The Dystopia Project is Mashable‘s book series looking at what dystopian fiction has to teach us in our new political climate. You can read past entries here.
The first time I read The Plot Against America was the same year Philip Roth published it, 2004. Back then I thought it a thoroughly readable cautionary tale set in an alternate America — one that voted the antisemitic isolationist aviator Charles Lindbergh into the Oval Office in 1940, instead of Franklin Roosevelt for a third term.
But as masterfully-constructed as Roth’s tale was — he focused on the effects Lindbergh’s creeping fascist policies had on himself, young alternate universe Philip Roth, and his family — there was one big detail of the plot that a lot of readers simply couldn’t buy.
I for one couldn’t bring myself to believe that the Republican Party would nominate, nor America elect, a completely qualification-free celebrity to replace a popular Democratic president and run the country at a time of great global peril.
Especially not when that celebrity had said lots of nice things about — and was not-so-secretly colluding with — the most infamous autocrat on the planet. Surely America’s Greatest Generation would never have gone along with that!
Well, now that Philip Roth has turned out to be the seer of seers, prognosticator of prognosticators, I’m here to tell you that The Plot Against America reads a lot differently in 2017. A lot differently.
In 2004, the least qualified president just about anyone could imagine was George W. Bush, who had governor of Texas on his resume. And the creeping threat was not collusion, it was the dictatorial spying powers the administration claimed under the Patriot Act.
So Roth’s premise of the totally amateur president felt false, frothy, more of a dark comedy setup than a serious political take. Until 2016, no candidate had ever won a presidential election who wasn’t already a holder of high office, be that political or (less often) military. Dubya may have been all hat and no cattle, but at least he had a few years running a large state under his belt. President Lindbergh just didn’t seem all that likely.
Nowadays, reading Roth’s fictional account of Lindbergh emerging as a stage-managed, last-minute replacement candidate at the deadlocked 1940 GOP convention has an eerie chill to it. I now buy that the party behind tea protests and Trump had that kind of three-ring circus nonsense in its DNA all along.
The more you read about Lindbergh’s real life, the more you feel like we dodged a bullet in 1940 — purely because the pilot decided not to seek the office he was often told was his for the taking.
Lindbergh cut a dashing figure and had become adept at giving speeches ever since he became famous for crossing the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927. He knew how to grab attention on a new form of media (radio, in his case). He had a glamorous, intriguing wife (also a pilot). And ever since the kidnapping and murder of his baby son in 1932, he’d been unimpeachably sympathetic.
No wonder Lindbergh became the most prominent leader of the “America First” isolationist movement. To many Americans — largely uneducated, all white — he was a hero who told it like it was, who was fighting for racial purity, who attacked the (((mainstream media))).
At his rallies, people were heard to shout ‘our next President!’
Like Trump, Lindbergh wasn’t exactly dog-whistling in those America First speeches. He railed against “the Jewish groups in this country” and the dangers of “their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government. He said their motives were “not American.” At his rallies, people were heard to shout “our next President!”
Lindbergh also admired powerful foreign dictators. Just as Trump began his love affair with Vladimir Putin by hoping he would become his “new best friend” on a trip to Moscow in 2013, Lindbergh’s love affair with Hitler seems to have started when he visited the 1936 Berlin Olympics and wrote that the Nazi leader was an “undoubtedly great man.” In his private diary, Lindbergh continued to write positive notes on Hitler after he rolled tanks into Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the rest of Europe.
The two never actually met. They didn’t need to.
Trump declined to criticize Putin from that Moscow trip on, even as the Russian dictator annexed the Crimea and launched a shadow war in Ukraine. Likewise, Lindbergh actually refused to return a medal sent by the Fuhrer that made him a “knight of the German eagle,” even after Hitler had blitzkrieged his way across Europe, on grounds that it would be an “unnecessary insult” to the Third Reich.
Could such a fellow traveler really be elected to the highest office? Someone who out-and-out supports the worst dictators, who runs on an isolationist platform with the slogan “America First”? In 2004, my response was: No way. Now, amazingly, surreally, as is becoming more clear with a steady drip of reporting, we’re seeing it happen.
Roth’s other eery prediction is that when fascism enters America, it proceeds slowly. The media self-censors; when the hugely popular radio gossip Walter Winchell (the one-man TMZ of his day) lets loose on the president’s policies, it is his advertisers who silence him for breaching decorum. To the average citizen the press and the presidency and Congress seem to be functioning, or malfunctioning, as always.
President Lindbergh hosts a party for German Foreign Minister Von Ribbentrop in the White House; everything about their alliance is made to look above-board and respectable. He creates the sinister-sounding Office of American Absorption to start relocating some Jewish families, but he finds a pliable Rabbi to lead it.
Lindbergh is here a far smoother, taciturn and more dangerous would-be dictator than Trump. They have the same populist instinct to go over the heads of the media and talk directly to the people. But instead of huffing and puffing on Twitter, Lindbergh flies his plane without Secret Service escort, shows up in a random midwestern town with scarcely an hour’s notice, then basks in the free media afterglow having given a speech shorter than a tweet.
In this, The Plot Against America succeeds where It Can’t Happen Here, a previous Dystopia Project entry, fails. Sinclair Lewis’ 1933 novel of a presidential dictator predicted an electoral coup — arresting the Supreme Court, machine-gunning Congressmen.
Reading in 2004, that seemed the model to follow: hell, if you’re going to write a dystopia with a literal Nazi president, why not go all the way? I remember thinking Roth was holding back, and perhaps being almost dangerously naive for not including concentration camps.
Now it’s clear: that’s not how this stuff works. Fascism is the proverbial frog being boiled in water, progressing so slowly you barely notice. Even though President Lindbergh is (spoiler alert) actually colluding with Germany behind the scenes, he’s also trying to slow the Fuhrer’s roll: America’s different, he says. We’re more used to freedom. It’s going to take some time to dismantle.
In any case, Lindbergh departs the scene two years into his term in a manner that seemed in 2004 to be too neat. Reading it again, it’s hard not to hope we get that lucky.
Interestingly, Roth leaves open the question of whether President Lindbergh was being blackmailed by his foreign dictator the whole time. The nature of that blackmail is so insane, it’ll have you doing a spit-take faster than you can say “pee tape.”
In choosing this ending, Roth raises interesting questions about rumors, fake news, and whether we can ever truly know what happened behind the scenes. The Plot Against America could not be a more timely re-read.