My preparedness for the regime change taking place in the United States--with elements of the Electoral College, the Kremlin and the FBI helping to install a failed business promoter who the majority of American voters did not support in the election--ends with The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, an elaborately woven and eerily prognostic alternate history. Published in 2004, the Pulitzer Prize winner supposes that aviator, dinner party anti-Semite and Nazi Party favorite Charles A. Lindbergh wins the Republican Party nomination in 1940. On a platform of "America First" and keeping the U.S.A. out of war, Lindy defies pollsters and denies President Franklin D. Roosevelt a third term. His regime targets a religious minority, in this case, Jews.
The audacious story is the first person account of Philip Roth, who in 1940 really was a seven-year-old postage stamp collector growing up in the Jewish enclave of Weequahic in Newark, New Jersey, where the novel is set. The alternate history Philip has a twelve year old brother named Sandy, a prodigious artist. Their father Herman is a thirty-nine year old insurance agent whose fifty-dollar per week salary pays the bills and little more. Their thirty-six-year-old mother Bess is a tiny woman who manages the household. She shares her husband's ardor for the United States, the Constitution, President Roosevelt, the New Deal and the Democratic Party.
Philip recounts how Charles Lindbergh was once a hero in his neighborhood, following the aviator's historic flight from Long Island to Paris aboard the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927. Eleven years later, Germany's mounting terror campaign against Jews is underway across Europe and Lindbergh accepts a Service Cross of the German Eagle during a visit to Berlin. A stoic celebrity who reaps public sympathy following the mysterious kidnapping and murder of his son in 1932, Lindy strides into a deadlocked Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 1940. Philip and Sandy are wakened by the exclamation of their mother, father and older cousin Alvin as they listen by radio.
The anger that night was the real roaring forge, the furnace that takes you and twists you like steel. And it didn't subside--not while Lindbergh stood silently at the Philadelphia rostrum and heard himself being cheered once again as the nation's savoir, nor when he gave the speech accepting his party's nomination and with it the mandate to keep America out of the European war. We all waited in terror to hear him repeat to the convention his malicious vilification of the Jews, but that he didn't made no difference to the mood that carried every last family on the block out into the street at nearly five in the morning. Entire families known to me previously only fully dressed in daytime clothing were wearing pajamas and nightdresses under their bathrobes and milling around in their slippers at dawn as if driven from their homes by an earthquake.
In the short term, the Roths' spirits are raised by their national heroes. President Roosevelt welcomes a celebrity opponent in Lindbergh with no political experience who is on record for supporting foreign dictators and disparaging Jews. Bombastic muckracker Walter Winchell minces no words in assailing Lindbergh in his weekly radio broadcast. They join luminaries such as New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis and journalist Dorothy Thompson pronouncing Lindbergh as unfit for office. Philip's cousin Alvin, however, predicts that America is going fascist. He departs for Canada to join the fight against Hitler.
Polls two weeks before the election show FDR comfortably ahead in both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Republican officials reportedly grouse at Lindbergh's insistence to steer his own campaign, piloting the Spirit of St. Louis from state to state and offering nil about his potential administration. His platform is simple: Your choice is Lindbergh or war. His campaign gets an assist from Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf of Newark's B'nai Moshe temple when he vouches for Lindbergh at a rally in Madison Square Garden. The rabbi's message to gentiles that a vote for Lindy is not a vote for antisemitism spurs a landslide victory for the challenger.
President Lindbergh meets Adolf Hitler in Iceland to sign an "understanding" of non-aggression, as well as with emissaries of Emperor Hirohito in Hawaii. The deals ignite protests in a dozen U.S. cities, but most of the country rejoices at peace. In an attempt to show Philip and Sandy that America has not gone fascist, the Roths undertake a vacation to Washington D.C. Returning to their hotel, the Roths discover that their reservation has been canceled and they've been evicted. Bess is skittish to the point of tipping over into paranoia. Her husband is unable to keep his antipathy for the new president quiet, drawing remarks of "loudmouth Jew" from two tourists at the Lincoln Memorial.
But my father could see nothing. "You think you'd hear that here if Roosevelt was president? People wouldn't dare, they wouldn't dream, in Roosevelt's day ...," my father said. "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. It's disgraceful. It starts with the White House ..."
Whom was he talking to other than me? My brother was trailing after Mr. Taylor, asking about the mural, and my mother was trying to prevent herself from saying or doing anything, struggling against the very emotions that had overpowered her earlier in the car--and back then without anything like this much justification.
"Read that,"my father said, alluding to the tablet bearing the Gettysburg Address. "Just read it. 'All men are created equal.'"
