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The Plot Against America
The Plot Against America is a novel by Philip Roth published in 2004. It is an alternative history in which Franklin D. Roosevelt is defeated in the presidential election of 1940 by Charles Lindbergh. The novel follows the fortunes of the Roth family during the Lindbergh presidency, as antisemitism becomes more accepted in American life and Jewish-American families like the Roths are persecuted on various levels. The narrator and central character in the novel is the young Philip, and the care with which his confusion and terror are rendered makes the novel as much about the mysteries of growing up as about American politics. Roth based his novel on the isolationist ideas espoused by Lindbergh in real life as a spokesman for the America First Committee, and on his own experiences growing up in Newark, New Jersey. The novel depicts the Weequahic section of Newark which includes Weequahic High School from which Roth graduated.
The novel is told from the point of view of Philip Roth as a child. It begins with aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, already criticized for his praise of Hitler's government, joining the America First Party. As the party's spokesman, he speaks against U.S. intervention in World War II, and openly criticizes the "Jewish race" for trying to force U.S. involvement. After making a surprise appearance on the last night of the 1940 Republican National Convention, he is nominated as the Republican Party's candidate for President. Although criticized from the left, and hated by most Jewish-Americans, Lindbergh musters a strong tide of popular support from the South and Midwest, and is endorsed by conservative rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf. Lindbergh wins the election over incumbent president Franklin D. Roosevelt in a landslide under the slogan 'Vote for Lindbergh, or vote for war.' He nominates Burton K. Wheeler as his vice president, and Henry Ford as Secretary of the Interior. With Lindbergh as president, the Roth family begin increasingly to feel like outsiders in U.S. society.
Lindbergh's first act is to sign a treaty with Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler, promising that the United States will not interfere with German expansion in Europe (known as the "Iceland Understanding" after the place it is signed), and with Imperial Japan, promising non-interference with Japanese expansion in Asia (known as the "Hawaii Understanding"). The new presidency begins to take a toll on Philip's family. Philip's cousin Alvin joins the Canadian Army to fight in Europe. He loses his leg in combat, and comes home with his ideals destroyed. He leaves the family and becomes a racketeer. A new government program begins to take Jewish boys to spend a period of time living with exchange families in the South and Midwest in order to "Americanize" them. Philip's brother Sandy is one of the boys selected, and after spending time on a farm in Kentucky he comes home showing contempt for his family, calling them "ghetto Jews".
Philip's aunt Evelyn marries Lionel Bengelsdorf and becomes a frequent guest of the Lindbergh White House, even being invited to a dinner party for German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. This causes further strain in the family. A new government act is instituted relocating whole Jewish families to the western United States. Many of Philip's neighbors move to Canada. Philip's shy and innocent school friend Seldon Wishnow, an only child, is moved to Kentucky with his mother. In protest against the new act, radio broadcaster Walter Winchell openly criticizes the Lindbergh administration and is fired from his station. He then decides to run for President and begins a speaking tour. His candidacy causes anger and antisemitic rioting in southern and Midwestern states, and mobs begin targeting him. Making a speech in Louisville, Kentucky he is shot to death. Winchell's funeral in New York City is presided over by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who praises Winchell for his opposition to fascism, and openly criticizes President Lindbergh for his silence over the riots and Winchell's death.
After making a short speech, Lindbergh's personal plane goes missing. Body hunts turn up no results and Vice President Wheeler assumes command. The German State Radio discloses "evidence" that Lindbergh's disappearance, as well as the kidnapping of his son, were part of a major Jewish conspiracy to take control of the U.S. government. This announcement causes further antisemitic rioting. Wheeler and Ford, acting on this evidence, begin arresting prominent Jewish citizens, including Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Herbert Lehman and Bernard Baruch, as well as Mayor LaGuardia. Seldon calls the Roths when his mother doesn't come home. They later discover that Seldon's mother was killed by Ku Klux Klan members who beat and robbed her before setting fire to her car with her in it. The Roths eventually call Sandy's exchange family in Kentucky and have them keep Seldon safe until Philip's father and brother drive there and bring him back to Newark. Months later, he is taken in by his mother's sister. The rioting stops when first lady Anne Morrow Lindbergh makes a statement asking for the country to stop the violence and move forward. With the body searches called off, former president Franklin D. Roosevelt runs as an emergency presidential candidate, and is reelected. Months later, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. enters the war.
