The Long View: The Plot Against America

A good apocalyptic novel never gets old.

The Plot Against America
By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004
391 Pages, US$26.00
ISBN 0-618-50928-3

It's always interesting when a major novelist turns his hand to genre fiction, and especially when he does it well. Philip Roth has done just that: with The Plot Against America, he has made a significant contribution to the canon of the apocalyptic novel. Since they first began to appear about 70 years ago, novels of this type have usually been painfully didactic (and often, as in the case the Left Behind series, just painful). Roth's book is almost unique in the genre in combining a believable human story with the creeping menace of a disguised dystopia. He succeeds while following the conventions of the genre almost step by step.

Before we get to the latter days, however, we must note that The Plot Against America has attracted attention chiefly as an exercise in “counterfactual” or “alternate” history. (I prefer “alternative history”; “alternate” implies just two possibilities.) The divergence from our timeline is made with conceptual economy; Charles Lindbergh accepts the invitations to run for president in 1940 on the Republican ticket that he rejected in our world. He wins. Though he does not then set about establishing a fascist state, he does conclude nonagression pacts with Germany and Japan. His government also launches programs to promote the assimilation of ethnic minorities. The programs are neutral in their terms, but obviously directed at the Jews.

Rather less economically, Walter Winchell, the radio commentator, determines to run for president after his opposition to Lindbergh's policies gets him thrown off the air. He begins his campaign in 1942 with a nationwide speaking tour that sparks antisemitic riots. In some places, the police keep order, but in others hostile local authorities let the disturbances turn into pogroms. After a belated attempt to reassure the nation, President Lindbergh disappears. His vice president, Burton K. Wheeler (an actual figure in Montana politics, by the way) then does attempt to stage a fascist coup. He declares martial law, arrests prominent figures from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Fiorella LaGuardia, and apparently moves toward war with Canada. Thanks to the leadership of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the missing president's presumptive widow, the coup collapses. Congress authorizes a special presidential election for 1942, and Roosevelt becomes president again. Next month, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. History as we know it returns, just one year late.

I know from experience not to argue too strenuously with someone else's counterfactual, so I will raise just two points. It seems unlikely to me that Charles Lindbergh could have translated his celebrity into votes, though Roth's description of Lindbergh's unconventional campaign, consisting of flights in "The Spirit of St. Louis" from city to city, does have a certain dramatic appeal. (Whether by accident or design, Lindbergh's campaign resembles the airborne "Hitler Over Germany" tour that the Nazis conducted in their unsuccessful electoral challenge to President Hindenberg.) Also, if America had withdrawn from the North Atlantic and avoided engagement with Japan in 1941, then Great Britain and the Soviet Union might well have been forced to seek terms. This is the kind of thing that alternative history buffs love to talk about, but it's usually not worth discussing at greater length than I have done here.

What makes it possible to spin this premise to novel length is that Roth has translated these events into the terms of his own childhood. In this book, Roth reconstructs the working-class Jewish neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, where he was born and raised. There is too much projection from later experience here to say that he describes these events from the perspective of his eight-year-old self, but he tells us pretty much what a child would see as the darkening of the times affects his own family.

Young Roth's parents are ferociously patriotic, but so culturally timid that Roth's father turns down a promotion that would have required the family to move to a neighboring Gentile town. Not long afterward, these same people have to decide whether to accept a virtual relocation order under the federal "Homestead 42" program, under which the elder Roth's company would transfer him to a small town in Kentucky. A foolish aunt marries a windbag of a collaborationist rabbi and gets to dance with visiting German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop at the White House, only to see the rabbi arrested during the attempted coup. There is a cousin who goes to Canada to fight in Europe; he comes home with one leg and joins Jewish organized crime, of whose existence the author never ceases to remind us. A brother is a Lindbergh supporter, because he enjoyed a summer on a farm under another federal program. The experience does him little harm, except that the guileless farm family feeds him pig's meat, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

This domestication of uncannily trying times is one of the marks of the apocalyptic novel. Such tales usually start with the daily life of a few ordinary families. They live in more or less the world we know, but through their eyes we see how an extra budget of bad news brings society as a whole to crisis. The trouble appears to be resolved through the unexpected intervention of a charismatic public figure. However, some of the ordinary people are suspicious of the new order from the start. Their fears seem groundless, but evidence accumulates that the great mass of people is being deceived. Those who understand the reality of the situation become a spiritual elite (apocalyptic novels take care to reveal ordinary people as heroes). In the final stage of the time of tribulation, the mask comes off the new regime, and those who sought to collaborate with it are destroyed. Very soon, though, the nightmare comes to an end, through events as unexpected as those with which it began.

There are no openly supernatural elements in this story. As for organized religion, the Roths and their neighbors are only minimally observant, while the term “church-going Christian” is merely a term of dread. However, the course of history in the alternative world has the character of a malign providence. Lindbergh's early-morning nomination by the Republican National Convention in 1940, which really starts the story, is experienced by the Roths' neighborhood as a cosmic disaster: "Entire families known to me previously only fully dressed in daytime clothing were wearing pajamas and nightdresses under their bathrobes and milling around in their slippers at dawn as if driven from their homes by an earthquake." The Lindbergh Administration is experienced, not as an unfortunate political situation, but like a delusion projected by some dark archon. As the father of the family puts it after a not altogether happy trip to Washington: "They live in a dream, and we live in a nightmare."

The author has insisted that his tale of the Lindbergh Administration is not an allegory of the Bush Administration, though one can't help but suspect that Roth's description of the bug-eyed hostility toward Lindbergh is informed, at least in part, by Roth's own observation of so-called "Bush Derangement Syndrome." Be that as it may, The Plot Against America surely reflects its times by recalling another generation when tribulation had begun and further crises loomed.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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