While the president praises Hitler as the world's safeguard against the spread of Communism and Germany pushes the Russians east, the Lindbergh administration hits close to home for the Roths by forming the Office of American Absorption and the Just Folks campaign, a "mentoring" program for select Jewish boys aged twelve to eighteen offering eight weeks with a sponsor family to learn farming. Bess' younger sister Evelyn, secretary and mistress to Rabbi Bengelsdorf, helps Sandy qualify for the program, which his father sees through as a fifth column intended to set Jewish boys against their elders and fracture the community.
Alvin loses his left leg below the knee in battle and returns to Newark. Philip assists his cousin with his bandaged stump and tries to keep his brother Sandy's admiration for Lindbergh a secret from his cousin, who feels like a chump for going off to fight Hitler for the benefit of Philip's father. He learns to walk again using a prosthetic and takes a job at a grocer owned by another uncle, but when an FBI agent shows up asking questions about Alvin, his uncle buckles under pressure and fires his nephew, who disappears to work in a numbers-running racket. When Sandy is invited to the White House by his Aunt Evelyn, his mother and father refuse, devastating Philip's brother.
Shepsie Tirschwell, a projectionist at the Newsreel Theater, sees what's going on in current events and tells Herman that he's moving his family to Montreal. Bess takes a seasonal job at a department store and opens a savings account in Canada in case they too need to leave in a hurry. Her husband refuses to be driven from his country, offering that it is the fascists who should get out. In May 1942, his employer complies with Homestead 42, an initiative by the OAA to thin ethnic minorities from the cities and resettle them in rural areas, purportedly to homogenize the nation. His decision to quit his job turns out to be prescient, while his refusal to leave for Canada is perilous. Bess is livid.
"And just where do they get the gall to do this to people?" my mother asked. "I am dumbfounded, Herman. Our families are here. Our lifelong friends are here. The children's friends are here. We have lived in peace and harmony here all of our lives. We are only a block from the best elementary school in Newark. We are a block from the best high school in New Jersey. Our boys have been raised among Jews. They go to school with other Jewish children. There is no friction with the other children. There is no name-calling. There are no fights. They have never had to feel left out and lonely the way I did as a child. I cannot believe the company is doing this to you. The way you have worked for these people, the hours that you put in, the effort--and this," she said angrily, "is the reward."
Like many of Philip Roth's books, The Plot Against America has a clunky title that indicates non-fiction or a symposium, anything but a compelling novel. And before this year, it might not have been. It seems as if half the book is a riff on Roth's boyhood in Newark--his family relations, his odd friendships, his search for his identity. The autobiographical detail grows self-indulgent and my eyes even started to glaze over paragraphs wandering away from President Lindbergh or his destructive impact on the Roths. The author favors marathon sentences and can spend two paragraphs describing nuns, which does not lend itself to a tense dystopian read.
The marvel of the novel is how seamlessly it blends historical fact and devastating fantasy, as well as how accurately it predicts a regime change in the United States. Given his era and his military bent, Lindbergh is stoic where our current president is emotionally unstable, but Lindy is as great a celebrity, cruising through his first election campaign (against a heavily favored Democrat) by appealing to the country's best intentions as well as its base hatreds, against politicians, the media and an ethnic minority. The fear Lindbergh's statements and policies strike in Jews is analogous to that felt by immigrants in our country today and laid out for all its repulsive fascism by Roth.
If there was a novel that utilizes fantasy elements to address the very real fear and hatred being stoked right now, and why none of us are going to like where "America First" leads, The Plot Against America is it. The autobiographical material that serves as a bedrock did grow long in the tooth, but at the same time, the overall effect grounds the novel in reality in a way that science fiction cannot when tackling authoritarian dystopia. Roth's approach is highly effective, personal and chilling the deeper he takes us into Lindbergh's presidency. He includes a handy postscript that offers a true chronology of the historical figures who play a role in this eerie alternate history. The novel offers a warning, which Mayor LaGuardia voices memorably:
"There's a plot afoot all right, and I'll gladly name the forces propelling it--hysteria, ignorance, malice, stupidity, hatred, and fear. What a repugnant spectacle our country has become! Falsehood, cruelty, and madness everywhere, and brute force in the wings waiting to finish us off. Now we read in the Chicago Tribune that all these years clever Jewish bakers have been using the blood of the kidnapped Lindbergh child for making Passover matzohs in Poland--a story as nutty today as when it was first concocted by anti-Semitic maniacs five hundred years ago. How it must please the Führer to be poisoning our country with this sinister nonsense. Jewish interests. Jewish elements. Jewish usurers. Jewish retaliation. Jewish conspiracies. A Jewish war against the world. To have enslaved America with this hocus-pocus! To have captured the mind of the world's greatest nation without uttering a single word of truth! Oh, the pleasure we must be affording the most malevolent man on earth!"