Isolated Thoughts: The Exquisite Agony of Watching The Plot Against America

Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Plot Against America, both the novel and the mini-series.

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One of the most affecting scenes in HBO’s mini-series The Plot Against America, adapted by David Simon (The Wire, Treme) from the novel by Philip Roth, is also one of the most painful to watch. It comes at the end of the second episode, as the Levins, a Jewish family in the Weeqhahic neighbourhood of Newark, New Jersey, sit around the radio listening to the general election returns of 1940. Having successfully gained the Republican nomination, Charles Lindbergh—hero aviator, isolationist, avowed anti-Semite, and Nazi sympathizer—is, against all expectations, defeating the incumbent Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

It is an agonizing moment of narrative inevitability. We know Lindbergh will win, of course, as that is the basic premise of the story. But as the crackling voice on the radio calls states for Lindbergh, we see the incredulity on the face of father Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) and his wife Bess (Zoe Kazan). Up until this point, the impossibility of a Lindbergh victory has been a point of faith for Herman. Bess had her doubts, but took comfort in Herman’s certainty. Now, as the reality of a Lindbergh presidency sinks in, incredulity turns to fear.

It is a beautifully crafted bit of televisual art, and utterly painful to watch on three levels. First is the level of story, as we empathize with the fear and confusion of the Levins. Second is the level of history, as the moment punctures the safety and comfort of a certain idea of America and introduces into the Levin’s living room the dread and threat we normally associate with such households in 1930s Europe. And third is on the level of memory: it is impossible to watch this scene, as is by design, without remembering the same sense of incredulity and despair that came with watching Donald Trump eke out a victory in a handful of key states.

David Simon had first been approached about adapting Plot in 2013, but was preoccupied with other projects. After November 2016, however, a story about a barnstorming celebrity with racist views and sympathy for dictators winning an unlikely presidential election suddenly had new and frighteningly immediate relevance.

 

The Prophetic Plot

I first read Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America when it first came out in 2004. I was at that point on something of a year-long Philip Roth reading binge, having neglected his fiction prior to then, but realizing that if I meant to fashion myself as an academic specializing in 20th Century American literature, especially postwar fiction, then not having read any Roth comprised a significant lacuna in my reading (for those less familiar with Roth and his prolific output, I just counted: I have read eighteen Roth novels, which means I have left eleven works in his corpus unread).

plot against americaPlot is an alternative history imagining a United States in which Charles Lindbergh runs for the Republican presidential nomination in 1940, and proceeds, against all odds and expectations, to defeat Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the general election. Lindbergh does so by exploiting his celebrity, which was at the time considerable; his campaign essentially comprises him flying from city to city and town to town in his iconic airplane, landing to cheering crowds who are often (at first) simply excited to see the national hero as opposed to being enthusiastic about his message. Lindbergh then delivers a short, rousing stump speech before climbing back in the cockpit and flying to his next campaign stop. He adopts the isolationist rhetoric of the day—“America First”—of which he was historically an enthusiastic proponent, and frames the electoral choice in stark terms of a vote for Lindbergh or a vote for war. Following his surprising victory, Lindbergh reverses all of FDR’s policies giving aid and support to Great Britain, and establishes America’s neutrality in no uncertain terms—all while making his admiration for Hitler and the Third Reich obvious, with a surprise diplomatic visit to Germany and hosting Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop at a state dinner. And unsurprisingly, Lindbergh’s friendliness with the Nazis gives license for American racism and anti-Semitism to flourish.

When Plot first came out, it was at the height—or, if you like, the nadir—of George W. Bush’s tenure as president, little more than a month before his reelection. Common wisdom at the time was that the novel allegorized the Bush Administration’s divisive politics, the post-9/11 rollback of civil liberties, and the ramped-up racism against Muslims. Roth himself always denied in interviews that there was anything in his novel specifically attacking Bush et al, and many reviewers and critics assumed her was just being coy.

Personally, I was never sure. Plot always felt to me like Roth being Roth, offering a thought experiment not meant as allegory so much as broader historical critique. You could see Rumsfeld and Cheney in the novel’s pages if you squinted hard enough, but it was never a perfect fit.

