Some months ago I read in The New Yorker a description of an event that took place at the 92nd Street Y in New York City: a staged reading of Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America. The producers of the event felt that there were some striking parallels between the plot of Roth’s novel, published more than fifteen years ago, and the political climate of America that has prevailed since late 2016.
Roth’s reinvention of history takes place during the early years of WWII. Franklin Roosevelt has been defeated in his third bid for reelection by Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh, without any prior political experience, becomes the Republican party’s nominee at the very last minute, almost like an after-thought. The great aviator’s platform is isolationism. This point of view was once extremely popular in America. He engages in several high-profile meetings with Adolph Hitler and makes Hitler a promise to stay out of WWII in exchange for Hitler’s guarantee that he will never attack America. Lindbergh is able to sell this idea to the majority of Americans. He also assures his supporters that Hitler is an honorable man.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Knowing that Hitler is systematically murdering Jews, the American Jews are alarmed at this unholy alliance. The novel’s narrator (named Philip Roth) is among them.
The mouthpiece for the American Jews is the famous columnist, Walter Winchell, whose stinging commentary on Lindbergh’s secretly anti-Semitic policies are believed by Roth’s father. When the Roth family makes what turns out to be an ill-fated trip to Washington D.C., Roth’s father gets himself into rhetorical trouble by spouting off criticism of Lindbergh that begins by attracting venomous stares in a local automat and ends when the family’s several night stay at a hotel is terminated without a reasonable explanation.
From the Roths’ point of view, the attitude towards Jews now seems to be backsliding into a sort of knee-jerk racism that has always been quietly present but has now been given new encouragement to once again rear its ugly head.
Then the author’s imagination goes into overdrive: urban Jewish families begin to be reassigned to live in more rural parts of the country and concurrent with this reassignment are eruptions of violent anti-Semitic rallies all across America in which many Jews are beaten and murdered.
As far-fetched as this may seem, it has been documented that during the last few years of this century, incidents of racially-motivated violent crime have greatly increased. Many fringe political groups have become more visible and vocal.
But in terms of the present day political situation, perhaps the most startling and disturbing narrative development in The Plot Against America has to do with the idea of compromat. This is a Russian term used to describe when a government or an organization is holding onto something that could be potentially very destructive to a political figure. By threatening to reveal whatever it is that might compromise the political figure, the empowered government or organization is able to manipulate policies and attitudes.
In Roth’s novel, this far-fetched yet somehow believable twist is that the famously-abducted Lindbergh baby was actually abducted by the Germans and raised into a soldier. Hitler is able to control U.S. foreign policy by blackmailing President Lindbergh. Hitler uses the threat that if the American president deviates from what is in Germany’s best interests, Lindbergh’s son will be sent to one of the more brutal fronts of the war. There he will very likely perish. If this happens, the Lindberghs will never see their son again.
We might hazard to say that what is going on in the world of politics today would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, and yet the parallel between this fifteen-year-old novel and the present is downright chilling.
Here is a link to The New Yorker article – The Frightening Lessons of Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America”
You may also be interested in this interview with Philip Roth about his book “The Plot Against America”.