Thoughts on “It Can’t Happen Here”

Some time back I wrote a review of Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, “It Can’t Happen Here”. I picked the book up again yesterday because, in fact, it did happen here. This essay will use excerpts from that review to illustrate and make what I believe are important points regarding recent political events in which a clearly unqualified and unsuitable individual won the 2016 race for President of the United States. In that essay I wrote:

Yes, it can happen here, and some would say it’s already happening. Written in 1935, Sinclair Lewis’ prescient novel, “It Can’t Happen Here” tells what happens to a country when people are complacent and compliant while others feel their time has come. 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” complacent society. This is also what is referred to as Big Man theory and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). The Big Man, often inflicted with NPD, dispenses favors, employment, and material gain to sycophants in return for loyalty and support.

Sad to say, my opening sentence was also prescient and I felt it more than I thought it. There were other reasons of course, including what many of us thought was a dishonest primary with high party officials, including the party chairwoman, colluding to favor one candidate over another a fact later confirmed by ballot counts. Complacency in the form of a great many eligible people simply not voting either in the primary or in the general election added to the debacle. The lack of voter interest and participation is, in and of itself, a terrible commentary on and worrisome omen for the future of politics in the United States. Think for just a moment of those who sacrificed, either with lengthy commitment of time out of their lives or by making the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, to preserve this so-called Democracy. The depth of tragedy is unavoidably clear.

Where were all those “Freedom Loving” Americans who stand for the national anthem even if they don’t know the words and can’t follow the music? Do they not know, have they not been taught, do they not understand the importance of voting, of informing themselves of what is at stake? What happened? Where did the American socialization process go off the tracks, substituting consumerism for patriotism?

Lewis describes the pathology that infects both sides of the current Democrat/Republican equation …  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 crucial to their success.

And, it is a pathology, a disintegration of a social contract that requires responsibility for the conduct of a society and the outcomes of its governance. It’s a pathology that can become fatal. I have witnessed instances of these kinds of “leaders” asserting control over organizations and social scenes and the pattern is always the same. Favors are given, loyalty replaces thoughtful engagement, “goodies” flow, and promises predicting even more “goodies” or “free” munchies for the faithful. It is, on evidence, an “innate primal instinct”. It is a matter of ambition over integrity, of emotion over reason.

… consider the following symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder as described by the DSM-5 diagnostic text and … 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

These specifications describe our 2016 Presidential election. The specifications apply to both sides, some elements applying more to one candidate than the other. To these I would add two more. There is a certain kind of ruthlessness that specifically negates civility and exploits weakness in others. If you add together the elements of anomic personality disorder you can come up with a fair and accurate description of the actors in this modern-day drama especially the over-weaning necessity to dominate and to receive submission. Last but not least, in connection with the former, include the need for revenge as punishment for failure of obsequiousness and obedience. 

The obvious parallels are manifested in Windrip’s startling resemblance to two of the current candidates running for President of the US and Jessup’s avuncular resemblance to a sidelined populist former candidate for President.  Yes, history does indeed repeat itself. I vividly remember the turmoil of 1968 and the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy. As you read … 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.

As much as some people are revolted by the notion, our social contract is underwritten by socialistic policies such as Social Security, Health Care, highways and by ways maintained by governments, police departments, and a standing military; for the benefit and good of all, even if more for some than others. Will all of this be dismantled in a sociopathic jihad that posits everyone should be on their own in some kind of jungle ethos? Are we just going to give this a whirl and see where it ends while the rest of the world watches?

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2 Responses to “Thoughts on “It Can’t Happen Here””


  1. 1 Carol Sharp November 19, 2016 at 8:19 pm

    Brilliant.

  2. 2 Bradley November 19, 2016 at 12:03 pm

    A very moving essay, EC.
    I came of voting age when Eugene McCarthy was running for office. I got the train from Milwaukee to Chicago to give my support to his campaign and with the “police riots” in full bloom, discovered that “Freedom of Assembly” had already been struck from the U.S. Constitution. Beginning with that election, I have, ever since, rather than voting for the “better” candidate I voted for what I believed to be the “lesser of two evils”. The problem there is that which-ever candidate wins, you still have one of those two evils, and over the past fifty years, this country has elected some of the most vile and emotionally disturbed people this nation could possibly find. In those fifty years this nation has murdered people around the world by the millions…and not one of those nations ever threatened, let alone attacked us.
    We now have a President-elect who is probably a profoundly inappropriate person to be our Head-of-State. And still, a month away from taking office, he is being criticized for wanting peaceful relations, rather than war, with nuclear-armed Russia. At the same time, our current “President of Hope and Change” has ear-marked a trillion dollars for the next generation of thermo-nuclear weapons.
    Studying history as far back as the written word goes, I cannot find a single example of a nation, except one, which has become as aggressive, hostile, and has armed itself to the extent that we have, that has stopped, turned around and stepped back from it’s own, ultimate, destruction. Just imagine what the world would be like, if, in the past twelve years, Russia had bombed and destroyed eight counties in our own neighborhood. Just imagine!!


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