Book Review: “It Can’t Happen Here” — Sinclair Lewis
August 20, 2016
Yes, it can happen here, and some would say it’s already happening. Written in 1935, Sinclair Lewis’ prescient novel tells what happens to a country when people are complacent and compliant.The novel is an allegory, a morality tale, a story depicting the unquenchable quest for renown, power, and oftentimes wealth in a “go-along-to get-along” complaisant society. The story accords both with what is referred to as Big Man theory and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). The Big Man, often afflicted with NPD, dispenses favors, employment and material gain to sycophants in return for loyalty and support. Maintaining the requisite plots and sub-plots requires a great deal of coercion and effort.
Lewis describes the pathology that infects both sides of the current Democrat/Republican equation, as well as other organizations from local politics to labor unions. It’s a two-way street. The “leader” generally requires obsequious feedback and loyalty, and the followers require favors in return for their affirmation and adoration. Everyone in the game has a handful of “gimme” and a mouthful of “much obliged.” It often doesn’t matter what the actors receive so long as they get “something”: a vote, a ride in a limo, a free meal, or simply an “atta-boy” pat on the back. Such “leaders” possess an innate primal instinct to identify and exploit weaknesses that is crucial to their success.
As the antagonist, Berzelius Windrip, climbs his way to absolute power, the protagonist, Doremus Jessup, whittles his life down to as low a profile as he can manage to avoid attention. Windrip, an ambition-driven politician, eventually becomes the “president,” surrounded by yes men and a vigilante posse, the CORPOs, who kill or jail anyone who opposes his and their rule. Jessup, a small-town newspaper editor, eventually loses his paper and thus his soapbox. Life in the small Vermont town in which most of the action takes place is slowly but surely reduced to imprisonment or sniveling obeisance. Dissenters are jailed or outright murdered by the newly ascendant former-underclass CORPOs. Eventually the tide envelops Jessup, he is arrested and finds himself trying to escape into Canada.
The reader is encouraged to consider the following symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder as described by the DSM-5 diagnostic text. Ask yourself if you recognize any of these in the current political milieu:
1. Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from others
2. Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
3. Self-perception of being unique, superior and associated with high-status people and institutions
4. Needing constant admiration from others
5. Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
6. Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain
7. Unwilling to empathize with others’ feelings, wishes, or needs
The obvious parallels are manifested in Windrip’s startling resemblance to two of the current candidates running for president of the U.S. and Jessup’s avuncular resemblance to a sidelined populist former candidate for president. Yes, history does indeed repeat itself, as I vividly recall the turmoil of 1968 and the populist candidacy of Eugene McCarthy. As you read this valuable, prescient book I believe you’ll find yourself wondering if things ever actually change, and what is our fate as a society if we cannot do better than this. Think of It Can’t Happen Here as an early warning call to action.
Emanuele Corso’s essays on politics, education, and the social contract have been published at NMPolitics, Light of New Mexico, Grassroots Press, World News Trust, Nation of Change, New Mexico Mercury and his own—siteseven.net. He taught Schools and Society at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he took his Ph.D. His B.S. was in Mathematics. He is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, where he served as a Combat Crew Officer during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He has been a member of the Carpenters and Joiners labor union, Local 314. He is presently working on a book: Belief Systems and the Social Contract. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org