In 1936, Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a charismatic and power-hungry politician, wins the election as President of the United States on a populist platform, promising to restore the country to prosperity and greatness, and promising each citizen $5,000 a year. Portraying himself as a champion of traditional American values, Windrip easily defeats his opponents, Senator Walt Trowbridge and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Though having previously foreshadowed some authoritarian measures in order to reorganize the United States government, Windrip rapidly outlaws dissent, incarcerates political enemies in concentration camps, and trains and arms a paramilitary force called the Minute Men, who terrorize citizens and enforce the policies of Windrip and his “corporatist” regime. One of his first acts as president is to eliminate the influence of the United States Congress, which draws the ire of many citizens as well as the legislators themselves. The Minute Men respond to protests against Windrip’s decisions harshly, attacking demonstrators with bayonets.
In addition to these actions, Windrip’s administration, known as the “Corpo” government, curtails women’s and minority rights, and eliminates individual states by subdividing the country into administrative sectors. The government of these sectors is managed by “Corpo” authorities, usually prominent businessmen or Minute Men officers. Those accused of crimes against the government appear before kangaroo courts presided over by “military judges.” Despite these dictatorial (and “quasi-draconian”) measures, a majority of Americans approve of them, seeing them as necessary but painful steps to restore American power. Others, those less enthusiastic about the prospect of corporatism, reassure themselves that fascism cannot “happen here,” hence the novel’s title.
Open opponents of Windrip, led by Senator Trowbridge, form an organization called the New Underground, helping dissidents escape to Canada in manners reminiscent of the Underground Railroad and distributing anti-Windrip propaganda. One recruit to the New Underground is Doremus Jessup, the novel’s protagonist, a traditional liberal and an opponent of both Corpoism and communist theories, which Windrip’s administration suppresses. Jessup’s participation in the organization results in the publication of a periodical called The Vermont Vigilance, in which he writes editorials decrying Windrip’s abuses of power.
Shad Ledue, the local district commissioner and Jessup’s former hired man, resents his old employer and eventually discovers his actions and has Jessup sent to a concentration camp. Ledue subsequently terrorizes Jessup’s family and particularly his daughter Sissy, whom he unsuccessfully attempts to seduce. Sissy does, however, discover evidence of corrupt dealings on the part of Ledue, which she exposes to Francis Tasbrough, a one-time friend of Jessup and Ledue’s superior in the administrative hierarchy. Tasbrough has Ledue imprisoned in the same camp as Jessup, where inmates he had sent there organize his murder. Jessup escapes, after a relatively brief incarceration, when his friends bribe one of the camp guards. He flees to Canada, where he rejoins the New Underground. He later serves the organization as a spy in the Northeastern United States, passing along information and urging locals to resist Windrip.
In time, Windrip’s hold on power weakens as the economic prosperity he promised does not materialize and increased numbers of disillusioned Americans, including Vice President Perley Beecroft, flee to both Canada and Mexico. He also angers his Secretary of State, Lee Sarason, who had served earlier as his chief political operative and adviser. Sarason and Windrip’s other lieutenants, including General Dewey Haik, seize power and exile the president to France. Sarason succeeds Windrip, but his extravagant and relatively weak rule creates a power vacuum in which Haik and others vie for power. In a bloody putsch, Haik leads a party of military supporters into the White House, kills Sarason and his associates, and proclaims himself president. The two coups cause a slow erosion of Corpo power, and Haik’s government desperately tries to arouse patriotism by launching an unjustified invasion of Mexico. After slandering Mexico in state-run newspapers, Haik orders a mass conscription of young American men for the invasion of that country, infuriating many who had until then been staunch Corpo loyalists. Riots and rebellions break out across the country, with many realizing that the Corpos have misled them.
General Emmanuel Coon, among Haik’s senior officers, defects to the opposition with a large portion of his army, giving strength to the resistance movement. Though Haik remains in control of much of the country, civil war soon breaks out as the resistance tries to consolidate its grasp on the Midwest. The novel ends after the beginning of the conflict, with Jessup working as an agent for the New Underground in Corpo-occupied portions of southern Minnesota.