The Plot Against America: A Novel, by Philip Roth

This book is about 13 years old now but seems to have a particular relevance in today’s political climate with “populist” politicians popping up in both the Americas and Europe, candidates supported by the KKK, and a growing sense of a license for violence against “others”. One of the last books published by Roth, the author combines Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle in an alternate history about America’s delayed entry into WWII. This is the reason I included the science fiction tags for the book. In Dick’s alternate America a historical assassination attempt against FDR is successful, leaving the country without his political charisma to lead the country into the war.

Roth’s book is written in memoir style. Roth includes himself in this book about living through the late 30s into the early 40s. He uses the names of his own father and mother (I don’t know enough about him to say whether the brothers he includes were actual figures in his life) with telling bits of texture from his life growing up in Newark, New Jersey, at the end of the Depression. Snippets from baseball games, living near the plant that made the family’s Ipana tooth powder, third-generation Jewish immigrant life in which his family had given up orthodoxy for assimilation.

In this familiar atmosphere there’s a single change that alters their lives. During the 1940 Republican Convention, which went through multiple votes trying to find a candidate to run against Franklin D. Roosevelt, (the real convention chose candidate Wendell Willkie who came into the convention polling at 3%) there’s a staged moment at 3 in the morning when Charles Lindbergh enters the convention in his flight costume. This stirs the tired conventioneers into a complete shift, nominating Lindbergh as the Republican candidate. Lindbergh flies from city to city through America and, despite the polls, snatches FDR’s third term away from him.

This creates an immediate panic within the Jewish community, particularly for Roth’s father Herman. Some powerful rabbinic leaders in the community support Lindbergh despite his many anti-Jewish comments at various America First rallies. Some, including Roth’s mother, begin sending savings to Canadian banks with the plan to escape to Canada should pogroms begin in America. Walter Winchell, jewish and the most prominent columnist of his day, begins a campaign against the new president on his radio broadcast and newspaper columns.

The changes to the family’s life are slow and subtle. Herman Roth, an insurance salesman, is nearly transferred from Newark to an almost entirely gentile city by his company. The family takes a vacation to Washington, DC, where the family faces regular acts of anti-semitism. Violence continues throughout the country, jewish families are migrated to places like Kentucky as part of a new “homesteading” program where they meet with the violence of the KKK, politicians are assassinated or arrested for their “protection”.

It isn’t until Lindbergh’s real motives are revealed that the progression of horrors ends, finally leaving an opening for FDR to return to political life and fulfill his historical third term.

The book serves to offer several important lessons. There will often be populations in the US (as there have been throughout its history) who will be vilified for problems in the country and slandered with half-truths or outright fictions (blood libel comes up in this book). To stop oppressive changes before they become systemic it’s important to stop them in small things within your grasp: nonsensical statements, small incidents of discrimination or racism, small changes to laws that take away freedoms, a focus on all freedoms for all people rather than pet interests or personal freedoms. Voting isn’t a chore, it’s an essential and important act.

The book, while it centers on Roth as observer and narrator, features a broad range of characters, heroic and horrible, who weave through the book with their own perceptions and motives about what is happening in this alternate nation. The ultimate plot against Lindbergh is a bit hard to swallow. Lindbergh was a strange mixture at that time in history. He was a renowned expert in aviation at a time when this was beginning to become an important part of war machinery. Much of his pacifism was actually a pragmatism over whether the allied powers could overcome the sudden rise of the German war machine. At the same time he was an ardent anti-communist and anti-semite. None of the quotes in the book from his speeches are Roth’s invention. On the other hand these things were strong enough to make him the foil in this book without the strange plot twist that Roth introduces to bring the book to a close.

Still, it’s a compelling and observant book, still in print, that may resonate with a reader more now than when it was first released.