Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Notes on Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America" in the Age of Trump

by Nomad

Published in 2004, novelist Philip Roth's last book what-if alternative history has definitely come back to haunt us. 

The events in "The Plot Against America" takes place between June 1940 and October 1942 in a world that took a different course.

The middle-class Roth family from New Jersey- a re-imagining of the author's real family- live in an America where President Franklin Delano Roosevelt has lost his bid for a third term. His unlikely Republican challenger? The aviator and all-American hero, Charles Lindbergh.

Some readers back in 2004 might be forgiven for thinking that this event was extremely far-fetched. Who back then would have ever believed that a celebrity without any political experience whatsoever could win a presidential election?

In actual history, Lindbergh was an isolationist and the leading voice of the America First Committee — an isolationist group of some 800,000 members. The organization believed that England was attempting to drag the US into another European war.

The membership included..
some of the most prominent Americans from some of the most prominent families. There was future President Ford; Sargent Shriver, who’d go on to lead the Peace Corps; and Potter Stewart, the future U.S. Supreme Court justice. It was funded by the families who owned Sears-Roebuck and the Chicago Tribune,but also counted among its ranks prominent anti-Semites of the day.
Keeping America out of the war was a top priority for Nazi Germany. In 1938,  Nazi Party leader Hermann Goering (on behalf of Adolf Hitler) presented Lindbergh with the Service Cross of the German Eagle, ostensively for his aviation skills.  
But few were fooled at the time.
Hitler was honoring Lindbergh for being an ardent proponent of Nazi Germany's military superiority as well as his stand on American neutrality.  

In Roth's book, the fictional President Lindbergh expresses his admiration for the fascist leader, his desire for cooperation/ collaboration over war.

He is unexpectedly nominated as a GOP challenger to Roosevelt at the Republican National Convention. Riding a populist wave, Lindbergh wins. His election victory empowers the xenophobic far-right fringe. Nazi Germany- in the book- is accused of meddling in the American election, leading some to believe that the President is being blackmailed.

Reminder: this book was published in 2004.

The Plot of the Plot 

"The Plot Against America" isn't just a political piece but the story of the Roths coming to grips with what it feels like to be an outsider in their own country. 
When the family is forced ("selected") by his employer to relocate to Kentucky as per as a new edict, his mother responds:
"And just where do they get the gall to do this to people?" my mother asked. "I am dumbfounded, Herman. Our families are here. Our lifelong friends are here. The children's friends are here. We have lived in peace and harmony here all of our lives. We are only a block from the best elementary school in Newark. We are a block from the best high school in New Jersey. Our boys have been raised among Jews. They go to school with other Jewish children. There is no friction with the other children. There is no name-calling. There are no fights. They have never had to feel left out and lonely the way I did as a child.
"I cannot believe the company is doing this to you. The way you have worked for those people, the hours that you put in, the effort—and this," she said angrily, "is the reward."
Under President Lindbergh, Jewish boys are taken away from their families to live with families in the South and Midwest in an effort to "Americanize" them. There, they are brainwashed into hating their own families.

Things soon become far worse for the Roths. When President Lindbergh's plane suddenly goes missing, vice-president Wheeler assumes control and all hell breaks loose. The new president attributes Lindbergh's disappearance to a conspiracy to take control of the U.S. government by Jewish Americans. Wheeler then uses it as a pretext to begin arresting Jews. 

Let's stop there.
You'll have to read the book to know how it turns out.

The Reviews Left and Right

When the book was published, the reviews of the book were largely divided between political preference. Despite Roth's repeated denials, some saw it as a warning against George W. Bush's second term.
Not so, said the author. All I did, he explained, is to show "how it might have been different and might have happened here.”
“My novel wasn’t written as a warning. I was just trying to imagine what it would have been like for a Jewish family like mine, in a Jewish community like Newark, had something even faintly like Nazi anti-Semitism befallen us in 1940, at the end of the most pointedly anti-Semitic decade in world history. I wanted to imagine how we would have fared, which meant I had first to invent an ominous American government that threatened us."
Twelve years later after the book was published, American citizens are close to having exactly that kind of government.
Yet, even in the pre-Obama days- how golden and innocent they now seem- it was possible to read this Roth's book and detect a few reverberations from our own age.