And then twelve years later when Trump was elected, everybody realized: The Plot Against America wasn’t a political allegory. It was a goddammed prophecy.

 

American Inevitability

I’ve taught The Plot Against America three times now. The first time was seven or eight years ago, and I was frustrated that my students seemed more or less indifferent to the novel. Nobody much wanted to engage with it, or had much to say in class discussion, and the energy in the room when we covered it was pretty flat. It was disappointing, as it always is when you teach a text you love and your students aren’t on board; but I chalked it up to the general lack of historical knowledge that has inevitably led to at least one rant in every class I teach to read more history!

Then after Trump was elected, I made the attempt two more times, thinking that of course the relevance of the novel to the present moment would inspire a more energized reaction among my students. But no—the same flat response. A colleague of mine has also attempted to teach Plot in his first-year classes, and has experienced a similar lack of interest.

My sense has always been that my students’ lack of deeper familiarity with the history in which the novel is steeped dilutes their interest in the obvious parallels to Trump and the present moment. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I wonder if the real issue is not a failure to educate recent generations about World War Two, but rather the overwhelming success of the American mythology machine. By which I mean: in the American popular imagination, as it has been primarily conditioned by Hollywood, the United States was always already the defiant enemy of Nazis and fascism. The ambivalence—and indeed, outright hostility—that a large proportion of U.S. had in the late 1930s to getting involved in another European war, while not lost to history, has been effectively erased by very nearly every single representation of World War Two to emerge from the American culture industry; so too has the fact that there was a not-insignificant number of Americans actively sympathetic to the Third Reich who advocated for an alliance with Hitler. In February of 1939, the German American Bund—an explicitly pro-Nazi organization founded in 1936—held a rally at Madison Square Gardens in New York City attended by 22,000 people. It was an event destined to go down the postwar memory hole (of everybody but historians), but it was resurrected in a seven-minute 2017 documentary titled A Night at the Garden. The film short is comprised entirely of archival footage from the event.

Notably, the HBO adaptation of The Plot Against America used an almost identical backdrop in Madison Square Gardens for the scene in which Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf—played with sublime, arrogant obliviousness by John Turturro—endorses Lindbergh for president.

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All that’s missing from Plot’s set design is the swastikas that were present in the historical rally (and by “missing,” I mean deliberately omitted for obvious reasons).

Night at the Garden

I’ll come back to this scene in Plot momentarily. Otherwise, the point I’m trying to make is that the lack of enthusiasm for the novel when I have taught it (always allowing for the fact that a given number of students will always dislike some of the assigned reading, no matter how genuinely awesome it is) almost certainly has something to do with this particular lacuna in the popular imagination of WWII. A good friend of mine once observed that Stephen Spielberg realized early in his career that Nazis make the best villains—something that I laughed at in the moment, but which stuck with me afterward. Why do Nazis make the best villains? Because the storyteller has to expend no effort to explain why they’re villains. They are, to use Northrop Frye’s repurposed geometry, overdetermined. But the corollary of that in American popular culture has always been that they are thus the necessary antithesis of Americanness, and ergo that the United States was only ever the emphatic and unequivocal enemy of the Third Reich.

In spite of the fact that Roth’s novel, with its evocation of the isolationist sentiments and de rigueur anti-Semitism of the 1930s, works hard to disrupt the prevailing popular mythology, The Plot Against America nevertheless very weirdly reinscribes certain elements of that mythology. Not in terms of content, but narrative: for all of the virtuosity of the novel, the ending always felt to me like a bit of deus ex machina. To wit: in 1942, as things in the U.S. start to devolve toward more overt fascism, Lindbergh’s plane is lost on a return flight from Kentucky to D.C. Chaos momentarily ensues, and the newly elevated Vice President Burton Wheeler—historically, someone with even greater authoritarian tendencies than Lindbergh—seizes control of the government. But when the bereaved First Lady makes an impassioned plea on the radio for Congress to remove Wheeler, instate the next person in the line of succession, and legislate a special general election for November, 1942, order is restored. Roosevelt regains the presidency; when he reverses Lindbergh’s policy of neutrality, Japan attacks Pearl Harbor … and the history we know reasserts itself, albeit a year or so later. TL;DR, the Allies are victorious and the 20th century proceeds in familiar fashion.

