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In ‘The Plot Against America,’ a Celebrity President Stokes Bigotry and Ruins the Country. Sound Familiar?


It’s a helluva time to be watching a worst-case scenario TV series about the bleak state of our country. Then again, The Plot Against America is incredible, if harrowing—and it’s not like many of us have the option of much else to do besides stay in our self-quarantines and watch it.  

The HBO limited series from David Simon and Ed Burns (The Wire), premiering Monday night, is adapted from Philip Roth’s 2004 alt-history novel, in which a celebrity president who ran on a platform of nationalism launches an administration defined by extremism, marginalization, and division—all in the name of nostalgia for America’s “former” values. Hmm…

When Roth released The Plot Against America 16 years ago, The Apprentice was premiering its second season, Donald Trump was merely a TV star and scamming businessman whose bad hair and boorishness amused us, and the tensions preoccupying Americans—with Bush nearing re-election, the country was at war with Iraq and Afghanistan—were both familiar and entirely different. 

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Roth set in his tale in 1940, with the U.S. weighing the decision to get involved in World War II. Famed pilot Charles Lindbergh keeps Franklin D. Roosevelt from winning a third term after running a staunchly antiwar—and, in no small measure, anti-Semitic—campaign. 

The Americans don’t join the Allies and, back at home, Lindbergh trumpets a return to a more “authentic” America, a use of language that grants hardly veiled permission for the country’s bigots to rise, and violently. Jewish-American are encouraged to either “assimilate,” as if they were no longer Americans or culturally acceptable, or else be ostracized. 

The novel posited an alternate history, revealing what could have been: the future the U.S. avoided through the steps it did take, the decisions it made, and the values it exhibited. It wasn’t necessarily a prophecy. 

Taking in HBO’s series, however, feels obviously different. An alternate history feels less like one when much of it is actually happening. Simon and Burns’ series, then, adds another layer to Roth’s work. Can something be a cautionary tale when you’re already living it?

This broad, political talk, however, disguises the intimacy that’s at the heart of the series. The Plot Against America is the story of a family, and how what’s going on in the world so deeply affects them. 

The Levins—insurance salesman Herman (Morgan Spector), homemaker wife Bess (Zoe Kazan), and sons Sandy (Caleb Malis) and Philip (Azhy Robertson)—are a Jewish-American family living in Newark, New Jersey. Herman’s grown, orphaned nephew, Alvin (Anthony Boyle), lives with them, and Bess’ sister, Evelyn (Winona Ryder), is a frequent visitor. 

Staunchly involved in their Jewish community and obviously invested in what’s happening in Europe, they are at first mystified by and dismissive of Lindbergh’s political ambitions. Just a celebrity with no substance, they figure. But, to their frustration, his antiwar message is catching on, even if there’s nothing else of note to his candidacy—a version of “we’re gonna build a wall,” if you will, playing like gangbusters to the voters he panders to.

 

“He says the same thing every time he lands the plane, from California to Florida to Maine,” Bess complains. “But they keep putting it on the radio, no matter how many times he says it.” Sound familiar? 

Sunday night’s premiere is largely an hour of scene-setting and character-building. If you didn’t know what’s to come, you might be confused why what appears to be a normal family drama is being elevated as so profound. But the set dressing is necessary. Consider it the gasoline in the Molotov cocktail that episode two throws, burning all the way through the finale, which alters Roth’s own ending in a provocative—though still in the author’s spirit—way. 

Throughout, you see the effects of a country-first patriotism that condones outward anti-Semitism. Communities are vandalized. Slurs are hurled. Detractors of the nationalist agenda are put in the crosshairs of the FBI. 

Families are torn apart by politics. Bess is aghast when Evelyn takes up with a politically ambitious rabbi (John Turturro, graduating from Daniel Craig’s Knives Out school for southern accents) who endorses Lindbergh and his policies. It’s a kind of political collateral damage that is certainly recognizable today. And that’s to say nothing of the White House state dinner hosting one of Hilter’s surrogates, with Nazi and American flags hanging proudly next to each other.

Before his death in 2018, The New Yorker asked Roth about whether he felt Trump’s presidency was the manifestation of the alt-history his book warned against. 

“It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump,” he said. “Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed tremendous physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927.”

Lindbergh had character and, to everyone around the world, was the most famous American of his time, he said. Trump, on the other hand, “is just a con artist.”

More than three years have passed since Roth made those comments, and in that time there’s been a tangible escalation in discord, xenophobia, classism, race-baiting, racism, paranoia, delusion, and—perhaps the defining word of our time—polarization. 

There are those tracking fearfully every stage of a civil decline in the pursuit of a faux-patriotic “greatness.” And there are those basking in the delusion of a demagogue’s reign, shades drawn on their conscience so they can enjoy it. 

In thinking about the alt-history Roth created, it’s tempting to seize on this idea of a celebrity president and the specific parallels between Trump and the novel’s version of President Lindbergh: how he feeds off the power and attention he drums up by fostering the kind of nationalism that is underwritten by racism.

But it’s also a cautionary tale against certain notions of Americanism, nostalgia, and the very America-first ethos that underscores the Make America Great Again movement. It’s not the figurehead that matters most; it’s the values and the mindset that people want to return to, and the repercussions they’re willing accept because they’re being passed off on other people to bear. 

It’s about what happens when a country founded on the idea of moving forward agitates itself into the perceived comfort of falling back. It’s about how deeply personal an individual’s politics are, despite the insistence that this isn’t the case, typically from those who hold positions of power or benefit from it—or those unwilling to empathize or compromise their ideals.

It’s about the unstoppable force of extremism. It’s about the things that are happening in plain sight that we willfully blind ourselves to in order to move on with our own mundanity. 

There are many moments to seize on in The Plot Against America’s six episodes, lines of dialogue that resonate so deeply you sit up in your seat, images so disturbing you won’t forget them, or allegories so powerful you both wonder how we got here or maybe even absorb them as marching orders. 

But at the crux of it, in our view, is this line from Monty (David Krumholtz), Herman’s brother-in-law, a line that was relevant in the 1940s when The Plot Against America takes place, in 2004 when Roth wrote the book, and certainly now with the release of Simon and Burn’s HBO adaptation. 

“These assholes, they’ve always been here,” Monty says. “Now they have permission to crawl out from under their rocks.”



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