The Plot Against America
Nothing can grab your attention more than an alternative
telling of history, especially history that is so vivid in the mind and so
crucial to our way of life.
The seminal event of the 20th century was the Second
World War. It derived from all that came before (WWI and the Depression) and
affected everything that came after (the Cold War and nuclear power). WWII gave
birth to the American century. It is yet unclear if the 21st century
will also be heavily influenced by the United States, but in the 1900s, America
saved the world by fighting tyranny and fascism as it arose in Europe and Asia.
What if the U.S. had not risen to the occasion after Pearl Harbor? What if
there had been no Pearl Harbor?
The great Phillip Roth imagined such a world when he wrote The Plot Against America, his vision of
an America that elected not Franklin Roosevelt but Charles Lindbergh in 1940 on
the American aviation hero’s promise to stay out of European wars. In this
world, Hitler is an ally of America or at least America appeases the German
dictator as he marches through Europe and tries to annihilate England.
The story is told from the vantage point of a young Phillip
Roth and HBO has just completed a six-part dramatization of the superb novel at
a most auspicious moment.
In Lindbergh’s America, anti-Semitism is on the rise and
young Roth’s family is adversely affected by the policies of a government that
is clearly moving toward a concentration camp authoritarian mentality that
threatens the Jews of Newark where Roth lives with his older brother, his
parents and an aunt who manages to abet the government’s attempts to segregate
It makes for a great yarn with many real life people like
Walter Winchell and Henry Ford making appearances in the narrative, but the
real essence of the story is that it can happen here. This is an everyday
reality to any American Jew whose parent’s lives were altered by WWII either
through service in the military or via direct connection to Holocaust
survivors. When people like this (and I include myself among them as the story
of WWII and the victimization of the Jews was an integral part of my childhood)
see governments curtailing civil liberties as has been the case during this
coronavirus crisis (right to assemble, e.g.), it becomes that much easier to
imagine what could happen in America if a Lindbergh-like figure rose to power.
The question that faces us now is whether or not Donald
Trump is such a figure?
I actually do not believe he is.
First, to be blunt, he’s not that clever nor that subtle. No
president has ever been as forthcoming about telling the American people what
is on his mind than Mr. Trump has, disordered as that mind occasionally is.
Second, it is his followers who are rebelling against the police
power constraints on liberty that have cost Americans millions of jobs and set
the economy on a downward spiral.
Finally, there are still forces that are constraining the
president’s ability to take advantage of the current situation to assume
dictatorial power. Many of those people are the governors who are running their
own states asking only that the federal government support their efforts with
money and materiel.
The Plot Against
America is scary, just as is The Man
in the High Castle about a complete alternative outcome to WWII.
There are people who are genuinely worried about the massive
assumption of police power by the governments, especially if that starts to
come from the federal government whose police powers are severely limited by
the Constitution. This is a strange time. America is being tested in a new way.
Its leadership is being tested and thus far found particularly wanting in
conveying a sense of calm and control to the American people, primarily because
Mr. Trump insists on using his daily corona briefings as campaign rallies where
he discusses issues like gun control that have nothing to do with the current
challenge facing the country.
To his credit, Mr. Trump finally has put forth a three-phase
plan to open the country. Let’s give that a chance. That means those of us who
are afraid of opening too rapidly need to give it chance and those who are
protesting with confederate flags and MAGA hats do, too.
The real message of The
Plot Against America is that many of us, Jews in particular, can never drop
our guard. Vigilance is important in a democracy if it is not to degenerate
into autocracy. The last few weeks should serve as a reminder that we can never
rest. The governments of the country, cities, counties and states have all
assumed powers that were not theirs a few short months ago. Maybe these were
necessary. That’s not clear yet, but the fact that California moved to control
the spread of coronavirus and appears to have done a good job and New York did
not may have more to do with the nature of the virus than the nature of
government power. The virus may like subways better than “surface roads.” It’s
really too soon to tell.
A year from now we will know which of the many strategies
employed around the world was the right one. Should things have been left open
as they would be during a bad flu season or should the economies of democracies
around the world have locked down, spiking unemployment and wrecking economies
all over the globe? Did mitigation really alter the total number of covid-19
cases or simply spread them out so that health care workers (outside of those
in New York) could handle the volume. That will be for the historians and the
economists who will perform the post-mortem exams in America, Britain, Sweden
and Germany. Who did it right? How?
Mean time, fictional accounts of what might have been serve
to remind us that our freedom and liberty are tenuous and depend on constant
oversight. So even though I cannot stand watching Trump’s daily news
conferences, I do. At least he’s out in the open. Be thankful for that.
And, on the subject of being out in the open, where is Joe
Biden? If he is the designated opposition to Mr. Trump, he needs to weigh in on
the current crisis and do so often. What would he do differently and why? What
would be his measure of success?
Americans have a clear issue on which to vote. Did Mr. Trump
handle the coronavirus threat well? Yes or no. It would help to know what Mr.
Biden would have done or would do that varies from the strategies the current
administration has employed. If anyone should know the status of PPE,
ventilators and preparative plans prior to Mr. Trump assuming office, it would
be Mr. Biden. Was there a plan in place and if so what was it? Make Mr. Trump
explain why he did not use that plan.
There is a clear issue here. Let’s hear both sides.