It took me a while to warm up to — or actually, feel the chills from — “The Plot Against America,” the six-part HBO adaptation of the Philip Roth novel. Set in Newark, N.J., in an alternative 1940s, when Franklin Roosevelt loses the election to an isolationist Charles Lindbergh, the early episodes felt slow and conventional. I expected better from David Simon, the creator of “The Wire.”
The TV version lacked Roth’s propulsive, evocative prose, and the tricky meta perspective of a real-life author looking back on his own family history through a historical wormhole.
But that changed somewhere around the fourth episode, when the creeping outrages of the Lindbergh administration begin literally to hit home for the Levins, the Jewish family at the heart of the series. Private incidents of anti-Semitism blossom into a national program of forced relocation and re-education, and Lindbergh goes from Nazi sympathizer to outright ally.
Reactions to the show also began to shift, from critical shrugs to suggestions that it had become essential viewing.
Credit history and current events. “The Plot” wouldn’t be as eerie or resonant if its alternative history felt far-fetched. It doesn’t. The book and series remind you how powerful the forces of isolation were in the 1930s and early ’40s, when Congress passed a flurry of neutrality legislation and polls showed large majorities opposed to another foreign war. In 1940, the Republican Wendell Willkie ran against FDR on a non-interventionist platform. Lindbergh, according to historian Susan Dunn, was in fact the “glamorous public face and articulate voice of the isolationist movement.” In a typical speech, Lindbergh warned against the U.S. being dragged into the conflict “by foreign interests, and by a small minority of our own people.”
We often treat the turns of history as inevitable. They aren’t. The queasiest moments of “The Plot” came when characters almost convinced me that American lives weren’t worth losing over European conflicts that had then raged for centuries. To their credit, a majority of Americans came around to the case for war by November 1941 — before Pearl Harbor. But we also know how majority opinion — for example, on gun safety, climate change and national elections — often goes unheeded under our political system.
“The Plot” is also plausible when it reminds you, sometimes inadvertently, of the rot in America’s root system. In this regard, it’s important to talk about how the series deals with race.
American Jews, like the Levins and the Roths, tend to buy ecstatically into the notion of the American Dream, because it worked so well for most of us: We rose from pushcarts to the professions, from the ghettos to the suburbs.
The Levins, proudly American, are outraged when asked to leave a restricted Washington, D.C., hotel; like them, we are supposed to be shocked by this rising xenophobia and anti-Jewish discrimination. This is 1940, however, and such discrimination, and much worse, had long been the reality for millions of African Americans and Chinese immigrants, to name just a few. I wish the script had done more to acknowledge this. It’s a subtext that lays to rest any idea that it couldn’t happen here — if by “it” we mean the systematic oppression of a people.
Still, the series might have remained an interesting historical exercise if not for current events. “The Plot” is, as Simon admits, a subtweet on the rise, election and presidency of Donald Trump. It’s about a president who doesn’t accept some of the basic premises of American democracy, who has a soft spot for dictators, disdains global entanglements and is willing to make scapegoats of minorities to energize his base. It asks what happens when a populist appeals, successfully, to our neighbors’ most selfish and sometimes racist instincts.
The finale aired on April 20. The week began with President Trump speaking misleadingly about the number of Covid-19 tests being made available and ended with him cancelling the daily coronavirus briefings after he mused in all seriousness about using sunlight and household disinfectants as treatments. On Monday he took to Twitter to blame the media for his troubles: “There has never been, in the history of our Country, a more vicious or hostile Lamestream Media than there is right now, even in the midst of a National Emergency, the Invisible Enemy!” He could have been quoting Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, the Montana isolationist who serves as Lindbergh’s vice president in the series, and who in real life famously sought to investigate the “Gigantic Engines of Propaganda” in Hollywood.
Roth wrote his novel in 2004, when Trump was starring in a new hit reality show, “The Apprentice.” A year before he died in 2018, Roth told The New Yorker that a Trump victory was less comprehensible than an imagined victory for Lindbergh. “[W]hat is most terrifying is that he makes any and everything possible,” Roth said of Trump.
Roth’s novel asks what might have become of America if it had chosen the wrong leader at a time of national crisis. The TV version aired when a majority of Americans decided we are living in just such a moment, and the consequences are being played out in real time.