Judith Thurman writes: In 2004, Philip Roth published “The Plot Against America.” The four main characters of the novel, which takes place between June, 1940, and October, 1942, are a family of American Jews, the Roths, of Newark — Bess, Herman, and their two sons, Philip and Sandy. They are ardent supporters of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but, in Roth’s reimagining, Roosevelt loses his bid for a third term to a surprise Republican candidate — the aviator Charles Lindbergh — whose victory upends not only politics in America but life itself.
The historical Lindbergh was an isolationist who espoused a catchphrase that Donald Trump borrowed for his Presidential campaign, and for his Inaugural Address: “America First.” The fictional Lindbergh, like the actual Trump, expressed admiration for a murderous European dictator, and his election emboldened xenophobes. In Roth’s novel, a foreign power — Nazi Germany — meddles in an American election, leading to a theory that the President is being blackmailed. In real life, U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating Trump’s ties to Vladimir Putin and the possibility that a dossier of secret information — kompromat — gives Russia leverage with his regime.
Roth wrote in the Times Book Review that “The Plot Against America” was not intended as a political roman à clef. Rather, he wanted to dramatize a series of what-ifs that never came to pass in America but were “somebody else’s reality” — i.e., that of the Jews of Europe. “All I do,” he wrote, “is to defatalize the past — if such a word exists — showing how it might have been different and might have happened here.”
Last week, Roth was asked, via e-mail, if it has happened here. He responded, “It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump. 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. He had character and he had substance and, along with Henry Ford, was, worldwide, the most famous American of his day. Trump is just a con artist. The relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s ‘The Confidence-Man,’ the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel — Melville’s last — that could just as well have been called ‘The Art of the Scam.’ ”
American reality, the “American berserk,” Roth has noted, makes it harder to write fiction. Does Donald Trump outstrip the novelist’s imagination?
Roth replied, “It isn’t Trump as a character, a human type — the real-estate type, the callow and callous killer capitalist — that outstrips the imagination. It is Trump as President of the United States.
“I was born in 1933,” he continued, “the year that F.D.R. was inaugurated. He was President until I was twelve years old. I’ve been a Roosevelt Democrat ever since. I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.” [Continue reading…]