The Plot Against America

A week after aviation pioneer, Major Harold Geiger of the U.S. Army crashed his Airco DH.4 de Havilland plane in Pennsylvania, Charles Lindbergh (“Lucky Lindy”), at the age of 25, flying the “Spirit of St. Louis” from New York, landed in Paris thirty-three and a half hours later to a cheering crowd of 150,000, completing the first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean on 21 May 1927. Lindbergh was a believer in eugenics. In the same month as that famous flight, the U.S. Supreme Court (“Buck v. Bell”) had permitted the forced sterilization of “unfits” and Louis B. Mayer, just two days before the Berlin Stock Market crash, organized the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that would consolidate the new age of visual communications that began the process of turning novels into prequels for movies and television series. Philip Roth, the great American novelist, predicted that reading novels would become cultic as contemporaries over the following century gradually lost the ability to concentrate, focus and offer the devotion required in reading and books became a nostalgic throwback to an earlier era.  

Just after Lindbergh’s famous flight and just before his enormous New York ticker tape parade, Henry Ford, perhaps the most famous antisemite in America, produced the last Tin Lizzie, the famous black Model T Ford. Ford would become Vice-President in Lindbergh’s imaginary presidency in Philip Roth’s creeping apocalyptic and precautionary novel, The Plot Against America.

Charles Lindbergh became a great American hero. His autobiography, We, was a best seller. President Calvin Coolidge awarded him the first Distinguished Flying Cross. Invited to tour the German aircraft industry in 1936, Lindbergh reported to the American government that Germany was “now able to produce military aircraft faster than any European country; possibly faster even than the United States.” Lindbergh was awarded the Service Cross of the German Eagle by Hermann Goering on behalf of Adolf Hitler on 18 October 1938, when earlier in the same month Germany annexed the Sudetenland (one-third of Czechoslovakia), Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement formally ceding the territory to Germany and the German government required German Jews to have “J” stamped in their passports. In 1940, Hitler would name Goering Reichsmarschall des Grossdeutschen Reiches (Reich Marshal of the Greater German Reich).

On his return to the U.S. in April of 1939 just following the American recognition of the fascist, Francisco Franco, as the Spanish Dictator, just following Italy’s invasion of Albania and the Dutch government opening of Kamp Westerbork, a refugee camp for German Jews but built with Jewish community funds, Charles Lindbergh became an activist and isolationist and revealed explicitly that he was also a white supremacist and an antisemite. He became the leader of the America First movement. Joe Louis had just become heavyweight champion of the world.

“We can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood, only so long as we guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races.” So Lindbergh wrote in Reader’s Digest in 1939. In a speech that Lindbergh delivered in Des Moines, Iowa, in September 1941, he said that the “greatest danger to this country lies in their [the Jews’] large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.”

These words are repeated in a broadcast that Herman Levin listens to at the beginning of the 2020 six-episode series, The Plot Against America, on Crave and HBO TV based on the 2004 Philip Roth novel of the same name.  Levin in that same episode watches a newsreel that cites a poll, a real 1939 Roper poll that sums up American opinion on Jews just when World War II had begun, a year after Kristallnacht. “Only thirty-nine percent of the respondents agreed that Jews should be treated like everyone else. Fifty-three percent believed that ‘Jews are different and should be restricted. And ten percent believed that Jews should be deported.”

Even though Franklin Roosevelt won the 1940 election in a landslide and Lindbergh never did run against him, Philip Roth’s imaginative alternative history in his novel, The Plot Against America, was not so farfetched. According to the great historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., according to Philip Roth, “there were some Republican isolationists who wanted to run Lindbergh for president in 1940.

