Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” and the everlasting story of our kind

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Charles Lindbergh, the people’s aviator

Roth’s “The Plot Against America” must’ve struck the average reader as pertinent when it was first published in 2004, given the growth of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflict, but nothing had prepared me for how shockingly the plot of this alternative-history novel reflects modern American society. Perhaps I am placing too much importance on my own subjective reading, but dear god – a fascist America? Under a Republican peoples man? Roth’s novel – which is brilliantly witty and well-paced in many other ways than its re-telling of all the potentials involved during the Second World War, i.e America leaving the Europeans, and more importantly, the Jews, to suffer – stirred me to no end.

Charles Lindbergh, the aviation hero of the early 20th century, known for his Pacific crossings and his “spying” on the early Nazi war-machine, is re-imagined in Roth’s book as the successful opponent of Roosevelt, and ultimately a President of America that sympathises with the Nazis. America refuses to enter the war, the Germans recover from their winter assault on the Soviets, Britain is financially crippled by the Japanese claiming their overseas territories and for a moment, and this is why I loved the book, I could see the entire world crumbling under the might of Hitler’s Germany. It was an intelligent remastering of history. Accurately done. Represented as real.

But that’s not what stirred me. The distinct parallels between some of the ideology espoused by supporters of Lindbergh’s fascist America in Roth’s novel reminded me, most violently, of Trump’s supporters. Wild speculation, a complete disassociation with scientific fact, an eerie similarity in their views on the Jews and the Muslims respectively. America First plays a significant role in Roth’s novel. They’re a group that inspire the nation. Quickly, the majority are swayed. Anti-war is the message. Why would America enter a European war? Why would America fight for the Jews? Lindbergh – in the novel, and real life – stated that the menacing minds behind the warmongering Roosevelt government were all Jews.

Lindbergh’s ideas about the Jews were not unique, in real-life and in the novel. He attracted crowds of thousands, and prominent businessman, a man now something of an American hero, an innovator of industry, the face of big business, the devil to the working man, the famous Henry Ford, held many anti-Semitic views.  What struck me most was the swiftness with which the populace of an otherwise liberal and Democratic society were swayed into anti-Semitic fervour, as if it was something that had always been there, resting beneath the surface. I couldn’t help but relate it to America’s modern circumstance…

Roth’s novel is a warning, a warning taken directly from history. Set early in the 20th century, the introduction of mass-media and the almost universal attention to the radio is something that Roth mentions a lot in his book. This is how people receive their news. Lindbergh succeeds so long as a President because he speaks directly to the people. As in, he literally flies to their states and gives impromptu speeches. Like Trump on the television, beamed directly into their homes. And Trump asks, why would we help refugees? Why would we offer foreign aid? His lies about the climate and the masking of his mistakes do not differ too differently from Lindbergh’s regime. And the answer is always the same, as in Roth’s book and as in real-life.

There is no answer.

A consistent back and forth.

I’m not saying Trump is a fascist. He isn’t. America was founded and relies on its excessive bureaucracy and the strength of its State. Democracy isn’t something that will come to an end in America, much like there’ll never be an end to Capitalism. But the fascist ideology: one of isolationism, of withdrawing inwards from the global scale, of turning a capable and open palm into a crushing fist for no reason other than making sure the palm stays clean, and smelling like perfume. These are messages from Roth’s novel which are more important than ever. Climate change, global food shortages and drought crisis, the heightening and continuation of everlasting modern conflicts. This is not a time for isolationism.

Isolationism has no answers, only dead-ends.

In Roth’s book the terror only ends when Lindbergh’s famous Spirit of St. Louis Interceptor plane goes missing over Virginia. There are different conspiracies, but the one his wife believes is that he simply crashed, and died, and that is it.

I think Roth choose this to represent both the fallibility and the infallibility of the ideology. The violence ends with the death of one man, but it continues with the survival of many others. I think Roth choose this fate for Lindbergh because the man seemed so incorrigible in both his fascist and democratic control of the people (if such thing can exist) that there was no way to remove him or his ideology from the story without sudden death. The violence against Jews and other minorities will continue in Roth’s alternate America, and indeed Roth’s alternate world, even after Lindbergh’s plane crashes into the sea, much as it will when Trump has gone, to his Scottish golf-course, when the alt-right has vanished from Europe, only to be replaced by something probably more nefarious, and the Wahhabists from the Middle-East change and morph into something else, like these things happen. Violence against each other will always continue.

It will always continue, because that is the way things are.

7 thoughts on “Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” and the everlasting story of our kind

  1. Interesting post – a book I should read. Nevertheless, I think it is important NOT to generalize too much…not all Trump supporters, or Republicans for that matter, hate Jews, Muslims, or support isolationism and/or concepts and ideals of Fascism. In fact, one only needs to look at the far left of American politics and the liberal media to see elements of intolerance for free speech and other fascist-like applied philosophies. Some would say the far left are the new fascists – if that was even possible in our current understanding of political science and history. And all this coming from a Canadian who has an interest in American politics 🙂 Lol.

    Liked by 2 people

    • These points are extremely accurate. I was careful not to try and call Trump too much of a fascist, and his supporters either. I think there’s a lot to lose by simply placing people into these very distinct, binary categories. It does more harm than good.

      Even so, I think a book like this has a message which goes beyond that. This is about examining that divide, not perpetuating it.

      Like

  2. I just read this book a few days ago and I thought that it should be made compulsory reading in all schools. And all this coming from an Australian who has an interest in American politics

    Liked by 2 people

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