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Monday, April 24, 2017

The Plot Against America

When the nightmare known as the Trump presidency began, many pointed out the novels that have foreseen this, among them 1984, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (an adaptation of which is available for viewing on Wednesday on Hulu) and Philip Roth's 2004 alternative history, The Plot Against America. I've read all three, and there are more to read (such as Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here and Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man, which I plan on reading shortly).

Since Roth is my favorite author, and I read the book before I began this blog, I decided to read it again, and boy howdy does it echo Trump's election. The gimmick is this; Franklin Roosevelt is defeated in the 1940 election by aviator Charles Lindbergh, who is a known anti-Semite and isolationist. He keeps America out of the war, and cozies up to the Third Reich. Jews everywhere are scared and threatened.

This is unusual territory for Roth, but not really, as the book is seen through the eyes of young Philip Roth, seven years old in 1940, and his family, living in Newark, New Jersey. Everything that happens worldwide is filtered through their eyes, especially the brimming hatred for Lindbergh and all the appeasers by his father, Herman. He also has a brother, Sandy, who is wooed to Lindbergh's cause, and an aunt who is an outright collaborator, marrying the famous rabbi who is a useful idiot to Lindbergh's appeal to Jewry.

What's true and false is mingled, but recognizable to any student of American history. Lindbergh did not really run for president, but some radical Republicans urged him to. Even by 1938 he was already hated by many Americans for accepting a medal from Hitler. Young Philip says: "Lindbergh was the first famous living American whom I learned to hate—just as President Roosevelt was the first famous living American whom I was taught to love—and so his nomination by the Republicans to run against Roosevelt in 1940 assaulted, as nothing ever had before, that huge endowment of personal security that I had taken for granted as an American child of American parents in an American school in an American city in an America at peace with the world."

I think Trump's nomination and election have assaulted many of our endowments of personal security, who never believed such a catastrophe could occurred.

Oh, but there's more. The book outlines perfectly the conspiracy theory that Trump is a puppet of Vladimir Putin and the Russians, as Roth outlines in his fiction that Lindbergh was a tool of the Nazis. In the book, though, Lindbergh is vanquished, and Roosevelt is restored to the White House. We can't get Obama back, but we can hope that Trump is finally undone.

As alternative history, the book is scarily prescient, but it is also fantastic writing. We get Roth's usual picaresque descriptions of the old Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, such as this gem describing the area's morons: "To most of us they were known, if at all, only by the hoodlum magic of their supercharged nicknames—Leo “the Lion” Nusbaum, Knuckles Kimmelman, Big Gerry Schwartz, Dummy Breitbart, Duke “Duke-it-out” Glick— and by their double-digit IQ scores."

A section that has the Roth's visiting Washington, D.C., after Lindbergh's election, and Herman Roth's detections of anti-Semetism is brilliant, as is the the subplot of Walter Winchell, who was a very popular newspaper columnist and radio host who was devoutly anti-Nazi. In the book, he is the last voice against Lindbergh, runs for President, and is assassinated (in reality he lived until 1972).

The rise in anti-Semitic vandalism and other assaults have risen since Trump's election, and of course it is no coincidence. We have an AirBNB operator defying the law and refusing to rent to an Asian, because she thinks, Trump has been elected. Stories like this are all around. In The Plot Against America, Roth firmly posits that an election by Lindbergh, a Jew-hater, raises the specter of Nazism in America, while Trump's election, he too a self-evident bigot, has increased racist assaults of all stripe in America. It's eerie.

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