Neither was Goodbye, Columbus, Roth’s first famous 1959 short debut novel that I read avidly when I wrote my first play, Root Out of Dry Ground, divorced from historical reality. The novel was also about a Jewish youth questioning the values, morals, religious sensibilities and identities of third generation North American Jews. That was my reality. Roth was five years older than I was. He was also a brilliant writer. I was not. Further, I have been a terrible prophet, whereas Philip Roth proved to be very prescient. (As well as The Plot Against America, read, for example, The Human Stain, that dealt so insightfully with American identity politics.) Roth died in 2018.

Herman Levin (Morgan Spector, the central figure in the series) was a Jewish fictional insurance agent who lived in the Weequahic neighbourhood of Newark, New Jersey where Philip Roth grew up. Herman has a wife, Bess (Zoe Kazan), the name of Roth’s mother, and two sons, Sandy (Caleb Malis) and, yes, Philip who was also born in 1933, the year of Philip Roth’s birth. Sandy (Sanford) was the name of Philip Roth’s older brother. Herman was also his father’s name. One presumes that Roth’s father was as passionate and full of conviction as Herman and that his mother was the solid steel backbone of the family with the common sense and realism of the character in the series.

Fiction can be reality. One cannot watch the protests of Black Lives Matter, one cannot help watching the antics of Donald Trump and his trust in his own instincts and pseudo-science, one cannot watch Donald Trump’s Jewish convert of a daughter, Ivanka, and his modern Orthodox son-in-law, Jared, attending state dinners and bathing in the celebrity lights, as the rabbi and Beth’s sister, Evelyn, both do in the novel and the TV series, and not identify with the crisis in America depicted by Roth. We binge watched the series over the last three evenings. It is a terrific production. It is relevant. It is devastating.

If Lindbergh was an American Firster, Herman Levin is a die-hard American. But the latter shares with Lindbergh, and with both Herman’s sons as well, a nostalgic longing in their quasi-secular Jewish home. At one point in the series, Herman stands up in a restaurant to challenge an antisemite and, in a beautiful voice, croons the sweet memories of Paul Dresser’s late nineteenth century ballad “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” though Herman has evidently never been to the heartland of America, Indiana in this case, and ostensibly fears and rejects its values. Herman at the beginning of the series donates money to a Jew who comes to his door to ask for money for the Jews of Palestine. His nephew, Alvin, calls Palestine the homeland of the Jews. When his son Philip (Azhy Robertson) innocently asks about that claim, his father, Herman, answers by insisting that America is their homeland. The series is about Herman and his family discovering that the claim is not quite true. According to Herman’s brother, Monty (David Krumholtz), Lindbergh’s leadership allowed the anti-Semites in America to “crawl out from under their rocks.”

In the series, the racists do just as they did in Charlottesville; they marched carrying lit torches and Nazi symbols and shouted, “Jews will not replace us” as they protested the efforts of Blacks to remove statues of defenders of slavery, former Confederate leaders. The American Firsters have critics but also those who serve as apologists and enablers when they support Trump, just as Bess’s naïve sister, Evelyn (Winona Ryder) and the mellifluous and obsequious Rabbi Bengelsdorf (John Turturro) became shameless self-serving allies of the Lindbergh administration in the mini-series.

I have a question for my readers though. Why is Sandy, the older son and budding brilliant sketch artist, such a critic of his father? Why is Sandy a quasi-admirer of Charles Lindbergh? Is it because his sketches try to nostalgically preserve what he sees? The portrayal came across as thoroughly plausible, but I could not connect his visual artistry with his political blindness. He does serve as a foil for his cousin, Alvin (Anthony Boyle), the impetuous, energetic and very committed activist totally opposed to Nazis and fascism. Is there a connection between his visual but non-creative acuity, which Alvin expresses through the new technology of radar, versus Sandy’s skills? Why does Alvin possess prescient political insight, on the one hand, and Sandy mindblindness on the other?

Perhaps my puzzle is compounded because the novel, like Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, Death of a Salesman, is, in good part, about historical change overwhelming ordinary people, while the David Simons and Ed Burns TV series The Plot Against America, is more about celebrating the blessings of democracy.

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