On Philip Roth's The Plot Against America

by Toby O'Ryan

Revolutionary Worker #1272, March 27, 2005, posted at rwor.org

"[My father] was crying aloud with his mouth wide open—crying like both a baby abandoned and a man being tortured— because he was powerless to stop the unforeseen. 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 schoolchildren studied as 'History', harmless history, where everything unexpected 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."

In 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt won the presidential election; a year later he led the United States into war, raising the banner of American democracy against the fascist alliance of Germany, Japan and Italy. As it's taught in the schools—and endlessly repeated on the History Channel—the story seems to have been woven by the Fates themselves.

But what if it had been different? After all, powerful forces in the U.S. wanted to side with Germany—even if only through a studied neutrality—and support its attempt to destroy the Soviet Union and diminish the power of Britain. What if they had mounted a serious challenge against Roosevelt's strategy? Push it further: what if they had succeeded in a fascist takeover—but American-style, through the ballot box? How would it have gone down? What would it have felt like?

Philip Roth's new novel, The Plot Against America , brings that possibility to life. We enter this alternate world through the eyes of a mature man named Philip Roth, who experienced the takeover as an eight-year-old boy.1 The aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh —who in his day was one of the three or four biggest celebrities in the world, as well as a Nazi sympathizer—has swept the 1940 election in a landslide. Then, in steps both incremental and rapid, both bold and subtly insinuating, fascism comes in. Turn around, and the political assumptions of society begin to flip; turn around again, and the rules of daily life—and daily life itself—turn all the way upside-down.

Roth's fever-dream world sweeps you along in its own undeniable logic; because the sources of that logic are so deeply rooted in the American psyche, it almost begins to seem more real—even "more inevitable," if such a thing were possible—than what you learned in school. Its like a white-knuckle teenage joy-ride—as you take each frenzied curve you glance out the window and the ordinary stands out in bold relief.

Lucky Lindy and Rabbi Lionel

The Washington Post reviewer—who acknowledged Roth's skill only to dismissively criticize the novel's political "subtext"—objected to Roth's use of Lindbergh, suggesting that a "fictitious crypto-fascist" would have been fairer.

On the contrary: the created character of Charles Lindbergh is essential to the novel's plausibility (and, for my money, one of its great pleasures). The real-life Lindbergh found himself quite simpatico with the new Nazi regime, so much so that he accepted a swastika medal from the number two Nazi Hermann Goering, and campaigned against U.S. intervention with speeches that targeted the Jews for stoking the fires of war.

Roth's fictional Lindbergh hides his anti-Semitism when he runs for office. And why not? The anti-Semites, as well as the Jews and liberals, already know what he's about, while the broadest public needs a different image. So Lindbergh flies around the country, stepping down from his plane to give his speeches and projecting, as Roth says, "the appeal of the rugged individualist, the legendary American man's man who gets the impossible done by relying solely on himself." Instead of the fascist, the country gets "the young president in his famous aviator's windbreaker and leather cap," the "no-nonsense realist and plain- talking man of the people" who repeats simple messages about keeping America safe, over and over.

Roth also creates the openly fictional—but all too real—Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorff. Bengelsdorff graces the platform at Lind- bergh's last monster rally before the election, not to win over the Jews—that would be impossible—but to "kosher Lindbergh for the gentiles," as one character says. Bengelsdorff functions, in other words, to quiet the consciences of those who simultaneously resonate to, but are made uncomfortable by, the racist subtext of the Lindbergh candidacy.

Only in America.

Not wanting to give away too many surprises for those who haven't read the novel, I won't say more about Bengelsdorff's odyssey. Let's just leave it that Roth cuts deeply into the language and psychology of accommodationisms, and he totally nails the essential narcotic—and extremely dangerous—role of people like Bengelsdorff in any body politic.

"They live in a dream, and we live in a nightmare"

One of the strange—and, yet again, utterly familiar—things about Roth's fascist America is the huge gulf between the targeted minority and everyone else. The Lindbergh administration takes gradual but relentless steps against the Jews (steps which are not nearly so radical as the real moves made against immigrants and Muslims in the U.S. after 9/11). An intangible but undeniably emboldened anti-Semitism permeates social life, and innocuous names—"Just Folks" or "Homestead 42"— provide cover for sinister government relocation programs. The building pressure begins to rend the Roth family itself. (The description of the interplay between society and family is one of the strengths of the book.) Yet the American majority seems oblivious, and Lindbergh's approval ratings go sky-high.

