It can’t happen here: A review of Live Not By Lies

Rod Dreher’s new book seeks first to explain what’s reshaping American culture and why; and then to suggest the strategies needed today to live and witness Christian hope, despite the changing terrain.

Detail from a piece of Soviet propaganda produced in 1920. (Wikipedia)

In January 2017, three days before Barack Obama left the White House, the New York Times published an opinion piece entitled “Reading the Classic Novel That Predicted Trump.”

Written by Beverly Gage, it spoke darkly of parallels between the 1935 Sinclair Lewis fantasy, It Can’t Happen Here, and the incoming new president. In the Lewis novel, a populist bully, Berzelius Windrip, sweeps to power in the Great Depression. He attacks blacks and Jews, the “lies” of the press, and the elitism of intellectuals. He promises “every real American family” a cash bonus. Once in office, he locks up Congress and installs a homespun fascism.

As Gage fretted in the Times:

At a moment when instability seems to be the only constant in American politics, It Can’t Happen Here offers an alluring (if terrifying) certainty: It can happen here, and what comes next will be even ghastlier than you expect . . . If Lewis’s postelection vision is what awaits us, there will be little cause for hope, or even civic engagement, in the months ahead. The only viable options will be to get out of the country — or to join an armed underground resistance.

Time has been cruel to the Lewis novel. Fascism never came close to power in the United States, not even under the dreaded Donald. And compared to Orwell’s 1984 or Zamyatin’s We, It Can’t Happen Here is second-rate literature.

But the Times article is still instructive. It’s the voice of a coastal ruling class freaked by the prospect of troglodytes from the flyover colonies wrecking their lawn party. One needn’t be a Donald fan to read the last four years of media loathing and congressional guerrilla warfare for what they are: a slow-motion coup by the nation’s “right people,” the “best people,” against a vulgar — if, alas, constitutionally legitimate —intruder. Trump clearly earned part of that hostility; but only part. As a think-tank friend likes to quip, nothing is more suggestive of Washington’s entrenched government class these days than the 1978 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The aliens running things may look human, but they recoil and shriek at any outsider who’s not One of Their Own.

Here in the real 2020, the conditions that produced a “Big Man” style dictatorship — a Hitler or Franco or Mussolini — simply don’t exist in advanced economies. It Can’t Happen Here really can’t happen here without a collapse in the U.S. standard of living. But something worse can happen, as Rod Dreher argues persuasively in his latest book, Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents.

As events would have it, we don’t need an American Caesar or the theatrics of a Rubicon crossing. Our political institutions and public consciousness can be, and are being, transformed from the inside out, without any melodrama. The result, says Dreher, will be a comfortable servitude, a “soft totalitarianism,” run by a technocratic, progressive elite, and supported by Big Data and a compliant capitalism. Everyday life will be far closer to the sunny brain-scrub of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than the shabbiness and goon-squad brutality of Orwell’s Airstrip One.

Dreher has been the canary in a cultural coal mine for some time. He wrote compellingly about “post-Christian” America long before many Christians were willing to admit the obvious. His best-selling 2017 book, The Benedict Option, linked modern believers to their monastic past for the tools to thrive in unfriendly times. He has two goals in Live Not By Lies, a fitting sequel to his earlier work. He seeks first to explain what’s reshaping American culture and why; and then to suggest the strategies needed today to live and witness Christian hope, despite the changing terrain.

Dreher has a simple, vigorous, engaging style, backed up by exhaustive research and numerous interviews with survivors of Soviet era repression. His book’s title — “Live Not By Lies” — is taken from a 1974 essay by the great Russian dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. And logically so. A survivor of the gulag, Solzhenitsyn committed his life to attacking the mendacity and murderous delusions of Marxist-Leninist ideology. Stalin and his millions of victims were not an “aberration” of the socialist system. They were the inevitable fruit of deceits congenital to Marxist and progressive thought. For Solzhenitsyn, the label “progressive” itself was a misnomer, an example of overweening conceit and skillful self-deception. The materialist view of man was not simply wrong, but a poisonous lie.

Dreher borrows this basic insight and applies it to the smiley-face atheism at the heart of modern technocratic thought. The lie that infects the DNA of atheism kills. Whether the killing is quick and brutal, or a slow, soft strangulation of the spirit, the result is the same.