While I’ve always been ambivalent about the tidy way Roth ties up what was otherwise a shattering alternative history, I also cannot deny how comforting it was to get the train back on the tracks after such a dislocating narrative experience—but then again, that comfort highlights the broader problem. That problem being that, ultimately, the novel presents an American flirtation with fascism as an historical aberration, a blip on destiny’s timeline: one emerges from the novel with the sense of American democracy’s historical inevitability intact. On reflection, this sense of inevitability perhaps gives the lie to the early interpretations of Plot as a trenchant critique of the Bush Administration, given that the neoconservative ethos informing Bush et al—and which led directly to the war in Iraq—was rooted in precisely this sensibility, the conviction that American-style, market-driven liberal democracy was the logical end-point of cultural and societal evolution, and that all it would take to bring it to the troubled Middle East was depose a dictator and say “you’re a democracy now!” to the grateful locals.

Well, we saw how that went.

To be fair to Roth, at the time when Plot was published, even as it was becoming evident that the Iraq War was turning into a quagmire, the sense of American inevitability was still difficult to escape—and indeed, four years later it would underwrite much of the rhetoric employed by Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency. I should clarify here that this formulation of “American inevitability” is more or less synonymous with the concept of American Exceptionalism, given that the latter tends to be constituted within a sense of destiny—codified over a century and a half ago in the Monroe Doctrine as “Manifest Destiny,” and after the collapse of the Soviet Union by Francis Fukuyama as “the end of history” in his book of that name—not “end” as in apocalypse, but culmination. The neoconservative ethos cited above found its intellectual armature in Fukuyama’s political philosophy, which in The End of History was the perfect distillation of post-Cold War American triumphalism that characterized the U.S. as, in Bill Clinton’s phrasing, “the one indispensable nation.”

I have, these past three years, read more than one think-piece arguing that our current mess is at least partially due to the complacency of those post-Cold War years, when liberal democracy was considered so inevitable that little attention was paid to the growing illiberal tendencies of nations like Russia or Brazil. It is difficult not to see some of that complacency at work in the fact that even as historically astute a novel as The Plot Against America ultimately hews to a tacit assumption of American inevitability.

As David Simon has said in interviews about his adaptation, however, that assumption is one that is more or less impossible to make in the present moment.

 

Killing Snakes

(Just as an aside, I think I might have to do a separate post that would just be a review of Plot. Given that this post has turned into more of a political-historical consideration of the novel and the series, I’m giving short shrift to the adaptation’s virtuosity. It is a genuinely brilliant piece of televisual art, possibly the best work David Simon has done since The Wire. The evocation of 1940s New Jersey is gorgeously rendered, the writing is subtle and nuanced, and the performances are bravura—Winona Ryder continues her career’s impressive second act, portraying the shallow and needy Aunt Evelyn, older sister to Bess Levin; John Turturro is at his smarmy best as the arrogant Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, who becomes a useful idiot for the Lindbergh campaign and then administration; Morgan Spector is heartbreaking as Herman, who watches all his bedrock beliefs about America exposed as illusory. But the heart of the series is Zoe Kazan as Bess, who does more with her facial expressions alone than most actors could do with a monologue. But hopefully I’ll have more to say about all that in a future post).

If a sense of American inevitability was still pervasive in 2004, and was perhaps somewhat bolstered by the Obama presidency’s unabashed embrace of American Exceptionalism (most perfectly distilled in Obama’s repeated assertion that “in no other country is my story possible”), Trump’s election and the years since have disabused us of the notion. David Simon has never been guilty of the starry-eyed vision of the U.S. informing, say, The West Wing or Hamilton. Indeed, in all of his television work, starting with Homicide: Life on the Street, through The Wire, Generation Kill, Treme, Show Me A Hero, and, most recently, The Deuce, has always been about depicting the dark side of the American Dream: the parallel and intersecting interests of the drug trade with licit American life in The Wire, for example, or the evolution of pornography into an economic juggernaut in the 1970s in The Deuce.

