America First: Reading “The Plot Against America” in the Age of Trump
By Mark P. BresnanSeptember 11, 2016
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
— Charles Lindbergh, Des Moines, September 11, 1941
And some, I assume, are good people.
— Donald Trump, New York City, June 16, 2015
THE FIRST BALLOT at the 1940 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia revealed a hopelessly splintered party. Ten candidates received a substantial amount of support, with only Thomas Dewey garnering more than a third of the overall total. Eventual nominee Wendell Willkie registered at only 10 percent on the first roll call; by the fourth ballot he had emerged as one of three front-runners, deadlocked with Dewey and Robert Taft. As Philip Roth reimagines this moment in The Plot Against America (2004), the balloting continues without resolution until 3:18 a.m., at which point Charles Lindbergh strides onto the convention floor and declares his candidacy. By 4:00 a.m., he is announced as the nominee.
Originally read (despite Roth’s protests) as a roman à clef of the George W. Bush administration, The Plot Against America is now impossible to see outside of the shadow of Donald Trump. Like Lindbergh, Trump has used his celebrity and wealth — and a private plane! — to triumph over a hopelessly fractured Republican party. Joining a boisterous field that swelled to 17, Trump entered the race at a time when no single candidate regularly polled over 15 percent; even as the immediate front-runner, Trump didn’t regularly draw more than a third of the GOP electorate until late November 2015. Politically, Trump and Lindbergh share an isolationist ethos that bleeds into ethno-nationalism. The fictional Lindbergh echoes his historical counterpart, whose anti-Semitism and admiration for Hitler was sold to the American public as a principled resistance to engagement in World War II. Lindbergh’s dialogue, much of which is adapted from the historical record of his speeches, reads like a taciturn adaptation of Trump’s meandering stump speeches, in which “Mexican immigrants” and “China” have been swapped out for “Jews” and “Great Britain.” Trump wants to make America great again, while Lindbergh wants to keep America out of the Jewish war; both see themselves as dealmakers that will achieve their goals through sheer force of personality. As Roth’s narrator, a Jewish nine-year-old from Weequahic, New Jersey, named Philip Roth, explains it after President Lindbergh signs a non-aggression pact with the Third Reich: “Americans everywhere went about declaiming, No war, no young men fighting and dying ever again! Lindbergh can deal with Hitler, they said, Hitler respects him because he’s Lindbergh.” Trump’s candidacy, of course, is predicated on his ability to make better deals — on trade and on funding the construction of imaginary walls.
When I taught Roth’s novel in an undergraduate course this spring, my students immediately seized on the Trump/Lindbergh parallels, their shared xenophobia and explicitly racist rhetoric. Only Roth’s suggestion that Lindbergh was secretly working closely with Adolf Hitler felt less relevant to the current election. However, recent revelations about Russian intelligence’s attempts to manipulate the election, the watering-down of an anti-Russia provision in the GOP platform, and the manifold connections between Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and Putin’s Ukrainian ally Viktor Yanukovych have made even these seemingly far-fetched plot elements feel disturbingly familiar. So what might The Plot Against America tell us about Trump’s rise? What can Roth offer us other than uncanny prescience?
While Roth’s young narrator is shocked at Lindbergh’s victory over Roosevelt, the national media immediately assumes a knowing posture: “What had happened, they explained, was that Americans had shown themselves unwilling to break the tradition of the two-term presidency that George Washington had instituted and that no president before Roosevelt had dared to challenge.” Other factors, according to these pundits, included Lindbergh’s youth, the wonder of aviation, and a hunger for normalcy. The prevalence of American anti-Semitism is, of course, edited out. Late in the novel, the increasingly fast-paced plot advances by means of newsreels, which reveal the extraordinary credulity and passivity of the fourth estate: “German state radio announces that the kidnapping of Charles A. Lindbergh, thirty-third president of the United States and signatory to America’s historic Iceland Understanding with the Third Reich, has been discovered to have been perpetrated by a conspiracy of ‘Jewish interests.’” After dutifully quoting New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s criticism of this obvious Nazi propaganda, the newsreel intones: “both the mayor and the governor are said by informed sources to have been interviewed at length by agents of the FBI.”
The neutral tone of these passages echoes the stubborn refusal on the part of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major newspapers and political news outlets to point out Trump’s hatred and dishonesty during the Republican primary. Some say that the first lady is under the sway of a Jewish Rasputin, the novel’s newsreel vaguely reports, and it’s hard not to be reminded of the American press’s detached transcription of Trump’s most dubious claims. “Donald Trump’s Heated Words Were Destined to Stir Violence, Opponents Say,” a headline in the March 12 edition of The New York Times, provides a typically flaccid example; the attachment of “Opponents Say” renders what should be a massive news event — the presumptive nominee threatens a violent riot at the party convention — into another debate in which “both sides” make legitimate points.
