It Can Happen Here 2: “The Plot Against America”

md8057491406TRUMP SUPPORTER: “What’s that you’re reading?”

ME: “Oh, it’s a book about Charles Lindbergh winning the presidency.”

TRUMP SUPPORTER: “I remember that.”

ME: “What?”

TRUMP SUPPORTER: “I learned about that in school.”

ME: “Charles Lindbergh was the first man to fly a plane over the Atlantic, from New York to Paris.”

TRUMP SUPPORTER: “Right. And then he became president.”

ME: <<rolls eyes>>

It should not surprise me that Trump people don’t know their history. If they did, they would never have voted for a fascist. In our universe, of course, Lindbergh never ran for office, and Roosevelt went on to win an unprecedented third term in office, wherein he lead the United States into World War II. It’s easy to paint a rosy picture of the past, to imagine a government full of wise, determined men like Roosevelt, who, with little opposition from the American people, bravely charge into Europe to save the day. History is murky, however, and the history of politics even murkier. While it may seem a no-brainer that America should have joined the war effort, in the 1940’s, there was considerable contention over the matter. Republicans, namely, felt the need to “put America first,” and not get involved. Sure, Hitler may have been massacring Syrians Jews by the millions, but that wasn’t America’s problem. We had our own economic depression to worry about. But thanks to the charismatic leadership and foresight of FDR, the isolationist America First-crowd lost the argument, and the world as we know it is free from the grip of fascism (at least so far). What Roosevelt understood, even back in 1940, was that the world’s problems eventually become our problems. It isn’t only unethical to ignore the plight of nations, but downright dangerous to our security.

 

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At least Lindbergh was a looker! And he could fly a plane!

 

This is the crux of Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America, wherein Charles Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt in his third run for president, leaving America deaf to the genocide across the Atlantic. In both reality and in the novel, Lindbergh was a Nazi sympathizer. The result of his presidency was to delay America’s insurgency in World War II, as Lindbergh and Hitler agree to a treaty of non-engagement, leaving the Nazi blitzkrieg to steamroll over Europe and into Russia with only Great Britain to contest them. Aside from the odious politic of non-intervention, what I found most timely and disturbing is how accurately the book mirrors current events. If I did not know better, I could accuse Roth of blatantly ripping the plot of his book from today’s headlines. Here’s just a few of the similarities between Lindbergh’s and Trump’s presidencies:

 

  1. Before his election, Lindbergh is demonized for his racist comments.
  2. As a non-politician, Lindbergh becomes the surprise Republican nominee, winning against great odds and considerable controversy.
  3. Lindbergh is said to speak off the cuff, without prepared notes, telling it “like it is.”
  4. Lindbergh runs his campaign his own way, frustrating Republican leaders.
  5. Lindberg runs on a platform of putting “America First.”
  6. Lindbergh loses in the polls, but wins the presidency anyway, to the shock and consternation of many, against a popular career politician and Democrat.
  7. After Lindbergh is sworn in as president, he tones down much of his racist rhetoric.
  8. Lindbergh is said to admire a foreign power (Hitler) and is accused of having secret ties with Germany.
  9. Lindbergh is repeatedly accused of being a fascist.
  10. Lindbergh’s followers belong to white supremacist groups. They commit acts of violence against Jews, destroying businesses and synagogues.
  11. Lindbergh stifles the free press. Those in the media who speak against him lose their jobs.

 

Did I mention the book was written in 2004? Which begs the question: Is Philip Roth a time traveler? Or does he simply understand that people are predictable in their hatreds and prejudices, and that such happenings (albeit with eerie specificity) are simply inevitable?

While political in theme, The Plot Against America is far from a political treatise. Roth does not seek to find or give answers here. Instead, he examines fascist America from an intimate perspective, the story unfolding through the eyes of a young Philip Roth in a kind of pseudo-autobiography, wherein the author imagines the childhood he might have had—had Lindbergh won the presidency in 1940. This unique approach helped lend credibility to Roth’s reimagining of the past, and I do not doubt that anyone reading this book, ignorant to history, might take it for one. Roth conjures real world people, places and events, tweaking them just enough to service the story.

It doesn’t happen right away, of course. But ever so gradually, the rights ensconced by the Constitution are eroded away. And as always, it is the minorities, the immigrants, the others who are made to fear, and ultimately, to suffer. What I found particularly poignant was the way in which the author portrays America. Through the lens of his Jewish heritage, he paints two contrasting pictures. We are a nation of promise, where differing ethnicities, races, and religions find acceptance and equality. The other, more sinister portrait, is the hidden face of America, with its undercurrent of prejudice waiting to burst at the emergence of a demagogue—someone to push into the fore the undying resolve that the only true American is white and Christian.

I had planned to review this book in the usual way, critiquing for style and content, and if you are questioning whether you should pick up this book, I will only say that Roth’s style can be off-putting, at first. He leans toward page-long run-ons and has a tendency to trail into wild tangents. But when I consider the importance and, dare I say, necessity of this book, especially now, these seem like minor quibbles. The Plot Against America is a warning against fascism and the politics of hate. I found myself reading ahead just to see how everything was going to turn out, as if it was a book of prophecy, with a chance to quell my fear of the next four years.

How tenuous is our democracy, really? Can the Founding Fathers’ checks and balances endure the onslaught of a tyrant bent on dismantling them? A man who runs on a platform of discrimination? Who challenges the right of the courts? Who demonizes the Free Press? Who puts America first at the expense of the world?

 

kkk-america-first

This has happened before.

 

Without giving too much away, I found Roth, ultimately, to be an optimist, and his love for America all the more genuine in that it stems from his Jewish roots. Only here, in this country, could his people have found a respite from the hatred that has dogged them for millennia. America is defined by its inclusiveness. It is a promise, and owing to this promise, people have chosen to live here from all over the globe. But that promise has never come without challenges. In The Plot Against America, it is Lindbergh against the Jews. Today, in the story that is our lives, Trump is the villain, and Muslims and Mexicans the protagonists. But what kind of a story are we living in? A tragedy? A triumph? A cautionary tale? Only the ending can tell us, can give answer to the question—will the promise of America endure?

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