Meanwhile, even among the Jews, those who sound the alarm begin to find themselves isolated. An uncle shrugs off the warnings of Philip's father: "'We're out of the war, and we're staying out of the war. Lindbergh's done me no harm that I can see." When people's fears do not materialize in quite the way they had originally dreaded, this itself lulls them, and they make what Roth calls "the ordinary American's adjustment to the new Administration." Maybe Bengelsdorff is right, they think—he visits the White House, after all—and maybe those making the dire predictions are wrong, nothing but "ghetto Jews," as the rabbi's followers say, clinging to their paranoia and victimhood.

Yet something bubbles beneath the surface. Philip's dad takes him to see the newsreels of Roosevelt finally coming out of seclusion to criticize Lindbergh; "a good half of the movie audience booed and hissed while the rest, including my father, clapped as loudly as they could, and I wondered if a war might not break out right here on Broad Street in the middle of the day and if, when we left the darkened theater, we'd find downtown Newark a rubble heap of smoking ruins and fires burning everywhere."

Which leads to an interesting point, made by a friend who discussed this in a book club: the staunchest resisters among the everyday characters are the operator of the newsreel theater (who sees all the raw footage before it's edited) and Philip's father, who pores over his left-of-center newspaper every day: "when he walked about the house now, a copy of PM was constantly in his hands . . . rolled up like a weapon—as though he were preparing, if called upon, to go to war himself. . ."

When the Fabric Starts to Rip

But where is the leadership? Some Democrats make a few forays of mild dissent, only to be silenced by the White House propaganda operation; when young Philip asks his dad about them, the one-time fierce Roosevelt partisan bursts out with, "Son, don't ask me about the Democrats. I'm angry enough as it is."

But the way in which the nascent impulses of resistance finally do crystallize and emerge is one of the most delightful—and perhaps insightful—parts of the novel. Again, rather than spoil it, I'll just say that Roth shows how in extreme times resistance can initially come from unexpected places and coalesce around odd figures indeed (but I will say that even in a fictional world, it seems, you can count on the New York Times editorial page to be the voice of moderate, well-tempered idiocy).

When resistance does tear the social fabric, and when this rip then widens into a full rupture, things get very hairy very quickly. The breakneck pace of events; the dazzling shifts of allegiance in a single day; the bursting forth in all its unhinged ugliness of the lynch-mob mentality, high and low, that is only thinly and irregularly held on a leash in American life; the appearance of allies in the most unlikely of places: of all this, Roth gives an imaginative, perceptive and very vivid picture. The reflection prompted in me was this: be prepared. Be very prepared.

At the same time, how all this gets resolved—how Roth gets Dorothy back to Kansas, so to speak, and preserves the novel's conceit that a) all this really happened, but b) the "Philip Roth" narrating it is still with us today—may be something of a mis-step. For one thing, it seems a bit neat. For another, my partner remarked to me on the absence of the Black masses in the book, and I think she may have a point. You could argue that this is a book told through the eyes of a young boy in an insulated, all-Jewish neighborhood—but it's also true that the adult "Philip Roth" steps in at times to describe events, and that narrative voice tells us that, at a Harlem rally for the chief anti-fascist figure, most listeners "remained respectfully dissatisfied, as though to work his way into their antipathies would require his delivering a very different spiel."

I don't know—Lindbergh, as Roth himself notes elsewhere, was an unabashed white supremacist; moreover, the forces set loose by an American fascist regime circa 1942—or circa 2005, for that matter—would almost certainly come to rest before very long on Black people. On other hand, there is also Martin Niemoller's point about how Hitler attacked his targets more or less sequentially, and destroyed them one by one.

I go back and forth on it, as you can see (and I have a few other questions as well which, in view of my "anti-spoiling" pledge, I'll keep to myself—for now, at least!). But that back-and-forth itself points to a big part of the value of this very popular book. Which is, it gets you thinking. Gets you talking. And from there, who knows?


1The real Roth often uses a narrator named "Philip Roth" in his books. Fun, but confusing—which I guess is part of the idea.

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