Culture Magazine

“The Plot Against America”

By Fsrcoin

“The Plot Against America”

That’s the title of a Philip Roth novel, an “alternative history” imagining us going fascist in the 1940s. It’s perhaps a more serious book than The Breast, which recalled Kafka’s Metamorphosis — in Roth’s opus, the protagonist becomes a tit.

What Plot recalls is Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 classic, It Can’t Happen Here (which I’d read in my youth), plausibly showing how it could. I’d picked up a copy of Plot years ago but decided I’d better read it now before it becomes too painfully prophetic.

“The Plot Against America”

Most of it reads as a true memoir of the author’s childhood in Newark, NJ, a family saga (even using his actual parents’ names), starting at age seven in 1940. The presidential election that year is won by Republican nominee Charles Lindbergh on an isolationist “America First” no-war platform. (Lindy had previously been quite vocal with such views.) His energetic image of “strength” contrasting against wheelchair-bound FDR. Ringing ominous bells for today.

President Lindbergh soon meets with Hitler and agrees to give him a free hand in Europe. Then a similar deal with the Japanese cedes Asia, apart from a few places like Hawaii and the Philippines.

What did Americans think of this? “Lindbergh can deal with Hitler, they said, Hitler respects him because he’s Lindbergh. Mussolini and Hirohito respect him because he’s Lindbergh.”

“The Plot Against America”

Ringing more bells; just substitute the names Trump, Putin, and Xi. I was moved to check the book’s copyright page to remind myself it was written back in 2004. Trump’s already said Putin can “do whatever the hell he wants” in Europe. And Trump cultists similarly hallucinate such foreign baddies respect him. In fact they knew what a fool for flattery he is, and so had their way with him.

I got a chuckle at Lindy’s VP being Burton K. Wheeler — from whom I have a nice interesting letter. (Wheeler had been LaFollette’s 1924 running mate.) And remembered another Roth novel (The Human Stain) mentioning someone I’d conversed with. I counted over a dozen personages appearing in Plot whom I’d gotten autographs from or spoken with.

Early in Lindbergh’s tenure, the Roth family visits Washington, DC, as tourists. There was an idea that the noble American history there on view would somehow protect us, even as that legacy was fraying and the patriotism it inspired degenerated into partisan rancor. With rising anti-semitism — and burgeoning Lindy worship. “They live in a dream,” Roth’s father remarks.

Later he says what Lindbergh is doing “means turning our backs on our friends . . . making friends with their enemies . . . destroying everything that America stands for.”

And still later, explains he watches newsreels “because every day I ask myself the same question: how can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country?”

I can’t write about this book without big spoilers. Here we go.

“The Plot Against America”

America’s unfolding Lindberghian Nazification is highlighted by a glittering White House soiree for Hitler’s foreign minister Ribbentrop. And American Kristallnachts. Together with a program to relocate some Jewish families, supposedly to promote assimilation. All volubly denounced by pundit Walter Winchell. Who declares his presidential candidacy, and is assassinated.

Then Lindbergh disappears. Literally. Well, I’d worried about his continuing to fly planes, alone, all around the country. The disappearance sparks a manic paroxysm by now acting President Wheeler and the MAGA, er, Nazified Republicans. Conspiracy theories run riot. Violent pogroms proliferate. Administration foes are arrested in droves, even including ex-President Roosevelt.

“The Plot Against America”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh (the wife) is hustled off to a mental hospital in a strait jacket. But she manages to escape and address the nation — a voice of reason. Prompting the regime’s immediate collapse. In the November 1942 elections, Republicans are swept from power, and in a special presidential vote (who knew such was possible?) FDR returns to office.

All this in just a few pages within weeks of Lindy’s disappearance (he’s never found). I laughed out loud.

But there’s more. Why, after all, did he become such a Nazi tool? What did they have on him? A hostage, it turns out. Charles Junior. Famously kidnapped in 1932; the body found was actually a plant; the real “Lindbergh baby” was instead spirited off to Germany and raised as a perfect little Hitler Youth cadet. His parents know this.

However, Lindbergh was proving insufficiently compliant, his anti-Jewish measures too half-hearted — necessitating his plane’s disappearance. But that story remains disputed and very controversial.

Meantime, there’d been tiny hints in the book that subsequent world history was not so different after all. And indeed, the Pearl Harbor attack winds up being only a little delayed. Then Germany’s defeat comes right on schedule. Normal service resumed.

“The Plot Against America”

So the “plot against America,” with all the craziness unleashed among the populace, proved to be just a short-lived aberration. I doubt we’ll be so lucky again.

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