Twelve years ago Philip Roth wrote a counter-factual novel in which an extreme right-wing populist wins the presidency. It seems less fanciful by the dayby Sameer Rahim / August 4, 2016 / Leave a comment
Despite his shaky poll ratings, Donald Trump’s brand of charismatic nastiness has plenty of appeal and could yet propel him to the American presidency. His recent attacks on Ghazala and Khizr Khan, the Muslim parents of an American soldier killed in Iraq in 2004, showed how low he is prepared to strike. (Though is it churlish to ask why it has taken so long to point out the outrageousness of his plans to ban Muslims from the “land of the free”?) Yet there are already conspiracy theories flying around about Khizr Khan being a Muslim Brotherhood plant; an article he wrote in 1988 about Islamic law has been dredged up to prove his un-Americanness. You can be sure these are the articles being shared by Trump supporters on social media—not the mainstream outrage from Democrats and some Republicans. We are witnessing the paranoid style in American politics, turbo-charged by the internet age.
How did we get to this point? Is there anything new to say about Trump and his phenomenal rise? Amid the welter of opinion, it might be worth turning to fiction. In 2004, Philip Roth wrote a brilliant counter-factual novel, The Plot Against America, which imagined the US electing a celebrity far-right leader with bigoted views about minorities and a weakness for foreign strongmen. Reading the novel, you can’t help seeing striking parallels with the rise of Trump. Roth, writing about the past but of course also about the present, anticipates the rightward shift in post-9/11 US politics.
Beginning in 1940, The Plot Against America is set in a fictionalised version of Roth’s own Newark family. The narrator is a young Philip, looking back over the troubled times of his early life. The opening lines, with a couple of adjustments, could apply equally well today to a young Muslim in Florida or a Mexican in Nevada: “Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear. Of course no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn’t been president or if I hadn’t been the offspring of Jews.”
Charles A Lindbergh was a real person. An ace pilot, in 1927, at the age of 25 he flew solo non-stop from New York to Paris. Overnight he became a hero across America. In 1932, his baby son was kidnapped and killed by an immigrant ex-convict, which brought him widespread sympathy. By 1936, Lindbergh was in Berlin for the Olympics, describing Adolf Hitler as “undoubtedly a great man… [who] I believe has done much for the German people.” In 1941 he spoke at America First rallies (the slogan resurrected by Trump), and was touted by many as the next president.
In real life, that never happened. But in Roth’s novel, it does. The young Philip tells us how his patriotic father reacts with hysterical disbelief at Lindbergh’s triumph. All his long-held fears of anti-Jewish sentiment among his fellow Americans seem to be confirmed. Fear seeps through the family. Driving past a German beer garden, Philip sees, “The intoxicant of anti-Semitism. That’s what I came to imagine them all so cheerfully drinking in their beer garden that day—like all the Nazis everywhere, downing pint after pint of anti-Semitism as though imbibing the universal remedy.” Of course these men could simply be having a drink. But paranoia breeds paranoia, and the spectre of a German-American alliance as proposed by Lindbergh becomes for the Roth family an existential threat.
Gradually, the dread increases. On a visit to Washington DC to see the monuments to the Republic, the family are abused by Lindbergh supporters. More painfully, Philip’s older brother, a boy who hasn’t much affection for his religious identity, is drawn into a government programme called “Just Folks” run by the Office of American Absorption that inducts inner-city Jewish children into wholesome American country ways. (The etymological echo of “folk” and “volk” is a pleasingly sinister touch.)
Roth here is playing with his own early rebelliousness. The stories in his 1959 book Goodbye, Columbus caused consternation among some rabbis for their open depiction of conflict between American Jews. In Portnoy’s Complaint (1968), the Jewish boy yearns to break free from his constricted upbringing through sex with non-Jewish girls. But The Plot Against America is Roth’s recognition that his parents’ generation perhaps had their reasons for fiercely protecting their cultural heritage. When does assimilation become dilution and finally extermination? The counter-factual scenario raises the dramatic stakes of any social rebellion—under Lindbergh dating a gentile isn’t just dating a gentile—more especially when the Ku Klux Klan start to attack Roth’s family friends.
Lindbergh is mainly kept off-stage. It is his effect on ordinary Americans that Roth is most interested in. Some vote for him to avoid another costly foreign war; some are bigoted; some are simply attracted to his power. One senior rabbi sides with Lindbergh, hoping to gain preferment for himself and his family. The rabbi, and Philip’s aunt who marries him, don’t realise that Lindbergh does not play by the common rules of compromise. He brings the single-mindedness of the successful pilot to the political arena. When he blames the Jews, he really means to blame the Jews.
The mature Roth has written some brilliant novels, but none feels so urgent as The Plot Against America. Grounded in an immaculately re-created family world, the fantasy becomes all too plausible. In the end, with America rioting and well-known Jews being done away with, Roth gets history back on track when Lindbergh dies in a mysterious airplane disaster. It’s implied that someone in the establishment decided that enough was enough. We can only hope that Trump is brought down to earth by democratic means on 8th November. Until then, it’s worth buying a copy of Roth’s novel. While you still can.