In 2004, a reviewer from The New York Times called the novel "sinister, vivid, dreamlike, preposterous and, at the same time, creepily plausible." Even more to the point, the Village Voice noted that the book "makes one feel that the worst for this country is not only possible but near."

Not every reviewer was enchanted by the book.
The 2004 review in The American Conservative by Bill Kauffman   was what is commonly called "scathing." He objected to non-historian Roth's historical inaccuracies and writing in "Time-Life prose." There is, complains Kauffman, not "a  spark of wit or a single subversive thought."
According to the review, it is an "odious" novel is sodden with cliches based on "officially sanctioned history."   

Interestingly, one of Kauffman's rigorous objections includes Roth's portrayal of American anti-Semitism among Catholics. He seems to find the idea libelous and offensive and yet, history shows us that popular firebrands like Father Coughlin took to the airwaves to publicly defend Hitler's treatment of Jews claiming that they had brought it on themselves.
At a speech in the Bronx, Coughlin gave a Nazi salute and declared
"When we get through with the Jews in America, they'll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing."
The outraged Kauffman sums up his review by depicting the book as "a repellent novel, bigoted and libelous of the dead, dripping with hatred of rural America, of Catholics, of any Middle American who has ever dared stand against the war machine."

It should be noted that Kauffman is the author of  the 1996 America First!: Its History, Culture, and Politics.

Grinding her Islamophobic ax whenever she gets the chance, conservative columnist Diana West in her Townhall review of Roth's book writes:
There is something gratingly noxious about depicting imaginary American-Jewish suffering at the hands of American Christians at a time when both Jews and Christians are increasingly targeted by specifically Islamic terrorism.
Of course, this ignores the historical facts, most notable of which is that Hitler was not a Muslim. In fact, he painted himself- at least, in his rise to power- as a divinely-inspired Christian crusader whose mission was to do to Jews openly what the Catholic Church had done for centuries.

As Hitler said in April 1933:
The Catholic Church considered the Jews pestilent for fifteen hundred years, put them in ghettos, etc, because it recognized the Jews for what they were. ..perhaps I am thereby doing Christianity a great service by pushing them out of schools and public functions.
In his speech at the Reichstag in 1933, he said:
The Government of the Reich, which regards Christianity as the unshakable foundation of the morals and moral code of the nation..
West also dodges the fact that far-right Christian groups in the US in the 1930s were outspokenly hostile to Jews, especially Jewish bankers whom they saw as responsible for the economic meltdown.

For instance, Gerald L. K. Smith, a Disciples of Christ minister, was also a far-right political organizer. He became a member of William Dudley Pelley's pro-Nazi Silver Shirts organization, which was patterned after Hitler's brown shirts
To top it off, Smith was also the founder of the America First Party in 1944, for which he was a presidential candidate in the election that year.  

Although critics from the Right might have booed and hissed back in 2004, as the book's post-script note states Roth had based his work of fiction on more than 50 reputable sources. 
For a piece of fiction, Roth's imagination is on fairly solid ground.

After Trump's Triumph

In the wake of the disastrous presidential election of 2016, Roth's imaginary history about a fascist takeover of America seemed less of a parlor game.

In January 2017, the New Yorker took a new look at the what-if turned what-next book. Roth lived long enough to see Trump's rise to power and he was asked to compare his book to the events.

If anything, he seemed to imply, his imagination fell short of what actually happened in his novel. In an email, Roth wrote:
“It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump.... It isn’t Trump as a character, a human type—the real-estate type, the callow and callous killer capitalist— that outstrips the imagination. It is Trump as President of the United States.
He continued,
“I was born in 1933, the year that F.D.R. was inaugurated. He was President until I was twelve years old. I’ve been a Roosevelt Democrat ever since. I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”
Before Roth died last May, Trump's language had devolved into something less coherent than mere Jerkish. We now have a president who is unable to testify under oath because he is actually incapable of telling the truth without incriminating himself. 

Roth did not live long enough to witness how closely the Trump reality will match his alternate history. What was once dismissed- especially by the Right- as implausible and irrational liberal paranoia has now become our day-to-day reality.

As Herman Roth says in the book:
"We knew things were bad, but not like this. You had to be there to see what it looked like....If I didn't see it with my own eyes, I'd think I was having a hallucination."

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