As an epilogue, Philip's aunt Evelyn confides a theory of Lindbergh's disappearance. According to her, after Lindbergh's son Charles was kidnapped, his murder was faked, and he was then raised in Germany by the Nazis as a Hitler Youth member. The Nazis' price for the boy's life was Charles Lindbergh's full cooperation with a Nazi-organized Presidential campaign, by which they hoped to bring the Final Solution to the U.S. When Lindbergh informed them that the United States would never permit such a thing, he was kidnapped, and the Jewish conspiracy theory was put forward hoping to turn the U.S. further against the Jewish population. Roth admits that this theory is the most far-fetched, but "not necessarily the least convincing" explanation for Lindbergh's disappearance.
Inspiration for the novel
Roth has stated that the idea for the novel came to him while reading the unpublished galleys for Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s autobiography, in which Schlesinger makes a comment that some of the more radical Republican senators of the day wanted Lindbergh to run against Roosevelt. The title appears to be taken from that of a communist pamphlet published in support of the campaign against Burton K. Wheeler's re-election to the U.S. Senate in 1946.
The novel depicts an antisemitic United States in the 1940s. Roth had written in his autobiography, The Facts, of the racial and antisemitic tensions that were a part of his childhood in Newark. Several times in that book he describes children in his neighborhood being set upon simply because they were Jewish.
Literary significance and criticism
Roth's novel was generally well received. Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post, exploring the book's treatment of Lindbergh in some depth, calls the book "painfully moving" and a "genuinely American story."
The New York Times review described the book as "a terrific political novel" as well as "sinister, vivid, dreamlike, preposterous and, at the same time, creepily plausible."
Blake Morrison in The Guardian offered high praise: "The Plot Against America creates its reality magisterially, in long, fluid sentences that carry you beyond skepticism and with a quotidian attentiveness to sights and sounds, tastes and smells, surnames and nicknames and brandnames—an accumulation of petits faits vrais—that dissolves any residual disbelief."
Writer Bill Kauffman in The American Conservative wrote a scathing review of the book, objecting to its criticism of the movement of which Lindbergh was a chief spokesperson, a movement sometimes referred to as isolationist but which Kauffman sees as anti-war, in contrast to Roosevelt's pro-war stance. He also criticizes its portrayal of increasing American antisemitism, in particular among Catholics, and for the nature of its fictional portrayals of real-life characters like Lindbergh, claiming it was "bigoted and libelous of the dead", as well as for its ending, featuring a resolution to the political situation that Kauffman considered a deus ex machina.
Many took the novel as something of a roman à clef for or against the Bush administration and its policies, but though Roth was opposed to the Bush administration, he has denied such allegorical interpretations of his novel.
In 2005, the novel won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction given by the Society of American Historians. It won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award., and came in 11th for the 2005 Locus Awards;
The Plot Against America depicts or mentions several historical figures:
In addition, after the 2016 election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency, reviewers noted the presence in The Plot Against America of a character strongly based on the real Trump. The cousin, Alvin, goes to work for a Jewish real-estate developer whose description closely matches the Trump of 2016–2017 news reports. Roth was interviewed in The New Yorker about similarities between his novel and the election of Trump. Roth 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 ... Trump is just a con artist."
On January 18, 2018, it was reported that The Wire creator David Simon would be adapting a six-part mini-series adaptation of The Plot Against America. The news was first announced in a New York Times journalist Charles McGrath's interview with Roth, which noted that Simon had visited Roth, who stated he "was sure his novel was in good hands."