Friday, March 2, 2012

The Plot Against America

The Plot Against America
© 2004 Philip Roth
400 pages

Mister Charlie Lindbergh, he flew to old Berlin,
Got 'im a big Iron Cross, and he flew right back again
To Washington, Washington. 

Misses Charlie Lindbergh, she come dressed in red,
Said: "I'd like to sleep in that pretty White House bed
In Washington, Washington."
("Lindbergh", Woody Guthrie)

The normal proceedings of the 1940 Republican Presidential Convention were interrupted when Charles Lindbergh, the heroic aviator adored by millions for his pioneer solo flight across the Atlantic, arrived at the last moment and swept the convention, winning the Republican candidacy for president. As Britain continued to struggle to hold its own against Hitler's Luftwaffe, Lindbergh denounced President Roosevelt as a warmonger influenced by Jews,  and won a staggering victory; the course of history changed. The Plot Against America is an alternate history novel about the Jewish experience during the Nazi-friendly Lindbergh administration. While grimly fascinating at first,  the novel goes off the rails of plausibility 4/5ths of the way in and doesn't so much as conclude as simply comes to a stop.

Roth makes the usual move of writing himself and his family into the plot: a young Phillip Roth is the viewpoint character, and the novel is presented as a memoir of his coming of age in a dark time for his family. Roth's alternate tale concerns social and cultural change, chiefly; the war in Europe plays only a background role, and judging by the novel's ending, comes to the same end as it did in reality. Where Roth succeeds is in believably portraying the slow growth of fascism in an American context. Lindbergh doesn't swap his suit and tie for a colonel's uniform and turn the United States into a slightly different version of an Evil Empire; he works instead on a more insidious level -- concealing fascism perfectly behind the flag and cross. While Jews in the United States are understandably alarmed by his election, there seems to be a genius behind Lindbergh's machinations. Rather than making overt moves against them,  he waits for their sustained agitation to cause them to lose sympathy among the Christian majority..and then ever so-subtly fans the flames.  It reminds me of the tactics of anti-labor politicians in the Gilded Age, who would manipulate strikers into taking forceful action and then send in the troops to brutally put down the uprest. The middle class then blamed the strikers for being violent against the state. More fascinating than this is the psychological tole the subtle war takes on the Jewish community. This is very much the heart of The Plot Against America. Not only are members of the Roth family turned against one another, but they begin to doubt themselves, and their love of country is slowly battered by the increasing climate of fear in which they must live.

Unfortunately, the novel's end doesn't do it justice. As the horror  seems as if it can't get any worse, Roth writes that "just like that, it was over" -- and then quickly tells what happened in brief. Here he teases readers with a revelation that puts Lindbergh's entire political career into a more understandable context, but the revelation rather beggars belief. This would seem an appropriate time for a conclusion, but the faux memoir continues for almost another hundred pages, with seemingly no little point other than to tuck in a minor thread. The effort is appreciated, but seems out of proportion.

Probably worth your while if the alternate social history catches your attention: that story is definitely moving, but the ending is problematic.

"Lindbergh"/"America First" by Woody Guthrie, in which Guthrie decries isolationist Lindbergh's America First organization.
In the Presence of Mine Enemies, Harry Turtledove. (Here the US also doesn't enter WW2.)

The ultimate premise of the plot against America is that Hitler kidnapped Lindbergh's baby in 1932 and raised him in Germany as a hostage; in exchange for his continued safety, the Lindberghs had to enter public office. Hitler  thus engineers his entire political career and turns Lindbergh into a puppet for his own ambitions.

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