History is one long game of ‘What if?’ ‘What if Germany had been victorious in the Second World War?’ Philip K. Dick gave us a fictional answer in The Man in the High Castle, which was made into a successful TV series. In his 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, Philip Roth explored another historical hypothetical: ‘What if Charles Lindbergh – American hero, celebrity aviator, anti-Semite and Nazi sympathiser – had become President in 1940 instead of Franklin Delano Roosevelt?’
Dick’s story had all the dystopian trappings of science fiction but Roth’s was disturbingly realistic. It showed how little was required to bring about a radical change in a society we thought we knew well, unleashing bestial instincts lurking just below the surface. Written in the first-person, in the style of a memoir, Roth related the events of the early 1940s as if he were describing historical fact.
Needless to say, the Trump administration has made plausible fantasy look like prophecy. The mass rallies, the flag worship, the embrace of dictatorships and repudiation of old alliances, the brazen lies and propaganda, the incitements to violence, the demonisation of minorities… all the textbook elements of fascism are alive and well in contemporary American politics. A few years ago such actions would have been unthinkable. Now they are the new normal.
History tells us such regimes do not last, but this is a different world to that of the 1930s when Sinclair Lewis’s novel, It Can’t Happen Here (1935) and its stage adaptation, helped sink public trust in right-wing groups vying for political office. It’s a different world from December 1941, when the real Charles Lindbergh had his political ambitions snuffed out by the attack on Pearl Harbour which gave the United States no option but to join the war.
In The Plot Against America Lindbergh runs as Republican candidate and wins the 1940 election by a landslide. This is alarming for America’s Jews who have been watching the Nazi advance in Europe, and are terrified at the thought of an anti-Semite in the White House. This is not, however, the way Lindbergh is greeted by the majority of the population who see him as a patriot who will keep them out of another bloody conflict in the Old World. The successful line to voters was that their choice was not between Lindbergh and Roosevelt, but between Lindbergh and war.
We follow events through the eyes of the Levin family who live in a Jewish neighbourhood in Newark, New Jersey. Like so many American Jews, Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) is more devoted to his country than his religion. He is a successful insurance salesman who supports a wife, Bess (Zoe Kazan), and two sons. Fourteen-year-old Sandy (Caleb Malis), is a talented artist. His younger brother Philip (Azhy Robertson) is a resourceful, vulnerable child, often at the mercy of his own imagination.
The other major characters are Herman’s orphaned nephew, Alvin (Anthony Boyle), who goes off to fight for the Allies in the war, and comes home an invalid; and Bess’s sister, Evelyn (Winona Ryder), who is drawn into a pact with the new regime that undermines her close family ties. Evelyn’s social rise and undoing is due to her romance with Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), a political opportunist who believes it is his destiny to form a bridge between the Lindbergh adminstration and the Jewish community.
Series creators, Ed Burns and David Simon, stick closely to Roth’s story, although there are a few significant deviations towards the end. The immediate aftermath of Lindbergh’s victory brings no radical changes. The country is more prosperous than ever, with the new President being idolised by an adoring population. The only discordant voice comes from tabloid radio star, Walter Winchall, who harps on the theme of Lindbergh’s cosy relations with the Nazis. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Rabbi Bengelsdorf, whose work during the election campaign in assuring Jews and liberals that Lindbergh was not an anti-Semite, has been rewarded with a high-profile government post.
Throughout the series we see the evolving nature of the regime from the grass-roots perspective of the Levins, and from the privileged viewpoint of Evelyn and the Rabbi. What looks an unequivocal evil from one side is a great opportunity from another. One of the Rabbi’s schemes gives Jewish city kids ‘the opportunity’ to spend time with families in mid-western farming communities. To Herman it’s a way of turning children against their parents and their beliefs, but his son, Sandy, will become a poster boy for the movement.
The Levins experience the growing public hatred for the Jews on a visit to Washington D.C., while Evelyn attends a state dinner at the White House for Von Rippentrop, the Nazi Foreign Minister. She even dances with the honoured guest. Alvin overcomes his disability and embraces the underworld.
Lindbergh himself remains in the background – a President who says virtually nothing beyond a few platitudes and slogans. Unlike the current incumbent, who never knows when to shut up, Lindbergh prefers to be seen as the strong silent type, keeping his opinions to himself and letting others speak for him.
The most skilful – and scary – part of the story is the way the country slides over to the dark side in the most docile manner. The ingrained belief that ‘it can’t happen here’, the human propensity for hero worship, and the relentless propaganda which paints every new initiative in the brightest of colours, make people reluctant to speak up in opposition.
Emboldened by the complacency of the new order, American Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen start commiting acts of violence, while a climate of fear keeps the Jews mute as they discover the depth of hatred that exits in the hearts of their Christian countrymen. “Lindbergh is teaching us what it means to be Jews,” says Bess. “We only think we’re Americans.”
Although virtually every new American film seems to be about Donald Trump in some way, The Plot Against America speaks so directly to today’s politics one would have to be particularly obtuse not to notice. It demonstrates how easy it is to take for granted all the clichés about freedom and democracy, when much of the country is a powder keg of bigotry and simmering resentment just waiting for a spark.
This series suggests that those who recognise the abuses of power and do nothing – either from fear, or like the Rabbi Bengelsdorf, from cupidity and self-delusion, will pay a price for their complicity. Whether political freedom is taken away in a sudden coup, or eroded by a process of seduction and persuasion, the result is the same. In a divided nation the greatest dangers come not from foreign threats, but from the willingness of Americans to disregard those things they hold in common and make enemies of each other.
The Plot Against America
Directed by Minkie Spiro & Thomas Schlamme
Written by Ed Burns & David Simon (creators), after the novel by Philip Roth
Starring Morgan Spector, Zoe Kazan, Azhy Robertson, Caleb Malis, Anthony Boyle, Winona Ryder, John Turturro, David Krumholtz, Jacob Laval, Ben Cole, Michael Kostroff
USA, rated M, (6 episodes of 60s mins each)
Available: Foxtel on Demand
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 25 April, 2020