Part One of Dreher’s book argues, to quote the author, that “despite its superficial permissiveness, liberal democracy is degenerating into something resembling the totalitarianism over which it triumphed in the Cold War.” Dreher examines the seemingly implausible, but very real, parallels between our own society and the ones that gave birth to the totalitarianisms of the last century. Part Two of the text outlines the “forms, methods and sources of resistance” we might use to push back against “soft totalitarianism’s lies.”

The chapters in Part One on “Progressivism as Religion” and “Capitalism, Woke and Watchful,” are especially strong. Anyone imagining big business as instinctively conservative need only remember the speed with which corporations jumped on the same-sex marriage and “gay rights” bandwagon. The lavish business support showered on the “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) movement is also revealing, since — beneath its calls for racial justice — the BLM agenda is toxic to what most Americans believe. The lesson here is simple: Absent a grounding in broadly biblical principles, corporations follow profits, wherever they lead. In Part Two, the chapters on cultural memory, families as resistance cells, and “the gift of suffering,” make for essential reading.

The excellence of this text flows not just from the richness of its content, or the clarity and passion of its presentation, but also from the providential nature of its timing. We live in a uniquely weird moment of uncertainty: a time of peril from a changing culture, but also of opportunity to witness, with our lives, the power of what we believe. It demands a new kind of missionary work, done family to family, friend to friend, local church to local church. It’s a moment when many of our Christian leaders, including Catholic leaders, seem too weak, or confused, or coopted — or dealing with regimes like China, too deluded — to inspire trust.

But the work of the Gospel still does need to be done. And that’s on us. It’s also why a book like Live Not By Lies is so important.

Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents
By Rod Dreher
Sentinel, 2020
Hardcover, 256 pages


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About Francis X. Maier 3 Articles
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior research associate in Constitutional studies at the University of Notre Dame.

34 Comments

  1. Make no mistake about it – freedom is on its terminal deathbed in the USA. Before this century is out, America will have its totalitarian rule supported by the elitist class who, as in the French Revolution, will be destroyed by their own. The picture won’t be at all pretty and I won’t be around to witness it.

    Catholics who are wise will seriously consider homesteading and heading toward life where they are not alone but part of communities of like-minded Catholics. We older people should earmark the financial resources we will leave behind for the purchase of arable land for our children and grandchildren to live on. But, alas, there will be many who will reject this suggestion as more of the ‘sky is falling’ fretting. These will be those who have not read history as predictive. Sad.

  2. This seems like an important and interesting book, but I have a hard time getting past the fact that Dreher is an incredibly mean-spirited attacker of the Catholic Church and has falsely maligned *innocent* clerics.

    In recent years I have concluded that Dreher is playing Catholics to boost his book sales.

    • As a Catholic and reader of Dreher, I can’t agree with this Mr. Pierre at all. I question if Mr. Pierre reads Dreher’s work or just reads about him from spiteful bloggers.

      Dreher is absolutely not mean spirited toward the Church. He has spoken highly of Cardinal Sarah and Archbishop Chaput for example. Dreher is, in fact, quite respectful of the Catholic Church (and Protestants as well), but (rightly) doesn’t shy away from reporting on difficulties within the Church. Unfortunately, some Catholics can’t handle sunlight being shined on the darkness and choose to attack the messenger.

      Dreher has been prescient on the cultural changes affecting the US and people of faith. Those who chose to ignore him because they are upset that he reported on things that made them uncomfortable do so at their (and their family’s) peril.

      • Superb post, Larry Gallagher. If Church hierarchy had acknowledged Dreher’s well-founded criticisms of their willful blindness to the depravity in their ranks — criticisms delivered in the fraternal charity of one who loved the Chruch but could no longer ignore that she was increasingly being taken over by evil men — the Church might’ve been able to reclaim at least a portion of the moral authority stolen from her from within. Those, like Dreher, who are unafraid to document and condemn the sins and crimes of frauds like McCarrick and his highly placed enablers are not a threat to the Church, but a blessing.

    • David. The reviewer here is a Catholic and he has grasped what the author is warning all Christians about. Catholics now have split into two groups. New Zealand is already a post Christian nation and what Dreher writes about is happening here.

