There are more valid facts and details in works of art than there are in history books. —Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography
It may not be alternative history anymore. On March 16, HBO will present the first of six episodes of David Simon and Ed Burns’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s prize-winning novel The Plot Against America. Written as a kind of autobiography of the Roth family in 1940s Newark, The Plot Against America is also a re-imagined history that, 16 years after its publication, turns out to have been alarmingly prescient.
In Roth’s novel, Charles Lindbergh and the isolationist “America First” movement ascend to the presidency, defeating Franklin D. Roosevelt and bringing about a resurgence of anti-Semitism rivaling the rise of Nazism. Lindbergh’s administration launches a state-sanctioned program of resettlement against the Jews; a foreign power—Germany—interferes with an American election; and the America First Committee threatens and demonizes journalists. Sound familiar? Roth’s account of an isolationist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Semitic Lindbergh administration is scary enough in the novel, but to see it made flesh in David Simon’s masterful, brooding mini-series is truly harrowing.
Couldn’t Be More Timely
In 2008, before the rise of Donald Trump, Simon (The Wire, Treme, The Deuce) turned down an earlier offer to adapt Roth’s dystopian novel. With Obama in the White House, Simon felt that “it was not hard to imagine and to hope that the country was headed in a different direction.” Now, 12 years later, Roth’s novel cannot be more timely.
When, in 2013, New York magazine asked 30 writers to choose “the greatest American writer,” it was Roth who walked away with the distinction. In 2010, after a much-lauded career that spanned six decades and garnered nearly every literary prize imaginable, including a Pulitzer and a Booker Prize, Roth put a Post-It note on his computer screen that read, “The struggle with writing is over,” and walked away. He appointed Blake Bailey as his official biographer and devoted the rest of his time to putting his archives in order. He died on May 22, 2018.
We asked Bailey—the biographer of Richard Yates, John Cheever, and Charles Jackson—if Roth had been pleased with previous adaptations of his novels. Bailey described Roth’s reaction to seeing his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, released as a movie in 1969: “Roth was on the lam from his Portnoy’s Complaint fame, so he skipped the premiere and watched it alone in a Times Square theater. Later he went back with a friend, who reported that Roth was laughing so hard the audience had to keep shushing him. Suffice it to say that was about the last happy experience Roth ever had with an adaptation of his work, though he liked bits and pieces of other movies.”
Would Roth have felt differently about Simon’s adaptation? “Roth hardly ever watched TV until after his retirement,” Bailey wrote, “but he’d heard good things about David Simon and seemed impressed by the man when they met to discuss the project shortly before his death.”
Trump Isn’t Lindbergh—or Not Exactly
When they met, Roth advised Simon not to confuse Trump with Lindbergh, who was, after all (as Simon told The Hollywood Reporter), “an astounding hero and an astonishing American icon…. He had the power that Trump as a reality-show host and failed casino owner did not have…. Imagine if Trump were not as flawed a creature as he is. Imagine the damage that could be done if this guy had the charisma and capacity of even a Lindbergh. It’s scary.”
The Plot Against America—which stars Winona Ryder, John Turturro, Zoe Kazan, Morgan Spector, and Anthony Boyle—is as much a domestic drama as it is a political cautionary tale. One of the interesting features of Roth’s alternative history is his use of real names for the protagonists, the Roths of Weequahic, New Jersey, incorporating the names of his real-life family members—Herman, Bess, Sandy, and Philip. Bailey believes it was Roth’s attempt to capture the real experience of his family: “He thought he’d never written about his parents as they really were, because to write about hardworking, decent people tends to be a little dull—unless you put them under pressure, as he discovered in writing The Plot Against America. That said, Roth made his older brother, Sandy, into a rather nasty Lindberghite for the purpose of his story, and Sandy was about the least nasty person you could imagine.”
The series, which stars Winona Ryder, John Turturro, Zoe Kazan, Morgan Spector, and Anthony Boyle, is as much a domestic drama as it is a political cautionary tale.
Roth captures his parents’ alarm over the escalating anti-Semitism of Lindbergh’s America First rallies. What began as opposition to entering the Second World War to defeat Hitler, the America First movement quickly stoked xenophobia. The phrase itself has an ugly history. Before it was resurrected by Trump, the stake was earlier pulled from its heart by Pat Buchanan during his first run at the presidency, in 1996, on the Reform Party ticket.