The consistent theme in his work has been how apathy and going along to get along corrupt institutions and leave them vulnerable to motivated and unscrupulous greed and graft. Which is not, as he says in practically every interview with him I’ve seen or read, an excuse to give up. The title of his blog, The Audacity of Despair, really kind of says it all: it’s an ironic nod to Obama’s soaring rhetoric, but not as cynical as it might seem at first glance. It contains a challenge to fight on:

[W]e were trying to figure out what the slogan was for the show, the tagline. We were struggling with it. Some things were too dead-on for the political moment, and some things weren’t on enough, and I came up with something my father said at every Passover Seder of my memory. If you opened his copy of the Haggadah, he would have it written in. And he said it: “Freedom can never be completely won, but it can be lost.” Then he would explain that, and in the explanation, I came to understand citizenship. What he would say is, self-governance is really hard. Churchill, no great liberal, nonetheless said that democracy was the worst form of government until you considered all the alternatives. It’s never perfect, it’s never perfected. There’s always someone who’s not being delivered the same promise of freedom as everyone else. There are some freedoms that get betrayed and have to be rescued. The work is never done. We will never get to the point of being able to dust off our hands and say, “Well, there it is, we finished our republic.”

Every day, you’ve gotta get up and kill snakes. Every fucking day. The day you think you’re done and you stop, or you assume that the freedoms there on the page are going to exist regardless of who’s in office, that’s the day you begin to lose it. The only way to self-govern is to say, “This is unwieldy, this is complicated, this requires perseverance, and tomorrow’s going to be the same as today.” It can often seem impossible. But what’s certain is that if you don’t do the work, you’ll lose it.

The enemy of democratic freedom, in other words—or, one of the big ones, at any rate—is complacency. In this respect, The Plot Against America is an almost uncannily perfect vehicle for Simon’s sensibility, as it offers source material specifically about how easily democracy as an institution can be corrupted by pre-existing prejudices and hatreds that need only official permission to transform from systemic to overt. In the first episode, the Levins drive to an upscale neighbourhood to look at houses—Herman has been offered a promotion that will necessitate moving. But Bess is nervous about leaving their majority-Jewish neighbourhood, and sees the suspicious glances from prospective neighbours to which Herman is oblivious. But the culminating moment, which convinces Herman to turn down the promotion and stay put, comes as they drive past a German-style beer garden where members of the Bund carouse and glare at the Jewish family as they drive past.

It is a moment that is at once eerily reminiscent of the faux-idyllic scene in Cabaret in which a Hitler Youth member sings “The Future Belongs to Me,” but also anticipates the fear and threat of the moment in the final episode when Herman watches a hooded Klansman pass in front of his car.

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The seeds, in other words, of fascistic anti-Semitism are firmly planted at the outset; but what brings the more moderate swath of the population, who might not want Jews moving into their neighbourhood but would be horrified to be accused of anti-Semitism, to vote for an avowed anti-Semite? Lindbergh’s celebrity is one factor, as is his promise to avoid war. But more effective is to flatter those people’s sensibilities, which is why one of the most interesting (and repulsive and infuriating) characters is Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf. Bengelsdorf, in an oily admixture of self-importance, opportunism, and oblivious arrogance, becomes an enthusiastic apologist for Lindbergh. In a crucial moment shortly before the general election, he endorses Lindbergh at the aforementioned rally that visually echoes A Night at the Garden:

It is worth dwelling on Alvin’s words in this scene, as it is one of the points in Plot that most obviously resonates with the present moment:

HERMAN: Does any of you think one single Jew is going to go out and vote for this anti-Semite because of that stupid lying speech? What does he think he’s doing?
ALVIN: Koshering Lindbergh!
HERMAN: Koshering what?
ALVIN: They didn’t get him up there to talk to Jews! They didn’t buy him off for that. He’s up there talking to the goyim! He’s givin’ all the good Christian folks of this country their personal rabbi’s permission to vote for Lindy, and not to think themselves Nazis, or anti-Semites.

