The Plot Against America
by Philip RothPublished 2004 400 pages
So it turns out that I like Philip Roth and I like his muscular, winding sentences. I read Portnoy's Complaint a long time ago and it didn't really resonate with me, but The Plot Against America very much did. Maybe that's because I don't have much in common with Alexander Portnoy, but I do have a lot of common with the world in which The Plot Against America is set.
The Plot Against America reads, at first blush, like a thinly-veiled roman à clef about the presidency of Donald Trump and rising intolerance towards ethnic and cultural minorities in the United States post-2016 (or maybe post-2010 or so; not clear). Imagine my surprise to discover that it was actually written in 2004!
The underlying premise of The Plot Against America is: what if Charles Lindbergh was elected to the presidency in 1940, instead of FDR for a third time? What if Charles Lindbergh, the famously isolationist, anti-semitic aviator who rose to stardom for the first nonstop solo Atlantic crossing by airplane, became the president on the eve of America's entry into World War II, and what would happen in the subsequent years? The result is, unsurprisingly, that America doesn't enter into the war, that policies are instituted for marginalising minorities—Roth is mostly concerned with the experience of Jewish Americans, being one himself—and we go from there.
The book paints Lindbergh in a much more sympathetic light than I'd have expected; in 2022, we've seen the president mock those with cerebral palsy, admit to sexually assaulting women, pass tax breaks to the wealthy, and ban immigration from Middle East. In the book, Lindbergh's legislation is a lot more soft-power, trying to break up Jewish communities and dilute cultural influence by passing acts of rabid nationalism—where America subsumes non-white heritage, rather than cutting it off entirely.
But the book isn't about Lindbergh, per se—it could have been Henry Ford, or Burton Wheeler, or any other anti-semite isolationist at the top. The message of the book isn't that Charles Lindbergh was a dangerous man, or even that the president is particularly dangerous in and of themselves. Movements need figureheads but the real plot against America is perpetrated by American citizens. Late in the book, when riots erupt across the midwest, it's not because Lindbergh has deployed the Army to reappropriate Jewish property: the rioters are regular Americans themselves, high on plausible-sounding lies and plausible-sounding villains.
That's the way it works in 2022, as well: Donald Trump is no longer the president, but the movements that his presidency legitimised continue apace. Vast portions of the American political machine are now devoted to promoting the same kinds of narratives that we see here: that an underrepresented class of people are actually running the show, undermining the country, trying to lead Americans towards peril.
The only lie here, of course, is that the cabal of string-pullers are from some underrepresented class of people: the show isn't being run by the Jews, or Muslims, or Black folks, or feminists, but by the most over-represented class of people on the planet: wealthy and the powerful, intent on keeping Americans (and the rest of us) unhappy with each other for as long as possible.
From a formalistic perspective, I've already said that I like Roth's voice—it's meandering and omniscient-sounding in an extremely personal way, which comes off as authoritative but friendly, due to the conceit that Roth is writing in the alternate 2004 of the book. And it is Philip Roth writing, within the diegesis of the narrative: the narrator's name is Philip Roth, and he grew up in the real-world Philip Roth's house, and his parents are real-world Philip Roth's parents, and the characters are all people that Philip Roth knew growing up; they're just subject to the election of Charles Lindbergh to the presidency in 1940. The result is that the alternate world feels extremely real and extremely personal—though we're not there, the world is so familiar and rendered in such detail that we might as well be. From what I've read, real-world Roth uses this conceit across a few of his books. I like it.