  3. Hindsight’s better than no sight. A number of folks who endorsed concepts like the “Benedict Option” were Never-Trumpers in 2016, just as the liberal elites were.

    I’ve seen few people actually speaking for conservative, working class Americans outside of Donald Trump. And he’s a billionaire.

    • True. I wish I could get my relatives to see that–they are all Never-Trumpers who will either vote Democrat or Libertarian.

      • Kathryn,
        Some of my family are never Trumpers too. We just have to agree not to mention politics at this point because it becomes so divisive.

      • Kathyrn,
        I was a massive Never-Trumper until the general election in 2016. I grudgingly voted for Trump only because a Hillary presidency was unthinkable. While there are still things that I don’t like about Trump, I’ll be easily voting for him in 2020.

    • I voted for Trump in 2016 not because he’d by then shown himself worthy of the office, but because the bone-deep corruption of the Clintonistas and the Obamaites made them so obviously UNworthy of it. Trump was wiling to call them out for what they were, and for his efforts he was subjected to illegal spying on his campaign, sabotage of his transition into the office to which he was duly elected, and a coup to evict him from it in defiance of his constitutionally recognized victory. Though his style and manner are not at all mine, the substance of his policies have my respect and support. This time, I’ll be voting for him not grudgingly, but enthusiastically.

  4. How can we Catholics continue to compartmentalize the lies and immoral actions of Trump and his complicit minions. He has passed over the danger of the coronavirus in February 2020, but his eternal epitaph will be etched forever in the minds of generations for his indelible participation in the deaths many thousands of innocent innocent souls.

    How apropos:
    “One needn’t be a Donald fan to read the last four years of media loathing and congressional guerrilla warfare for what they are: a slow-motion coup by the nation’s “right people,” the “best people,” against a vulgar — if, alas, constitutionally legitimate —intruder. Trump clearly earned part of that hostility; but only part. As a think-tank friend likes to quip, nothing is more suggestive of Washington’s entrenched government.”

    • MorganB,
      Trump was correct to downplay the dangers of the coronavirus. For an illness that has a death rate of only 5x to 10x that of the common flu, we have (a) lost a third of our economy, (b) thrown million out of work, (c) bankrupted state and national treasuries, (d) sky high rates of depression and suicide, and (e) civil disorder in the streets. What wreckage!

      Most of our nation’s governors have grossly overreacted to the virus. In hindsight, Trump should have downplayed the virus even further.

    • Grow up please and try to think beyond the narrow scope of your bitterness and delusional TDS. The trends Dreher discusses predate Trump and have nothing to do with him. But of course, you can’t and won’t see that. That’s the thing about a hateful spirit – it really blinds you to the way things actually are.

    • morgan,
      We know you don’t care for Mr. Trump but he acted much more swiftly on shutting down international travel & restaurants, schools, etc than the UK did. My brother lives there & I follow the BBC news daily.
      We won’t know for a couple years what was actually the best approach to this novel virus. Sweden had a whole different plan than we did. The UK went originally from a Swedish herd immunity model, then to a complete lockdown, & experts are still arguing which was right.
      Suicides & depression seem to be increasing significantly across the globe. The Economist had an article today about that. Lockdowns were probably a good way to buy time in the beginning of the virus outbreak so we could figure out what we were dealing with. At this point shutdowns themselves are linked to other types of deaths. The number of drug overdoses here is just awful. One of my children’s classmates who was engaged to be married died from an overdose in August.
      Young people overwhelmingly will survive Covid-something like 99% plus- but they might not survive another lockdown.
      Covid’s not a simple question & there’s been no easy answer for Pres. Trump but I think he did his best.

    • Oh please Morgan B stop beating that poor dead horse. Right, in February we all knew exactly what it was, where it came from, how it was spread, what we should do, very clearly and Trump was the only one who did not and is responsible for the whole thing. You are tricked and thinking like an infant. If everyone knew then why is he responsible?? Your logic is twisted by who knows what??or whom?? We on the other hand have had 47 years to know clearly that millions of innocent, innocent children cried out in the womb and were silenced, where were you?? Trump took on that job fearlessly and is relentlessly hounded everyday unmercifully. Ignorance is not pretty at this stage.

