The Plot Against America, Then And Now

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Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is a must reread. Our students, especially, should study his 2004 fictional account of the election of the original America First candidate as president. The resemblance between the fictional Post Fact tactics of President Charles Lindbergh and today’s America First president is uncanny.

At the beginning of the novel, 7 year-old Phil and his brother go to bed with the radio broadcasting the deadlocked 1940 Republican convention, and they awaken to the nomination of the anti-Semitic, isolationist Lindbergh. Phil’s working class Jewish family would soon be torn apart by the rise of American fascism. His cousin will lose a leg fighting in the Canadian armed forces, a brother and an aunt will become collaborators, as another neighbor is murdered in a Kentucky pogrom.

At first, the plot against democracy will be low-profile, with even the racist Bund redefining itself as anti-communist, as opposed to pro-Nazi. Even so, one foresighted family moves to Canada, and Phil’s father resists entreaties to go along with the crowd.

Lindbergh is as unclear about his specific policy positions as Donald Trump is today, and “Lucky Lindy” even tops him as a showman. Lindbergh’s speeches are “unadorned” and he says little more than that he will keep us out of war. Candidate and then President Lindbergh expresses himself by flying low over neighborhoods and embarking on fortuitously-timed long distance solo flights. Perhaps Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s solo flights also foreshadow the ambiguous outcome of the plot against America.

The turning point in the presidential campaign is Rabbi Bengelsdorf’s endorsement of America First. The role of such Jewish collaborators is not to convince their peers to vote for Lindbergh, but to give the goyim the permission to vote their xenophobia. In other words, he performed the role that Republicans Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have performed for Trump.

President Lindbergh flies to Iceland to meet with Adolf Hitler, and signs an “understanding” guaranteeing peaceful relationships. He hosts the Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop at a White House state dinner. Despite the administration’s professions that it seeks peace, clearly it is also giving permission for bitter citizens to act out their racism. The FBI investigates Phil and his family. And, the first Jewish removal effort is so small that it doesn’t produce too much resistance.

Phil’s brother is conned by the Homestead 42, Office of American Absorption, U.S. Department of Interior, but his father isn’t, and resists the relocation of Jews to Kentucky. Former President Franklin D. Roosevelt has not yet been locked up, and he eloquently opposes the creeping fascism:

The only thing we have to fear is the obsequious yielding to his Nazi friends by Charles A. Lindbergh, the shameless courting of the world’s greatest democracy of a despot responsible for innumerable criminal deeds and acts of savagery, a cruel and barbaric tyrant unparalleled in the chronicle of man’s misdeeds.

The most vocal and effective opposition to America First-ism is Walter Winchell. He announces:

Whether the Homestead 42 Jews end up in concentration camps a la Hitler’s Buchenwald has yet to be decided by Lindbergh’s two top swastinkers, Vice President Wheeler and Secretary of Interior Henry Ford. Did I say “whether”? Pardon my German. I meant when.

Anti-Jewish violence erupts, Winchell is physically assaulted, and then he is assassinated while giving a speech in Louisville, Kentucky. Pogroms erupt. FDR attends Winchell’s funeral, but New York City’s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia steals the show. LaGuardia acknowledges that Winchell was “one more doozy of a specimen of the imperfect man.” He says wryly, “Only a Charles A. Lindbergh has motives as pure as Ivory soap,” and is “wholly accurate always when every few months he summons up the gregariousness to address his ten favorite platitudes to the nation.”

After observing that only the “infallible Lindy" is a “selfless ruler and a strong, silent saint,” LaGuardia announces, “Our president is an admirer of Adolf Hitler and more than likely a Nazi himself.” He concludes: It can’t happen here? My friends, it is happening here – and where is Lindbergh? Where is Lindbergh?”

The parallels between Roth’s fiction and today’s facts aren’t perfect. Trump admires Vladimir Putin, not Adolf Hitler, and he’s not a pilot so, when the going gets tough, Trump can only embark on another campaign tour. In The Plot Against America, however, our America First President flies unannounced and solo to Louisville, spouts “an innocuous enough string of sentences,” and then heads back toward Washington D.C. clearing “by no more than a hairsbreath the telephone wires.”

In the dramatic ending, Lindbergh and his plane disappear forever, and martial law is declared. The Germans issue their Post Truth statement of how the British and the Jews kidnapped the president. The British counter-propaganda is also questionable. But as it looks like the United States will go to war with Canada and/or Mexico, Winston Churchill nails the situation:

It is no longer a matter of the great American democracy taking military action to save us. The time has come for American citizens to take civil action to save themselves. … There is only one ordeal, and now as in the past we face it in common.

I don’t want to give the ending away, but we are then regaled with multiple versions of the truth. (If the rabbi’s narrative is to be believed, Hitler had even more secret leverage over fictional President Lindbergh than the real Putin allegedly has over Trump.)

Teachers should see The Plot Against America as an invaluable, multidisciplinary teaching tool. It even includes a post-script which summarizes the actual history that is incorporated into the novel. Class discussions will likely tackle Phil’s father’s words about Americans getting sucked into the cycle of fear of immigration and racism, “They live in a dream, and we live in a nightmare.” Students will come to grips with the anger felt by all types of suffering people, and how they deal with that emotion. I suspect they will also inventory the similarities and differences between collaborator Aunt Evelyn and today’s Kellyanne Conway. I also anticipate classroom debates over who were the most skilfull practitioners of Post Fact - the haters of the 1940s or today.

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