Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is a particularly scary book to read in the fall of 2015 when businessman Donald Trump and an array of other candidates for the Republican nomination for President are spouting an irresponsible and demagogic rhetoric, unheard at the center of American politics ever in the nation’s history.
It’s a novel of alternative — i.e., “what if?” — history, and it’s based on the proposition that, in 1940, Charles A. Lindbergh becomes the Republican presidential nominee and, running a campaign based solely on image, defeats FDR. Once in office, the Lindberg administration starts, quiet step by quiet step, to isolate and marginalize Jews. Within two years, there are Kristallnacht-like anti-Jewish riots in major cities across the nation as well as arrests of virtually all major Jewish figures and their Gentile supporters.
It’s a warning that’s been written before. In 1935, as Adolf Hitler achieved dominance in Germany, Sinclair Lewis published It Can’t Happen Here, a novel about a newly elected American president who imposes totalitarian rule with the help of a paramilitary force.
It Can’t Happen Here ends with the nation in a civil war. Oddly — and unaccountably to my mind — Roth gives his readers something of a happy ending, even to the point of suggesting that, well, Lindbergh wasn’t such a bad guy after all. I’m not sure if this was due to a failure of nerve on Roth’s part or fear of legal action by Lindbergh’s descendants or some other reason. The ending, in any case, is much more implausible than the rest of the novel.
Which is more than a little plausible.
The Plot Against America was originally published in 2004 when George W. Bush was in the White House. Today, for all the wrongheadedness of his administration, Bush seems a veritable statesman in contrast to Trump who demonizes immigrants, particularly Mexicans; Dr. Ben Carson who thinks a Muslim shouldn’t occupy the White House; and Ted Cruz who has gleefully promised to metaphorically punch most world leaders in the nose the hour he gets sworn in as president.
And as Lindbergh’s election couldn’t have made clearer to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we school children studied as “History,” harmless history, where everything unsuspected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.
That’s from the book’s narrator who, decades later, is looking back to the time when as a child, from the age of seven to nine, he lived through the Lindbergh times. That child’s name is Philip Roth, and the details of his life — his family, home and Newark, New Jersey-neighborhood — mirror those of the writer.
Roth has employed this technique, at various times, in his fiction. It provides a strange, unsettling mix of verisimilitude and distortion. When Roth the writer describes the stamp collection that Roth the character has, is this something that is from his actual life or something made up? Is the horse that kicks the fictive Philip in the head real in the sense that he also kicked the authorial Philip? For the reader, the real stuff becomes fiction and the fiction becomes real in a house-of-mirrors way that is disconcerting.
Which, of course, fits the story that The Plot Against America tells.
It is a story from the perspective of a child about how, from 1940 to 1942, his world is turned upside-down by the rise of overt anti-Semitism under a national administration that is isolationist, conservative and incipiently fascist. Such as giving a free rein to the German-American Bund.
As an anti-communist rather than a pro-Nazi organization, the Bund was as anti-Semitic as before, openly equating Bolshevism with Judaism in propaganda handouts and harping on the number of “pro-war” Jews — like Treasury Secretary Morgenthau and the financier Bernard Baruch, who’d been Roosevelt confidants — and, of course, holding fast to the purposes enunciated in their official declaration on first organizing in 1936: “to combat the Moscow-directed madness of the Red world menace and its Jewish bacillus-carriers” and to promote “a free Gentile-ruled United States.”
In the course of two years, Philip’s father is forced from his insurance job. His family is threatened with relocation to Kentucky. The mother of his friend and former neighbor is killed by an anti-Jewish mob. And every member of his family is stretched beyond the breaking point.
As Jews, the Roth family and their friends know the patterns of the past, and they can see those patterns beginning to develop in the nation where they think of themselves as Americans. Yet, even with those patterns in mind, they are shocked at each stage of the escalation of oppression targeted at them.
What’s striking about the growing fear is its contrast with the everyday. For instance, there is the simple, everyday beauty of nine-year-old Philip’s street:
Since about three it had been squalling steadily, but abruptly the wind-driven downpour stopped and the sun came blazing out…How could a street as modest as ours induce such rapture just because it glittered with rain? How could the sidewalk’s impassible leaf-strewn lagoons and the grassy little yards oozing from the flood of the downspouts exude a smell that roused my delight as if I’d been in a tropical sun forest? Tinged with the bright after-storm light, Summit Avenue was as agleam with life as a pet, my own silky, pulsating pet, washed clean by sheets of falling water and now stretched its full length to bask in the bliss.
“A ghoulish realm”
And what’s striking about the real terrors that seem just over the horizon are their parallels in the normal childhood terrors that Philip faces, such as on his trips to the cellar:
To find myself in the dank cavern of the cellar was an ordeal under any circumstances…With its smudged frieze of mold and mildew, running along the cracking whitewashed walls — stains in every hue of the excremental rainbow and seepage blotches that looked as if they’d leaked from a corpse — the cellar was a ghoulish realm apart, extending beneath the whole of the house and deriving no light at all from the half-dozen slits of grime-clouded glass that looked onto the cement of the alleyways and the weedy front yard.
It sounds a lot like the basement in my childhood home. And I bet it resonates with many readers. If, growing up, you didn’t have a dark, dank cellar to feed your fears, there was probably some other dark, dank, scary place that spawned your nightmares.
Yet, a child’s nightmares are rooted in the general scariness of life, a journey with only one end for each of us. The simple reality of death is enough to make every child wake up screaming.
The Plot Against America is about living a nightmare. It’s about the creation of “a ghoulish realm” in which all the certainties are shattered.
And it’s more than a story about Jews. For one thing, it’s a story about how the non-Jews permit the oppression to go forward — and some even revel in it. And it’s a story about how a group can be pushed to the margins, any group — African-Americans, immigrants, Catholics, Evangelicals, intellectuals, free spirits.
It can’t happen here, right?
Patrick T. Reardon