The “Creepily Plausible” Novel Every [Thinking] American Should Read to Prepare for the Age of Trump
The recent political season has been rife with allusions to excellent dystopian fiction portraying the rise of totalitarianism in the United States. Sinclair Lewis’s brilliant It Can’t Happen Here (1935) has been much cited, as has Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) and, to a lesser degree, Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908). But I think Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004) to be the novel which best presents parallels to our present situation.
Roth imagines a triumphant, isolationist Charles Lindbergh elected to the White House on the Republican ticket in 1938, defeating two-term president Franklin Roosevelt. The famous flyer’s base consists nearly entirely of disenfranchised, anti-intellectual, virulently Protestant, white provincials in Middle-America — the same electorate which once defeated Al Smith on the grounds of his being a Catholic and therefore not a true American.
Lindbergh’s people are those other WASPs — the ones not of the northeastern establishment. They’ve never seen the inside of the New York Yacht Club (or, for that matter, the outside). They are non-college educated farmers as well as coal miners, out-of-work machinists, and other industrial workers who feel their country, and their birthright as Americans, has been seized from them by the forces of liberalism and internationalism.
They see the United States as having been infected from within by urban sensibilities, Hollywood permissiveness, and Wall Street avarice— and from without by an excess of unbridled immigration which threatens to mongrelize the “true” America. They are xenophobic and profoundly anti-Semitic: a model of Trump’s base, although in our present scenario it is Muslims and Mexicans who get the booby prize instead of just the Jews.
Lindbergh’s rhetoric throughout his campaign has reflected all of the themes and bigotries of his target voters — sometimes endorsing them bluntly, sometimes only through inference. But, as is the case with Trump, Lindbergh’s message has been plain to both his supporters and his opponents, whether precisely articulated or not.
The airman is a popular hero praised for his conquests on many fronts: a self-made success story. Still, he and his family have known tragedy as well as triumph. (They are themselves, after all, the victims of a heinous crime — the kidnapping and murder of their infant son at the hands of an immigrant.)
Like Trump, one of Lindbergh’s favorite slogans is America First. Lindbergh seems a man who can, as the saying goes. He gets things done. Like Mussolini and Trump, he will make the trains run on time. He also promises to bring common sense and basic values back into play in an elite Washington which seems to have become distant, aloof, and uncaring about the needs of hard-working people in places like Nebraska, Kentucky, Kansas, and western Pennsylvania. (One can easily imagine Lindbergh promising he’ll “drain the swamp.”)
Like Trump, he enlists bigots into his administration. Henry Ford becomes Secretary of the Interior, just as Alt-Right advocate of “white identity” Steve Bannon is now to serve as one of Trump’s top advisers. In Roth’s novel as in today’s real life, patriotism as defined by Lindbergh/Trump becomes indistinguishable from ethno-nationalism, albeit with differences in approach on the ground.
Where Trump will deport, imprison, and build walls, Roth’s Lindbergh would pasteurize.
A chief Lindbergh initiative is to establish the “Office of American Absorption” in order to effectively force the assimilation of ethnic minorities.
Government propagandists describe the administration’s “Just Folks” initiative as “a volunteer work program introducing city youth to the traditional ways of heartland life.” In fact, there is no volunteering. Young boys from Jewish and other ethnic urban neighborhoods find themselves removed to Middle-America whether they like it or not. There they are adopted for a period of months into the homes of white Christian farmers and laborers. The mission is to inculcate these youth with “American” priorities and sensibilities. Thus are sewn the seeds of assimilation — but only on terms defined by the nativists.
Eventually, anti-Semitic rioting breaks out, and prominent critics of the administration — among them Jews such as Henry Morgenthau Jr., Herbert Lehman, and Bernard Baruch together with progressive politician Fiorello La Guardia — find themselves imprisoned for sedition.
In his New York Times review of Roth’s novel, Paul Berman called it “sinister, vivid, dreamlike, preposterous and, at the same time, creepily plausible.” More recently, critic Matthew Schweber has observed that “above all, the Lindbergh presidency haunts because it taps a durable paranoid undercurrent in American politics even visible today.”
Durable indeed. And certainly visible today.
Like Trump, Roth’s Lindbergh has the staunch support of the Ku Klux Klan. On Trump’s election night, David Duke tweeted “GOD BLESS DONALD TRUMP. It’s time to do the right thing. It’s time to TAKE AMERICA BACK!” Meanwhile, white nationalist Richard B. Spencer says he looks forward to the Trump administration taking up “peaceful ethnic cleansing” in order to establish the US as a “white homeland,” and proudly boasts of the Alt-Right that “we’re the establishment now.”
Truth is stranger than fiction and — in this case at least — more than equally evil. So, if you haven’t done so already, you might want to read Roth’s book — before it gets banned.
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