During his rise, Trump either wittingly or luckily exploited another key flaw in a gaffe- and scandal-driven news cycle — if everything a candidate says and does is outrageous, then no single incident will rise beyond the level of Marco Rubio’s footwear, which somehow generated two separate New York Times articles in the midst of the most disturbing presidential primary in recent memory. In recent elections, the American political media had become so accustomed to candidates with message discipline that cable news shows and newspaper coverage feasted on any small slippage: Barack Obama’s “you didn’t build that,” Hillary Clinton’s claim that she and Bill were “dead broke” after his presidency, John McCain’s claim that “the fundamentals of the economy are strong.” When Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker shouted “What about your gaffes?” to Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign, the mockery he received from political columnists — the same people who seized on those slip-ups to fill column inches — was a clear case of protesting too much. Trump’s unceasing barrage of terrifying policy pronouncements, lies, insults, praise for foreign dictators, and misspelled tweets are like a powerful monsoon in a parched desert — unable to absorb it all, the political press acted merely as a conduit for an unceasing torrent of nonsense they could not put into perspective.
Just as important as the press reaction to Trump, though, is the American public’s unwillingness to acknowledge that a major political party has nominated a racist, xenophobic zealot. Despite the explicit racism and nationalism that has always been the raison d’être of Trump’s campaign, many political pundits have been eager to ascribe his support to economic concerns or a sudden public interest in multilateral trade agreements. In Roth’s novel, it isn’t just the press that misunderstands the nature of Lindbergh’s appeal to the public; many of the Jews in Weequahic refuse to believe that virulent anti-Semitism has taken hold of the United States. Despite his own experiences with anti-Semitism, Philip’s father Herman has a false sense of security that Lindbergh’s victory can’t, won’t, and isn’t happening in the United States. Herman’s confidence endures even after Lindbergh is elected, inspired in part by the bravado of speeches by Walter Winchell, Dorothy Sinclair, and Roosevelt. As young Philip tells it, one of Roosevelt’s anti-Lindbergh speeches at a Democratic Party rally was,
[…] so stirring and dramatic that every human being in that crowd (and in our living room and in the living rooms up and down our street) was swept away by the joyous illusion that the nation’s redemption was at hand.
This false confidence leads to Herman’s major mistake: refusing to move his family to Canada before Jewish families in New Jersey are forcibly dispersed to rural areas and violent anti-Semitic riots erupt around the country.
Like the residents of Weequahic, contemporary Americans from across the political spectrum cherish a version of history in which the United States has moved steadily, if slowly, toward acceptance and equality, from the Emancipation Proclamation to Brown v. Board of Education to the Voting Rights Act, to Barack Obama’s election and a post-racial future. Although this narrative has always been a fantasy, Trump’s popularity on the heels of Obama’s reelection renders it incoherent — that is, unless Trump is bizarrely cast as an economic populist standing up for the little guy, an impulsive and uncouth corollary to Bernie Sanders. “Economic anxiety” has become a popular term for articulating Trump’s appeal; even when his campaigns explicit appeals to racism are acknowledged, we want to assume that this racism is caused by economics rather than by a resurgence of white nationalism that we’d rather believe remains buried in the past. Never mind that the median household income of Trump primary supporters was higher than the national average, as well as the average income of Clinton and Sanders voters. At times, even Trump seems confused about the nature of his appeal, as in early August, when he sympathized with residents of Ashburn, Virginia, about all of the factory closures they’d suffered through. Thousands of local residents attended the rally, but not because of economic anxiety; Ashburn is in the wealthiest county in the nation, and the crowd reacted with confusion when Trump asked if any attendees had worked at the shuttered Smithfield Foods plant, which is three hours away. They did, however, enthusiastically heckle a group of silent Muslim protestors.
Trump’s polling has cratered in the weeks following the Democratic National Convention, and should Clinton win a landslide victory, it will be tempting to dismiss his nomination as a minor detour in our progressive march toward equality. Likewise, when The Plot Against America was released, many readers noted parallels between Lindbergh and George W. Bush, even as they took comfort in the implausibility of the novel’s most violent events manifesting in the 21st century. While the newspeak of Lindbergh’s Office of American Absorption (an effort to expose the descendants of Jewish immigrants to “real” American families) reminded many readers of the newly established and vaguely fascist-sounding Department of Homeland Security, the pogroms that erupt in the novel’s later chapters felt comfortably removed from daily life in the mid-2000s. As scholar Steven Kellman writes in an excellent analysis of the novel and its political reception, while “Roth makes anti-Jewish riots in Boston and Detroit seem plausible in 1942 they are unimaginable in 2004, despite the increasing intrusion of Christian symbolism and doctrine into public discourse and policy.” It is also fair to question the actual impact of Trump’s candidacy or even his possible election, as unlikely as it may seem. The Obama presidency seems to have demonstrated the limits of presidential power; the inability to get Merrick Garland a Senate hearing stands in stark contrast to the nine Supreme Court judges appointed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The Plot Against America seems to endorse a Carlylean “Great Man” theory of history that may frustrate readers expecting a more sophisticated take on political change. The plot hinges on the improbable rise of a single imaginary villain, but once Lindbergh mysteriously vanishes on a solo flight from Louisville to Washington, the novel’s history realigns itself with our own almost as quickly as it departed from it. Modern presidents don’t enjoy absolute authority or control over the economy, foreign affairs, terrorism, or health care, and so Roth’s characterization of an all-powerful boogeyman might read as entertaining but naïve to witnesses of the last decade of both American and global history.