It was a source of some genuine bafflement to a handful of pundits when, at the most recent State of the Union, Donald Trump highlighted a handful of African-Americans. It has become a standard bit of political theatre at the SOTU for the president to point to specific guests in the audiences as exemplars of American virtue; that he would pack his deck with African-Americans seemed to some a transparent, but futile, bid for Black votes (especially futile considering the juxtaposition with giving Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom). But as some more astute observers pointed out, it had nothing to do with courting Black voters. It was rather a gesture aimed at white suburban voters, especially white women, who find Trump’s blatant racism distasteful but will vote for him if provided with a fig leaf. They need an excuse to vote for him, a subtlety almost certainly lost on Trump but not on his enablers.

What Philip Roth’s alternative history articulates is that hatred and authoritarian populism are easily roused with the right permission structure. What the novel papers over in its too-easy return to familiar history is that Pandora’s Box is not so easily closed: those forces unleashed by Lindbergh won’t be contained, any more than those to which Trump has given oxygen. My principal misgiving about Joe Biden’s candidacy from the start was not about his age or proclivity for gaffes, but that he campaigned on the premise that Trump is an aberration, and Biden’s election would return everything to normal.

There is no more prelapsarian “normal,” something Roth’s novel misses. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, David Simon had misgivings about the ending of The Plot Against America, which he tentatively brought to Philip Roth:

I’ll be honest, I didn’t have the courage to walk in and go, “This is what I’m going to do.” I pointed out where I thought we might have some problems with the ending and I asked him if he had any ideas. He went to that portion of the book, reread that page and a half two or three times. He kept going back and forth, and I was sitting across the coffee table from him, this great man of literature. The TV hack and the great man of literature. He’s rereading his work and he’s frowning and I’m waiting. It felt like an hour and a half, but it was probably about four minutes, and he closed the book and said, “It’s your problem now.”

Simon says he took this as tacit permission to change things. Unfortunately, that was the last time he was able to speak with Roth: the author died not too long after that meeting.

For the most part, the adaptation stays very true to the original. The major structural change is that the series has multiple perspectives, whereas the novel is a first-person narrative told from the perspective of a nine-year-old Philip Roth (for those unfamiliar with Roth’s fiction, deploying a quasi-fictional version of himself as the main character and narrator is something he has done in multiple novels; I can’t fault Simon for changing the family name to Levin, given that he’s already taken on the task of adapting the work of one of America’s preeminent novelists—depicting a nine-year-old Philip Roth would be a bridge too far for me, too). Because of this, the series can directly depict narrative sequences that, in the novel, come to us secondhand from Philip.

The most significant change Simon made, however, comes at the end. History as we know it does not reassert itself—instead, we end on election night, with Roosevelt’s election in question. The now-familiar image of Herman Levin sitting beside the radio is preceded by a montage scored to Frank Sinatra’s 1945 “The House I Live In (That’s America to Me),” a song specifically commissioned in 1945 to combat ant-Semitism:

What is America to me
A name, a map, or a flag I see
A certain word, democracy
What is America to me
The house I live in
A plot of earth, the street
The grocer and the butcher
Or the people that I meet
The children in the playground
The faces that I see
All races and religions
That’s America to me

While Sinatra croons, we end the series with images of people being denied at the polls, of ballots being stolen and burned, and, in one case, a voting machine being carted away. “What’s wrong with it?” someone calls, and is curtly told, “It’s broken.” The voters featured in the sequence are predominantly African-American, or blue-collar Italian or Jewish, those most likely to vote for FDR. It’s an ending that works, much more than the original would have, in this present moment. The genius of Roth’s novel is to dredge up a history that the United States goes out of its way to forget, i.e. the profound ambivalence to getting involved in what many dismissed as “a Jewish war,” and tease out of that an entirely plausible alternative; its failure is to reassure the reader that this alternative would be easily quashed, suggesting the inevitability of the American 20th century as discussed above. Where Simon’s adaptation ends is with the reminder that the fascist sympathies excited by Lindbergh would not go gently into that good night, any more than Trump-inspired nativists will disappear if he’s voted out in November.

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Filed under Isolated Thoughts, television, Trump, what I'm watching

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