It Can’t Happen Here

I’m fascinated by 1930s America, and have a lot of interest in alternative histories that imagine the United States being conquered by the Axis powers or electing an overt ally of fascists governments. Yet it’s one thing to ask what woulda happened decades after the fact; it’s quite another to imagine what could happen in the near future.

Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel regained its popularity in 2016, with many critics comparing its central character, Buzz Windrip (modeled closely after Huey Long), to Donald Trump. To me, those analyses — here’s one, and here’s another — seem almost self-evident. Windrip becomes president by promising voters economic prosperity with the aw shucks persona of a political outsider, which is all you need to know about what happened on the first Tuesday in November 2016. Like Windrip, The Fraud has no problem telling his followers want they to believe, regardless of its truth.

Despite the novel’s relevance to today’s politics, I’m more interested in the world created by its author. In that regard, I don’t find the first part of Lewis’ novel particularly convincing; Windrip’s victorious campaign in the 1936 Presidential election seems improbable, and even less so are parts of his subsequent dismantling of American government, such as eliminating state boundaries and replacing them with administrative districts. What seems far more believable is the resistance movement started by rural newspaper publisher Doremus Jessup. Much as “The Plot Against America” focuses on one family’s struggle to survive Charles Lindbergh’s authoritarian reign, “It Can’t Happen Here” is at its best when it shows small-town Americans fighting to retain their freedom and dignity after their world falls into political chaos.

Grover Gardner’s audiobook performance is steady but unspectacular. His voice for Windrip is appealingly folksy, but none of the other characters stand out, even Jessup. Perhaps because of my interest in the era, I’m discovering that I’m far more interested in reading and analyzing these works about 1930s America than I am in listening to someone recite them to me as I drive. But listening is still preferable to not being exposed to it at all, so I would still recommend the audiobook to anyone interested in the novel.