The Plot Against America: Desperately Seeking Philip Roth

AP Photo/Richard Drew, file

Author Philip Roth poses for a photo in the offices of his publisher, Houghton Mifflin, in New York. 

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In 2004, Philip Roth published an eerily prescient novel titled The Plot Against America. The novel looked backward to shed light on the present. Roth’s premise was that the pioneer aviator, isolationist and Nazi sympathizer, Charles A. Lindbergh, won the Republican nomination in 1940 and defeated Franklin Roosevelt.

Roth goes on to imagine what life would have been like, both in the Roth household and in America, as Lindbergh keeps the country out of World War II and makes a tacit alliance with Hitler. As the Roth family comes to Washington on Inauguration Day, Philip’s mother catches a glimpse of the White House and begins to cry, “It isn’t like living in a normal country anymore.”

It isn’t like living in a normal country anymore.

Lindbergh goes on to steer America into a kind of soft fascism. The opposition still functions, but is vulnerable to arrest. Jews are not exterminated, merely herded into rural re-education camps.

Roth writes, evoking the nine-year-old who he was in 1942, “the relentless unfolding of the unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as ‘History’, harmless history.” But now, as history unfolded in real time, it was far from harmless and citizens felt helpless.

Roth, not primarily a political novelist, was nonetheless an astute political observer. He brilliantly skewered Richard Nixon and his thugs in Our Gang (1971). He offered a devastating early warning about Israeli Likudniks and their American enablers in The Counterlife (1986). His novel, The Human Stain (2000), which takes place during the summer of the Lewinsky/Clinton/impeachment mess, has some wicked asides about politics and sex. In I Married a Communist (1998), Roth creates a story of marital breakup and betrayal against the backdrop of McCarthyism.

Roth denied that The Plot Against America was intended as a comment on current political events. Yet on the eve of the book’s publication he wrote in The New York Times Book Review, in an essay on how the novel came to be:

And now Aristophanes, who surely must be God, has given us George W. Bush, a man unfit to run a hardware store let alone a nation like this one, and who has merely reaffirmed for me the maxim that informed the writing of all these books and that makes our lives as Americans as precarious as anyone else's: all the assurances are provisional, even here in a 200-year-old democracy. We are ambushed, even as free Americans in a powerful republic armed to the teeth, by the unpredictability that is history.

History is indeed unpredictable and democracy precarious. But even Philip Roth, as brilliantly inventive as he is at creating the gargantuan and the grotesque, could not have invented a character like Donald Trump.

And even Roth could not figure out how to make things come out right after his fictional Lindbergh threw in with Adolf Hitler. So Roth resorted to a deus ex machina. In October 1942, President Lindbergh is providentially killed in a plane crash. Martial law is briefly declared, a new presidential election is called for November—and good old FDR wins a third term! Democracy is restored, America enters the war, and Hitler unconditionally surrenders in 1946, just a year behind schedule. History unfolds, pretty much as before, after all.

We should only be so lucky.

So where is Philip Roth, now that we need him? How, pray tell, do we escape American fascism this time, now that this is no fantasy?

As it happens, Roth, 83, retired from writing and from public life in 2014. His last public appearance was a reading at New York’s 92nd Street Y, that May.

Last year, Roth donated his entire, 4,000-volume literary library to the Public Library of his beloved Newark, where it all began, as recounted in Roth’s first novella Goodbye Columbus.

Before he retired, Roth wrote a flurry of late, elegant short novels, including an agonizing one in 2009 titled The Humbling. The premise is that an aging actor realizes that he is losing his power, and one day he just can’t do it anymore. (“Going on stage became agony. Instead of the certainty that he was going to be wonderful, he knew he was going to fail.”) The novel—spoiler alert—ends with a suicide.

Roth is nothing if not unflinching. One can read aging actor as a proxy for aging novelist. Roth is such a perfectionist that it’s wholly understandable—admirable—that’s he’d want to call it a day at the top of his game, before serious and even disabling horrors set in that maybe he was starting to lose his powers.

Still, I wish Roth were still writing, both to shed light on the human folly and foible that brought us Donald Trump, and maybe to invent a more plausible deus ex machina to get us out of today’s plot against America.

Alas, the magic that Roth conjured to restore Roosevelt exists only in literature. Trump is far more of a menace than Roth’s invented Lindbergh. Getting rid of him will take strategic focus, courage, and no small measure of luck.

Besides rereading Roth, I’ve been obsessively reading and rereading books on fascism. One clairvoyant classic, which I read at the time, is Bert Gross’s 1980 book, Friendly Fascism.

Gross, who died in 1997, wrote this book before Ronald Reagan’s election. But as early as the 1960s and 1970s, democracy was getting weakened, the economy was becoming more dominated by giant corporations, the imperial presidency had too much power, the military was too strong, and there was too much government surveillance of citizens. America dodged a bullet when Nixon was impeached, but the underlying power shift was still there. 

Gross, as a legislative aide, had been a principal author of both the original Roosevelt-era Full Employment Act (watered down by Congress in 1946) and the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978. He was all too aware that fascism arises precisely when ordinary working people are denied economic security.

A corporate/militarist state, Gross warned, was a vulnerable democracy. With the rise of all these anti-democratic forces, he believed explicit fascism was not even necessary. But Gross, it turned out, was an optimist.

And so was Roth. The fascism now approaching is far from friendly. After decades of assault American democracy is far more fragile and impaired than we assumed.

We now have a president-elect with no regard for democratic norms, one who views the mythic people as a malleable mob. He has no patience for absorbing real information, but is possessed of a feral political intelligence that his opposition has yet to comprehend, much less effectively resist.

In Roth’s fictional America under Lindbergh in 1942, there is still a free press, though he does describe the assassination of a leading media critic. Trump, by contrast, is assassinating the difference between fact and lie in the entire media, and to an appalling degree he is getting away with it.

Too few Democratic politicians have displayed the requisite courage. In The Plot Against America, Roth imagines that in 1942, liberal leaders fight back. Eleanor Roosevelt, Roger Baldwin of the ACLU, and New York Mayor LaGuardia rally forces of decency. LaGuardia talks of the “sheer derangement that is threatening the nation’s sanity.”

Speaking of derangement, Donald Trump actually described John Lewis, who bled for civil rights, as “all talk, talk, talk, and no action.” There is nobody alive less deserving of that slander.

The New York Times account of the Trump/Lewis episode noted in passing that Lewis was not attending the Inaugural, one of five (5) Democratic members of the House to boycott. Five!

Others on that honor roll include: Barbara Lee of California, Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, and Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois.  As outrage increased at Trump’s attack on John Lewis, on Martin Luther King weekend, no less, the number House Democrats boycotting the Inauguration in solidarity with Lewis swelled to about 30. It should be the entire caucus.

John Lewis was right that this president has no legitimacy, just as Philip Roth’s imagined mother was right to feel that “it isn’t like living in a normal country anymore.”

Not a single Democratic Member of Congress should be attending Trump’s inauguration, much less the Clintons. There is a lot of bather about the importance of attending, “out of respect for the institution.” Please. This is Trump’s coronation, not America’s, and he has no respect for the institution.

It is an illusion to believe that if Democrats respect norms of comity, Trump will somehow reciprocate. He will just see it as more weakness, to be rolled over.

If you are wondering what to write your Member of Congress, start with that. This time, the plot against America is real.

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