The past few years have been a good time for the literature of political dystopia, when liberal readers have turned to fiction to explain the abrupt, frightening swerve in our country’s history during the presidency of Donald Trump. George Orwell’s 1984 seems especially relevant when government officials deny objective fact and twist words to mean something they don’t. The late Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America—in which a fascist-sympathizing Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt for the presidency—has also been called prescient, for its tale of a strongman coming to power in Washington on the basis of his media personality, then creating a climate of fear, instituting measures that target minorities, and making overtures to a foreign dictator.
The apparent correspondences between Roth’s invented 1940s America and today’s United States appear to be the focus of the upcoming HBO adaptation by David Simon, the creator of The Wire and Treme. Filming of the show, which stars Winona Ryder and John Tarturro, wrapped in September and will premiere March 16, in a season already inflamed by political discord and civic dread.
But before he died in 2018 Roth gently disavowed any powers of clairvoyance: a few months after Trump came to office, Roth told The New Yorker, “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.” He also disclaimed political intent at the time of the novel’s publication. In a September 19, 2004 New York Times Book Review essay, Roth wrote, “Some readers are going to want to take this book as a roman a clef to the present moment in America. That would be a mistake.”
Authors never like to admit there’s a clef to their work – it leads to simplistic readings of complicated enterprises, flattening the authors’ literary effects and denying the universal themes to which they aspire. Throughout his career, Roth railed against readers who attempted too-literal readings of his novels and critics who confused him with his protagonists, even those protagonists who shared the name “Philip Roth.” In 1993, for instance, after publishing Operation Shylock—a tale in which the author supposedly becomes involved with Israeli intelligence—Roth insisted to the Times that he had indeed worked for the Mossad.
In The Plot Against America, Roth wrote a blatantly allegorical novel and then, in characteristic fashion, went out of his way to disown the allegory. As a president who lead the country into a military quagmire cruised to re-election that year, Roth’s otherwise incisive critics missed the target of its topical satire: not George W. Bush himself, but the liberal Democrats who supported Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Roth makes his point with customary indirection, avoiding the straightforward correspondences of a typical fable. The novel invents an alternate American history in which Charles Lindbergh, who opposed US intervention in World War II and warned of the Jews’ undue influence in national politics, defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. After signing peace agreements with the Nazis and the Japanese, the alt-Lindbergh launches a domestic program to speed the Jews’ assimilation into American society by dispersing them into the “heartland.” These measures nearly wreck the loving, lower-middle class Newark home of Herman and Bess Roth and their sons Sandy and Philip. The most moving pages of the novel recall the Roths’ domestic drama, as they strive to raise their boys in an increasingly hostile environment.
Despite this focus on the travails of a single Jewish family in a 1940s parallel-universe Newark, The Plot Against America is most certainly, and devilishly, rooted in the politics of the year it was published. Roth’s President Lindbergh exercises power through macho Mission Accomplished stagecraft and the propagation of fear—a combination that echoed the Bush administration’s 2004 re-election efforts.
Some reviewers at the time identified these allegorical signposts, but failed to follow them further. In the October 2, 2004 New York Times Book Review, Paul Berman spent more than five-thousand words trying to identify the politics behind the novel, speculating that perhaps Roth was warning about contemporary anti-Semitism in Europe and the Islamic world. Other reviewers linked the oppressed Jews of the 1940s with vulnerable, post-9/11 Arab-Americans. In The New Yorker, Joan Acocella briefly wondered if The Plot Against America represents a late-in-life recantation of Roth’s previous work, in which he celebrated his personal liberation from ethnic identity and, by extension, the American liberation of the individual from the grip of collective identity. Perhaps, Acocella conjectured, he was sorry for having said such supposedly bad things about the Jews.
But this novel was not a recantation. No, Roth was celebrating his liberation again, from a fresh perspective, as he did with great effect in The Human Stain (2000), when he pondered the price of assimilation that might have been paid by an African-American his own age. The Plot Against America returns us, yet again, to the riddles of individual and ethnic survival posed in Roth’s 1979 novel, The Ghostwriter. In that novel the young Nathan Zuckerman, circa 1956, bitterly argues with his parents after writing a short story that they believe portrays them in an unflattering light—and, worse, reflects badly on all Jews.
“Nathan, your story, as far as Gentiles are concerned, is about one thing and one thing only,” his father says. “It is about kikes. Kikes and their love of money. That is all our good Christian friends will see, I guarantee you.” His mother reminds him that anti-Semites are always looking for reasons to hate Jews, and to kill them. Nathan shouts back, “In Europe—not in Newark! We are not the wretched of Belsen! We are not the victims of that crime!” His mother cries, “But we could be—in their place we would be. Nathan, violence is nothing new to Jews, you know that!”
Roth spent most of his career generously using italics in making the following response: we are not in the place of European Jews; in America, Jews are not threatened; this is precisely what’s so great about America, at least for Jews (though not for black people, which is the point of The Human Stain). In The Plot Against America he emphasizes this belief by demonstrating how different our country would have been if the fears of Nathan’s parents had been justified: if the real America had Roth’s fictional resettlement program, the airing of anti-Semitic slurs in public places, and anti-Jewish rioting. Suddenly, in the Lindbergh America of Roth’s novel, the Jewish need for group cohesiveness becomes obvious. The voice of assimilation—now belonging to Philip’s brother Sandy, who dismisses the fears of his family as the cowardly nightmares of “ghetto Jews”—is the voice of ethnic betrayal. And it most definitely would be the voice of ethnic betrayal—if we were living in an America that was the opposite of the America that elected Roosevelt to third and fourth terms and defeated fascism. But we don’t.