Yet Lindbergh’s impact isn’t so much a matter of executive actions, as insidious as some of those are. It lies instead in his creation of new boundaries for acceptable speech and behavior. Unlike the Third Reich, Lindbergh doesn’t enact an American version of the Nuremberg Laws or instigate violence (the anti-Semitic riots in the novel increase after he mysteriously disappears). Rather, he clearly signals to the German American Bund and to other anti-Semitic groups that they no longer need to hide their prejudices. The Roths feel this stigma immediately after Lindbergh’s election in a sightseeing trip to Washington, DC, where they are refused service at their hotel and verbally accosted by fellow travelers. When Herman Roth is called a “loudmouth Jew” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he immediately blames Lindbergh:
You think you’d hear that here if Roosevelt was president? People wouldn’t dare, they wouldn’t dream, in Roosevelt’s day […] But now that our great ally is Adolf Hitler, now that the best friend of the president of the United States is Adolf Hitler — why, now they think they can get away with anything.
Again, this ascription of national agency to one figure might read as naïve to modern readers, but the novel’s plot suggests that the author takes the idea seriously. Lindbergh’s election legitimizes and activates a powerful but latent strain of anti-Semitism that creates an increasingly hostile world for the Roths and other Jews.
Trump’s signals to his supporters are equally clear: use violence if necessary to expel protestors from rallies; blame Muslims and Mexicans for all of the United States’s shortcomings; celebrate power and authority over consensus and negotiation. His name has been invoked as a taunt against minorities at high school sporting events, as an accompaniment to a swastika in the vandalism of a Northwestern University chapel, and in the assault of two students — one Muslim, the other Hispanic — at Wichita State University. Even if Trump is soundly defeated in November, his success has exposed a sizable bloc of American voters willing to embrace his unapologetic mix of ethno-nationalism, authoritarianism, and transparent egoism. The German American Bund existed quite apart from Lindbergh, and now that Trumpism has been revealed as such a powerful, lucrative, and politically viable force, it would be naïve to imagine that no one else will try to activate it once Trump himself fades away.
In a sense, The Plot Against America has a happy ending. Lindbergh mysteriously disappears and Roosevelt is reinstalled as president; the attack on Pearl Harbor occurs in December 1942 instead of 1941, but we are otherwise to assume that the novel’s history has merged with our own. (The narrator’s reference to Robert Kennedy’s assassination seems designed to reassure the reader of this merger.) We might tell ourselves that Roth has set the United States back on its virtuous path toward democracy, expanding equality, and material wealth. From my selfish perspective, the history to which Roth returns has been a happy one: both of my grandfathers served in the military during World War II, and my parents are baby boomers. Like other white, heterosexual men of my generation, I’ve been raised in an era of abundance while remaining free of military conscription or state-sponsored discrimination. American postwar history was also a very happy story for Fred Trump, who used his construction corporation to reap enormous profits from the Federal Housing Administration, amassing enormous personal wealth that he would use to help his son Donald establish a construction empire of his own. But while the novel ends happily for our narrator’s family and, by extension, for other segments of the populace, it puts US history back on the path that led to the internment of Japanese Americans, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the lynching of Emmett Till, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the My Lai Massacre, the Oklahoma City bombing, state-sanctioned torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the abandonment of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, the killing of Eric Garner, and too many other crimes motivated by American xenophobia, racism, and anti-government paranoia to enumerate here.
Regardless of the outcome of this November’s election, we Americans need to start telling ourselves a different story, one in which the prevalence of virulent racism and the latent appeal of fascist authoritarianism are not the stuff of alternate history but enduring elements of public life. Roth’s young narrator understands this well:
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 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.
Should Hillary Clinton win in November, Trumpism cannot be filed away as harmless history, a minor digression in the otherwise triumphant American epic. It must be accounted for as the disaster it will continue to be.
Mark P. Bresnan is Assistant Professor English at Stevenson University.
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