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The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth

reviewed by
Nikil Saval


 

At the height of the Vietnam War a sly Harvard law student addressed an assembly of parents and alumni. “The streets of our country are in turmoil,’ he said.

“The universities are filled with students rebelling and rioting. Communists are seeking to destroy our country. Russia is threatening us with her might. And the republic is in danger. Yes! danger from within and without. We need law and order! Without law and order our nation cannot survive.” As audience applause died down, the speaker revealed that the words were first spoken by none other than Adolf Hitler in 1932.[1]  It’s the sort of trick many a leftist has longed to pull off. Sure, you could lull the audience to smiling sleep with platitudes about the tough obstacles ahead. But, instead, you point out to them how, given the right circumstances and an enthralling leader, they might salute the tilted swastika and send “undesirables” en masse to gas chambers. Would the graduates still toss their caps in the air ?

Fascism’s place in the American ideological spectrum is not very well explored by historians: “it can’t happen here,” goes the usual, self-deluding phrase (though it was the title of Sinclair Lewis’ admonitory 1930s novel). Consider The Authoritarian Personality, which is still notable for its “F-scale,” whose sentences test a subject’s receptivity to authoritarianism and fascism: “Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn”;  “What this country needs is fewer laws and agencies, and more courageous, devoted, tireless leaders, whom the people can put their faith in”; “The sexual orgies of the Greeks and Romans are nursery school stuff compared to some of the goings-on in this country today, even in circles where one would least expect it.”

Certainly we’ve heard these sentiments expressed, if in different phrasings. Ronald Reagan’s victories surely derived from his apparent “courageous, devoted, tireless” strength, and from his apparent (and ironic) opposition to “big government.” A modern authoritarian fervor surely was reflected in the elections of Silvio Berlusconi, George W. Bush, and Angela Merkel. In a world dominated by neoconservative shibboleths, the potential of fascism is no joke. “That this potential [for American Fascism] simmers in American society is significant enough,” Irving Howe, reflecting on the Republican nomination of Barry Goldwater, wrote in 1964.[2]

In Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997), one of the characters, watching Nixon’s circle on TV during the Watergate hearings, reflects that “these so-called patriots” would “take this country and make Nazi Germany out of it…these people have taken us to the edge of something terrible.” In light of the second Bush victory in 2004, it is certainly difficult not to exaggerate reactionary possibilities today. No amount of paranoia seems enough - what with revelations of secret CIA prisons, profilerating reports of torture, and unauthorized wiretapping. So it is impossible not to see Roth’s novel, published just before the election, as an allegory of our present historical moment.

The novel imagines what if, in 1940, the anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh ran for president against Franklin D. Roosevelt, and won? One of the novel’s strengths is Roth’s sketch of Lindbergh. He’s always bright-eyed, tremendously affable. His infamous Des Moines speech in 1941, criticizing the undue influence of “Jewish groups” in the United States’ march towards war, takes place earlier in the novel’s time; Lindbergh never gives a speech like it as President. “To gauge the value of this man…wasn’t difficult,” the narrator reflects. “A virile hero. A courageous adventurer. A natural person of gigantic strength and rectitude combined with a powerful blandness.” (Think Dubya crossing the carrier deck in his flight suit.) Lindbergh is the darling of the nation: “Lucky Lindy,” with his daring transatlantic flight on The Spirit of St. Louis, “fearless Lindy, at once youthful and gravely mature, the rugged individualist, the legendary American man’s man who gets the impossible done by relying solely on himself.”  When Lindbergh wishes to rouse the voting public, he jumps in his old airplane, and flies solo across the country, greeting cheering crowds at every airstrip.

There is not just a little of our non-soloing current president in Lindbergh—but I believe this isn’t Roth’s point. The mimicry extends to a myriad of political leaders, whose banality conceals, or is dependent upon, darker fantasies. The novel would have been less successful had Roth attempted a political thriller that exposed everything as President Lindbergh and his associates collaborate with and appease the Nazis. After all, while he sympathizes with fascists, he never exercises dictatorial power. But his collaboration with right-wing dictators is a feature of postwar American politics up to, and including, Saddam Hussein. We hear of the president’s “unshakable conviction…that the best protection against the spread of Communism across Europe, into Asia, and the Middle East, and as far as to our own hemisphere was the total destruction of Stalin’s Soviet Union by the military might of the Third Reich.” This is the sort of sentiment that drove Cold War foreign policy afterward. Roth’s portrait of a Lindbergh’s administration is both frightening and comic by virtue of its being so ordinary.

Roth cultivates the novel’s air of what his narrator calls “perpetual fear” by managing a claustrophobia of a different kind, by re-imagining not just political history, but his very own childhood within that history. The Plot Against America, far from being a “political novel,” is largely a tale of two terrible years in the life of a family, and of a child, Philip Roth, forced to experience this period with no recourse. The narrator, reconstructing these years, uses an older, subdued voice but maintains an attenuated view of his younger self. Hence, his parents appear as outsized, uncomplicated figures. His father Herman Roth is a hard-working insurance salesman; his mother Bess is devoted, loving. Both are deeply opposed to Lindbergh. Meanwhile, Philip’s older brother Sandy evinces teenage diffidence, which leads him in the wrong direction. Drawing skillful portraits of Lindbergh and others, Sandy soon gets caught up in Lindbergh adoration, and participates willingly in the anti-Semitic “Just Folks” program, designed to cart Jewish children to middle America for long summers to participate in the Christian farming life of the “heartland.” Alvin, Herman Roth’s nephew, who has moved in with the Roths after the death of his father, becomes fervently anti-Lindbergh, to the point that he heads to Canada to fight the Nazis on side of the British Commonwealth. He comes home an amputee, still enraged but helpless.