Roth engineers another reversal from our reality, this time a nearly vertiginous one, by holding up a mirror to George W. Bush’s foreign policy. In Roth’s 1940, the Republicans run on the slogan, “Vote for Lindbergh – Or Vote for War,” and stick to their dovishness as Hitler conquers Europe, imperils Great Britain, and (to the GOP’s profound satisfaction) invades the Soviet Union. Once he’s elected, Lindbergh flies his own plane unescorted over Washington: “This was how safe he considered the American skies to be; this was how secure the country was now that his administration, in little more than a year, had dispelled all threat of war. He reminded his audiences that the life of not a single American boy had been put at risk since he’d come to office and would not be put at risk so long as he remained in office.”
Roth imagines that the vastly outnumbered Lindbergh-era liberal opposition makes the same moral arguments for entering the war—and with the same self-righteous passion—as what was then called the “Blair Democrats” did for going to war against Iraq in 2003. Again Roth presses his point—that those Democrats sold out—by flipping the situation to reflect the opposite of what we know to be true of real history. The war against Iraq would have been right if Saddam posed a threat to the world on the same scale that fascist Germany and imperialist Japan did. But, as was clear well before the American occupation failed to turn up weapons of mass destruction or substantive links to international terrorism, Saddam didn’t.
Who are the main villains in The Plot Against America? Well, Lindbergh of course, yet Roth saves most of his ire not for the Jews’ Christian persecutors but for the Jews who collaborate with the Lindbergh Administration and inadvertently open the door to political reaction. Roth uses them to satirize the Democrats who endorsed the war on Iraq in terms as pompous, moralizing, and self-serving as those employed by Roth’s Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, one of a series of Jewish elders who pontificate their way through Roth’s books. Bengelsdorf is a marvelous creation: learned and dignified, he gives a speech at a nationally-broadcast campaign rally that koshers Lindbergh for undecided voters wary of the aviator’s anti-Semitic past. He declares that “the Nazi harassment and persecution of its German Jewish population is a cause of enormous anguish to me,” and that Lindbergh shares his anguish. As a patriotic American, Bengelsdorf claims the same objectives as Lindbergh: peace and a secure America. “I want Charles Lindbergh to be my president not in spite of my being a Jew but because I am a Jew—an American Jew.”
In Bengelsdorf’s strident declarations of his Americanness, the character recalls the real America’s pro-war liberals who felt they needed to prove they could support a militant foreign policy. Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Dick Gephardt, Joseph Lieberman: they all koshered the Iraq war, encouraged by our public intellectuals spouting the loftiest ideals of liberalism. As it happened, Paul Berman, Roth’s Times reviewer, was the author of Terror and Liberalism (2004), which prominently voiced liberal arguments in favor of military force against illiberal regimes. And writing in The New Republic on the eve of the Iraq invasion, Leon Wieseltier stirred his readers to action: “How can any liberal, any individual who associates himself with the party of humanity, not count himself in the coalition of the willing?”
In the years of the fictional Lindbergh presidency, only a single Jew in public life, the radio columnist Walter Winchell, unabashedly confronts the Administration: “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea. Let’s go to press! Flash! To the glee of rat-faced Joe Goebbels and his boss, the Berlin butcher, the targeting of America’s Jews by the Lindbergh fascists is officially under way . . .” Winchell is denounced in Roth’s right-thinking press as a clown, a rabble-rouser and a hothead. When his advertisers pull him off the air, a Times editorial intones, “The borderline scruples and questionable taste of Mr. Winchell have tumbled over into an outburst of vitriol that is as unpardonable as it is unethical.” Winchell runs for president anyway.
I can’t swear that Rabbi Bengelsdorf is a stand-in for either Paul Berman or Leon Wieseltier. But the novel’s Walter Winchell bears a surprising resemblance to the prominent anti-war candidate for the 2004 Democratic nomination, the progressive long-shot, the truth-teller ridiculed and marginalized as a screamer: former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. Roth would never have voiced the connection himself. In his fiction, that’s always the work of the reader, and I believe that’s how it should be.
George Orwell didn’t intend to write a novel predicting the future (’84 was simply the year he completed the book, ’48, reversed). He was responding to the circumstances of 1948: the totalitarian shroud that had just covered half of Europe, the division of the world by two superpowers and Britain’s post-war privations. Beyond its virtues as a piece of fiction, 1984 bears continuing relevance for its keen observation of how the contemporary tools of surveillance and propaganda could be supremely amplified. Similarly, without prefiguring our current state of crisis, The Plot Against America is shockingly resonant today because it captures certain qualities of American life—our conformism, our gullibility, our tribalism, and our susceptibility to promises of greatness—that has brought a demagogue to power and keeps him there.
Ken Kalfus is the author of three collections of stories and three novels, including A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, a finalist for the National Book Award. His most recent book is Coup de Foudre: A Novella and Stories. (updated 1/2020)