In Roth's ‘Plot Against America,’ the Demagogue Lost

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I won’t deny that it’s a cliché to reread Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” while Donald Trump is president. It surely is. The novel imagines an America in which Franklin D. Roosevelt, running for a third term as president in 1940, is defeated by the aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, an isolationist who wins by promising to keep the U.S. out of World War II.

But when Roth died in May, at 85, I couldn’t resist reopening the book, which I’d read in 2004 when it was first published. I wasn’t looking for parallels with the Trump presidency. It’s just about my favorite Roth novel, and I wanted to enjoy again the author’s elegant, straightforward prose and his sorrowful, beautiful storytelling. I also wanted to picture Newark again — the Newark of Roth’s childhood, especially the neighborhood he grew up in, populated by striving, hard-working Jews, which he seemed able to conjure with such ease in so many of his books.

All of which, of course, I quickly rediscovered, right from the novel’s ominous first sentence: “Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear.” Roth put his own family at the center of the tale, his proud father and sensible mother, his artistic older brother, and himself, a 7-year-old boy when the story begins in 1940. (“The Plot Against America” ends in 1942, when Roth is 9.)

When Trump was first elected, there were a handful of essays pointing out the obvious parallels between Trump and Roth’s fictional President Lindbergh. They are both celebrities. Lindbergh was an avowed anti-Semite; Trump champions white nationalists — and bigotry is at the heart of Roth’s book. In the novel, Jews are uprooted from their homes in ways that will remind readers of what Trump has done at the border. When Jews are killed, Lindbergh says nothing. When a mass shooting takes place in a Pittsburgh synagogue, Trump says they should have had an armed guard. And on, and on. As Scott Galupo noted in The Week shortly before Trump’s inauguration, “Our greatest living novelist foresaw, in granular detail, how a demagogic celebrity like Trump could come to power.”

But there is something else Roth foresaw that has only become obvious with the passage of time: how the country would act after electing a president who doesn’t care about civic or democratic norms. Roth envisioned a resistance, led by the gossip columnist Walter Winchell, that was vocal but impotent. He pictured people in power cravenly capitulating, like Senators Mitch McConnell or Lindsey Graham. He predicted the kind of polarization that we are now experiencing, with family member pitted against family member, and harmony that had existed for decades destroyed by politics.

What struck me most of all is the helplessness people feel in Roth’s novel. A terrible thing is happening to their country, and there is nothing anyone seems to be able to do to stop it. In “The Plot Against America,” all the liberal editorials in the world can’t prevent Jews from being harmed. Though they go about their daily lives, there is an undercurrent of fear that hadn’t existed before.

Today, there are a lot of people who feel that same helplessness, even after November’s midterm election. For instance, all the lawsuits in the world can’t prevent the Trump administration’s efforts to block asylum-seeking immigrants at the Mexican border — even though they have a legal right to enter. And when they do enter — and when a 7-year-old girl dies while in Border Patrol custody — the administration shrugs its shoulders. Nothing changes. In many communities, that same undercurrent of fear that Roth describes in “The Plot Against America” exists in the here and now.

Roth’s book ends with Roosevelt returning to the presidency, reinstituting democratic norms and values, and then leading the country into the war that destroys Hitler’s dream of a master race ruling the world. One can only hope that our reality ends up like “The Plot Against America” as well: that a new president will take office in two years who will restore the norms and values that we have always treasured as Americans.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is co-author of “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA.”

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