Roth portrays a family completely at home in the United States. The Roths are nonplussed by the occasional Zionist visitor, asking for “a contribution toward the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.”  “My parents would give me or Sandy a couple of coins to drop into his collection box,” Philip writes, “largess, I always thought, dispensed out of kindness so as not to hurt the feelings of a poor old man who from one year to the next, seemed unable to get it through his head that we’d already had a homeland for three generations.” Their Jewish-ness is ontologically inextricable from their American-ness, and equally unworthy of comment—until, of course, that former part of them becomes a target of the new administration.

The very fact of Lindbergh’s election deposits them in a vastly different country. Non-Jewish neighbors are beyond comprehension. Young Philip begins following random Christians on his bus home from school, to try to understand their sudden otherness. Innocuously named but sinister programs like ‘Just Folks’ increase their paranoia that something far worse, like the violence conducted against the European Jews, threatens them. A relocation program begins to carry neighbors away, one by one—while Herman Roth quits his job so that he can remain in Newark. Soon, the Roths are pitted against each other. As a Lindbergh supporter, Sandy begins to accuse the Roths of suffering a “persecution complex” as “ghetto Jews.” Bess slaps him twice. “She doesn’t know what she’s doing,’ I thought, ‘She’s somebody else—everybody is.’”

Papers of “record” like The New York Times provide consistent, echo-chamber support for Lindbergh’s stated goals. Walter Winchell, a classic type of muckraking columnist (who, as Roth notes in an historical postscript, actually moved to the extreme right after World War II), attempts to expose the murderous underside of Lindbergh’s sunny demeanor, but the real exposure only takes place when he attempts to run for President. His candidacy sparks a series of anti-Semitic riots, finally resulting in his assassination.

At this point that the novel reaches its most terrifying pitch, partly accomplished by Roth’s recourse to newsreel narration. Lindbergh disappears on one of his pep rally flights; his hawkish Vice President, Burton K. Wheeler, takes over, and presides over a reign of terror, tacitly encouraging pogroms  which engulf many mid-Western cities. The Roths’ neighbors, the Wishnows, having been moved to Kentucky, get targeted by a mob. Seldon Wishnow loses his mother—his father having been taken by tuberculosis earlier in the novel. The long-distance call between Bess Roth and Seldon is one of the emotional high-points of the novel. Significantly, Sandy Roth’s Kentucky “homestay” family keeps Seldon at their home till the Roths are able to get him: not all the citizens are anti-Semites.

The terror is finally put to an end when unlikely heroine Lindbergh’s wife demands special elections. Franklin Roosevelt wins, Pearl Harbor is bombed, and history as we know it proceeds —with the Allied powers defeating Germany and Japan. The “resumption of history” detail is the novel’s most glaring false note. Is it really plausible that the disappearance of the United States from world events would occasion no further disturbance? Could things really go on as if nothing had happened? 

In a sense, nothing “happens” in Lindbergh’s America, at least not as drastically as things “happened” in Europe. There is no fascist takeover. But that wider disasters suddenly become plausible and personal, is enough. Characters in the novel spend an inordinate amount of time discussing what Lindbergh might accomplish. What is all this in aid of? What lies behind the rhetoric? Few things they predict occur. Yet such paranoia is far from madness. The novel is only partially about the strong currents of anti-Semitism that existed in the pre-war United States. Roth allegorizes past political repressions, and perhaps also future ones whose horror we cannot envision. The festering silent oppression within the novel’s world is that of America’s blacks. Ostensibly casual references to subservient blacks —bellhops at a hotel lobby in Washington; alcoholics on Sandy’s Kentucky farm—are the secret nerves of Roth’s novel. The plausibility of the book’s pogroms depends, partly, on the fact that they actually were inflicted on other American minorities.

So our freedoms are frighteningly contingent. When the novel came out in October 2004, its success surely drew upon fears of another impending Bush victory, and all the global nightmares such a consolidation of power might bring. Those nightmares have come to pass and more, but yet in ways that we could not have claimed to see entirely in advance. Watching his father break down in tears over Lindbergh’s election, Philip reflects that we are “powerless to stop the unforeseen.” Roth’s counter-history exposes the specter of fascism that has kept out of sight in American political life, even though it remains a seemingly irrepressible threat. Different outcomes haunt the history we read and live, the possibilities of which we must imagine in order to conduct our present lives in order to have any effect The frightening thing is to feel in imagining it that there is so little one is able to see, and later, in retrospect, only so much one was able to do.
 

Notes

[1] Nancy Zaroulis and Sullivan, Who Spoke Up? American Protest Against the War in Vietnam, 1963-75 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984) 241.

[2] Howe, “The Goldwater Movement,” Steady Work: Essays in the Politics of Democratic Radicalism 1953-1966 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., 1966) 229.

 


Logos 5.1 - winter 2006
© Logosonline 2006