Lindbergh’s speech for America First in Des Moines, Iowa—delivered, eerily enough, on September 11, 1941—is remembered for its anti-Semitism, and makes its way into the series. “Their greatest danger to this country,” Lindbergh said about the Jews, “lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government … the leaders of both the British and the Jewish races … for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war.” Twelve weeks after Lindbergh’s Des Moines speech, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Three days later, the America First Committee dissolved.
Was Roth alarmed when he heard Trump resuscitate “America First” and conduct anti-immigrationist rallies across America? “Naturally he was alarmed, and with good reason,” says Bailey.
What death and eternity meant for Emily Dickinson, being Jewish in America meant for Roth. He often feared America would return to wide-scale anti-Semitism. Trump appears to have ushered in a return to that era, despite his self-serving support for Israel. Did Roth see this early on? “I think Roth understood that a cynical demagogue who promotes a xenophobic agenda could be bad for the Jews and just about everybody else in time. If Philip were still alive, I think he’d regard the prospect of Trump’s re-election as an all but insurmountable catastrophe.”
The TV adaptation of The Plot Against America is timely, inviting comparisons between the America First rallies of the l940s and Trump’s immigration-baiting, hate-filled rallies of the last three years. But A. Scott Berg, whose 1998 biography, Lindbergh, won the Pulitzer Prize, sees the tarnishing of Lindbergh’s once heroic reputation as an unfortunate casualty of The Plot Against America.
The Real Problem
“I know Roth has created a work of fiction,” Berg wrote in an e-mail, “but … millions of people will now be exposed to his distorted version of Lindbergh’s life and believe much of it.”
Berg notes that Lindbergh “was guilty of the garden-variety anti-Semitism that prevailed in his day—but Lindbergh did not hate Jews, nor did he bait them; he was not a Nazi or even a sympathizer.… And so—yes, of course, the book and the mini-series definitely contribute to Lindbergh’s now rather corroded reputation.” Berg admits that nearly a half-century after the aviation hero’s death, he’s troubled by much of Lindbergh’s thinking; even so, Berg thinks that Roth’s novel “only further obfuscates this complicated man’s record—which includes his six secret visits to Germany between 1936 and 1938 at the behest of the American government. Ignorance of the reason for those trips, for example, only further renders the great hero a villain … throwing him under the fast-moving bus of history.”
The real problem, Berg writes, is that too many Americans believe everything they see on television. His friend Gore Vidal (“who, incidentally, had been a great supporter of America First in his youth and who lionized Lindbergh”) once told Berg that “unless something was on television, it simply didn’t exist—for most Americans.”
Roth’s Dying Wish
In Berg’s view, there’s another midcentury writer who better captured the troubling political world we now inhabit. “I believe the person who came closest to foreseeing our current state was Paddy Chayefsky in his 1976 screenplay of Network, in which television becomes the all-powerful medium by fusing and confusing news with entertainment, thus creating messianic pundits and demagogues. And before any of us knew it … a game-show host without a single day of public service on his résumé, or a scintilla of American history in his head, had captivated a populace that was ‘mad as hell’ and had blustered his way to the White House!”
In a 2017 interview with Judith Thurman in The New Yorker, Roth talked about how the rise of Trump’s authoritarian regime may have fulfilled the premise of his novel, but unlike Lindbergh, Trump is nothing but a con man. Was Roth surprised by Trump’s ascendancy?
“‘Surprised’ is putting it mildly,” Bailey believes. “I doubt even so prescient a writer as Philip Roth was apt to imagine a President Trump, especially so soon after the Obama era. Roth’s youthful railing against the likes of Eisenhower and Nixon would seem very quaint indeed with the election of a President Trump, whom Roth described as ‘a pathological liar, a blustering ignoramus, vile, vengeful, and probably a bit demented.’ Practically his dying wish was to provoke Trump into tweeting against him.”
In 2014, four years before his death, the BBC aired an interview with Roth, in what he had announced would be his final public appearance. “I’m 80 now,” Roth had told the interviewer. “I know nothing about America today. I see it on the television, but I don’t live there any longer.”
Sam Kashner is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL. Nancy Schoenberger is the author, most recently, of Wayne and Ford: The Films, the Friendship, and the Forging of an American Hero