The Plot Against America – Philp Roth

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Philip Roth is one of my favourite authors. He has an interesting story telling approach that blurs the line between fiction and reality. He will use real people and actual events to build his fictional stories. His novels also tend to be very autobiographical and usually take place in Newark which is where he was born.

Recently, I decided to finally read The Plot Against America, which was released in 2004. The timing isn’t a coincidence. The story is takes place between the 1940 presidential election and the U.S. entering WWII. It was a period, during which, some Americans were sympathetic to the facists in Europe and many opposed entering the war. Many people have accused Donald Trump of being a facist and a racist. With many progressive voters apprehensive about the next four years in America, I thought there were some eerie similarities to what was portrayed in the novel.

The Plot Against America is an alternative history, in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt is defeated in the presidential election of 1940 by Charles Lindbergh. The novel follows the fortunes of the Roth family during the Lindbergh presidency, as anti-Smitism becomes more accepted in American life and Jewish-American families like the Roths are persecuted on various levels. The narrator and central character in the novel is the young Philip, and the care with which his confusion and terror are rendered makes the novel as much about the mysteries of growing up as about American politics. Roth based his novel on the isolationist ideas espoused by Lindbergh in real life as a spokesman for the America First Committee. So when President Trump made reference to America First on a number of occasions in his inauguration speech, I found it disturbing and an unfortunate coincidence. Personally, I don’t consider the President to be anti-Semetic yet he has made many racist and racial insensitive remarks during the past two years.

Lindbergh’s first act as President is to sign a treaty with Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler promising that the United States will not interfere with German expansion in Europe, and with Imperial Japan, promising non-interference with Japanese expansion in Asia. A new government act is instituted relocating whole Jewish families to neighborhoods out west.  In protest against the new act, radio broadcaster Walter Winchell (an actual popular Jewish radio personality at the time) openly criticizes the Lindbergh administration and is fired from his station. He then decides to run for President and begins a speaking tour. His candidacy causes anger and antisemitic rioting in southern and Midwestern states, and mobs begin targeting him. Again, the similarities between these mobs some of the racist and sexist demonstrations at Trump rallies is just a little distrubing. The story ends with Roosevelt returned to the presidency under some unusual circumstances and the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Plot Against America deals with a very difficult time in American history. The question of how involved the United States should become in the European war deeply divided the country. On the one hand, Roosevelt and the so-called “internationalists” claimed that a program of aid to Great Britain and other countries fighting against Germany would make actual U.S. participation in the war unnecessary. On the other side stood those who were called “isolationists,” who believed that the president’s policies were making it increasingly likely that the country would end up in another disastrous foreign war. At times, Trump’s attitude towards America’s European allies resembles an isolationist position. Also, during this period, the German American Bund emerged and looked to Nazism for their inspiration. Jews were quite nervous at the time just as Muslims today are apprehensive about how the U.S. under President Trump will treat them.

Roth is a gifted author and this novel is an interesting read with the new Pharoah in D.C.

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