    • Then why was Biden against him cancelling travels to China?

      You would have had to shut the country down a year ago, Oct 2019, to stop it from coming into the country.

    • Seriously?? No man has control over a disease no matter what the simple-minded on the left say. And PANIC is not a useful or positive attribute in a leader. Trump did not kill any covid patients. Their age and previous ill-health killed them. Nobody live forever, in spite of modern day aversion to death at any cost… The reality is 40% of Covid patients show n symptoms and dont even get ill. The survival rate in general is something like 99%. My apologies to the hysterics in the media in particular but this is NOT the Plague.Not by a longshot. I am 66, but not sickly. Had Covid in April. Unpleasant disease but manageable. Never needed the hospital, as is true of most victims. Clearly , I am not dead. If you are old and ill, be very careful. We need the media and the left to stop acting as though everyone who gets this disease is doomed to death. THEY ARE NOT. I like a leader who LEADS, not hides.

    • I’m sorry you feel that way. If you’ll look at our history, the “U” in united was frequently not capitalized until the Civil War. In our “united” States, it is the governors who are responsible for the health and safety of their respective citizens. When Governor Cuomo panicked and insisted he needed tens of thousands of ventilators and was short up to 100,000 critical care beds, the President did all that could be done to support the Governor – knowing full well that given the chance, Governor Cuomo would not return the favor. Ditto for New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan and California. The deaths cannot be placed at the foot of the President. While he was coordinating the full weight of the Federal Government, mobilizing the public sector and building financial packages to address critical needs – the Congress was deep into a fake impeachment and playing down the danger of the virus. Please have a longer view than last nights news broadcast or some understanding of the process of government

  5. In these times, (at all times), it is is easy to recall I Peter 8-11: “Be calm but vigilant, because your enemy the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to eat……
    Jerusalem Bible translation.

  6. “It’s the voice of a coastal ruling class freaked by the prospect of troglodytes from the flyover colonies wrecking their lawn party. One needn’t be a Donald fan to read the last four years of media loathing and congressional guerrilla warfare for what they are: a slow-motion coup by the nation’s “right people,” the “best people,” against a vulgar — if, alas, constitutionally legitimate —intruder.” This is largely what my children have heard from my living room in the past four years. I don’t have much nice to say about President Trump, but have made it clear that this, coupled with a non-functioning press (not a “free” press) puts our country at great risk. And they don’t mind, not one bit.

  7. One should not mention Franco in one breath with Hitler and Mussolini. He was very different from these two, mostly because instead of destroying his country he saved it. Franco and Salazar are the only too rare examples of good dictators.l

  8. conservative agitprop masquerading as a catholic book review – saving you a read

    Calling big business as anything other than conservative is a laugh. Look beyond your fears of a ‘woke’ younger generation and you’ll still see the same strangulation of working class families by these same corps. Exploitation, slave labor, laws shaped to their benefit. This has ripple effects you know.
    Is it any wonder that with less economic stability, the birth rate falls and families decline? And with less stable Catholic families, the faith communities begin to fray?

    But the low minimum wage and lack of social safety nets, and overall lack of opportunities aren’t contributing to this at ALL, the creaking boomers say, it’s actually some black people they saw on the television (that they watch 9+ hours a day) turning their not-church-going grandchildren into marxists.

  9. Drehers Russian orthodox church predated the Catholic Church in selling out to totalitarians.

    Two, the enemy of my enemy is not my friend. It is Trump’s National emergency, still not undeclared, which is fueling the blue governor lockdowns. And he repeatedly assures us he is president warp speed.

    • Ive had the privilege some years ago of visiting a Russian Orthodox mission church. My daughter and the priest’s daughter were good friends in high school. The priest was a convert from a mainline Protestant denomination and was a lovely Christian man.
      The liturgy was beautiful and there seemed to be real fellowship there but perhaps because the congregation had members who were disaffected Catholics I did perceive an anti Catholic vibe.
      It’s probably a different story in countries where being Orthodox is the norm. I’ve visited a Greek Orthodox church on several occasions and worked for a Greek Orthodox employer and never sensed anything but friendliness towards Catholics. In fact, they made an extra effort to point out what we share in common.

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  3. The rise of “soft totalitarianism” | Catholic Canada

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