins. I thought my name was just about as familiar to everybody as Al Capone's or Camel Cigarettes or Castoria—Babies Cry For It. But I come to New York on my way to Washington, and say, I sat in my hotel lobby here for three days, and the only fellow ever spoke to me was the hotel detective! And when he did come up and address me, I was tickled to death—I thought he was going to tell me the whole burg was pleased by my condescending to visit 'em. But all he wanted to know was, was I a guest of the hotel and did I have any right to be holding down a lobby chair permanently that way! And tonight, friends, I'm pretty near as scared of Old Gotham as I was then!"

The laughter, the hand-clapping, were fair enough, but the proud electors were disappointed by his drawl, his weary humility.

Doremus quivered hopefully, "Maybe he isn't going to get elected!"

Windrip outlined his too-familiar platform—Doremus was interested only in observing that Windrip misquoted his own figures regarding the limitation of fortunes, in Point Five.

He slid into a rhapsody of general ideas—a mishmash of polite regards to Justice, Freedom, Equality, Order, Prosperity, Patriotism, and any number of other noble but slippery abstractions.

Doremus thought he was being bored, until he discovered that, at some moment which he had not noticed, he had become absorbed and excited.

Something in the intensity with which Windrip looked at his audience, looked at all of them, his glance slowly taking them in from the highest-perched seat to the nearest, convinced them that he was talking to each individual, directly and solely; that he wanted to take each of them into his heart; that he was telling them the truths, the imperious and dangerous facts, that had been hidden from them.

"They say I want money—power! Say, I've turned down offers from law firms right here in New York of three times the money I'll get as President! And power—why, the President is the servant of every citizen in the country, and not just of the considerate folks, but also of every crank that comes pestering him by telegram and phone and letter. And yet, it's true, it's absolutely true I do want power, great, big, imperial power—but not for myself—no—for you!—the power of your permission to smash the Jew financiers who've enslaved you, who're working you to death to pay the interest on their bonds; the grasping bankers—and not all of 'em Jews by a darn sight!—the crooked labor-leaders just as much as the crooked bosses, and, most of all, the sneaking spies of Moscow that want you to lick the boots of their self-appointed tyrants that rule not by love and loyalty, like I want to, but by the horrible power of the whip, the dark cell, the automatic pistol!"

 

 

He pictured, then, a Paradise of democracy in which, with the old political machines destroyed, every humblest worker would be king and ruler, dominating representatives elected from among his own kind of people, and these representatives not growing indifferent, as hitherto they had done, once they were far off in Washington, but kept alert to the public interest by the supervision of a strengthened Executive.

It sounded almost reasonable, for a while.

The supreme actor, Buzz Windrip, was passionate yet never grotesquely wild. He did not gesture too extravagantly; only, like Gene Debs of old, he reached out a bony forefinger which seemed to jab into each of them and hook out each heart. It was his mad eyes, big staring tragic eyes, that startled them, and his voice, now thundering, now humbly pleading, that soothed them.

He was so obviously an honest and merciful leader; a man of sorrows and acquaint with woe.

Doremus marveled, "I'll be hanged! Why, he's a darn good sort when you come to meet him! And warm-hearted. He makes me feel as if I'd been having a good evening with Buck and Steve Perefixe. What if Buzz is right? What if—in spite of all the demagogic pap that, I suppose, he has got to feed out to the boobs—he's right in claiming that it's only he, and not Trowbridge or Roosevelt, that can break the hold of the absentee owners? And these Minute Men, his followers—oh, they were pretty nasty, what I saw out on the street, but still, most of 'em are mighty nice, clean-cut young fellows. Seeing Buzz and then listening to what he actually says does kind of surprise you—kind of make you think!"

But what Mr. Windrip actually had said, Doremus could not remember an hour later, when he had come out of the trance.

 

 

He was so convinced then that Windrip would win that, on Tuesday evening, he did not remain at the Informer office until the returns were all in. But if he did not stay for the evidences of the election, they came to him.

Past his house, after midnight, through muddy snow tramped a triumphant and reasonably drunken parade, carrying torches and bellowing to the air of "Yankee Doodle" new words revealed just that week by Mrs. Adelaide Tarr Gimmitch:

 

"The snakes disloyal to our Buzz We're riding on a rail, They'll wish to God they never was, When we get them in jail!

Chorus: "Buzz and buzz and keep it up To victory he's floated. You were a most ungrateful pup, Unless for Buzz you voted.

 

"Every M.M. gets a whip To use upon some traitor, And every Antibuzz we skip Today, we'll tend to later."

 

"Antibuzz," a word credited to Mrs. Gimmitch but more probably invented by Dr. Hector Macgoblin, was to be extensively used by lady patriots as a term expressing such vicious disloyalty to the State as might call for the firing squad. Yet, like Mrs. Gimmitch's splendid synthesis "Unkies," for soldiers of the A.E.F., it never really caught on.

 

 

Among the winter-coated paraders Doremus and Sissy thought they could make out Shad Ledue, Aras Dilley, that philoprogenitive squatter from Mount Terror, Charley Betts, the furniture dealer, and Tony Mogliani, the fruit-seller, most ardent expounder of Italian Fascism in central Vermont.

And, though he could not be sure of it in the dimness behind the torches, Doremus rather thought that the lone large motorcar following the procession was that of his neighbor, Francis Tasbrough.

Next morning, at the Informer office, Doremus did not learn of so very much damage wrought by the triumphant Nordics—they had merely upset a couple of privies, torn down and burned the tailor-shop sign of Louis Rotenstern, and somewhat badly beaten Clifford Little, the jeweler, a slight, curly-headed young man whom Shad Ledue despised because he organized theatricals and played the organ in Mr. Falck's church.

That night Doremus found, on his front porch, a notice in red chalk upon butcher's paper:

 

You will get yrs Dorey sweethart unles you get rite down on yr belly and crawl in front of the MM and the League and the Chief and I

A friend

 

 

It was the first time that Doremus had heard of "the Chief," a sound American variant of "the Leader" or "the Head of the Government," as a popular title for Mr. Windrip. It was soon to be made official.

Doremus burned the red warning without telling his family. But he often woke to remember it, not very laughingly.

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